Mayor Villaraigosa Betrays Environmentalism Again

Once again, Los Angeles has missed a chance to pursue smart growth. And its self-styled Green Mayor is partially responsible.

A few days ago, I noted that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa likes to talk a good game when it comes to Greening the city, but conveniently abandons plans when they become politically difficult or require anything like a normal attention span.

I was more right than I thought.  I mentioned that the Mayor had hired visionary planning director Gail Goldberg, but never supported her when she needed it.

Well, now it turns out that Goldberg has “retired” effective July 16th.  That is an enormous loss for a city that has never taken planning seriously.  Goldberg was the first planning director to do so, while articulating a compelling vision of smart growth.  And that made her a list of powerful enemies: NIMBY champion County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, homeowners association leader Jane Usher, and LA Weekly political editor Jill Stewart, who seems to combine libertarianism, NIMBYism (which is libertarianism’s opposite) and anger management problems.

The irony is that Goldberg’s smart growth vision was very bottom-up: her leading project was the review and rewriting of the City’s 35 “community plans,” which is LA-speak for the required land use element of the City’s general plan.  For the first time, the Planning Department was trying to work with neighborhood associations to put smart growth principles into these community plans.  Equally impressive in my view was her commitment to transparency: as planning director for the City of San Diego, she championed the practice of placing project mitigation funds into separate accounts, the details of which would be accessible over the web: that way, City residents would know where the funds were and most important, what they were spent on.

That sort of thing is unheard of in Los Angeles, where the City Council likes to maintain firm and opaque control over as much money as possible.  Little wonder that only Council President Eric Garcetti could have been counted on as a Goldberg ally; few other councilmembers had any interest in really visioning the City.

Goldberg’s job was made immeasurably harder by factors that cannot be laid at the foot of the Mayor.  Vicious budget cuts brought about by the recession and state government’s dysfunctionality decimated the Planning Department (although I am obliged to say that much of the City budget is still going to pensions for former city workers now acting as private consultants, and thus drawing two salaries).

But after Yaroslavsky and the homeowners’ groups started attacking her, and Robin Kramer left the Mayor’s office (she was chief of staff), it was just a matter of time before Goldberg was gone as well.  The City Controller’s office issued a study purporting to show that the department was inefficient and needlessly slow in processing permit requests, which is probably true — and cannot be blamed on Goldberg: it takes time to turn the Departmental Aircraft Carrier around, and the obstacles are probably better placed on the Building and Safety Department and the Council offices.

So it’s back to business as usual in the City of Angels.  There will be no vision for the future.  Development and homeowner interests will scream at each other.  There will be less density around transit stops, even with new sales tax money that promises more transit.  We’ll wonder: how come we can never do the wonderful things that they do in other cities?  At least Gail Goldberg will know why.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

5 thoughts on “Mayor Villaraigosa Betrays Environmentalism Again”

  1. This business of specialists "retiring", collecting a pension, then returning in a year as consultants and drawing two paychecks, is wrong. Is it happening in LAUSD as well? Just ask the folks in the Beaudry building.

  2. Kinda reminds me of how City Planning Director Cal Hamilton got ridden out of town in the 1980s. Hamilton was a true visionary for smart growth back in the 1970s before it became popular. He focused on a bottom-up approach to get community buy-in to plan for high-density "centers" around Los Angeles (Century City and the Warner Center being some of the remnants). His vision would have saved the region from much of the sprawl and given residents a whole new option for living that did not require auto ownership, a crushing commute, and miles of ugly blandness. Too bad the City Council had no interest in implementing it.

  3. I'm a bottom-up guy esp. wrt process and change, and I can say with certainty most pols and electeds don't appreciate bottom-up that much.

  4. OK, I live up the coast in San Francisco, so no dog in this fight.

    But our city's population has hardly grown in the past 40 years and we're doing fine.

    The west side of LA is a garden spot … why would anybody favor higher density there?

  5. Pireader: "we're doing fine"??? I'm assuming you've attempted to drive out of San Francisco at some point in the last few decades. The traffic and sprawl is now horrible from San Francisco to the foothills and Stockton, and all because development has been pushed out of San Francisco and the urban core by NIMBYs. If San Francisco hadn't frozen development, the city and other urban Bay Area regions could accommodate a lot of new growth in our already-developed areas — and created some nice neighborhoods in the process. I would take that over the sprawl and lost open space we currently have. And it will only get worse.

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