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Dear Mr. Mayor: Congrats, and here's your to-do list (UPDATED)

March 5, 2009 | 11:56 am


Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who won reelection yesterday in lackluster fashion -- picking up 56% of the vote against a weak field -- was during his first term a major disappointment on issues relating to urban planning and mass transit. For all his talk of supporting green development and "elegant density," the mayor has often pandered to some very outdated and automobile-centric notions about growth and mobility in this city. Instead of using his bully pulpit to push for a comprehensive transit system for L.A., he has instead spent valuable political capital arguing for widening freeways -- when it comes to reducing congestion, a costly fool's errand if there ever was one -- and turning Pico and Olympic boulevards into one-way thoroughfares. He rushed an ill-thought-out solar plan onto Tuesday's ballot, only to see most voters apparently reject it.


Even if he has his eye on the governor's mansion in Sacramento, as has been widely reported, Villaraigosa still has time to turn that rather dismal record around. After the jump, a list of three things the mayor can do, quickly and without spending much money, to begin redeeming himself on these issues, which are crucial to the future financial health and cultural relevance of Los Angeles.

1. Show real leadership on mass transit. Thanks to voters in Los Angeles County and statewide, who approved tens of billions of dollars in funding for subways and high-speed rail last November, there is a huge pot of money set aside for transit projects just waiting to be divvied up. The mayor doesn't control all of that cash directly, of course, but as the leader of the biggest city in the state and the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he'll have a stronger say than any other single politician in deciding how it's spent. Early in his second term, he should dedicate a major speech to articulating his vision for allocating the new windfall of transit money -- and for using it to leverage additional subway and high-speed rail funding and other transit-related stimulus money from Washington. His mayoral legacy and the record he'll presumably run on for governor both depend on it. Driving progress on the high-speed rail plan alone, which by relying on Union Station as a terminus could revitalize a broad swath of downtown, could give his statewide chances a significant boost.

2. Expand the powers of the Urban Design Studio. The city's planning director -- Gail Goldberg, a Villaraigosa appointee -- made some headlines in late 2006 by creating a new urban-planning think tank called the Urban Design Studio. Run by Emily Gabel-Luddy and Simon Pastucha, the studio has so far focused on downtown, pushing for wider, shaded and walkable sidewalks, transit-friendly development and a raft of common-sense but much-needed urban-design guidelines. And yet its wider impact remains so negligible that Gabel-Luddy, at a recent panel discussion organized by Metropolis magazine, resorted to calling herself a "GPS" -- "a guerrilla in public service." The implication -- too disingenuous by half, if you ask me -- was that the only way she can produce real change is to behave like an insurgent, operating stealthily inside a mayoral administration that consistently puts the issues she cares about near the bottom of its to-do list. And yet the mayor would be wise to give the UDS a far higher profile: Similar initiatives in other cities -- most notably Design for London, which under Mayor Ken Livingstone pushed an inventive planning agenda and helped the city land the 2012 Summer Olympics -- have paid big quality-of-life dividends.

3. Produce a plan for dealing with abandoned and vacant property. As the recession deepens, more and more neighborhoods around the city will be burdened with properties and construction sites that have been abandoned and vacant lots that may not be built on for years. With a little ingenuity, these plots -- such as the long-neglected parcel of land at 1st and Spring downtown, across from the Times -- could be turned into parks or even hold high-design temporary structures by talented architects. As soon as the mayor came up with a workable plan even for a small handful of these properties, an overwhelming number of skilled architects and landscape architects -- many of them now either unemployed or drastically under-employed -- would come forward to help the city turn them from eyesores to valuable community amenities. This is precisely the sort of effort, in fact, that an expanded Urban Design Studio could help run.

Sweeping into office in 2005, Villaraigosa prompted high hopes for a fresh approach to urban planning, transit and development. But in the intervening years, a number of other U.S. mayors have outclassed him in preparing their cities for a green, post-automotive future. This is particularly true in New York, where Michael Bloomberg has surprised some of his critics by turning parts of Manhattan -- including, in a recently unveiled proposal, a significant stretch of Broadway -- into laboratories for innovative thinking on transit, walkability and public space.

Not all of Bloomberg's initiatives have succeeded; his plan for congestion pricing in Manhattan foundered in Albany. But his administration's efforts, little by little, are directing the status quo away from tattered assumptions about planning and urban form and the relationship between cars, buses, cyclists and pedestrians.

In Los Angeles, our mayor has far too often allowed the status quo to direct him. Let's hope his weak showing on Tuesday -- which burdens him with a sort of anti-mandate -- will prompt him to shake up his thinking.

Other ideas for the mayor? Leave them in the comments.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo credits: Villaraigosa with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger along the 405 Freeway, Marc Boster/Los Angeles Times; Villaraigosa and the Pico-Olympic sign, Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times.

Comments () | Archives (6)

Mayor V's legacy--good, bad or indifferent--will almost certainly be decided by the mass transit system to which he leads us. He already deserves kudos for helping establish local funding to invest in transit infrastructure. He appears to be networking effectively to leverage our local funds with much needed federal funds. His legacy, however, will hinge on whether we invest these funds in an integrated network connecting home and work and play or we squander these resources on politically expedient but useless lines to nowhere. Less concretely--but probably more pragmatically--it will also depend on his ability to secure funding not only to operate this new system, but to maintain access to it. Given our habitual parochial politics and our recent economic meltdown, each goal will demand an Herculean effort. If he can lead us to both, Mayor V. will have earned my vote for Governor.

1) Subway to the Sea
2) "LAX Express" from Union Station to LAX by rail
3) Rail through the Sepulveda Pass
4) Extend the Red Line in the north to Burbank Airport and Sylmar
5) Extend the Red Line on the other end to Pomona
6) Extend Gold Line to Montclair
7) Extend Gold Line to Whittier
8) Put Light Rail on the Orange Line, El Monte Busway, and Harbor Transitway.
9) Extend Green Line to LAX and up Lincoln Blvd. to meet Expo Line

(I haven't mentioned the extension of the Expo Line since that's already paid for.)

The Mayor can start by implementing the strategies outlined in the Creative Industries section of the 2008 Los Angeles Economy and Jobs Committee including:

1.) Promote the importance of arts education in K-12 and higher education -The Mayor should take a lead in publicly linking the importance of arts education in K-12 and higher education to the economic well being of the Los Angeles region.

2.) Adequately Fund the Department of Cultural Affairs Grant Program by restoring the full 1 percent of the Transient and Occupancy Tax to the grants budget. (Currently the City of LA's investment in arts and culture falls well below the national average.)

3.) Earmark advertising space for LA's cultural institutions at LAX - this has already begun to happen, but still more opportunities for small and mid-sized arts arts organizations reflective of our diverse cultural landscape should be included.

The Committee was appointed by the Mayor in 2007 and the comprehensive report contains recommendations of key strategies that will build a stronger and more vibrant city.

To read the full report go to: http://www.laejc.org/

4) Use the Expo and Gold Line Extension into East LA as an launching point for the transit-oriented development (TOD) agenda that has so far been only mentioned in Metro or planning board meetings rhetorically. In particular, utilize the will of neighborhood development councils to tie together the TOD developments and the local community in ideal areas like Mariachi Square, Leimert Park and USC/Exposition Park and set an example for how collaborative transit-oriented growth can be achieved in Los Angeles.

Fund the Commuter Express Buses and MTA bus service better - the rails don't and will never reach every where it should go.

Start from the center, the downtown, and work your work outward to make sure that Los Angeles builds up its core. Despite the long held notion that LA has two dozen centers, in reality, we have some very weak sprawling satellites that are getting weaker and more outmoded such as Warner Center, Ontario and Santa Clarita.

We need lots of light rail, dedicated expansion of our subways and buses, and a new commitment to designing and filling in older urban areas near downtown. The economic depression hitting LA should force us to rethink the importance of human, not auto-centered neighborhoods, with local parks, schools, shops, hospitals, health care, libraries and every other amenity within pedestrian distance from housing.

This has all been said before, by countless others, but it remains the truest and best model for future of Los Angeles.


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