James Takes on the Insiders ... Neighborhood Councils, Commissions, and BBQ

LA MAYOR’S RACE 2012 - The LA Chapter of Architects Institute of America (AIA/LA) welcomed Mayoral Candidate Kevin James for the third in a five-part series of conversations focused on the importance of architecture, urban design, and city planning.

By design, the conversations are a two-way street, allowing moderators Bill Roschen, President of LA’s Planning Commission, and Christopher Hawthorne, Architecture Critic for the LA Times, to position five “game-changing” planning and policy opportunities as elements of LA’s vision.

Roschen laid down Transit Oriented Districts, Mobility and Complete Streets, Public Health, the LA River, and the Democratization of Urban Planning as the elements and James seized the opportunity to talk about neighborhood councils and their role in land use policy and urban design.

“The most important thing neighborhood councils do is handle Planning and Land Use issues,” said James, “and it’s the issue that brings out the crowds.”  Acknowledging that he is neither an architect or a planner, James addressed the democratization of land use by promising “If I am elected, one of the things I will do for Neighborhood Councils is to give them the authority to select Commissioners.”

James pointed to role as media advisor on grass roots campaigns such as “No on Measure B” as evidence of his street cred and claimed the title “Voice of the Neighborhood Councils” for the exposure he has given to local issues on his radio show.

James is comfortable on stage and behind a microphone, one might even say he is in his element, and he filled the room with enthusiasm as he navigated the conversation from neighborhood councils and citizen commissions to his proposal for a part-time City Council.  [link]

“Currently, LA’s City Council is a haven for termed-out Assembly members,” he charged, “but I’d like local commissioners and members of the community to have an opportunity to serve, after all, they know their neighborhoods.”

While acknowledging that the resulting pay cut would be a budget benefit, James contends that a part-time City Council would democratize the process and allow local business operators and professionals to participate in the process without having to become career politicians.

As evidence that it can work, he pointed out “Of 88 cities in LA County, 87 of them have part-time city councils. Granted, LA is a big city but so is New York City, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas and they all have part-time city councils.”

Anticipating the unspoken protest that a part-time city council would have a hard time handling LA’s civic responsibilities, James concluded with his contention “They’re already a part-time city council. Their attendance record proves it and anyone who has been to city council knows that even when they show up, they aren’t paying attention to the public.”

Hawthorne contended that much of the civic process is based on oppositional postures resulting in positions of defiance rather than partnerships and challenged James to offer a plan for positioning the Office of Mayor as an affirmative role.

James responded that the immediate result of closing out the public is opposition, not necessarily to specific projects, but to the feeling of powerlessness that comes from a city that moves roughshod over its residents.

The third-rail topics for the evening turned out to be the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Hollywood Community Plan, and the acceleration of Measure R.

In each case, James repeated his contention that corruption is the issue that must drive any analysis of the topic.

When it comes to the CRA, James contended that the agency’s credibility was strained beyond its ability to survive, all as the result of cavalier funding policies that result in projects such as the $52 million for the Broad Museum parking lot.

As for the Hollywood Community Plan, he offered that years of outreach is not the same as actually listening and responding to the wishes of the community and that the specifics of the plan should be based on facts, not claims. “For people who want to make a difference,” he said, “they have to feel like they are being listened to and that they are being heard.”

When confronted with his opposition to the acceleration of Measure R, James contends that those in authority are obligated to spend the current funds on the projects that were part of the original agreement. “If you come to the voters with credibility,” he contended, “then they will vote for tax increases.”

Credibility was a reoccurring theme for James and he addressed the current evisceration of city staff and the reduction of city services by pointing out that LA needs a Mayor who can negotiate at an arm’s length. “The current union leadership negotiates with themselves,” he claimed, “but I have some credibility with the unions, I come with the knowledge of city issues but without the taint of city government.”

“Our city has driven a wedge between our city employees and private business,’ he continued, “ and we need a healthy and vibrant private business center that contributes taxes that go in to the general fund in order to provide city services.”

When pushed to specifically take a stand on the staff of City Planning, James committed to keeping staff and delivering city services, “but we have to be prepared to renegotiate salaries and pensions, and it’s going to take an outsider such as me to do it.”

James had a note of approval for LA’s TOD investments, calling them “local economies” but cautioned that the solution becomes a problem if the community is inappropriately densified.

In a nod to LA’s upcoming Complete Streets policy, he also referred to LA’s cycling culture as an economic stimulator, explaining that cyclists and pedestrians are the eyes on the street that result in safer and more prosperous communities.

James noted in his opening comments that the AIA/LA Forums had been evolving and he is was absolutely correct. During the first session, the public lined up for questions, some of them bearing no resemblance to a query but instead serving as the bully pulpit for issues. That process has been replaced by the quiet submission of written questions.

The conversation format started with one mic that was passed back and forth, allowing the holder of “the talking stick” to control the conversation. That gave way to three mics with moderators on either side of the candidate and then to the current format which has the moderators on one side and the candidate on the other.

These subtle changes pale in comparison to the evolution of the moderators and Hawthorne and Roschen have grown comfortable in their role as devil’s advocate. They pushed James fairly hard on issues such as Shoups’ free parking philosophy, inclusionary zoning, traffic congestion theory, LA’s sign ordinance, and parking minimums vs. maximums.

In hindsight, James may have wished he’d spent more time with LA’s local Shoupistas or reading Vanderbilt’s book, “Traffic,” but beating Hawthorne and Roschen in a debate was apparently far less important to James than pointing out that his vision for LA is one of inclusion.

“The design agenda under Mayor James would start by escalating AIA/LA involvement with significant participation from the architectural community. My vision would be to do a better job of including the public in the process and it would result in great advances in public transportation and an urban design element that comes with a vision for the future without losing sight of our past and our history.”

James pushed back when the Mayor’s Office was referred to as the Bully Pulpit, contending that he preferred to think of the Power of the Podium and the Power of the Public.

He also pushed back when discussing Farmers Field, charging that it’s wrong for several reasons including the fact that City Planners were pulled off other projects to work on the “self-sufficient” project, that separating the hotels from the convention space with a football stadium makes no sense, and that the City of LA is unable to book convention business and has already lost a booking.

James held his harshest charge for the folly of Farmers Field when he pointed out that tailgating is an integral part of the football stadium experience “and there’s no way football fans will take their BBQ Grills on the Subway!”

Through it all, James was able to establish a vision for urban design that includes the professionals and the public, that protects the character and personality of our communities, that preserves the architecture that tells LA’s story and celebrates its diversity.

He also focused on the obstacles to a good working relationship between the private and public sector, stating “Our city has driven a wedge between our city employees and private business. We need a healthy and vibrant private business sector that will generate taxes that go into the general fund in order to provide city services.”

Those who came to see Kevin James interview for the role of City Architect were probably disappointed, but architects and planners who wanted to know if Kevin James thought they had an important role in LA’s vision were given a resounding affirmation.

Most importantly, the people of LA heard James repeat over and over that the foundation for an effective city hall is based on credibility and communication.

The LA chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA/LA) is committed to promoting the role of Architecture in LA’s municipal battlefield as the public grapples with urban design, planning, mobility, and land use policy issues.

The AIA/LA believes that the Mayoral race of 2013 is an important opportunity to engage the candidates in a conversation that allows the architectural community to communicate its priorities and the candidate to present their architectural street cred.

To this end, the AIA/LA is hosting a five part weekly series that allows each of the five leading Mayoral candidates to engage in a conversation about urban design, mobility, architecture, and LA’s built environment.

There are two more AIA/LA Mayoral Candidate Forums taking place over the next two Friday evenings. Wendy Greuel is scheduled for Friday, March 9, followed by Eric Garcetti on Friday, March 16.

Visit City Watch LA for video of the AIA/LA conversation with LA Mayoral Candidate Kevin James.

For more information on future AIA/LA Mayoral Candidate Forums, visit the AIA/LA website

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. You can also find him on Twitter and on Facebook.)

Vol 10 Issue 19
Pub: Mar 6, 2012