Expert Panel Focuses on LA’s Planning, Economic Development

Knowledge in Action:

Expert Panel Focuses on LA’s Planning, Economic Development

By Matthew Kredell

David Sloane with Elizabeth Currid-Halkett and Ken Bernstein Panelists, from left: David Sloane, USC Price professor; Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, USC Price associate professor; and Ken Bernstein, head of the Office of Historic Resources in the Los Angeles Department of City Planning.
Photo by John Roberson

Los Angeles has a reputation of being an unplanned city, a sprawling metropolis that evolved spontaneously. Urban planners, of course, know better.

David Sloane, professor and director of undergraduate programs at the USC Price School of Public Policy, discussed his book Planning Los Angeles during a panel on June 27. The event was part of a monthly series hosted by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Planning Association.

For the book, Sloane enlisted more than 40 prominent essayists to detail the history, contemporary issues and current policy questions regarding planning in Los Angeles. Two of those contributors — USC Price associate professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett and Ken Bernstein, head of the Office of Historic Resources at the Los Angeles Department of City Planning — joined him on the panel to discuss their chapters and address economic development in Los Angeles.

“This city is a complex place with enormous challenges and enormous failures, enormous successes and enormous opportunities, all wrapped up into that bundle that we call Los Angeles,” Sloane said.

Utilizing elements from his introduction to the book, Sloane offered historical background on the city, discussed some of the aforementioned successes and challenges, and refuted the impression that Los Angeles is an anti-city of concrete corridors.

He showed a Pacific Electric Streetcar map from 1910 that indicated the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles already was there before the arrival of automobiles.

“The idea of the scope and scale of Los Angeles is something we’ve been trying to get our hands around for more than a century,” Sloane said.

Sloane noted how there are many little projects going on downtown — some get significant attention, and others go mostly unnoticed — that are meant to reinvigorate the public and green spaces. He pointed to Grand Park, which is set to open at the end of the month.

For the future of planning in Los Angeles, Sloane believes a balance needs to be found between the growth of the outdoor advertising industry and providing a community with a sense of place and livability.

“Do we want billboards or do we want a livable city?” he asked. “That’s a choice we need to have discourse about because I think that’s the only way we can get the economic development that we want to create the city, the neighborhoods and the region that we want.”

Currid-Halkett discussed the importance of the arts in the Los Angeles economy, which was the topic of her chapter.

Coming to Los Angeles from New York six years ago with the usual preconceptions, Currid-Halkett found LA’s creative economy to be extremely multifaceted. There’s the showy side of movies, television and music, but there’s also performing arts, painting, fashion design and a burgeoning industry of video games and digital media.

“I would argue that, increasingly, people are saying the art capital [of the country] is Los Angeles and not New York, and that’s becoming more and more well-known,” she said.

The arts industry is neck and neck with finance in terms of jobs created in the region, annually producing $113 billion in sales revenue for the county and $4.6 billion for state and local governments.

“The myth of Hollywood is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Currid-Halkett said. “It brings people here because of their dreams. These kinds of things can only exist if it’s actually underpinned by real jobs and real numbers of people working in these industries. And so the identity of LA, as nebulous and ambiguous as it is to understand, really is powered by something very meaningful and important to the city’s economic development.”

Bernstein spoke on the impact the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance has had as an engine for economic development in Los Angeles over the past decade.

As an example, he used Spring Street in downtown, which he said was once known as the Wall Street of the West. By the 1980s, however, most of the buildings were empty above the ground floor, and the area became a haven for illicit activities.

Approved in 1999 for downtown and extended into other neighborhoods of the city in 2003, the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance facilitated the conversion of historic and under-utilized structures into housing units. As a result, Spring Street and much of downtown once again have a sense of neighborhood. As of 2011, 76 Adaptive Reuse Ordinance projects had taken place downtown, resulting in an additional 9,137 housing units.

The change in policy hasn’t been a complete success, as Bernstein explained it has thus far failed to ensure adequate provision of affordable downtown housing. However, it has established an urban planning model that other cities might be able to replicate.

“This has been one of the most successful urban strategies perhaps of any city in ensuring new housing opportunities and revitalization of downtown,” Bernstein said. “The ordinance has led to the preservation of remarkable historic structures, thousands of new housing units and really an entirely new residential community.”