Q&A: Bruce McClendon

Q&A: Bruce McClendon

Bruce McClendon became Director of Planning for Los Angeles County (which includes the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles) last fall. He has worked as a planner for over 30 years, in cities such as Orlando, Florida, and Fort Worth, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, and Galveston, Texas. He served as president of the American Planning Association from 1983 to 1984 and from 2001 to 2003. He comes to Los Angeles County as it is updating its general plan for the first time in 20 years.

The Architect’s Newspaper: You’ve only been in Los Angeles for a few months. From your perspective, what are the biggest planning challenges for the county, and how do you plan to address them?

Bruce McClendon: The two biggest challenges are transportation and intergovernmental coordination.
For transportation, I think we need a multi-modal solution. Clearly we need to continue to work on transit and deal with the highway network infrastructure. But I also think from a planning standpoint we need to provide more employment opportunities closer to where people actually live. We need to put more emphasis on economic development and on partnerships between the public and private sectors to accommodate this. We can create enterprise zones, and target areas that are best for employment. Local governments must negotiate with big-ticket developers. This can be directed and guided in areas that are planned for it and can accommodate growth without burdening the infrastructure.

What about coordination?

Right now we have 88 cities in our county that have their own comprehensive general plans. To the maximum extent possible we’re going to take all this information and put it all on one GIS [geographic information system] and create a good interface to make it all come together. The integration will definitely be a challenge, and then the individual elements have to be updated every five years. But we’re just going to do this. We’re not going to ask the cities or the surrounding counties to react to us. We’re going to take what they’ve done and use it. I suspect several of their plans are just on paper. We also need to have more coordination with the LA City planning office. We need to work together with them, not be adversarial. I see signs of that already. I finally met with city Planner Gail Goldberg the other day. Our joint projects like Grand Avenue and Universal City should help foster cooperation.

How about coordination with other nearby counties? Many say that a regional plan doesn’t really exist in California.

Yes, we also need to integrate the plans for the surrounding counties into our database, because right now there is nothing holding them all together.

Your office just released the draft of its first new general plan in 20 years. What are the basic elements being addressed? And what are your suggestions?

The purpose of the draft is to generate public participation in updating the general plan. There will be a series of community meetings and hearings over the next year to do that.

We’re pushing—number one—traffic mobility, and—number two—transit improvements. New development projects must be accompanied by the proper infrastructure, and should be located near existing urban areas. We want to develop a comprehensive transportation plan. We’re also pushing for a new park and open space plan, and implementing green building and conservation standards. We’re discouraging sprawl and encouraging smart growth and pedestrian-centered communities.

There are no absolutes, no one-size-fits-all; plans have to be compatible with existing neighborhoods, and with their character. We want economic development in communities suited to it, and a reduction in development in areas where it is not economically or environmentally feasible. We want higher density where we have the capacity, and lower density where we don’t. Really, these are attributes that planners have been pushing since the beginning of the century.

My biggest suggestion is that our plan be presented in a way to facilitate public debate, public understanding, and public ownership. My goal would be to have the planning document look like a magazine, or a poster to help show people the big picture. People see things in three dimensions. The early plans 80 years ago were made in that fashion. Since then we shifted to written text. What we need is what people are familiar with, not plot plans and land-use maps. We want to take apart the parts of the plan that cloud the image of the plan. The earlier plans were better at communicating the future; they were more inspirational, more visionary. They made people excited and challenged by the future. We lost that; over the years our plans became so complex we lost the ability to communicate with the people who lived here. Our citizens already have a vision; the challenge as planners is to get it out of them.

Lastly, I don’t want us to ever again wait 20 years before updating the plan. I want our plans to have a five-year shelf life at the most. The plan has to be monitored systematically. We have to have performance measures and benchmarks to see if we are implementing the elements effectively. If someone isn’t accountable then someone will not follow the plan. What gets measured gets done.

How do you address the explosion of development in the county? This includes huge new developments like Centennial (a new town in the northwest of the county), Newland Ranch, and Marina del Rey.

Many of our past plans have had no vision, and they have been too complex. In response to this complexity, people have tried to stop change because they can’t get a handle on it, because it’s frightening and unsettling. So regulation has become a substitute for a plan. We want to create a planning process that lets them do better. That lets them become involved. That lets them become a decision influencer. We want to ask them, "How would you like this place to look?" The plans need to meet certain standards, and not hurt the environment, but they also have to contribute to overall quality of life and well-being for the community. They have to provide a sense of community and place that is reflective of the people who live there.

What are your suggestions for the planning department itself?

We’re trying to add people with design backgrounds and design expertise. The majority of our planners are typical regional planners with traditional planning backgrounds. We’re looking to expand our mix. We’ve got to have people with that kind of background so they know how to use pictures to communicate. I also like their perspective. We’re dealing with the physical environment, so we need people that grasp the physical environment. We’re trying to be more aggressive in recruiting architects from local schools. The beauty of planning is bringing all these things together: engineering, sociology, economics, administration. You want different disciplines. When you put the project together, you bring people on the team that reflect what you need.