LA Quakes Over New Planning Director

LA Quakes Over New Planning Director

Just a few short weeks after the head of LA’s planning department, Gail Goldberg, announced her resignation, the rank-and-file in the office were stunned to hear that a new replacement had already been named. He was someone they knew well: Michael LoGrande, the chief zoning administrator. 

LoGrande, who is only 39 and has no formal education in urban planning, was not the most obvious choice—that would have been deputy planning director Vince Bertoni. A search for someone from outside the department also seemed a likely option. But there is enthusiasm within the department and in the developer community for a man who has been described by colleagues as a can-do, let’s-get-this-built kind of guy.

The mayor’s nomination, which will need to be formally confirmed by the planning commission, was announced on Monday. During the news conference, LoGrande, who has spent 13 years in the department, spoke of accommodating new growth in LA by adhering to smart growth tenets and building around transit hubs. He also discussed the need to reform the development and review process.

“We have a really antiquated zoning code—the last major update was done in the 1960s, so we have a very suburban model,” LoGrande said. “When people want to build a high-rise in downtown LA, the case you have to file is about 200 pages thick.” He concluded, “It’s really cumbersome to get through and expensive, and banks are retreating from that kind of uncertainty.”

Goldberg left her post after only four years, so rumors were rife that she had been forced out. Insiders in the department alleged that the mayor was unhappy about the slow rate of development and wanted to speed things up. There was also talk that she did not get along well with the mayor’s deputy. Goldberg herself promoted LoGrande to his most recent post shortly after she was hired in 2006.

“When we have complex issues with public facilities projects, he’s always risen to the occasion. He’s somebody we can rely on,” said Mahmood Karimzadeh, principal architect for the Bureau of Engineering in the city’s Department of Public Works. Karimzadeh said he has worked with LoGrande to execute projects, but is not familiar with how he is at policy development.

LoGrande has limited experience with long-range planning, a point that has come up in conversations in the halls. Some in the department worry he may reverse the progress made in recent year. “He has been more involved with the day-to-day case processing,” one planner said. “But the people who are most uncomfortable with his ascent up the ladder are the old-timers, who are of the previous slow-growth/no-growth era.”

There has also been much damning with faint praise online. In a notable example, planner Mark Winogrond, who proceeded Goldberg as Villaraigosa’ interim planning director, wrote a harsh Op-Ed for The Planning Report challenging LoGrande to prove him wrong:

Michael LoGrande has just become the parent of the only LA agency devoted to a better physical future. Nothing in his past has demonstrated that he is able to create teams who are willing to follow him into the tunnels of Hell in order come out the other side having shaped a better Los Angeles.

The decision has been made. Like with prior Supreme Court appointments, we can only pray that he surprises us and shocks us, with his independence, his leadership, his patient understanding of the complexities of making a better city in the midst of false crises and urgency.