Can ‘equitable’ city planning bridge LA’s gaping divide?

A interview with Faisal Roble, first ever chief equity officer in the Los Angeles Planning Department
City Government

Photo of Faisal Roble, chief equity officer for Los Angeles Planning Department 

The layout of Los Angeles is sliced by freeways and other barriers, creating pockets of extreme wealth and deep poverty. How much of that came about by accident and how much by design? 


In August, Mayor Eric Garcetti created a new post of Chief Equity Officer in Los Angeles City Planning, the department that makes calls on everything from zoning and land-use to long-range environmental policies. The position, established in response to the nationwide protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, is intended to address some of the planning decisions that have exacerbated these chronic inequalities. 


Garcetti’s pick for the job is Faisal Roble, a 31-year veteran of the department. We spoke to Roble about his new position and how much change one city department might be able to bring to a situation that has been more than a century in the making. 


Crosstown: You’ve got the title of Chief Equity Officer, the first person to fill this role. Tell us what that means. 


Faisal Roble: I see my responsibility as introducing a new approach to planning by emphasizing the concept of equity. The city is geographically unequal. My approach is to see if we can minimize – not completely eradicate – the gap between communities of color and others and the kind of planning they receive. South LA probably doesn’t get any swimming pools compared with Woodland Hills, despite the fact that both are hot. Introducing equity from building design to the general plan framework to the projects that come before City Planning, that will be my biggest job. 


Do you want to keep these issues on the front burner or actually drive structural change? 


This position came about as a result of the protests over George Floyd’s killing. I don’t think this is just going to be an effort to warm the chair. As a veteran of the planning department for 31 years, I have a commitment to completely change the way we do city planning. Not only planning, but also personnel issues in terms of equity. Because if the right people are not around the table, the decisions can be skewed. It’s going to be a challenge. 


What are the legacies of planning and urban development in LA that have led to these inequities? 


We produced a city that is not uniform. We used zoning to perpetuate segregation. Our city is highly segregated, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be more liberal. But from a land-use point of view, it’s very unequal. One area has a bad built environment and the other one well maintained. 


Planning is always married to citizen participation. So some of the permits we issue through conditional-use permitting, alcohol permits, for example, have proliferated in South LA. These were very targeted decisions by city officials. These are not accidents.


So it’s time that we rule out some of the alcohol permits we issue in South LA.


We’re in the middle of an economic catastrophe due to the coronavirus. Many small business owners can’t afford their rent or have closed up outright. From where you sit, does this crisis give us an opportunity? 


It does, and I see this responsibility as a journey, not a destination. A destination will take a while. How can you really talk about housing when someone doesn’t have a job? Can we connect South LA and East LA to some of the job-generating entities like LAX, the ports of LA and Long Beach, or USC? These are really jobs that can sometimes be larger than what some nations produce. Boyle Heights, South LA and even Pacoima are all within driving distance. 


So, you believe transportation infrastructure can change the opportunity picture for some of these neighborhoods? 


Yes. Those areas need to be connected to these job centers. There has to be a government program whose intention is to make that linkage. So far, it has been haphazard. We want to have a deliberate program where City Planning and the city’s Office of Economic Development are collaborating with the airport and the port to make some sort of program for generating jobs. We need to see what that can do for the residents of these neighborhoods. 


I used to live in South LA and I would take the bus to go to UCLA. I would come back after class. But I worked on the Westside, so I would take another bus to West LA, work at a mall for three hours and come back. I always imagined, What if that mall where I worked existed in South LA and I could just walk there? 


When you look at LA now and think about what it needs more of, what’s your top three? 


Housing tops everything. That’s number one.


Thinking as a planner, we need to manage what some people are calling gentrification or displacement. Can we really integrate development that’s coming to areas like South LA and Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights into the lives of the residents who are already there? We don’t want to stop development, but at the same time we want to promote local ownership. That’s number two.


Number three, can we make these mixed-use projects, particularly the retail portions of mixed use, a meaningful job-generating entity? I mean, if everything ends up being a sandwich shop, that’s fine. But we need to think about how we can create more viable economic entities as we talk about mixed-use. 


There have been many transit-centered, urban infill projects that on paper look like they are addressing core issues of affordable housing. By the time the projects are completed, the number of affordable units have decreased, or our threshold for what we consider affordable has changed. How do we ensure that these projects actually deliver what they promise?


There is a huge appetite, both in the Planning Commission and the department, to get more out of those projects, whether it’s in the form of design or units that are affordable or the type of mixed use that we are seeking. Up to this point, we were working within the narrow confines of whatever is in the books. The decisions are literally restricted to what is already codified. The question is, Can we go back to our code books and to our community plans and expand the authority of the director and the commission to make decisions and put more conditions and extract more benefits?


People tend to look at gentrification as an either/or proposition. Do you believe there is a way to encourage development without displacing people in these neighborhoods? 


Yes, I think gentrification should be rethought. There are times when you cannot stop development. But who owns it and who benefits? Those are the questions we need to raise and we need to measure development by that. 


USC is the largest employer in the city and it’s smack in the middle of South LA. You cannot wish away the existence of USC, but you can make USC put some beneficial things back into the community. And I know USC does that. If you bring a huge museum, the curators and those skilled people can be from outside. But 90% of the people who work there, can they be locals? In that case, people accept new development beyond gentrification. 


Are there planning mechanisms that can rebalance that equation? 


Yes. Projects are usually not seen as gentrification if the residents buy in. If they feel it was designed with them and for them. When they see it as a colonial concept coming from outside, that is when they really see gentrification as something that displaces them. But if they have their hands around it, in designing it, with the owner, then they see their image in it. 


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