Los Angeles Downtown News
January 17, 2005
The Last Days of a Master Planner
by Kathryn Maese
I so rarely get to get out of the office," City Planning Director Con Howe laments as a reporter walks into his modest workspace on the fifth floor of City Hall. "Do you mind if we take a drive around Downtown?"
It's a spontaneous move prompted partly by the break in the incessant rain but mostly by the looming environmental impact reports, color-coded zoning maps and precarious stacks of manila folders crowding his office. The clutter is understandable: As head of the 270-employee Planning Department, Howe is charged with setting guidelines and approving everything from new housing projects Downtown to mixed-use developments in the Valley.
But it is all about to change. Late last month the 55-year-old Howe announced plans to leave his post once he becomes eligible for full retirement benefits in a few weeks. Mayor Jim Hahn is looking for a replacement, and Howe's nearly 13-year tenure will likely end in the next few months.
It's a bittersweet and complex time. City Hall whispers and recent media reports have implied that Howe is being pushed out by city and community leaders who are unhappy with his management of the department. He denies it.
Though Howe stresses several times that his "swan song" has yet to come, the one-hour tour of Downtown's re-emerging core via a City-issued Honda hybrid becomes a sort of victory lap - and a subtle dig at critics who say he has taken a reactive rather than a proactive leadership role. The drive allows him to point out the projects that have sprung up since his arrival: In Downtown, more than 2,800 housing units are underway and more than 3,500 have been completed since 1999, while landmarks including Staples Center and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels continue to generate buzz. Howe's impact extends beyond Downtown: Citywide, he has completed the first extensive revision of the General Plan in 20 years, and updated 34 of 35 community plans.
"People in planning don't really believe something until they see it, which is perfectly logical," Howe says as he hustles the Honda through traffic and onto Alameda Street. "That's when things pick up momentum. People believe because they see and because they believe more happens. That's where Downtown is at the moment."
As the Honda passes Olvera Street, the Pittsburgh native recalls studying political science at Yale, and taking a year off to intern with former New York Mayor John Lindsey, who was credited with reviving Central Park and reestablishing that city as a tourism center. It's obvious that the experience remains singular some four decades later.
"No one remembers him anymore, but at the time he was seen as an urban leader and saving the city was an important thing," Howe says. "That's what got me interested in urban planning and city government."
Howe would go on to serve as director of the Lower Manhattan Project and, later, executive director of the city's planning department. The latter post allowed him to spur commercial growth in West Midtown and establish preservation and urban design requirements for the theater district and Times Square.
Howe was lured to Los Angeles by Mayor Tom Bradley, though his arrival was something he never could have predicted. Howe landed just six weeks before the 1992 riots.
"I remember there was an overturned, burned out Jaguar right in front of City Hall and people were really unglued about it," he says. "But New York is training for a lot of things, and so it didn't dissuade me from [staying]. The city had real problems but I thought it could prevail."
Howe pulls over by Union Station, the scene of his first major L.A. undertaking; he was charged with overseeing the 1939 train station's master plan. Looking up at the sprawling transit hub and its campus, Howe marvels at the rapid progress, which includes the current construction of a headquarters for the California Endowment, a conference center, offices for a non-profit education group and 278 apartments.
"I'm amazed at how fast it's gone up," he says. "We always wanted housing to be part of Union Station, but at the time, they thought there was only going to be an office market."
Howe lived on Bunker Hill for six months before his family arrived (they now reside in West Los Angeles), and became acquainted with Downtown through L.A. Conservancy walking tours. These excursions gave him a fresh perspective of the problems facing the Central City, and as a member of the executive committee for the Downtown Strategic Plan - which sought to create a blueprint for the area's development - he says he threw himself into the process.
"I really was very interested partly because I had spent so much time in Lower Manhattan and I thought the issues of Downtown revitalization were really important," he says. "It was a time of recession, widespread pessimism and hemorrhaging in the office market. But there were definitely parallels between the two cities, especially once adaptive reuse began."
Adapt, Reuse, Repeat
Howe's job as planning director in Lower Manhattan involved the conversion of old office buildings into housing. There, the vacancy rate in the early '90s was over 25%, leaving a huge stock of turn-of-the-century structures empty as law and investment banking firms moved to Midtown. One of the strategies to combat the trend involved offering tax incentives to offset the state's high property levies.
While Howe noted the similarities between New York and Downtown, he also described one distinct difference: In California, the major impediment to revitalization was the zoning code, which was designed to foster mainly new construction.
"There wasn't a philosophical acceptance that as a city matures, buildings, particularly good buildings, need new lives," he said. "Often, those lives are about different economic uses. It's really essential for older areas where revitalization doesn't mean tearing something down and building anew."
As Howe pulls in front of the former St. Vibiana's Cathedral on Second and Main streets, his point takes on increased clarity. The structure is one of the buildings that is enjoying new life thanks to the adaptive reuse ordinance, a 1997 city-approved stricture that loosened restrictions on permitting and code requirements. The Planning Department was a strong supporter of the ordinance; it has proven to be a powerful engine for Downtown's current housing boom.
"As a planning director you can only do so many things but he's been an activist for Downtown housing," said John Whitaker, a real estate attorney who worked on the Downtown Strategic Plan. "He and his staff have been very helpful in moving the planning and development process along."
Mission to Streamline
Howe zigzags across Downtown, pointing out a loft project at nearly every other corner. He says he is surprised by the sheer volume and speed of the conversions, which he credits to the supportive city policy and a strong market for diverse housing.
"Basically the ordinance got us out of the picture because we wanted development to happen," he says. "Sometimes the best incentive you can give is to get out of the way."
In the South Park district near Staples Center, Howe stops at the bustling construction site for the first phase of the 417-unit Elleven lofts, a residential condo project that nearly sold out in the first two days. As Howe approaches the site, he sees a man leaning against a car. They start talking and Howe learns that the man is a police detective who has a deposit on one of the units. The detective learns Howe's identity and asks eagerly, "So do you think it's a good project?"
"I know the developers," Howe responds. "It's a very good project."
Craig Lawson, a zoning and land use consultant who worked with Elleven developer The South Group, said one of Howe's most important contributions was creating an expediting unit within the Planning Department that allows residential projects to move quickly through the city planning and entitlement process.
"Con Howe has made it clear to Planning Department staff that he wants housing projects to take priority and be processed quickly and efficiently," said Lawson, whose firm Craig Lawson & Co. is working with the developers of 10 high-rise residential towers in South Park. "On the Elleven project we filed a very complex application in December of 2003, and we had a public hearing in April of 2004 at which it was approved. For a project of this nature that was a very fast turnaround. We've been very pleased with the department's response."
Still in South Park, Howe points to the five-year-old Staples Center, which he helped shepherd through a contentious planning process. Now, the creation of an entertainment district has again sparked controversy as developers and city leaders wrangle over how to finance a Convention Center hotel to anchor the development. The latest proposal to use a combination of city tax incentives and loans is being delayed in a City Council committee over charges from a local hotelier that the plan is unfair to existing hotels.
Howe says he is not worried about the plan's eventual approval, and adds that as a planner, he has learned everything worthwhile takes time.
"You have to accept the fact that in planning you have to stay around long enough to see results because it doesn't happen fast. Even in strong markets," Howe says. "These types of developments on this scale take years. I worked on the convention center in New York City and there's still open landscape around it. So it doesn't surprise me if things take a while. It's hard to create something in a landscape that for decades has had huge blocks of surface parking."
As he pilots the car back to the City Hall garage, Howe says, "I'm just glad I've stayed in this position long enough to see results."
Contact Kathryn Maese at firstname.lastname@example.org.