At the start of 2016, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tapped a long-time Windsor Square resident to run the city’s Planning Department. Following his first several months in the position, the Chronicle sat down with planning director Vince Bertoni in his fifth floor City Hall office to talk city planning.
“Twenty years in the same house,” says Bertoni proudly when asked about his Windsor Square credentials. “It’s the first and only house I’ve ever owned.” In fact, once he and his partner — architect and landscape architect Damon Hein — decided to buy a property, he says they went straight for the Larchmont area.
Having grown up in a walk-able east Sacramento neighborhood, Bertoni wanted to find a part of town with the same sense of community: “I wanted to be walking distance to Larchmont Blvd., so we spent nine months looking for the perfect place,” he laughs.
It’s clear from the start of the interview that Bertoni is passionate about city planning. He has dedicated his professional life to the field, earning a Bachelor of Arts in transportation and urban geography from San Diego State University and accumulating more than 25 years of on-the-job planning experience. He held lead planning posts in Beverly Hills, Santa Clarita and Malibu, and he served as deputy planning director in Los Angeles before his most recent position as Pasadena’s planning and community development director.
“I have insider knowledge, but an outsider’s perspective,” Bertoni says.
Pasadena vs. Los Angeles
How is city planning in Pasadena different from Los Angeles? Bertoni says that in some ways there are a lot of similarities: “They’re both big, diverse cities with a lot of different challenges. But the thing that Pasadena has done for a very long time is continually invested in its long-range planning visions.”
Even in the early 20th century, Pasadena was forward-looking in terms of how the city did planning, Bertoni says, by putting a high value on working together with businesses, residents and other parts of the community to develop planning policies.
“Once Pasadena proposed a plan, it spent a lot of time trying to build consensus.” Bertoni says in the five years that he was planning director, the city never amended the general plan or zoning to accommodate a development project: “We prided ourselves on that.”
This approach will no doubt serve him well in Los Angeles; but where to start? Bertoni says he has three top priorities.
“If I were to put into terms what we need to do as a city moving forward, we really need to spend some time updating our general plan and its general plan framework, and then the community plans. We have 35 community plans, which in essence is how the general plan is implemented.”
Bertoni says his goal is to bring all the plans up-to-date within the next 10 years, then create a system to update them every 10 to 12 years.
Another priority for Bertoni is to take a look at the city’s current version of zoning, which was created in 1946 following WWII. “Our zoning is very antiquated,” he says, “and we need to make sure it can deal with the issues we have today, which are very different from what they were in 1946.”
Lastly, Bertoni says there is a need to look at how projects go through the development process: “We need to make sure we have projects that really reflect our vision and our plans.”
The issue of masionization is a major concern for local residents, but does the new director of planning share the concern?
“Yes. It’s something that is happening all across the city, not just in the Larchmont area,” says Bertoni.
Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, as in Hancock Park, Windsor Square, Windsor Village and Wilshire Park, are a good way to keep and maintain neighborhood character, he says, but for neighborhoods without an HPOZ, Bertoni is focused on a revision of the existing Baseline Mansionization Ordinance (BMO). “This is going through the process now, and we’re getting a lot of good public comment on how we can tighten our rules, and I’m hopeful that it is going to help,” he says.
If we are to preserve neighborhood character, where should the additional density go? Bertoni thinks additional density should go where we already have density — such as downtown Los Angeles.
“I think that is the perfect area because we have both room for additional density and multiple Metro rail lines. Outside of that, we need to look in areas that are in close proximity to where we’ve invested in transportation infrastructure.”
The mayor’s recent budget includes hiring 28 city employees at a cost of $4.2 million to update community plans. And Bertoni says his department has a strategy in the works once that money is available.
“We are going to report back to City Council on our exact strategy. But I can tell you, as part of that strategy, we’re going to look at how to prioritize which community plans get updated first. And as part of that, we’re going to talk about what do we include in the community plans, and how do we build consensus and do community outreach.”
But the good news, in the budget proposal, says Bertoni, is not only will he have approval to hire more city planners, but also to hire a communications specialist to better implement dialogue with the community, plus a needed demographer.
After chatting with Bertoni for a while, it’s clear that city planning is not just a passion, but personal. Not least of all because he spent years volunteering on his neighborhood association’s board of directors, and was even the first chair of the Windsor Square HPOZ. It’s personal because that’s how he views the process.
“When I approach planning, I don’t think of it as just numbers or growth and economic projections, I think of it as neighborhoods and communities. And I think about how I feel about my neighborhood and how hard I work to protect it,” Bertoni concluded.
With those words one can’t help but feel like the city’s Planning Department is in good hands.
By Billy Taylor