In her three-plus years as Los Angeles' City Architect, Deborah Weintraub has been a strong and persuasive voice in the bureaucracy for integrating concerns of human interaction, sustainability, and high-quality design into the city's multi-billion-dollar public works program. Reflecting her success at raising these issues, she was recently promoted within the Bureau of Engineering. TPR recently talked with Deborah about her new responsibilities and how we can improve the public conversation about holistic planning, green design and public place-making.
Deborah, you were recently elevated to the position of Deputy City Engineer, overseeing more than the Bureau of Architecture. Is this a promotion, or have we lost you as the City Architect?
My new job is basically the equivalent of a vice-president position. My role still includes oversight of matters that relate to design and sustainability. I am no longer officially the City Architect, but I intend to function as the chief architect of the city. All of the things that I spoke to you about when you interviewed me two years ago remain primary to my mission in the city, but in addition I am also now responsible for about a staff of 300. These employees are sort of the core of the Bureau of Engineering, including all of the architectural and engineering consulting staff of the city, such as structural, mechanical, and geotechnical engineers and the Construction Management Division.
The Bureau of Engineering is the primary infrastructure delivery team for the city, meaning that we do the majority of the capital improvement infrastructure work, outside of the ports and the airport. The staff that I oversee is the core technical staff for that delivery. I provide management-level oversight to what they are doing. So, I review projects with an eye to their scopes and objectives. I interface with city council offices, the Board of Public Works, and the mayor's office. I provide higher-level coordination to make sure that we are delivering what everyone wants, in the time frame they want it, and for the budget that we have to spend to do it.
In our interview with you two years ago as the city architect, you said, "I can be involved with projects that are well-designed, well-crafted public buildings that will be positive additions to the urban fabric of Los Angeles. I am here to make a difference in the architecture of our city, which ultimately means improving the daily life of the city residents." Are you no longer responsible for that, and is there somebody else that is going to be the city architect?
I am still responsible for that. There will be someone else to take over my position as principal architect and who will run the Architectural Division, but I don't think that my role has really changed. Let me give a little bit of background. There is a city engineer with four deputies, and under the City Charter an architect can't fill anything but the position I am moving into. This is the first time that an architect has been elevated into management of the Bureau of Engineering.
What better place is there for an architect to be if she is concerned about the quality of what the city builds? So my role hasn't really changed in that respect, although my responsibilities and my ability to influence projects have broadened.
We often use the term "urban fabric," but people don't always understand it the same way. The Bureau of Engineering is charged with working on specific projects. How much ability and direction does the Bureau of Engineering have to actually think about and work on how these projects improve the urban fabric of Los Angeles?
Many of our projects are crafted and determined before we see them, but we do have some say in where they are sited, and we do have a lot of say in the forms that they take. Let me talk about one project in particular that I think will interest your readers: a city-funded revitalization master plan for the Los Angeles River. [NOTE: For more on this topic, please see the interview with Councilmember Ed Reyes on page 1.] This is a plan that I intend to remain intimately involved with through the entire course of the master-planning task. The bureau provided technical and design expertise as the council determined what the master plan should encompass. So, in some instances we have a big role in saying what the scope should be. In other instances, a site might have been chosen tentatively by a council office or a local community group, and our role is to verify that it is the proper site or to suggest alternatives.
The city is in the process of setting up "Neighborhood City Halls" to provide services to constituents outside of Downtown. Councilman Padilla's office had worked to identify a site on a commercial street in District 7 that has a fair amount of life but is also in the process also going through some renewal. The CRA has identified that area as a primary one for investment. We are now working cooperatively with the CRA. Because they had identified parking as a need to allow the area to develop, they have added more money to the project to build additional parking. We played a role as design professionals in verifying this site and concurring with the CRA's urban design analysis. The Bureau of Engineering will deliver the project.
Another exciting part of the Neighborhood City Hall project is that we are going to run, for the first time in my tenure at the city, a limited design competition. So, we are going to get three design proposals in, and look at them in terms of the quality of the design work as well as the cost to construct. Money doesn't fly out the window in this context.
There are also 160 new schools and several police stations being built. Based on your years of experience, what are the obstacles that need to be overcome in order to achieve collaborative, joint-use, and co-location opportunities in these developments, which will affect neighborhoods for generations?
We have more work to do to make sure that we collaborate well, and that is something that I will continue to try to address in my new role. The school district doesn't collaborate easily with us. Everyone feels they have their own mandates and their own budgets to spend by certain dates, so get out of their way. We are all operating at warp speed to deliver fairly complex projects. We don't really have a strong planning organization, a strong voice for planning neighborhoods in a comprehensive way. There is no one saying to the school district or the Police Department, "You aren't God here." Everyone goes out independently and looks for sites, and once they have found a property they can buy, that that is the best property there is, regardless of its value in the urban context. So, that is still a challenge.
You have been involved for much of your career in promoting environmentally smart buildings and green buildings. Talk a little bit about this work in the last year or so, and what you hope to accomplish going forward.
Well, I have good news to report, which is there are a lot of projects going into construction now and a lot of projects in the pipeline using LEED green building standards as guidelines - about half a million square feet of space. We are taking a gradual approach to integrating green building standards into our projects, and so we have asked that city projects of a certain size be LEED Certified, the lowest LEED level. We took that approach because we knew achieving these standards was going to involve a steep learning curve for our design teams and staff, and it has.
But, I think we are going to be successful with the construction in the pipeline. For example, an air operations facility that is going to be constructed in the Valley will be the first building of its type in air operations to be LEED Certified. All the new police stations will be LEED Certified, as will the new Downtown police headquarters. I think that we are doing very well at asking the consulting community and our own managers to integrate this concern into our projects. I think that we are ahead of the school district on it, and we don't scream and tout ourselves on it. We are just quietly doing it.
Deborah, quoting from our interview with you two years ago: "High quality design has probably gotten a bad reputation. This isn't about making buildings that scream ‘Look at me!' or stand alone as if they were more important than their surroundings. This is about creating buildings that systematically create a sense of place for our city." How successful are we at the moment in doing that, and how successful might we be given your elevation to this new status.
I think that in the four years that I have been at the city we have gotten consistently better at doing that. I don't credit myself for being out there saying that we need to do a better job. I think I have been one voice, but there have been other voices in City Hall also saying that we need to think about the quality of what we build in the public realm. For instance, there has been a lot of effort to think about design in the bridge improvement program, and I think that out of that effort and pushing by a lot of folks, we will get better quality design bridges than we might have four years ago.
There is a lot more work to do in this respect. There need to be more voices out there talking about the logic of quality design - not hugely expensive design, not Disney Concert Hall, but just quality design. I think the design community will be very proud of the Observatory, where we are adding to our historic building in a way that preserves and upgrades the historic fabric and provides an enormous new facility. I think we are getting better at it, but there is still a lot more work to do.
TPR is running a series of interviews with prominent regional voices giving advice and positive counsel to the new architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne [see back page]. What would you like to see the new critic champion, and what would make the work you just described easier?
We are a city that is coming into our own. We are building institutions, like the Getty, of a size and scale that are done once in a generation or once in two generations. The new critic needs to talk about the buildings created by public agencies; he needs to go to the local schools and police stations that we are building and talk about the more mundane development that happens around our city as well as the high-profile things. He needs to create a language for architecture and design criticism much as the great critic of the New York Times, Anna Louise Huxtable, did. She created a language that any educated person in New York could use to understand what was good and what was bad about what was being built. That is what we need here. We need a common language that the engineers can speak, that the politicians can speak, that the designers can speak. Too often we all speak our own language and no one understands each other. We need to create an environment where the quality of design and its contributions to the neighborhoods are what gets talked about is at City Hall and at committee meetings. If this new critic can help us create that language, that would be great. Criticism in the public realm in any field improves what is done. This new critic needs to raise the bar of criticism in the public realm about design in our city, and he needs to do it for public agencies too. He needs to press all of us to do better at what we are doing.
We are a city that is coming into our own. We are building institutions, like the Getty, of a size and scale that are done once in a generation or once in two generations. The new critic needs to talk about the buildings created by public agencies; he needs to go to the local schools and police stations that we are building and talk about the more mundane development that happens around our city as well as the high-profile things. He needs to create a language for architecture and design criticism much as the great critic of the New York Times, Anna Louise Huxtable, did. She created a language that any educated person in New York could use to understand what was good and what was bad about what was being built. That is what we need here. We need a common language that the engineers can speak, that the politicians can speak, that the designers can speak. Too often we all speak our own language and no one understands each other. We need to create an environment where the quality of design and its contributions to the neighborhoods are what gets talked about is at City Hall and at committee meetings. If this new critic can help us create that language, that would be great.
Criticism in the public realm in any field improves what is done. This new critic needs to raise the bar of criticism in the public realm about design in our city, and he needs to do it for public agencies too. He needs to press all of us to do better at what we are doing.