Jan Perry: City Government/Urban Planning

This city is a collection of little neighborhoods, a blanket of networks. It’s better to do things in little steps.

Sometimes you need a politician who’s willing to look at the small picture instead of the big one. “This city is a collection of little neighborhoods, a blanket of networks. It’s better to do things in little steps,” says Los Angeles councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district ranges from the rapidly gentrifying historic downtown core, where words like retail and market rate are raising developers’ heartbeats, to the overlooked neighborhoods of South L.A., where jobs and green spaces are scarce.

Street paving, tree trimming, trash pickup, sidewalk repair, and graffiti removal are the tent poles of Perry’s operating philosophy, but she concentrates on more than these textbook good politico acts. Even on enormous projects she’s willing to focus—literally and figuratively—on the street level, where the citizens interact with the city. The councilwoman’s Ninth District contains two of the city’s most high-profile projects, both with the potential to alter the way downtown L.A. is perceived: Grand Avenue, a $1.8 billion mixed-use retail, entertainment, residential, and hotel development dominated by Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall; and the entertainment-centric $1.2 billion L.A. Live project, built around the Staples Center. As Grand Avenue begins to consider retailers, Perry insists on including some independent local merchants. She has also proposed an ordinance against current street widening requirements, a car-centric zoning provision that keeps the city from making downtown sidewalks wider and more pedestrian friendly. It’s a small move, but one that would foster the proposed retail by staving off the emptiness that sometimes pervades the sidewalks.

After graduating from the University of Southern California, where she took urban-planning classes and had to “identify social problems and solve them with design,” Perry took a job as admissions officer at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in 1979. There she got to know the school’s first director Ray Kappe, and architects Michael Rotondi, Thom Mayne—whose Caltrans building went up in her district in 2004—and current director Eric Owen Moss. Blunt and plainspoken, Perry Is at ease around design in a way few politicians are; she doesn’t see it as a trophy or a lure—or just another iconic building to put on a stamp. To her design is an essential building block of a city.

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When the Midnight Mission, one of L.A.’s oldest housing shelters, was planning its renovation, Perry advocated the creation of a courtyard with toilets and safe sleeping areas for individuals who couldn’t or wouldn’t sleep inside. Homeless housing is one of downtown’s biggest issues. Rather than battle with developers and new residents who didn’t want SROs and shelters in their adopted neighborhoods, Perry pushed for housing that, at least on the outside, could pass for market-rate condos. Good design became a way to keep a community economically integrated—something that’s becoming harder and harder to do as loft prices soar.

On the opposite end of the Ninth District, in an area recently renamed South Los Angeles after “South Central” became too heavy a burden, Perry’s small changes move in an unexpected direction. Besides adding welcome elements like a farmers market to the community, the councilwoman has developed a half-acre of wetlands at the intersection of Slauson and Compton in a new park that was once a Department of Water & Power pipe yard; now it contains a freshwater marsh and surrounding riparian habitat with a variety of trees that will attract everything from egrets to herons. It’s a tiny urban oasis—and a very big step.

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