John D’Amico, 47, is the newest member of the City Council of West Hollywood, Calif., which is a small, independent city of 34,000 people almost completely surrounded by the metropolis of Los Angeles. But unlike the typical cadre of attorneys and organizers who fill these sorts of seats in cities across the country, D’Amico comes to his new role with a master’s degree in architecture and urban design and a second in aesthetics and politics, plus more than 20 years of experience in the field. In his day job, he’s a project manager for building projects at the University of California at Los Angeles, and he previously served five years on the West Hollywood Planning Commission. As he settles into his new office, D’Amico offers some thoughts on the urbanism of his city, where it went wrong, and how it can turn itself around.
This March, in your first run for city council, you unseated the incumbent. Why did the voters pick you?
I believe I was successful because in most conversations I talked about the built environment and how it seemed to be at risk. Even if they [voters] had only moved here in the recent past, they really felt like the city was headed in the wrong direction. One of the expressions I used was “bigger, faster, louder West Hollywood has to stop.”
Do you really feel that the built environment is a platform that people can relate to and understand?
I do. The city’s been drifting towards supersizing everything and stacking a layer or two of housing on top of all the commercial streets, as well as allowing one- or two-story bungalows or small garden court apartments to turn into eight-unit buildings four stories tall. I think that really rubbed many of us the wrong way.
In the tiny little 1.9 square miles of West Hollywood, we get tens of thousands of visitors every week from Los Angeles and other parts of the county, so I think there’s a sense that adding 10,000 new apartments is not going to make West Hollywood a more interesting place. Nor is it going to affect the bottom line of the city. It’s just going to make it more crowded.
From an urban-planning perspective, what sort of strategy do you see for your city going forward?
I think it has to really focus on two different but complementary ideas of urbanism. The first is that everyone in Los Angeles has to own a car, and we’ve got to just admit it. We may not want to own a car, but we go to work every day, and we have to be in different places, so we own cars. People who want to come to our city, they want to come in their cars, have a place to park, enjoy their night of being entertained in West Hollywood, and then drive home.
The city has been trying to pretend, it seems, that cars and traffic are not our problems. But I think not only are they West Hollywood’s problem, in some ways we are creating the problem, because we don’t provide the kind of services for people in automobiles that we should. The second part of it is, we need for those of us who live here, once we get home, to be convinced to stay out of our cars. And to provide neighborhood-serving businesses that keep people out of their cars.
It’s interesting how parking can play a sort of invisible role in determining how a place is used. It seems almost paradoxical, but walkability does, in some sense, rely on parking.
It’s the kind of thing that’s obvious, and we in West Hollywood haven’t yet figured it out, even though we collect $10 million in parking fees and tickets every year. I think it’s been the undone thing and I hope to help get some of that done.
How has your architecture and urban-planning experience informed your vision of where West Hollywood should be going?
I certainly want development to continue in West Hollywood, but the kind of development, and the scale of the development, and the focus of it, needs to change, especially given how much denser the city has become in the past 10 years. I think it’s time to think about what are places of commercial activity and what are places of residential activity, and where [do] those two exist in the same place.
The city has been pushing for the past 10 years this idea of mixed-use housing and, unfortunately, West Hollywood is a city that exists mostly along a central backbone of Santa Monica Boulevard. And what I have been saying for many years is that to overload that backbone with all that housing and all those new cars and trips will just turn it into a completely useless boulevard.
My sense is that mixed-use works best on a grid and not on a line. I think there’s been some wishful thinking on the part of the incumbents that the subway would come, we’d have all this mixed-use building, and it would be this magical place where people would emerge from the subway and they would come and buy their $15 martinis and leave by the subway, and those of us who lived here wouldn’t have to deal with their cars and their traffic. But that is a future that, if it ever comes to West Hollywood, it’s not coming in the next 10 or 20 or probably 30 years.