During one Christmas break when he was in college, Rick Cole and a friend decided to see Los Angeles by city bus. They bought a couple of student transit passes and spent 10 days crisscrossing the region, from Watts to Malibu, bunking down at night with professors, on the beach and, once, in a movie theater. Cole’s friend, who grew up near Denver, announced afterward that he’d never again live in a city like Los Angeles. Cole, who grew up in Pasadena, declared that he could never live anywhere else.
What he’d gotten over the course of his travels was a quick lesson in the lush diversity of the urban landscape. Cole has been paying close attention to how communities look and function ever since, first as a journalist, then as a city council member and mayor and finally as a city manager. His chosen venues — a trio of Los Angeles suburbs — have not been especially large, but that hasn’t kept Cole’s strong views on what it takes for cities to thrive from having an impact on the planning community in California and nationwide.
Cole, 53, is perhaps best known as a strong believer in compact, even dense, development, but he is equally dedicated to strong civic engagement and effective, accountable government. “Those three strands,” he says, “are inextricably intertwined in a healthy and successful city. You go to New Orleans or Newark, and you can see perfectly good urban fabric that New Urbanists would cry over, but the cities are a catastrophe. So, obviously, form doesn’t trump everything else. Without the civic activism, you don’t have the buy-in of the community and the mobilization of private-sector and third-sector resources. And, of course, if you don’t have a government that can issue permits in less than three years or the ability to keep a park safe, then building houses above a park won’t work. You have to put these three things together to have any of them be a success.”
As mayor of Pasadena during the early 1990s, he took a populace that had been deadlocked between pro- and anti-growth forces and focused it on developing a vision for the city as a whole. The result was one of the most attractive and attention-getting downtowns in the region. “The idea that you could rally thousands of Pasadenans to get interested in a general plan, and to make planning seem like something the average person could get his or her hands around, showed his brilliance,” says Larry Wilson, editor of the Pasadena Star-News. “To this day, it’s quite a legacy.”
Cole, who as a student activist and as a politician had developed a reputation for a no-holds-barred rhetorical style, eventually left elective politics to become city manager in Azusa, a down-on-its luck town that, as the Los Angeles Times dryly noted, had a “commercial core so bleak that an AM/PM convenience store ranks among the city’s top sales tax generators.” Cole spent six years there, plunging into the seemingly mundane mechanics needed for revitalizing a city and its government — replacing an aging library, overseeing the creation of Azusa’s first general plan in two decades, helping 1,500 new homes get built.
Now, in Ventura, which recently topped 100,000 residents, he is working on a larger canvas but with an equally intense focus on the details that add up to a vital city. He helped the city council breach a six-year deadlock over its general plan and has been adamant about making developers — and Wal-Mart — stick to the vision of a pedestrian-friendly downtown, mixed-use developments and interesting neighborhoods. He led the city in moving a homeless encampment that had annoyed citizens and then assisted its residents in setting up a self-governing permanent campground. And he is now helping to shepherd a sales-tax increase to boost public-safety staffing.
Cities, Cole argues, can create their own destinies. “You can’t give up on them and say, ’Oh, there’s poverty and racism and we need a Marshall Plan for the cities,’ ” he says. “You have to roll up your sleeves and make our schools and streets and local governments work, so that people can use their energy and their passion in their family and business life to bring life back to older towns and older cities. It can be done, and there’s no excuse for not doing it.”
— Rob Gurwitt
Photo by Donna Granata