L.A.’s Powerful Planning President
At a time when Angelenos are debating the merits of Measure S, weighing the pros and cons of historic preservation and reeling over reports that suggest corruption in the city approvals of some developments, the role of the Los Angeles Planning Commission has come under the microscope.
The nine-member board, which is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Los Angeles City Council, is a powerful stop along the way to a developer getting a project approved or denied. So too, does the commission’s president, currently David Ambroz, wield a lot of influence, not immune to controversy.
Recently, when historic status was up for a vote for the Miracle Mile area, one commissioner was absent. An initial 4-4 vote on the controversial proposal automatically meant it was dead.
Ambroz, who was in favor of the Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) proposal with boundary changes, however, asked for a second vote in the hope of breaking the tie.
According to Ambroz, he felt the issue was deeply important to those on both sides and deserved a second vetting. Postponing the vote, he also said, until all commissioners were present could have been too late, he said.
“If I continued [the vote] for another month,” said Ambroz “there might have been bulldozers there in March.”
On the second go-around, one commissioner changed her mind and the proposal was approved. The resulting change of fortune for the HPOZ confounded those against it. They lodged a complaint against Ambroz’s action soon thereafter.
But according to a spokesperson with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office, the commission’s actions were “legitimate.”
Samantha Millman, a commissioner on the board who said Ambroz is “incredibly diplomatic,” said she believes his decision reflected what he thought was the right thing to do.
“When a motion fails, you always want to reintroduce the motion so that we take some sort of action,” she said. “So I think that was him trying to make sure that one way or another we moved forward with an action rather than a failure to act on the matter.”
Ambroz, who is in his late 30s, was appointed to the commission in 2013 by Mayor Eric Garcetti. His term ends in 2021. He currently lives with his husband in Hollywood and has a foster son attending college.
When not volunteering 10 to 20 hours a week on Planning Commission business, Ambroz works full-time as Executive Director of Corporate Citizenship & Social Responsibility for the Disney/ABC Television Group.
He previously spent a decade on neighborhood councils and has consistently worked over the years with non-profits that have a focus on helping foster children. It’s an issue with which Ambroz is intimately familiar.
As a child, Ambroz grew up homeless in New York City with his two siblings and a mentally ill mother.
“I lived in Grand Central Station,” said Ambroz. “I had people step over me.”
At age 11, he began an odyssey through various foster homes before winning a scholarship to Vassar. He went on to the UCLA School of Law where he received a juris doctorate.
Though he has no formal education in urban planning, according to Ambroz, his background informs his perspective on planning commission matters.
Along with issues such as upward mobility and equity, Ambroz said he is “constantly thinking of the homeless.”
Ambroz said he believes he and his colleagues—who come from a range of backgrounds including architecture, finance, law, community activism, politics and real estate—share a common factor.
“What the [mayor and the city council] are looking for are broad-minded intelligent people with connections to the community and an understanding of how this all fits together and works,” said Ambroz. “I think it’s a diverse group, not just ethnically and by gender, but by experience.”
Ambroz said the net effect is similar to having a jury of your peers in a court case.
“We are an independent group of nine people paid zero dollars to act in the best interest of Los Angeles,” he said.
By the time proposals come before the commission, the Planning Dept. has already vetted them—a process that sometimes takes years. Ambroz, who said he has a “great respect “ for department staff, said that the commission tries to examine the proposal from different angles.
“We go above and beyond the code,” said Ambroz. “[We ask] [w]here’s the council office on this? What’s been the outreach?”
Ambroz said that input from the public is also critical.
“Every time a person carves time out of their day to come down or submit a letter, it impacts the way I think about a project,” he said. “They usually provide neighborhood context or information that they live [because] they’re adjacent to a project.”
Ambroz’s experience with planning issues has led him to be “profoundly” against Measure S.
“It’s chopping off your arm because you have a hangnail,” said Ambroz.
Ambroz said fixes to the city’s planning and approval process can happen without “stopping L.A.’s economy, making people homeless and throwing people out of their jobs,” issues those opposed to the measure have cited.
Over his tenure, Ambroz said he has observed the anger that can erupt between neighbors fighting over land use issues.
“I wish neighbors were kinder to each other,” said Ambroz, “and assume that each of them have the best intentions.”