Since you might not have had the chance to meet all of the ZAC members in person, we thought it would be fun to feature short profiles on each to help you get to know them better. In this installment, we'd like to introduce Mark Vallianatos.
Zoning Advisory Committee member Mark Vallianatos moved to Southern California in 2000 from the Washington, DC area and currently lives in Glassell Park. He was interested in Los Angeles before moving here, having read about it as a big city with many challenges and an interesting history that serves as an important example for how places develop in the 21st century.
Mark is currently an adjunct instructor in urban and environmental policy at Occidental College and is Policy Director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute. Originally trained as a lawyer, Mark initially worked on policies related to environmental issues. He later integrated this early focus into his work on urban planning and policy, continuing to collaborate with environmental advocates throughout the course of his varied career. Mark’s primary interests are in global trade and the environment; food access and health; transportation; climate change; and land use. He serves on the boards or steering committees of several organizations focused on walking, biking, and improving streets in Los Angeles.
Mark has been poring through City archives to research changes in the zoning and building codes, focusing on housing trends over the past 100 years in Los Angeles. Even as his foray into the history of development regulation provides him a fascinating look at the past, it also provides insights into where Los Angeles is going: “At the same time, this process allows me to help look forward,” Mark points out. “That’s been a fun learning experience [that] I think has inspired me ... things will always change, and it’s possible to be creative and help shape a better city in the future.”
The history of zoning and building codes in Los Angeles encompasses everything from backyard animals and building materials to the reasoning behind parking requirements – regulations that, over many decades, have significantly affected the look of the city and the lives of its people, Mark says. He believes re:code LA provides opportunities to rethink what we want in the built environment and envision a broader range of possibilities for ourselves and future generations of Angelenos. “We’ve socially shaped how people live through these rules,” Mark argues. “It does show that collectively we can try to think of new forms of living, new goals.”
Mark was a vocal proponent of the comprehensive revision of Los Angeles’ Zoning Code before the project was approved and funded, and regularly attended public meetings to express his support for the initiative. As a member of the Zoning Advisory Committee, he is primarily interested in bringing attention to climate change and other sustainability topics and their relationship to land use and planning. He became more interested in the details of the zoning code during the remodel of his Glassell Park home, when he faced obstacles to sustainable practices such as solar panels, gray water, and rain water capture.
Mark points to “a spirit of creativity and innovation [that’s] traditionally a part of what makes Los Angeles a unique place.” In looking at Los Angeles in the context of cities around the world, he believes that with the surge of interest in dense urban neighborhoods like Downtown L.A. and the proliferation of new options for getting around, the potential exists for a city with mixed uses and where walking and public transit are the norm. “We have to stop being afraid of that and let it happen, let cities be cities,” Mark says.
In his free time, Mark enjoys discovering new facets of Southern California history, culture, and architecture. "I like to explore this region, you know, walking, biking, taking transit, even driving," he says. "I like to geek out over weird LA history stuff. I like to read a lot and watch movies. That’s what I like to do. You know, walk our dog, and find, discover new neighborhoods and look at cool buildings and enjoy the region."
As a ZAC member, Mark looks forward to better understanding some of the historical reasons behind development regulations, in order to learn from past successes and failures and inform efforts to achieve better outcomes in the future. He sees sustainability and equity as the two most important challenges that have to be addressed in the Zoning Code, and sees the City’s reputation for constant innovation and self-reinvention as one of the keys to addressing those challenges.
“Los Angeles was an experiment in some ways and that’s not bad,” Mark says. “It’s good to try things, but if you cling to [the original approach] after problems have arisen, or the reason has diminished, or the generation that felt that way is now not here anymore ... that does a lot of damage to people who want to lead the life they want to, and leads to problems with driving too much, and climate change, and air pollution ... and marginalizing people who are low income or aren’t white, preventing economic opportunities, integration. We have this giant amazing city that has a lot of potential in it and you just want to have rules that reflect the diversity and potential rather than how things used to be. That’s what I’m anticipating and I think we can do a lot of good.”
While it’s useful to talk about the issues our City needs to resolve, it’s a bit more fun to talk about some of the things we all have in common: namely, our Angeleno culture.
If you were a tour guide for a day, where would you take a friend visiting from out-of-town?
Good question, I would, since we live in northeast LA, definitely take them through Highland Park, which is going through a lot of interesting changes and challenges. I think it’s a fun place to explore. We’d probably go to Downtown LA. Might try to get out the coast because it’s obviously an iconic part of Southern California. And maybe take, you know, if we’re on the Gold Line, go to Pasadena, go to Boyle Heights, you know, see the heart of the city that way. Maybe after, the San Gabriel Valley for some dim sum or something, you know, this amazing resource right next door. So these would be the things to sort of check out.
I don’t think it could only be had in LA, but I worked for the past three years on a campaign to try to legalize sidewalk vending in the city, and so definitely, sidewalk vendors or food trucks to get a sense of the informal street foods and how it can enliven neighborhoods and it reflects the diversity of the city and it crosses over borders. I tend to go to some on Eagle Rock Boulevard. There’s a Rojito Truck that is really good. I don’t know if it’s there as much anymore but Rambo’s Tacos is awesome because they have a weird mural of Rambo and a lady Rambo fighting off a helicopter on it that’s a mashup of Holllywood and Latin America and who knows what else. So that kind of thing is very special about Los Angeles that it allows such a history of immigration, and migration here. It leaves [room for] that kind of innovation and mixing which is part of why, going back to the policy stuff, I get annoyed when the zoning code tries to keep things in these really neat categories and you can’t do any business in a single family neighborhood ... or can’t do this over there. There are some reasons for protecting certain other things, but in general, that’s not what this city is about. Just try to force it. I think something like street food is symbolic of “let’s allow more stuff to happen, let’s make sure there are good rules, but let’s allow stuff to happen” and we’ll get good outcomes to make people’s lives better and happier and connect people rather than separate them.
Lakers or Clippers?
I guess the Lakers. I didn’t think of a strong sports attachment when I moved here.
Frozen yogurt, gelato or kale?
Well, um, I guess frozen yogurt, but I like kale too.
As you may already know, we selected our 21 Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC) members to represent the diverse interests and various stakeholder groups of Los Angeles. Reading their biographies, you can see that each brings exciting viewpoints and experiences to the re:code LA project. The ZAC have been working closely with our team over the past few months, and have already had a valuable impact on the Zoning Code Evaluation Report that will now move forward to City Council.