Emily Gabel-Luddy, Burbank City Council Member since 2011, was elected Mayor of Burbank in May of this year. The 20-year resident of Burbank earned her Masters in Landscape Architecture from the University of Massachusetts and has been honored as a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and Loeb Fellow of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Working in public service her entire adult life, in her final years serving the City of Los Angeles she created the Urban Design Studio to create more walkable neighborhoods and she was recently recognized as a woman achiever by Business Life Magazine. Mayor Gabel-Luddy cheerfully sat down for this interview for the readers of The Tolucan Times.
Tell me about your upbringing here in Los Angeles.
I was born in Hollywood, grew up in El Serreno and Glassell Park, on L.A.’s east side. My mother’s parents were immigrants from the Czech Republic and my father’s family has been here for a very long time. Since my second job I have been committed to public service. I began in the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks as a Landscape Architect for city park design and construction. From there I moved to the L.A. City Planning Department primarily as a landscape architect/planner for more than 30 years which afforded me a huge range of experience all tied together by my commitment to public service. For many years I was a zoning administrator in Los Angeles and later also in charge of the subdivision process; I held public hearings in Watts, San Pedro, West L.A., hillside communities, San Fernando Valley, Warner Center, Glassell Park, Atwater and Hollywood so I got to see the diversity of L.A. neighborhoods and what the aspirations of the people who lived there were. In my role as a zoning administrator I required developers to provide additional amenities that would answer the concerns of a neighborhood and from time to time I have just said “no” to projects because they weren’t any good for the community.
Was there a turning point peaking your interest in public service?
The election of John F. Kennedy as President in 1960 was a real inspiration for me. My mother took me to the Biltmore Hotel where the Democratic Convention was being held. I remember meeting Lyndon Johnson, Harold Stassen and Hubert Humphrey when then-candidate Kennedy came through the Biltmore entrance. We were probably 10 feet away and I thought, wow, these are the men who run the country and here I am 10 years old, able to meet them! Later in 1968 when we had so much upheaval in this country: the war, assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, I was 18 and worked on the [Eugene] McCarthy campaign because I decided I would work in a political way for someone whom I thought should be president. When it was over I never wanted to have anything to do with politics again so I went back to school at Occidental College and graduated in 1971.
What do you do as Mayor of Burbank?
I routinely receive phone calls, emails from community members and personal correspondence with individuals, making sure issues raised go on to the right department. From time to time I meet with folks applying for various entitlements, our organized labor representatives, the chamber members of the real estate and business communities, our non-profits and BUSD members. I chair our Tuesday evening council meetings and ensure everybody gets a chance to speak. It’s a little like being an air traffic controller and I’m slowly learning not to bang the gavel too hard! Ceremonial ribbon cuttings, luncheons recognizing individuals, signing letters to the governor, assemblymen and congressman on behalf of the council regarding issues. I also meet with our assemblyman, state senator and congressman to see what our mutual interests are and if we have something we want to move forward. One item we supported heavily was the new law for dog parks. The bill, which was signed by the governor, reduces the city’s liability because the prior one worked against cities and residents’ interests. The bill provides some level of immunity when they do want to establish dog parks. We are a community of animal lovers, rescues, shelters, spay/ neuter and pet adoption. One of my signature ordinances is banning retail sales of animals from puppy mills. We here in Burbank joined several other cities to continue to protect our animals.
What is the biggest and best change you have seen in Burbank over the past two decades?
The Downtown Burbank we have created has been so successful based on the regular use and number of people we see here on the weekends and the evenings! We have these wonderful events like the car show and people can just walk around, see their neighbors and friends; that’s what helps define that small town feel to Downtown Burbank.
What is your proudest accomplishment during your 30+ years at the Planning Department for the City of L.A.?
My signature accomplishment was establishing the Urban Design Studio in 2006 where planners wouldn’t simply accept a developer’s proposal; they would actually analyze it, ask themselves whether or not it was a good design for that community and make useful and constructive recommendations for change.
And you lecture at USC.
One of the things I love about teaching is that students come to my class from all over the U.S. as well as China, Iran and Japan. We discuss how to bring nature back into the city with native plants, parks, how to get water back into the ground water tables, and the importance of trees providing the cooling effect.
Tell me about your recent trip to one of Burbank’s sister cities in Korea!
We are Incheon’s oldest sister city; our relationship began in 1961 when Burbank received a letter from Incheon asking for a donation of books while they were recovering from the Korean War. The books were sent solidifying the relationship! Our cultural exchange with them has always been students. Every two years the Mayor of Incheon, Korea holds a summit for its sister cities. This year it was on sustainability practices and each of us gave a speech regarding some aspect of how we are addressing that in our [particular]city. I spoke about how our Burbank Water & Power Department has provided high speed internet fiber optics systems throughout the city as a service for our media businesses, studios and others to remain competitive on a worldwide basis. And furthermore, provided a look at the design, construction and energy-saving results at the BWP Eco-Campus, a nationally recognized site for its sustainable design. The BWP has been awarded LEED Platinum for its buildings also.
Do you have aspirations after serving as Mayor of Burbank?
I think Congress needs a lot of help right now because it is totally dysfunctional. Fortunately, our Congressmen are very committed and level-headed. So, I am proud as Mayor that we are working for our community taking steps to make sure we are as top notch as we possibly can be. My feet are on the ground; I may have long range and big plans, but I never lose sight of the day-to-day demands and my responsibility to the community.
What do you do for fun?
I love to read; the last book I read was about the Supreme Court. I also like mysteries. And riding my old retired quarter horse, Salty. How amazing is this: in the entire U.S. there are no neighborhoods like Burbank Rancho and Glendale Rancho where you can be nine miles from the center of the 2nd largest city in the country yet still come home, get on a horse, ride on 52 miles of safe horse hiking trails and be in the country….
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