L.A.'s Chief Architect: Deborah Weintraub
In a dusty, vacant lot across from Los Angeles City Hall last June, as a row of city officials announced the selection of the team to develop a new park there at the corner of West First Street and North Broadway, City Councilman Jose Huizar called Deborah Weintraub to the podium.
He introduced Weintraub, the chief deputy city engineer for the city’s Bureau of Engineering, as “a real hero to many of the infrastructure projects that are occurring throughout the city.”
As a trained architect serving in the senior management of a department made up mostly of engineers, Weintraub is known informally as L.A.’s chief architect and has emerged as one of the chief advocates for incorporating strong design principles in city projects.
For the park project at First and Broadway — called FAB Park — she oversaw the competition that led to the selection of three design firms that will work with city engineers to revive the long-dormant two acres of real estate next to Grand Park.
The Bureau of Engineering’s management and staff of approximately 750 people oversee the design and construction of more than 500 active projects totaling approximately $3.5 billion. The projects range from storm drains and sewers to buildings, parks and bridges.
“Design in the public sector, when you work with tight budgets, has a very different kind of design consideration than, say, a private developer or a museum organization,” Weintraub said in an interview. “But what excites me about that is we’re building for all of our residents, and we’re building facilities that get used every day.”
As she drives around the city, Weintraub revisits projects she’s managed, including a neighborhood city hall in South L.A., a youth technology center in Boyle Heights and a senior center in the West San Fernando Valley.
“When I travel around — this is my obsessive nature — I feel like every building that I see I’m responsible to maintain. That’s a little overwhelming,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s hard for me not to look at that and think, ‘Oh my gosh, that needs a paint job, or those bricks should be repointed, or the window should be changed, or a new roof!’ ” she said. “In some ways, buildings are like my children. They need love and care.”
Besides the new FAB Park in downtown L.A.’s Civic Center, objects of Weintraub’s recent focus have included implementation of the city’s Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan; the design for the replacement of the Sixth Street Viaduct; the La Kretz Innovation Campus, a hub for clean-tech startup companies in downtown L.A.’s Arts District, and the restoration of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hollyhock House in Barnsdall Art Park.
The city of Los Angeles hired Weintraub 15 years ago to run its architecture division. She was later promoted to senior management. But her entry into the world of architecture and engineering was accidental.
“As a young woman, I was interested in being an artist, a painter. And my practical parents said, ‘Well, why don’t you get a professional degree that’s related to art, so you can earn a living,’ ” she said.
Weintraub studied architecture at Princeton University, received a master of architecture degree from UC Berkeley, and was initially licensed in New York (later in California).
“Becoming an architect takes as long as becoming a brain surgeon, which is something that I don’t think my parents realized,” Weintraub said.
After co-founding the New York architectural firm Lane & Weintraub, Weintraub moved to Los Angeles in 1989. Her husband, David Chilewich, was then working as a film writer and producer. She took a job at the Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles as a trade representative for five Western states. She found that Canadian architects excelled in a specific field — sustainability.
With her assistance, the Canadians helped to write the first local green building assessment protocol for the city of Santa Monica, often a regional leader in environmental issues. The Canadians also were influential in the formulation of the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards — a set of rating systems for certifying green building design and construction that emerged in the mid-1990s.
With the expertise she had gained, Weintraub was recruited by Southern California Edison to bring energy-efficient design principles to its projects.
When she joined the city of Los Angeles in 2001, the city hadn’t fully embraced the use of LEED as an assessment tool, she said. Now, 15 years after LEED was adopted as a standard for city-funded projects, Los Angeles has one of the largest portfolios of LEED buildings of any city.
As a manager, Weintraub works closely with other city departments and with elected officials. The Bureau of Engineering also hires local contractors and oversees construction projects for City Council-controlled departments, including police, fire, and recreation and parks.
Weintraub oversees an on-call list of architects and landscape architects who are under contract and invited to make proposals on city projects, making her L.A.’s unofficial liaison to the local architectural and landscape design community.
For example, one of those architects, Michael Lehrer, recently designed a public swimming pool in South L.A. in collaboration with the Bureau of Engineering. Weintraub’s staff members assigned to the project “came to our studio to spend two hours to talk about design and design process and design culture,” Lehrer said.
Other architects who have worked with Weintraub agree that she sets high standards for the design of city projects
Tony Pleskow, principal and founder of Pleskow Architects, built a stylish retaining wall along Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A. and is working on another one along Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park.
“[Weintraub] didn’t want it to just look like an engineering project. She wanted it to be a well-conceived, thought-out intervention,” Pleskow said. “And quite honestly, without her input, that would never have happened.”
Because of California’s ongoing drought, many of Weintraub’s and her staff’s efforts in recent years have been focused on reducing the use of potable water, including capturing stormwater runoff. This has required a shift in city thinking.
The city has experimented with pilot projects such as underground cisterns used for irrigation, parks that serve as water infiltration basins, and the use of native and California-friendly landscaping that uses less water.
Another of Weintraub’s passion projects has been the revitalization of the Los Angeles River, a much-maligned, 51-mile waterway mostly encased in concrete. Weintraub and other city staff have worked to complete a number of bike and walking paths along the river. They also have worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to complete a report to Congress that supports major changes along an 11-mile stretch of the river north of downtown.
Weintraub and her staff have actively supported the efforts of others to further the river’s revitalization. This includes supporting the work of the Trust for Public Land as well as the nonprofit River LA and Gehry Partners, the firm helmed by architect Frank Gehry, to consider a new master plan for the entire 51 miles of the LA River.
Weintraub credits her early travels and experiences abroad as having had a major impact on her life. Her father, Sidney Weintraub, was in the Foreign Service and was a trade expert, before later joining the faculty of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, and then the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
She was born in Mexico City and raised in Japan, and as her family moved to cities such as Santiago, Chile, and Bangkok, Thailand, her parents’ “Jewish identity became more important to them and so they went out of their way to educate us as Jews.” The Jewish communities in those foreign cities “immediately embraced us and became some of our closest family friends,” she said.
Weintraub links her interest in public service to her father’s career and her Jewish upbringing. “Earning money is good, but public service is a really good thing to do,” she said.
Weintraub was awarded the 2016 Julia Morgan ICON Award for her contributions to the design industry. Morgan, the first female architect licensed in California, is best known for her work on Hearst Castle in San Luis Obispo County. Weintraub’s downtown office overlooks the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner building, which Morgan designed.
The award is also fitting as Weintraub is the first woman, as well as the first architect, to hold her position at the Bureau of Engineering. She credits her boss, City Engineer Gary Lee Moore, and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects for raising awareness of the need to support women in the profession. She also gives a nod to Mayor Eric Garcetti, who in 2015 issued an executive directive calling for gender equity in city operations.
“When I was in architecture school it was half women. But over time in my career, the women have dropped out,” she said. “It’s a very demanding profession in terms of hours. The pay typically is not great. I still walk into rooms where there are 20 people in the room and I might be the only woman there.”
This article was made possible with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit calhum.org.