February 13, 2015 - From the January/February, 2015 issue

Cole: LA Mayor's "I-Team" Seeks to Minimize Displacement During Urban Revitalization

Mayor Eric Garcetti has made "innovation" the hallmark of his "back to basics" agenda. Leading the charge is his Deputy Mayor for Budget & Innovation, Rick Cole. Cole has pushed to foster Garcetti's vision of "a data-driven culture of innovation and excellence" by emphasizing performance metrics, open data, and results-based budgeting. LA's drive to modernize its government recently received a boost from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which will fund an "Innovation Delivery Team."  In this TPR interview, Cole outlines the goal for the new "i-team": coordinating LA's various urban revitalization programs to ensure the benefits minimize displacement and maximize benefits for existing residents. Cole is spearheading the recruitment for the new "i-team" director.


Rick Cole

"If a neighborhood suddenly becomes more attractive in the marketplace, it does seem logical that residential and commercial rents will increase. What’s missing from that equation, however, are two other factors. First, what if revitalization was so widespread across Los Angeles that attractive neighborhoods were not a scarce commodity?...Second, what if rising wages and business activity allowed existing residents and local businesses to prosper in an improving neighborhood?" —Rick Cole

Rick, Los Angeles was one of 12 American cities selected to receive a grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies to set up an “Innovation Delivery Team.” The $2.55 million three-year grant will fund a core team of professionals in the Mayor’s Office. Based on the original five city pilot, “i-teams” are supposed to solve “intractable problems” by applying a structured, data-driven approach to take “best in class ideas” and deploy them to deliver results. What intractable urban problem is LA proposing to tackle?

Rick Cole: We talked with Bloomberg Philanthropies about a number of Mayor Garcetti’s priorities, including restoring the Los Angeles River, decreasing chronic homelessness and reducing poverty in Los Angeles. In the end, the issue that was the best fit for the “i-team” approach was one that has national resonance—the challenge of revitalizing urban neighborhoods so that the benefits of economic investment improve the lives of the people living in those neighborhoods. A “data-driven” approach can begin to demystify all the anecdotal debate around the polarizing topic of “gentrification.”

The collaborative approach that’s the hallmark of “i-teams” seemed perfect to coordinate a number of place-based, place-making efforts (including our Great Streets initiative and the federal Promise Zone designation) with our broader anti-poverty strategies such as the Mayor’s push to raise the minimum wage and improve the effectiveness of the City’s FamilySource and WorkSource programs.

Revitalizing inner city neighborhoods without displacing existing residents does sound like an intractable challenge. How will you measure success?

The “i-team” approach starts with a data-driven “deep dive” to truly analyze the problem. It turns out that a new and better understanding of the problem creates an opportunity for new and better solutions to the problem.

For example, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that when low-income neighborhoods become attractive to young professionals they become unaffordable to long-time residents. Increasing housing values can clearly change neighborhood demographics over time. But the latest research that’s been done across the country shows that the reality of neighborhood revitalization is much more nuanced than the popular stereotype. We think it’s crucial to do the analysis to see what’s happening in LA now—in order to take a smarter approach to public policy. The goal is to take advantage of something that’s clearly positive: neighborhoods seeing more private investment—and ensure the current residents and businesses in those neighborhoods enjoy the benefits.

So ultimately, the specific metrics we use to measure success will come from a deeper understanding of the challenge—and the opportunity.

Many think that gentrification is simply inevitable – that when a neighborhood becomes safer and more attractive, inevitably housing prices will push renters and local businesses out. Is there really any alternative in a free market?

If a neighborhood suddenly becomes more attractive in the marketplace, it does seem logical that residential and commercial rents will increase. What’s missing from that equation, however, are two other factors. First, what if revitalization was so widespread across Los Angeles that attractive neighborhoods were not a scarce commodity? In other words, what if the supply of attractive areas was increased to meet the demand? Second, what if rising wages and business activity allowed existing residents and local businesses to prosper in an improving neighborhood? Targeting both these missing factors could significantly reduce displacement. Using the “i-team” approach, we will draw on policies and programs from across the nation to see what works—and apply those lessons to LA.

What about the “delivery” part of the Innovation Delivery Team model? Isn’t Los Angeles slow to change and reluctant to embrace innovation?

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Yes and no. Certainly it’s a big and complex city. Yet in just a year and a half, the Garcetti Administration has clearly changed the conversation about can be accomplished. City leaders are much more focused now on results. We’re seeing the first successes—whether it’s improving the efficiency of our road repaving by 10% or reducing 311 call wait times by two-thirds or shaving emergency call handling times in the Fire Department by an average of 17 seconds. Performance management drives innovation—because improving our results requires improving our approach.

I don’t share the cynical view that transformative change is impossible in LA. Look at the long-term impact of Chief Bill Bratton’s leadership at the LAPD. His data-driven focus on driving down crime has led to LA becoming the safest big city in America. Our per capita crime rate hasn’t been this low since the Truman Administration. Look at what Hamid Behdad accomplished in implementing adaptive reuse—more than 15,000 units of housing created from commercial buildings that were sitting empty. That success sparked an even larger boom in new residential development in downtown.

Yes, LA is a big city, but we can do big things—and there is no bigger challenge than revitalizing neglected urban neighborhoods with private and public investment to improve the quality of life and standard of living for the people living there.

Does that mean a czar for urban revitalization?

No, the “i-team” approach is about teamwork—and again, we can all learn from Hamid Behdad’s collaborative success in leading the implementation of the adaptive reuse strategy. In Los Angeles, the key is coordination—getting a wide range of departments and stakeholders to work together for shared success.

Community policing, Great Streets, the Promise Zone—these programs are place-based—but our overall departmental structure is not. City government is responsible for public services across more than 400 square miles, populated by probably the most diverse demographics of any city on the planet today. It’s not easy to focus public, private and non-profit resources to foster great places—and ensure that neighborhood revitalization actually benefits the residents of a particular neighborhood. That’s the challenge that the “i-team” will tackle. So we’re looking for a leader whose passion will bring diverse people and programs together to achieve transformative results. I hope the right person for the job is reading this interview right now.

This is clearly a national dilemma. One research team concluded that the data shows that persistence and spread of poverty in inner cities remains a larger challenge than gentrification. Will you be looking at initiatives in other cities, including Mayor De Blasio’s push for a denser New York to promote more affordable housing?

We need to look at a wide range of alternative approaches to the opportunity of bringing new life to older neighborhoods. I’m particularly interested in looking at place-making that builds on local character and culture as well as micro-credit lending and other initiatives that promote entrepreneurship in the inner city. Boston is another of the new “i-team” cities and we are going to be working closely with them as they focus their efforts on making housing more affordable.

We live in exciting times. After more than half a century of urban disinvestment, we’re now seeing increasing momentum toward urban reinvestment. Cities are cool again—both economic and environmental advantages are driving this epochal change. Obviously we want to sustain the positive flow of people and capital back into urban areas. Yet creating truly sustainable cities will require us to sharpen our focus on equity. This is a time of great opportunity for cities—it’s our job to ensure it is truly a time of great opportunity for the people living in our cities. 

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.