June 19, 2016 - From the June, 2016 issue

Recognizing Kent Smith’s Successful Leadership of LA’s Fashion District BID—TPR Exit Interview

Over the last 20 years, the Fashion District in Downtown Los Angeles has contributed materially to a impressive renaissance. Much of this urban renaissance was spurred, or at least facilitated, by Kent Smith's leadership. TPR is pleased to present this exit interview of Kent Smith, Executive Director of the Fashion District BID for the last 17 years, in which he addresses how both LA’s first BID has contributed to downtown’s growing economic and social vitality, as well as to the adoption of like BID’s globally. This is part one of a two-part interview with Smith. 


Kent Smith

“One of the great things about BIDs is that they reflect the needs and desires of the neighborhood that they evolve from and grow up in… The challenge for every BID is finding that collective vision that allows you to do programs and services for the benefit of everybody." -Kent Smith

The Fashion District BID—the first in Downtown Los Angeles—is now 20 years old. You’ve been involved for 17 of those years. Describe how the BID has evolved since we last interviewed you in 2003.

Kent Smith: When I started back in 1999, the BID was pretty much solidly commercial. Aside from Santee Alley, it was pretty much a wholesale area—mostly 9 to 5, still a lot of manufacturing going on in the upper floors. Now it’s become a more mixed-use, walkable neighborhood that’s an integral part of Downtown LA.

Some big changes have been the addition of many more residents into the neighborhood, as well as the introduction of evening uses. A lot of buildings that were vacant or underutilized have been repurposed, and are now making the Fashion District a really vibrant and exciting neighborhood.

What, for clarity, is a BID? What is the motivating goal and how does it function?

We’re proud of the fact that we’re the first property-based Business Improvement District, which means that property owners—through the property tax system—fund the assessments. 

BIDs are great mechanisms for putting together a large number of independently owned parcels to develop common programs and services that benefit the whole neighborhood. Property owners control how those activities are carried out through the Board.

The BID sunsets, in our case, every five years, and we go through a grassroots approval system to renew it. We’ve been through four renewals; in our last one, we had support from more than 85 percent of property owners. 

What services now offered by the Fashion District BID differ from what was promised when established two decades ago?

When we started, we were an 18-block pilot project. There hadn’t been a BID in Los Angeles, and we had to show people what we could accomplish. That pilot has since blossomed into a 100-block BID comprising more than 1,000 property owners.

We are still fundamentally purposed on what I call “clean and safe” programs, which I believe are the foundation for the revitalization of any neighborhood.

We also have marketing and economic development programs, which collectively help put the neighborhood’s best foot forward. 

The vibrancy of Downtown is now a matter of lore across the country. But for some who live in DTLA and have watched its evolution, it’s almost as if no one’s in charge in the city. The City of LA is structurally bankrupt; public accountability is quite diffuse; elected officials seem to often to be running for the next office because of term limits. As a long time BID leader, how do you best partner with local government to improve service delivery?

When I first came here, people would say: “The city has no center. Downtown is hopeless. I never want to go there.” That has completely changed, and Downtown is now seen as one of the most attractive parts of the city. That’s thanks to the efforts of a lot of people—primarily in the private sector, but the public sector also played a key role in some things.

Early on, we took up the idea of reusing industrial buildings that had been vacant for decades. The adaptive reuse ordinance played an important role in our district and many of the historic areas of Downtown.

The non-profit sector also had a big role. Our BID applied jointly with the LA Conservancy for a Getty Foundation grant to develop design guidelines for future development, especially on Broadway and Spring Street. At the time people were saying, “What are you doing this for? There is no future development.” But those design guidelines were subsequently adopted by the city, and won an award from California Preservation Association and the Los Angeles Business Council. I was very proud of that.

The design guidelines did a couple things. First, they set a framework for future development. And because the BIDs were involved, we were able to show property owners that historic buildings that have character are of real value—not something to complain about and try to get rid of, but something to actually make use of.

Obviously, there were some developers, such as Ira Yellin, who understood this. But the Conservancy really made a lot of other owners aware. They did a pro bono survey of all the buildings, which included a number of buildings in our district, to show that those buildings were convertible to residential. I believe that every one of those buildings has now been converted.

That kind of partnership—the public sector getting the ordinance in place, and the nonprofit groups—really has made a huge difference in Downtown.

How has the BID engaged seriously with the issue of homelessness in Downtown LA, which clearly impacts business and property interests as well as being a social justice issue? 

Homelessness has always been one of the tragic issues of Los Angeles. When I first moved here, it was a bit of a shock to see the number of people that are on the street, especially traveling on streets like San Julian, San Pedro, and Wall, north of 7th Street. It’s been a troublesome issue, in terms of understanding how complicated it is to try to make some type of change there.

One of the challenges in Los Angeles is that the county and the city each have different roles in trying to address homelessness. In the past, they’ve even been in adversarial situations.

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We’ve looked at how business has approached the issue in other cities. The business community has a role to play, certainly on the leadership side, to try to make politicians and bureaucrats see the people living on the street as being a priority.

The Chamber of Commerce, led by Gary Toebben, is leading that effort in partnership with United Way, led by Elise Buik. They’re taking a look at what we can do as a community to address homelessness. Many of the things that the county and city have recently adopted come out of the Home for Good report, which we were on the task force to help prepare a couple years ago. 

With the way local government is funded today, are cities and counties capable of providing the level of services that a property owner expects?

Local governments are struggling to finance many of the programs and services that, in the past, were fairly easily delivered—especially in California, where infrastructure that was installed 50 or 100 years ago is coming due. It is challenging for the public sector to perform all the services needed to maintain a great neighborhood and a great quality of life.

BIDs give local government the ability to partner with the private sector to provide programs and services that are priorities of those people that are paying the assessments. 99 percent of those programs and services are spent on the streets and sidewalks of the neighborhood, and everybody gets the benefit. It’s been a successful model in taking a neighborhood that’s okay, and making it really exciting.

The Flower District is one example. When I came here, there were two flower markets that were both relatively inward-looking. Now there are 100 retail flower related businesses that have located on the streets surrounding the markets and many successful merchants are ground-floor and oriented to the street.  This creates much more walkable streets that everybody wants to have in their community. When Mother’s Day—the biggest day in the flower market—went by, those retailers were able to see double-digit sales increases.

In every neighborhood, somebody’s got to pick up the trash (and we pick up more than six tons of trash every single day), deal with the graffiti, trim the trees, and make sure the sidewalks are swept and washed—all the little things that need to be done in a neighborhood. We’re trying to be the people who find ways to say yes to doing things, as opposed to saying no. 

There was some controversy a few years involving Downtown LA Arts District BID related to the role and responsibilities that are appropriate or inappropriate for a BID to undertake. Did that controversy have ripple effects for other BIDs? What lessons were learned? 

One of the great things about BIDs is that they reflect the needs and desires of the neighborhood that they evolve from and grow up in.

What we see is that property owners are independent, entrepreneurial, and competitive people. Not everybody shares the same views about their neighborhood and where they see it going. The challenge for every BID is finding that collective vision that allows you to do programs and services for the benefit of everybody, and yet respecting differences of opinion which in the case of the Arts District was about the future of the neighborhood.

Some of those differences are quite healthy. BIDs don’t always have to have one shared view for the future of your neighborhood. Part of it is allowing some of those differences to coexist. 

You’ve personally engaged internationally, nationally at the state level with BID issues. Share what’s BID’s are accomplishing elsewhere.

What we’ve seen, certainly in the California context, is the creation of many more BIDs—now in the hundreds statewide. If there’s a successful commercial or mixed-use area, there’s probably a BID around it.

In California and beyond, we’ve succeeded in telling the story of what BIDs are able to accomplish. For instance, RAND did a study in California looking at the role BIDs have played in the reduction of crime. In places like New York City, as well, BIDs have played a huge role in crime reduction and making people feel comfortable in their neighborhoods—which becomes the economic foundation for the renaissance that many Downtowns have seen across the United States and beyond.

We’re seeing BIDs materialize now in places like Manchester, Edinburgh, and even in Turin, Italy, making a real difference in the quality of life for the people that live there and use the district. 

After 17 years with the BID, you’ve announced that you’ll be leaving. What are you considering doing after this successful job?

I’m blessed: I’ve got a great team that’s helped provide great programs and services in the neighborhood. We have a great Board of Directors elected by the property owners, who represent the diversity of the district. They have been great representatives of those owners in the past and will continue to be going into the future.

I’ve taken the BID where I think I can take it; it’s time for someone else to take the reins. There’s a bit of serenity there in handing that off. I want to take some time to reflect and recharge.

I recently got married. My wife works at Stanford, up in Palo Alto. She’s looking forward to me spending a little bit more time in Northern California. But I can honestly I say I love the city of Los Angeles, and I love Downtown Los Angeles. I love the Fashion District. And when I say that, I’m really talking about the people. I’m going to miss that if I spend all my time in Northern California. 

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