December 30, 1989 - From the December, 1989 issue

John Tuite, CRA Administrator in the Spotlight

The cap, the TFAR ordinance, Council oversite, replacement housing… the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency has been in the spotlight all year on a range of land-use and development issues. The Planning Report recently met with John Tuite, the CRA's Administrator to discuss numerous CRA-related issues. Conducting the interview for TPR was Ron Galperin, a freelance journalist whose weekly column on commercial real estate can now be read in the Los Angeles Times Real Estate section.

With the recent creation of the Community Redevelopment and Housing Committee of the City Council, the CRA is experiencing increased oversite and criticism. How has the Agency reacted to this environment?

The City Council has always had the responsibility to oversee our agency, though they never exercised it to the point they are exercising it now. Currently we spend considerably more time with Council members discussing our goals which include very complicated programs and real estate strategies. It is indeed true that we've become the centerpiece of political exchange. We have to stand up to the scrutiny as well as the criticism and clearly show that we run an effective agency.

The last few years have been a difficult time for the City. I think we are in a transition from the productive economic boom of the 1970's and early 1980's. Since we are the economic development agency of the City who works with the private sector in the development of economically deteriorated neighborhoods, it is only to be expected that the challenges are going to confront us. But people don't realize that we work very effectively with eight City Council members who have projects with us. Council offices initiate projects, and we follow the strategy of the Council office.

It may not be obvious to the casual observer who concentrates on the on-camera exchanges in Council hearings, but we have long standing relationships with many Council offices. We presently have a work load of new projects that we have been asked to examine by Council offices. I am not finding a lack of confidence in the work the agency does by the City Council.

How have attacks on the agency affected you and your stuff?

One has to feel the sharpness and personal level of criticism, and I'm no exception. I feel we have responded to the job in a creative and effective way. Nobody's been able to convince the community that we haven’t done an excellent job. Often we receive criticism because we are in the middle of a dynamic process. We're criticized for being out of control on one hand while developers attack us for being overly demanding. We have to look at both sides to decide if we are fairly and accurately representing the City's interests. Under my administration, the Agency staff has been cut by 10 percent while at the same time taking on Hollywood redevelopment, planning and design near Union Station and an expanded Watts study area. That speaks to higher productivity. I don’t hear people talk about compliments given by the community—they don't create headlines. Staffers are doing their job very professionally despite the grief dished out to them. The controversies have created a certain level of anxiousness at the Agency, but it has not affected performance.

Is major change at the Agency inevitable?

I see the focus of the City Council being accountability and not re-missioning. Our job is to be accountable and to communicate effectively. I wish for some certainties for downtown developers over the next 10 years. This limbo period has everyone up in the air. I think we will probably have to sweat it out for the next 1 ½ years.

The City Council will continue to hammer out our role and responsibility, and it is my hope that not only will the Redevelopment and Housing Committee better understand our job, but the Council overall will feel more secure with our policies.

The City Council is currently studying the TFAR ordinance. Some critics say that the concept of TFAR essentially creates very thick cluster, of development and encourages owners, of lesser development parcels to sell their density to built out areas.

I think that the plan itself responds to a plan which is designed to cluster growth around transportation lines. The greatest density in the redevelopment plan is around the Metro Rail and Light Rail stations. Within 1500 feet of a transit station, the FAR is 13: l. In the next ring, the plan calls for 10:1, and beyond that 6:1.

The TFAR strategy removes density from historic buildings which could not develop any more but provides owners the money to rehabilitate those historic structures. It's a process that benefits not only the redevelopment plan where you are clustering growth but it also feeds money back into the historic area that otherwise would not have a source for funding.

The CRA wants to redevelop South Park and create a housing community. The land prices in this are between $100 and $120 per square foot. Those prices make affordable housing very difficult without heavy subsidies.

The concept of South Park as a residential community has been at the heart of the redevelopment plan since the early 1970's. The whole issue of a job/housing balance means that we have to create pockets of housing near office space or we will have the uneven growth seen in crazy new cities where everybody leaves at 5:00 a.m.

As part of the strategy, the Planning Department downzoned much of the property in South Park in order to emphasize residential development. Interestingly enough, the property did not immediately devalue and probably will not for several years. In the meantime, if it takes subsidy to create a residential neighborhood, it's money well-spent.

The goal is so important for a job/housing balance, better air quality and for creating a community that has people circulating at night as well as during the day. If it costs money, it's a good investment.

What income housing do you anticipate for South Park?

You have to realize that South Park is not a housing strategy, it's a redevelopment strategy. We want to build a quality downtown that involves people living downtown who work downtown. But this is not an exclusionary policy, and we will move in both directions at the same time.

We have already rehabilitated over 700 units of low and moderate income housing while building 900 units of new housing with 15-30% of inclusionary housing. We're looking for housing at all levels, not creating a ghetto for either low-income or high-income housing.

Some critics say that with Bunker Hill and the Convention Center, the CRA has removed as many affordable housing units as it has built.

I think it's important for people to realize that the strategy of Bunker Hill was the strategy of the City of Los Angeles in the 1950's. Bunker Hill was a slum; 80% of the housing units were on the health department's hit list—this was not a swell neighborhood. It was a neighborhood that had been deteriorating, as early as the 1930's. Urban renewal in the 1950's is quite different than it is today. That strategy of the bulldozer is by and large not used anymore. 35 years ago these housing units were taken down. When the redevelopment process began to replace units, we have not only replaced more units than were taken down, we have also replaced more units than were taken down in Bunker Hill.

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As far as the Convention Center is concerned, we have relocated every family—many of whom were living in substandard housing—into decent, safe and sanitary housing. We found out that many were living 4 or 5 families in a 2 bedroom flat. Each one of those was moved by law and assisted with rent.

We ultimately replaced more units than we demolished. That process goes on all the time. Our housing and relocation record is second to none, and any critics are basically trying to criticize us or they really do not know what they are talking about. Our record on housing is sterling and certainly beyond anyone else's record.

There currently exists a great inequity downtown between anticipated fees and parking requirements for the Central City and Central City West. How will this impact the development of downtown?

I think that what must be the agenda for Los Angeles is the greater Downtown. We need to plan well beyond the CBD's redevelopment project. We have to look at issues of the Union Station annex area, City North as the Planning Commission is calling it, City West., the Figueroa corridor leading down to USC, City East, with its manufacturing and industrial base, the historic district, and the linkages of Chinatown, Little Tokyo and Bunker Hill.

Unless we look at the greater downtown, we are going to make some mistakes of emphasis and priority. We have to do this planning, and the emphasis should be how it all links together and what kinds of public funds are going to be required.

Do developers know what to expect from the agency?

What we have to offer to developers and what we owe them is some stability to count on. Currently we are in a very rocky period, a transition period between a building and a stepping back period to see where we want to go next. When developers say they don't know what's going to come next and what fees will be charged, I think they criticize us properly. I think we owe it to the development community since developers risk a considerable economic investment and we count on them to contribute to the city as a reasonable partner. But, we're in a transition period—it's a difficult time now.

Should there be fundamental changes at the Agency?

I don 't think so. Our recommendations are well thought out and approved by the Council. That would not have happened if we were out of step with the Council. Our budget has been approved by the Council every year—by and large without question. In this time of transition, the Council finds the community demanding that it scrutinize more than ever before every major transaction and land disposition agreement. There are years of history in all of our budgets. No budget stands by itself, but relates to put and present. Over a period of time it will become more easily understood by the Council and the review process will get easier.

How do you propose to deal with the cap issue?

One strategy is to try and negotiate with the other taxing districts to raise the cap. The other option is to look at “greater downtown.” Such a strategy would allow redefinition of the area controlled by the cap. I feel comfortable with either strategy.

Redevelopment is a very complex process and many people don’t understand how decisions get made. There are many people with particular needs and agendas who have lost their former funding resources, and they would like to get their hold on tax-increment funding. They believe their priorities are of greater importance than rebuilding the city.

What role would South Park and USC play in creating a greater downtown?

USC is terribly important to the city and the university has started linking itself more and more to the city center.

The growth of South Park and a nearby Enterprise Zone will hopefully encourage high-tech-related businesses to develop. Such a corridor then becomes a possible place over the years for important commercial development to take place.

Is the CRA best suited to provide low-and moderate-income housing in the city?

For several years, there were few funds available for such housing production except through the Bunker Hill Trust Fund. It is most appropriate that the dynamic commercial development in the city should pay for low-and moderate-income housing. And, we at the Agency have an excellent track record on the issue. A Housing Production Department would make sense, however, if a housing development pool were created with tax-exempt bonds.

Any regrets as Agency Administrator?

You are asking me to hang myself. I can't think of anything I regret except the long period of time it has taken us to get an acceptable TFAR strategy.

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