April 30, 1991 - From the April, 1991 issue

“The Stealth Agency:” TPR Luncheon Panel Demystifies LA’s CRA

At the March 7 luncheon sym­posium sponsored by The Planning Report on the topic of the Commu­nity Redevelopment Agency, the phrase most often heard was: “the need for a vision.” One after another on the panel — including Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky, lawyer Dan Garcia, CRA board member Carlyle Hall, Lincoln Property’s Mike Sondermann and Central City Association Presi­dent Jim Hunter — emphasized the need for the CRA to redefine its mission, regain its focus and achieve a coherent vision of its future role in Los Angeles’ development. Leon Whiteson, an architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times and a Contributing Editor of The Planning Report, shares the panel's responses here.

The Stealth Agency 

“The character of the agency is changing,” Hunter said. “The former emphasis on the commercial devel­opment of the Central Business Dis­trict is evolving into a broader and more complex role.”

Hall agreed that the CRA has failed to articulate its mission, ap­pearing so unfocused that many call it “the Stealth Agency.” “It can be ac­cused of a certain lack of candor,” Hall admitted, criticizing the CRA for its obsession with secretive deal-making. 

Yaroslavsky was considerably less polite. “The CRA is bloated and misdirected,” he declared. “In fact, we might ask ourselves if we need it any more, if the moneys it appropri­ates from its tax-increment privileges are really well used, particularly in a time of budget crisis.” As an example of the agency’s “bungling,” Yaroslavsky cited the ill-fated hous­ing development at Franklin-La Brea in Hollywood, where the CRA failed to meet deadlines for federal funds. “At the very least, the CRA needs a real change of leadership, especially after the recent debacle with (former Administrator) John Tuite.”

The Politics of Redevelopment 

Since the role of the CRA is inherently political, the perception of its responsiveness to public priorities is crucial. “Presently, the perception is that the agency is not a teamplayer,” said Garcia. “There is a widespread suspicion about its priorities from a broad spectrum of interests and opin­ions.”

While several panelists urged the CRA to repair its critical relationship with the City Council, which now exercises more oversight over the agency, Yaroslavsky warned that simply replacing Tuite with Acting Administrator Ed Avila would not remedy some basic conflicts. “Ed’s a nice guy, and we all respect him, but getting along with the Council should not be the CRA’s main concern.” Even some friction between the two could be fruitful, if it came about over real issues. 

Several panelists criticized the CRA for its bureaucratic inefficiency and general unresponsiveness, evi­denced in its seeming inability to create an effective policy for afford­able housing. 

The staff is confused and often obstructionist, several panelists observed. Sondermann, who has dealt repeatedly with the CRA over development projects, bluntly characterized the agency as “reactionary.”

Conflicting Directions 

Garcia commented that the cur­rent condition of the CRA is a symptom of the general lack of con­sensus about the city’s direction. In this confusion, the CRA has concentrated on making deals to the exclu­sion of any real policy. “This floating crap game must end," he said force­fully. 

Hunter observed a conflict within the Agency between the CRA staff and the Agency board. Hall agreed and pointed to the Agency's failure to revitalize Spring Street or create a viable residential community in South Park as a result of this lack of common purpose within the CRA itself. 


The Planning Report’s pub­lisher, David Abel, asked whether the Council’s new detailed oversight powers over the agency’s operations would simply complicate the process by adding another layer of bureau­cracy. 

“We aren’t thrilled with the present oversight package,” Yaroslavsky replied. “But it does en­sure that the CRA will, finally, be­come a city agency.” 

In theory, the Planning Department is supposed to develop large-scale plans for Los Angeles, while the CRA’s role should be to implement such plans. However, in the context of the paralysis within the Planning Depart­ment, and its vulnerability to political pressure from each of the fifteen Council members, the CRA has in fact been more of a planning agency than the Planning Department itself. 

The Central Business District and the proposed Hollywood redevelop­ment project are the prime examples of the CRA’s de facto planning role. In this context, if the CRA is brought to heel, will the last vestiges of large scale planning vanish from Los An­geles? 

The answer to this was confused. Hall worried that the CRA was still obsessed with the idea that ‘big is beautiful’ in its planning strategies. 

Lobbyist Art Snyder worried that the CRA might “change from one wrong direction to another,” by dis­couraging downtown development, and noted that commercial development in the Central Business District is seen as a ‘milk cow’ for everything from affordable housing to art programs. 

While Yaroslavsky insisted on the need to plan for affordable hous­ing downtown, Snyder worried the area could become “a concentration camp for poor people.”


Respondents' Comments 

Summing up, Gerry Hertzberg, aide to former Councilwoman and current County Supervisor Gloria Molina, emphasized that commercial and residential development were in­terdependent. The city needs to cre­ate socially and economically balanced communities, such as the proposed Central City West, Hertzberg said. 

Gil Ray of O’Melveny and Myers said that the city needs a CRA, but a CRA that understands its mission in the coming decades. Returning to the symposium’s central issue, Ray said, “We have to ask the vital question whose vision is it?”


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