May 30, 1991 - From the May, 1991 issue

Neil Peterson: LACTC’s Emerging Role in Real Estate Development

With a huge infusion of funds from last year’s Proposition 111 and Proposition C and with a new mandate to tie development to transportation planning through Proposition 111’s Congestion Management Program (CMP), the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) is reshaping planning and land-use policy in Los Angeles County. For insights into what lies ahead for LACTC and how it will affect planning and development, The Planning Report interviewed Neil Peterson, the Commission’s Executive Director.


"One thing is certain:... the Valley wants rail and it's going to get rail." — Neil Peterson

Why should our readers who are in the development community care about what’s happening at the LACTC?

I think what’s happening here is probably the best kept secret in Los Angeles. Over the next 30 years there’s going to be a $160 billion public investment in the transportation systems of Los Angeles County, an investment that’s unparalleled in this country. That’s obviously going to have tremendous spin-off benefits in the private development community. The issue now is to get the development community to understand what we’re doing and to believe that it’s real.

For those who don’t follow transportation issues regularly, what distinguishes LACTC from the Rail Construction Corporation (RCC), RTD, and other transportation agencies?

Our mission, which is unique in the nation, is to improve mobility regardless of transportation mode. Various agencies provide transportation services — such as Caltrans on state highways, the county road department, 88 city street departments, bus services and so on. But the public doesn’t care whether they’re on a city street or state highway. Our job is to make all of those components work for the traveling public — we view the traveling public as our customers.

The Rail Construction Corporation (RCC), activated in 1989 as a subsidiary of the LACTC, manages the design and construction of the Metro Rail System. A seven-member board (separate from LACTC’s 11-member board) presides over the RCC and is composed of citizens appointed by the LACTC and the Southern California Rapid Transit District, operator of the bus and rail systems.

When you substitute Gloria Molina for Pete Schabarum on the Board of Supervisors and on your Commission, how does that affect your policies?

What’s striking is that there’s a political consensus on transportation that spans the entire political spectrum. On our board and in this county we’ve got the entire political landscape, yet on transportation we have a consensus on what needs to be done, and on how to do it. The political leadership is merely asking if we can do it faster.

What will the Congestion Management Plan mean to the development community?

The honest answer is that nobody statewide knows at this point the full implications of the Congestion Management Plan for the development community. Our primary effort right now is to reach out to the development community and to cities state­wide for input on how we should implement the goals in the state legislation. The contact person at LACTC for the CMP is Brad McAllester. If you can’t get through to Brad, call Jody Feerst.

The most important implication is that there will now be a recognition of the transportation impact of any development. We’ll be working with the cities in approving their plans that detail how they’re going to mitigate any development. If they don’t have a mitigation plan that’s adequate, then we’re going to have to work with them to bolster that effort.

The biggest fear I’ve heard about the CMP in the private sector is that the LACTC is going to become like the AQMD — another layer, another checkoff in the process. How are you going to avoid this?

That’s our biggest fear too, and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen. Under the CMP, the development community will work directly with the cities as they do now — the cities will continue to be the land-use decision-makers. We will play a role in providing options for developers on how they can mitigate problems, allowing them to complete their project yet still improve the regional transportation picture. There’s a potential for a “win-win” here.

We want to avoid creating a bureaucracy — we’re assuming we’ll need six staff people to manage this program. That’s a far cry from 1,000 people at AQMD. The program will be administered largely at the city level. We do have power — if the deficiency plan is not adequate, we can reject it — but we prefer to work with the city to make it right rather than withhold funding.

How do you maximize the benefits of your $160 billion investment in the region? LACTC has been criticized for failing to do adequate land-use planning around the transit stations and for being slow to create a program and staff for joint development. How do you respond?

I think that’s a fair criticism, but we’ll be seeing a new approach soon because we’re close to having the right kind of staff person on board and we’ll be more aggressive in this area. In addition, we have three standing committees and just announced the formation of a fourth committee for joint development. We realize the potential impact we could have around these station sites — we see this investment as a way of reshaping this community. The frustration I have is just the opposite — I don’t think there’s a realization in this region of the amount of activity going on.

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Those who do realize it, such as Michael Woo, have called this 1987 planning for a 2030 endeavor. For example, it’s been said that your locations for station portals have no relation to where people will be, or on maximizing your investment for the next century.

You’ve got to remember that the main issue when I arrived here was the cost overruns and delays on the Metro Red Line. So our initial thrust was to get the system built on time and on budget. We had to reorganize construction, bringing it out of RTD and creating a separate subsidiary, the RCC. And there’s no question about it, we’ve had to downsize the stations to save money and stay on schedule. But we can deal with Mike’s point on a longer-term basis — we can plan later for a second portal.

But where’s the energy and the political process behind the master planning of these stations? Aren’t the engineering and the construction driving the planning?

It’s not the answer you want to hear, but I think that’s right. Not only has the private sector not fully understood what’s happening, neither has the public political process. If there was any political pressure in this city over the last several years, it was not to develop near the stations. Now people are waking up and saying, hey, there’s an opportunity here.

Is it too late?

No. We’re looking at a second stage of development. We’re master planning every station now for the future, and we plan to come back with a proposal to do more with those stations later. But I also have to get transportation in place by a given date. I’m not going to go out and say we’ll have a three-year delay so we can redo a station. I understand it’s a hundred-year investment, but people are crying out for transportation yesterday. So I think it’s possible to capture the value of these stations in the future, but you’ve made a fair criticism of the past.

What is the future of mass transit in the San Fernando Valley?

One thing is certain: the Valley is going to get rail. We’re going through the Cahuenga Pass to Universal City and then we’re going west, either on the freeway median with a monorail or maglev technology or with a subway on the Burbank/Chandler right-of-way. I was told when I arrived that the Valley doesn’t know what it wants, that the Valley doesn’t want rail. The Valley wants rail and it's going to get rail.

We’re now at a very secondary stage, determining the best way to go east-west. We’ll evaluate that on its merits and have a decision within nine months.

And what will be the preferred rail route to the West Side?

There are better places to put transit lines than others, but you also have to look at the political realities. We’re now taking the planning work and meshing it with the political side to make things happen. It’s not a question in West L.A. of what’s the best route.

We’ve let the contract to go out Wilshire to Western, and we’re negotiating with the federal government to go two stations further, dipping south to Crenshaw and Pico and San Vicente to avoid the methane gas area. Now we’re looking at whether to go across Pico or go back up to Wilshire through Beverly Hills to Westwood, and that study is underway.

Finally, putting aside the mobility benefits of your work, do you have a vision of how rail lines will physically transform Los Angeles in terms of densities or the realization of the city’s “centers” concept?

I think the centers concept and densities in Los Angeles aren’t concepts, they’re realities. I’m constantly struck by the densities we have in L.A. County in towns like Downey and Paramount. Even though you see two-and three-story buildings everywhere, we have densities greater than anywhere else in the United States except Manhattan. The densities and the centers are here. Our job is to make all of those centers work and connect, so that in getting from one to another, you can give people reasonable options.

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