June 30, 1991 - From the June, 1991 issue

TPR Interview: Dennis Luna on the New, Improved CRA

The Community Redevelopment Agency’s Board has been in the spot­light recently with the appointment of Linda Griego as a new member and with recent action on the CRA’s Service Worker Policy and the Simon Hollywood Promenade project. The Planning Report therefore sought perspectives from the first of the “new wave” of Commissioners — Dennis Luna

Luna, a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Baker and Hostetler, McCutchen, Black, has served on the CRA’s Board since 1989 and is Chairman of the CRA’s Project Review Committee. He previously served five years as a commissioner for the Recreation and Parks Department and three years as an alternate on the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission. 

Since you joined the CRA’s Board in 1989, in what ways have the priori­ties of the CRA’s Board changed, apart from the well-publicized new emphasis on affordable housing? 

It’s true that we’ve had a major shift toward affordable housing. But one of the larger shifts is that we now look at the policy context for our decisions. Starting around two years ago we started paying more attention to how individual projects fit into our overall direction and our goals. 

The Downtown Strategic Plan is an effort in that direction. We’ve adopted an investment policy. We’ve spent a year adopting a housing policy that was recently approved and sent to the City Council. And I’m presently chairing our committee on the Service Workers Policy. So there’s been a shift from focusing on specific projects to assessing those projects in a broader policy context — and we’ve made an increased effort to bring more people into the process.

What have you learned from chairing the hearings on the Service Workers Policy? 

With respect to the Service Workers Policy, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such strong support from people who work for a wage, and from organizations that work with them. But there are those in the busi­ness community who feel just as strongly the other way. At our first meeting, the Central City Association said it wanted to make the policy work, and suggested that we put to­gether a working group similar to that used for TFAR. The Committee ap­pointed Ed Avila, the Administrator of the Agency, to put together a team. 

On TFAR, the development com­munity said, “we’re paying too much money but we’re satisfied” and the users of the funds (preservationists, social service agencies and so forth) said “we don’t feel like we’re getting enough money, but we’re satisfied.” That’s the kind of outcome we’re looking for. We told the Administra­tor that we’d like to have the whole process completed by mid-June.

What is your personal view on the policy?

Our charter says: “remove blight and create genuine employment op­portunities.” In the past we’ve fo­cused on blight removal, but “genuine employment opportunities” probably weren’t given as much attention. If these are our instructions from the State Legislature, then we need to ask, is it fair to consider the quality of jobs generated as a result of the devel­opment? In my view, the answer is yes, and that is why I’m the chair of this committee.

What will resolving the TFAR policy mean for the City and for development downtown? 

The value of TFAR is to have certainty. Over the last four years, without a formal policy adopted by the City Council, we’ve had uncer­tainty. It will be an issue that’s finally resolved, after many years of discus­sions. It was more than a year be­tween adoption by the Commission and City Council approval.

On Hollywood Redevelopment, do you consider the agreement on the Simon Hollywood Promenade project to be an appropriate use of CRA funds? 

The Court of Appeals recently ruled that the Hollywood CRA was properly formed. As a result of the lawsuit, the tax increment money ac­cruing in Hollywood — about $14 million — has been set aside in escrow. With respect to the Simon project, the issue is whether this project will be a catalyst in attracting other money to Hollywood without additional tax increment. The eco­nomics of the project are such that it will be financed by tax increment from the project itself, plus some of the $14 million. 

If you look at Figueroa down­town, the CRA hasn’t put any money there in years because the process has become market-driven. You make in­vestments so that your second invest­ment, if it is necessary, is for consid­erably less, and then the private sec­tor sees the wisdom of investing, too. 

But does it only take one project to prime the pump? Does the CRA have all its eggs in one project?

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There does have to be a balance between commercial development and some of our other pressing social needs. New thinking could emerge as a result of a staff study on the use of tax increment here, but sometimes a dramatic investment is the most ef­fective long-term economic decision. 

What has the combination of a new administrator and a new composi­tion of the Board meant for the agency’s priorities? 

Ed Avila, our new Administrator, is a proven manager, both at the Mayor’s Office and in Public Works. In my judgment he’s doing an excel­lent job of rebuilding the confidence of the staff in the Administrator, in reaching out to the housing, social service and business communities, and basically giving people more confidence that the Agency will be run efficiently. He has also shown that he will be accessible and open. 

The new commissioners, — my­self, Carlyle Hall, Larry Kirk (who just resigned) and Norm Emerson — are all very interested in policy con­text. We also bring different perspec­tives and personal interests which are complementary. 

Mr. Hall brings a great interest in housing issues and the environmental review process. Mr. Emerson is al­ways looking for the context of issues and he also has a strong transporta­tion background, so he looks at the relationship between urban planning issues and transportation planning. 

These skills are critical to the kind of policy direction — more ho­listic in nature — that we are pursu­ing. Our more senior members provide history, experience, and practi­cal grounding. It’s a healthy balance. 

What are your own particular per­spectives? 

Personally, my interest is in job creation and economic development. The CRA ought to be reaching out to the business community on economic development issues. When Lockheed recently went to Georgia, it was Georgia’s win and Southern California’s loss. When I go around in the community and ask what the CRA should be doing,people respond with, “jobs and housing,” not only in rental housing but also in terms of first-time home ownership. 

When we review our budget, we need to ask, “what should CRA’s general focus be?” In my view it should be economic development and job creation, and that should include affordable housing. With respect to jobs, our service workers policy fits into that. 

I bring a perspective of someone who was born and raised here. I care about this city and believe we need to use all the tools we can muster to make our neighborhoods thrive and our city succeed for everyone. As a lawyer who practices business law. I bring an understanding of business issues. I’m interested in results, so I’m very sensitive to criticisms that the CRA is too bureaucratic and bogged down, because I know that time is money. 

Finally, a pet project of mine is Angel’s Flight, which I want back a lot sooner rather than later. 

As the “old new” member of the CRA Board, what have you had to contend with? What does it mean for someone in the practice of law to take on this responsibility? 

The scope of the issues that the CRA handles is much broader than most people realize. Being a CRA commissioner is like taking on a sec­ond job. You basically have to elimi­nate your free time — it’s approxi­mately 15 hours a week. In that regard. I have much more respect for the commissioners who have spent many years doing this, because it is a tremendous responsibility.

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