July 30, 1991 - From the July, 1991 issue

TPR Interview with Ed Avila: Credibility Returns to the CRA

Ed Avila took over as Administra­tor of the Community Redevelopment Agency in March, following the con­troversial buyout of John Tuite’s con­tract. Avila, formerly Deputy Mayor and President of the Board of Public Works, has moved quickly to restore public and Council confidence in the Agency. 

The Planning Report interviewed Avila on his early efforts, and also sought comments from some of our subscribers on his performance and the Agency’s outlook. 

If you took a two-year outlook, what would be your changes and priori­ties for the CRA? 

First, we need to address image and message, how we project our­selves to the general public. That is where we’ve failed —  we have not communicated that the mission of the Agency is the elimination of blight. The second part would be communi­cation with the areas in which we operate. If we can get people to un­derstand that redevelopment relates directly to human services, to jobs, to housing, then we will have done our job.

I’m trying to get the Agency to a posture where it’s credible, where our initiatives are taken seriously. For an Agency like this, you have to think in terms of 20 years, not two years. In two years, you get the Agency turned around so that people recognize we’re credible, with serious business to accomplish.

We’ve got an excellent staff, with very competent, professional people here. But the morale has been bad.  We’ve got to get out of the bunker mentality. The people in the Agency have to feel free to express ideas, to show vision. On the cap issue, I’m urging people to think about the CBD in a visionary way. There will be some reorganization ahead, but I don’t yet know in what form, so I’m walking the hallways to sense the Agency, to understand how it operates.

Which areas of the city do you see as critical?

The historic core and Central City East are particularly critical areas. If we don’t fix the historic core, it will be the rotten piece of the apple. So we’re paying special attention to the Luby Building, the San Fernando Building, the Grand Central project, and the Bradbury Building. Hollywood is another primary issue. We have a tremendous opportunity there to create a redevelopment project that will flourish.

There are many difficult areas, as well, such as Watts. Last year, a virtual war almost occurred due to the lack of communication with residents. The Agency was not looked at as a people-friendly Agency — the focus was on the powers of the Agency rather than what those powers were intended to accomplish. If people understand eminent domain not as bulldozers, but as a way to revitalize their area, bring housing into their neighborhood, and improve their quality of life, then they’ll respond.

You’ve already mentioned the CBD cap. Are we about to see some movement on the cap issue?

This is a priority of mine. We’ve had the first meeting on the work program to develop what the cap means, developing a program and a justification for raising the cap. And we’re about to have several meetings in the Agency going over all of the issues on the cap. We’ll then go for some reality checks to Councilwoman Rita Walters, the Mayor’s office, and other key people to see if we’re going in the right direction.

The objective is for the City to reach some agreement by the end of the summer on why and to what level the cap should be raised. Then, we can talk to the County.

What progress has been made toward resolving the CRA’s Service Workers’ Policy?

The Service Workers Policy is far from complete. There was a recent decision in Northern California on prevailing wages which our attorneys are looking at to see how it affects our policy. The answer we’re getting back is that it doesn’t have a devastating impact, but it does have some impact. Dennis Luna is chairing our committee on the Policy, but we’re not close yet.

The Policy’s intent is to provide minimum living standards for low-wage workers. You really can’t be against that, so how do we accomplish it with all the various interests involved. People may all disagree  ultimately, but our policy will go forward. The other question is to what extent can you add exactions on the development community and still stimulate development. In this economy, that’s tough to answer.

Given the economy, are you still getting inquiries on new projects?

It’s slowed down dramatically. The projects currently on the books are coming in for extensions of one to two years. Financing is extremely difficult. So it’s very slow. The inquiries we get now are almost exclusively on housing projects, which is what we’re focusing on.

How have the new oversight procedures with the City Council, Controller, and City Attorney worked out?

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They’ve been consuming over the last few months. Most people don’t understand the enormous transition that’s occurring — with the Controller becoming the Controller of the Agency, the City Attorney becoming our General Counsel, and with the CAO and CLA’s new involvement. Right now, I’m having trouble managing because of the inherent difficulties associated with the transition. Having said that, I do accept these bumps as part of an adjustment to a new environment. I’m optimistic, but in the short-term it’s very difficult. 

How is the new CRA Board delegating its responsibilities and utilizing its new talent?

My experience with the new board is very positive. We now have certain kinds of expertise — Northern Emerson has brought transportation expertise, in Carlyle Hall we have a dedicated housing advocate, and Linda Griego has a good business sense and asks good questions about how deals are structured. So we have a solid board.

For readers looking at the chart of the CRA’s budget (see below), what does it say about the CRA’s changing priorities?

The important thing to look at is where the money’s going. The chart shows that only seven percent of our funds are spent on commercial development. I would wager that most people with a knowledge of redevelopment issues would put this category way up on top. I found that difficult to believe myself when I walked in here. The rest of our money, with the exception of financing, is spent on services.

I also like the chart because it demonstrates that it’s the development on the left (sources of revenue) that makes possible the housing, the transportation and the other quality of life improvements on the right (expenditures).

There has been a great deal of discussion lately about “joint development.” What does joint development mean for the CRA, especially in terms of cooperation with other public agencies?

The LACTC is looking at joint development projects that could serve our purposes in redevelopment areas. An example is the Hollywood project — how do we get LACTC and a potential developer in Hollywood to work together, for instance, on portals? Joint development could offset the potential cost to the Agency (through the participation of another public entity), it could offset the costs of the original development, and achieve public good. For LACTC, the benefits from joint development will help them maintain and operate their system in the future. It’s a brand new thing, and we want to see it work.

How have your previous experiences come to bear on this job and how’s your job satisfaction so far?

My previous experience in Public Works and the Mayor’s office has given me a knowledge of the City and an ability to relate to City departments that has proven critical at this point for the Agency.

My desire to provide first-class service to the public is critical in terms of respect in the development communities. And my knowledge of the various publics we deal with — the community, elected bodies, and so on — is important at this point in the Agency’s history. Ten or twenty years ago, the Agency may have needed somebody with a lot of redevelopment experience, but that’s not what the Agency needs today.

Management of people and getting them to do what’s necessary is critical and, I think, this is a forte of mine. If the staff is good, which it is, and I’m able to get them to do good work, then I don’t have to worry about that work.

I’m trying to absorb the terminologies, the DDA’s, the OPA’s and so on, but that’s minor. It’s a challenging experience, but I’m very excited about it. The Agency is here to take risks — a lot of people don’t understand that. We need to make things happen that won’t happen otherwise. So our success rate isn’t 100 percent. But even with all of the problems, when you look at the positive side of this Agency, there’s incredible potential for the future, as well as a reason for pride in its accomplishments of the past.

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