December 30, 1992 - From the December, 1992 issue

Calif. Redevelopment Agencies in the 1990s: A TPR Discussion

With the recent failure of the state emergency relief/revitalization bill (AB 394) and with heavy budget hits to redevelopment agencies around the region, what does the future hold for redevelopment? 

The Planning Report explored the state of redevelopment in the ‘90s at a recent lunch roundtable, excerpted here, with Ed Avila, Administrator of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and Mark Winogrond, Director of Redevelopment and Community Development in Culver City. They were joined by: redevelopment attorney Edward Dilkesof Wallin, Kress, Reisman, Price, and Dilkes; Jim Dawson, planning deputy to Los Angeles Councilwoman Joy Picus, and architect Clive Bridgwater, president of Bridgwater Associates, a multi-disciplinary design firm in Los Angeles.

Winogrond: Ward Connerly, a re-development attorney, was recently recounting a story that goes like this: The state’s falling apart, we’re in the depths of a recession, everybody’s fleeing the state, and there’s one device remaining under state law that’s creating jobs and bringing in revenue. Therefore, let’s club it over the head with a two by four. That’s what’s happening at the state level.

Having said that, I think the smaller redevelopment agencies are more than alive and well. They have honed their skills and exchanged their knowledge in a way that they can really get things done. Torrance, Glendale, Burbank, and Culver City are examples where, in the midst of the recession, things are happening. In Burbank, they’ve changed their entitlement process, they’re aggressive, and they’re competitive. Is there something that’s happened at the state level to damage that machine? Not yet. Is it an incredible target? I think so. 

Avila: The size of CRA/LA makes it difficult to forge a citywide economic strategy. The City’s recently put together an economic development task force with myself, and the directors of Planning, the Community Development Department, and the Housing Department. We’ve found, as many in the city already know, that the city has no strategy, no context for making economic decisions to revitalize its economic base. I’ve committed our agency to assisting the efforts of Councilman Marie Ridley-Thomas’ Community and Economic Development Committee in the formation of an economic strategic plan for the city and region. 

The issue of scale often inhibits our ability to focus our attention and resources. In L.A. we have 17 project areas, each of which is probably larger than all of Culver City. The problem with our size comes in trying to communicate to the entire city the value of the tools available to redevelopment agencies. We’ve been struggling with how to communicate to South Central, the Valley, and Pico-Union why it’s important to have a strong downtown economic base. 

Then there’s the diversity of L.A.’s communities. It does give us an incredible constituency — from low-income housing advocates in South Los Angeles to small business owners in North Hollywood and the Crenshaw area. The challenge for LA/CRA is to get diverse groups to come together around the issues of jobs and economic revitalization. I actually think that the decision makers haven’t caught up to the grass roots on redevelopment issues. In South Central, they want the employment that results from successful redevelopment projects. In Koreatown, they want a vibrant center, much like Little Tokyo, and they’re willing to fight to secure the tools that redevelopment offers. 

Winogrond: Los Angeles is not alone in lacking an economic strategy. The State has no economic strategy, and that’s an issue nationwide. That’s one reason Clinton was elected, because the nation realized it had no domestic economic development strategy. The irony is that small towns are creating them. 

TPR: Does the City Manager form of government make a difference in creating such a strategy? 

Winogrond: I don’t think so. What makes a difference is whether the small group of human beings that governs the city is willing to sit down as a group and realize they’re in charge together of making this place work. They first need to agree where they want to go and then test all of their day to day decisions against that shared vision. That normally happens only when things get so bad that people realize they have to do it: I fear that this could happen in Los Angeles. But without that commitment, Ed will always be facing difficult issues. 

Dilkes: The City Manager form of government does make a difference. Someone can pick up the phone and get all department heads to come to a meeting, and if they don’t, they won’t have a job the next day. 

Avila: We now live under an oversight ordinance that in effect means that the Council runs the CRA. Given the budget shortfalls facing the state and the city, getting 15 L.A. Council members together to sit down to discuss an economic strategy is difficult in today’s environment, when immediate fiscal issues seem more pressing. 

Dawson: Getting most of the 15 Council members and department heads around the table is the easy part — a Mayor could do this. But in the West San Fernando Valley there’s the bigger issue of public participation and constituency: most of our constituents don’t know what the CRA is, so you don’t have a base of support. You have to deal within the existing structure of 15 Council districts. You should become regionally-minded: have meetings in the Valley, bring the Board out there, and expand the Board to include Valley members. You have to develop a constituency for the agency and for an economic strategy for the entire city.

Avila: We’ve now embarked on that, working with everyone from grassroots activists and non-profit folks to the entrepreneurs who will have to make the investments if we are to create more jobs. This involves communicating the need, say, for a downtown — that it’s the hub of the Pacific Rim, that it provides jobs for the whole region, that the Convention Center is vital to the region’s economy. That’s the kind of connection that needs to be made if we’re to overcome the popular desire for short-term solutions as against long-term reinvestment in our economic future. 

Dawson: But that’s one-way communication — it sounds like you’re trying to force something down people’s throats. 

Avila: You’re right, and that’s not going to work. So that’s why we are sitting down with people in the Valley and other areas to listen to their needs. A City Legislative Analyst’s report recently recommended that the CRA be carved up and its staff sent to other city departments. It’s hard to believe that transferring our transportation functions to DOT and moving our planners to the Planning Department will improve the economic health of the city.

Dilkes: One of the things Los Angeles suffers from is its sheer size and diversity. One of the reasons the Centers Concept didn’t work as community planning was that when you went to the local level all you really did was agitate a diversity of interests that made action impossible. Culver City or Burbank have an effective redevelopment process because they’re small enough that a single­mindedness of purpose is possible. 

In Los Angeles, it’s size and diversity makes that nearly impossible. The only way to create a commitment to redevelopment is to show people that their neighborhood’s housing came from the Bunker Hill money, or that they work in a building developed in the CBD project.

Winogrond: One of the advantages of decentralization for smaller cities is that redevelopment is not truly an entity, it’s a process — a tool used by a collection of people to get them where they want to go. That’s part of what must be marketed, particularly in L.A. — that there’s this valuable process that people need to mobilize to protect. Don’t be stupid enough because you disagree with the agency to throw away this incredible tool. Then, to make the tool work, you need to decentralize the decision-making and focus on smaller areas. 

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TPR: What do we use these tools to do? Why are they so important, and what can they be used for in the ‘90s that can be helpful for key constituencies? 

Winogrond: First, it is the single most important source of affordable housing production, both because of state law and the lack of a federal role. Also, the fundamental tools of economic development are the fundamental tools of redevelopment — for instance, in protecting the existing industries and helping them to pick up additional land. Redevelopment can protect that industry. It becomes the integral tool of a successful economic development strategy. 

Dilkes: Redevelopment is the only tool I know that prevents the complete death of the job-creation capabilities of a municipality. Governmental entities, like all organisms, have a life-cycle of birth, growth, maturity and death. Redevelopment has the capacity of avoiding the latter stage because it can replan and recycle an entire section of a community to preserve or evolve an employment base. 

TPR: In the smaller cities, you focus in a laser-like fashion on a part of town or a particular industry. Doesn’t that require neighborhoods and commercial areas at a distance to buy into the notion of doing this to lift the tide for all? 

Winogrond: I don’t buy that. Redevelopment must be seen as a component of a collaborative economic development strategy where the agency uses tax-increment financing for a variety of programs: a commercial facade program, or building a parking structure to allow the reuse of older commercial buildings. What I do agree with is that agencies sometimes become too project-oriented: somebody comes to them and in classic government form they react to the project, rather than asking whether that’s the industry they want.

Dilkes: That exact strategy put the redevelopment agency in Huntington Park into default and has taken the city’s budget under with it. Most municipalities have used redevelopment as a means of subsidizing the general fund. They used the agency’s budget to pay for streets rather than using public works funding. That’s never happened in Los Angeles on the scale it’s happened in Culver City or South Gate. Most agencies have always thought they were an alternative funding source: Los Angeles’ agency hasn’t thought that. 

TPR: What inhibits the West Valley from seeing itself as part of the redevelopment agency’s activities in Los Angeles? 

Dawson: The CRA’s services could become like trash collection where, when you take a poll, people support it because the job gets done efficiently. But I just don’t think the toolbox is big enough to accommodate many areas of the city. 

In our district, we have healthy industries like Rocketdyne which may need to expand or provide additional parking and could perhaps use government help. Distressed older business districts could use readily available economic assistance. But right now the CRA doesn’t have all of those tools, so perhaps these should be expanded. The CRA also needs to become more regionally-minded. I’m always amazed how insulated the agency is — it’s always called “The Agency,” like the CIA. 

Avila: We’re working very hard on that kind of outreach now. But most elected officials are operating at a disadvantage because they have no economic strategy to refer to and don’t fully understand the constructive tools available through a redevelopment agency. I’ve been mailing out letters and arranging meetings with state legislators just to clear up the confusion about what we do and could do in response to the civil disturbances. 

Bridgwater: There’s a lack of understanding of how communities can incorporate this tool for their own benefit. No one’s speaking the language of the community so they feel inferior and are unwilling to participate. Redevelopment, I think we’d all agree, is an important component of a city maintaining its health as it goes through its life cycle, especially since Prop. 13. But how does a redevelopment agency use the right language to the community to make people understand that it’s in their best interest to continually reinvest. That’s not a South Central issue or a Bunker Hill issue, but it’s every street of every community — it’s critical to the life of the city. Somehow we have to get the verbiage right so we’re not communicating a foreign language to the grass-roots level. 

Dilkes: In communities other than Los Angeles, the biggest part of the redevelopment debate is that developers from out of town ride in on a horse and reap all of the benefits. Maybe the town got a Thrifty drug store out of it, but the local pharmacy is now closed, and Alexander Haagen’s making all of the money and is living somewhere else.

TPR: What is the prospect for groups such as those in the non-profit housing community to feel part ownership of this maintenance and reinvestment function?

Dilkes: I think there is a prospect for having a sense of involvement. The Coalition of Neighborhood Developers has initiated a community-based needs assessment in a portion of South Central. Sometimes it could be viewed more as a leaderless mob than a well-organized planning effort. The Agency should try to connect to that planning effort and help focus it, because it has the potential to bring about grassroots economic revitalization. The Agency is ideally suited to help bring that about. 

Avila: CRA/LA is going through a positive change, no question about it. For this change to produce successful outcomes requires public understanding and support. All of this requires a large two-way communications effort, a challenge which I accept.

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