March 30, 1993 - From the March, 1993 issue

TPR Luncheon: Woo, Wachs & Panelists on Economic Renewal

“Shaping a New City: Planning Issues Facing the Next Mayor of Los Angeles” — a Planning Report luncheon series — began on February 12th with a session that emphasized economic development and the structure of city government. 

Each of The Planning Report’s three luncheon seminars feature not only two mayoral candidates, but also other expert panelists who raise key issues and help focus the debate. 

The February luncheon on “The Rebuilding Process and Redevelopment in Los Angeles” boasted two of the mayoral front-runners — Council members Michael Woo and Joel Wachs —along with Nelson Rising (partner in Maguire Thomas Partners), Dan Garcia (Vice-President of Real Estate at Warner Bros. and former President of the L.A. City Planning Commission), and Jackie Dupont-Walker (of RLA and the Ward Economic Development Corporation), and moderator David Abel, publisher of The Planning Report.

By Kenneth Bernstein, Editor of TPR.


Woo: “I believe the Mayor has to play a more aggressive role in the planning process, to defend the Mayor and the Planning Director from the typical incursions by members of the Council.”

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs 

Garcia’s opening remarks directed the discussion to the economy. “For the first time in the political life of virtually every elected official in California, the state’s economy is broken,” said Garcia. “We’re no longer in the position in which we can assume businesses will maintain their enterprises here. That changes the politics, which is presently the politics of exclusion and the politics of anti-growth.”

Because the Los Angeles Mayor lacks many formal powers, several panelists emphasized that rebuilding Los Angeles and its economy will require the Mayor to emphasize communication opportunities and positive psychology. “It’s very important for the new Mayor to be an articulate spokesman for the benefits and advantages of Los Angeles,” said Rising. “We have this debilitating negativism running through this region: we’ve lost our confidence and our hope in the future.”

Jackie Dupont Walker agreed: “The first thing I’d want to do is help them envision what people used to think about Los Angeles,” she said. “The Mayor needs a clear citywide vision and a clear regional focus.”

The optimism theme was picked up by candidate Michael Woo. “For many generations, Los Angeles has symbolized a city of hope and opportunity,” said Woo. “But today, Los Angeles is in the doldrums because we have turned away from that role and become a symbol of urban squalor, urban violence and urban decay.” 

Structural Reforms 

Many of the panel’s comments addressed the need for structural change in city government to improve planning and economic development. “Charter reform is absolutely essential,” said Rising. “This is a city of single-issue agencies over which the Mayor does not have enough power and control.”

Woo emphasized the need to reform the Planning Department and implement the recommendations of the 1991 Zucker audit of the department. “I would like to redefine the Planning Department as a true plan-making department. Potentially, this means the Planning Department may be smaller but it would be more focused on the goal of preparing real plans for the future of Los Angeles.” 

Dupont Walker said that structural reform should provide certainly to the planning process. “If there is uncertainty, people will not do business in L.A.,” she said. “Attraction and retention of business must be a priority of the Mayor without relaxing standards to protect the environment.”

Both mayoral candidates proposed consolidating the city’s economic development functions. “I would begin by declaring a state of economic emergency in Los Angeles,” said Woo. “It makes no sense that there are literally more than 20 separate agencies, task forces, and commissions relating to business development scattered through the City Hall bureaucracy. I would propose to consolidate these agencies under one roof. I would appoint an economic czar… directly accountable to me as Mayor to assure we can marshal the resources of city government.”

“We need to create an overall strategic economic development plan,” responded Wachs, “one that consolidates the city’s piecemeal economic development efforts including Housing, Community Development, port of Transportation and Small Business, but most importantly (and where I differ from Councilman Woo) the CRA itself into one cohesive economic development department…” 

The Future of the CRA

The CRA and the future role of redevelopment in Los Angeles also elicited comments. In his opening remarks, Nelson Rising praised the opportunities that redevelopment offers. “The redevelopment agency here and in other cities of the county is one of the great tools — perhaps the last great tool — to grow our economy,” said Rising. “Redevelopment agencies have the power to assemble land, and to provide tax increment financing to bring in private capital. What I see happening is that there is money in the coffers of redevelopment agencies that people want to use to solve today’s problems, instead of reinvesting it to solve tomorrow’s problems.” 

Wachs elaborated on his views regarding the redevelopment agency. “As Nelson points out, (the CRA) has remarkable tools for revitalization, but it has also alienated many people — the very people it was intended to serve. Only grass-roots participation can change that alienation. It has to focus more on neighborhood revitalization.”

Woo, though generally more supportive of the CRA, also called for reforms within the agency. “I think the CRA is like a gigantic World War II battleship,” said Woo. “Today we need an instrument that can move faster and which can fight the battles of the 1990’s instead of those that faced us in past generations. I want to redirect the CRA to focus on new priorities such as affordable housing in the city, and redirecting the economic base of the city.” 

RLA and Rebuilding 

Another controversial institution — RLA — received surprisingly little attention from the panelists and candidates, with the exception of Wachs. “RLA has done remarkably good things,” said Wachs. “It is uniquely qualified to facilitate big business investment, but it has suffered from the perception that it will solve all of our problems. It has absolved everyone else from doing their share. As Mayor, I would broaden the geographic scope of RLA and make it a real, effective partner in developing grass-roots economic activity in all our neighborhoods.”

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Dupont-Walker of RLA responded that “RLA does now focus on all areas where at least 20% of residents are below the poverty level.” 

Entrepreneurial Consensus 

The message that economic development should emphasize small business and the ethnic entrepreneur economy — a theme often stressed by Joel Kotkin and David Friedman — has begun to permeate the rhetoric of many candidates. “Joel Kotkin is on the right track,” said Woo. “Here’s a vision for the future of Los Angeles: Los Angeles can be the center of this bi-national economic region spreading from L.A. to Northern Mexico... Los Angeles can be the vital urban center for finance, design, marketing, brainpower, as well as the center for significant numbers of manufacturing jobs…”

Wachs’ economic development emphasis sounded similar. “We have to look at the new reality we’re dealing with in Los Angeles. There are many new arrivals highly driven to make a success of their lives... they comprise a great part of the new growth economy of small and medium-sized businesses,” said Wachs. “What we need to do is propose an economic development plan tailored to this new emerging reality.” 

Moderator David Abel challenged the panelists to reconcile their job creation ideas with the constraints of today’s grave fiscal problems. “If the city takes short-term steps to balance our budget that end up discouraging the types of business that can thrive in that kind of region,” said Woo, “we’ll be cutting off our nose to spite our face… We should not make cuts in departments that would lengthen the time it takes for permits…”

Dan Garcia saw another fundamental collision taking place: “On the one hand, I hear the desire to improve neighborhoods and the decision-making process: however, the reality is that neighborhoods don’t create capital… Preparing for the future means change — new jobs, new roads, new factories — in neighborhoods where nobody wants change. The planning resources promulgated by the City Council have reinforced exclusivity, segregation, and have worked to the detriment of economic growth.” 

Neighborhood Councils? 

One of Woo and Wachs’ starkest differences came over Wachs’ proposal to create 100 neighborhood councils in Los Angeles (see Wachs' article here). Woo in his comments had stressed the leadership role of the Mayor. “I believe the Mayor has to play a more aggressive role in the planning process, to defend the Mayor and the Planning Director from the typical incursions by members of the Council to bend the process their way.” 

Wachs responded, “I think we need to go much more toward community based planning, and not in the form you have now… I think the Mayor has to play a strong role, but that role has to be to bring more people to the table at an earlier point to form consensus.” 

Later in the discussion, Woo took issue with Wachs’ proposal. “I don’t think the vast majority of people in this city are looking for the opportunity to participate in 100 neighborhood councils. The problem is not that people aren’t being listened to: it’s that we have a government that doesn’t work… Rather than find ways to further fragment the city, I think this coming election gives us a chance to find a leader willing to take tough chances, bold stands and antagonize some people to get things done.” 

Wachs retorted, “I simply couldn’t disagree more with Mr.Woo when he says people aren’t looking for an opportunity to participate. When I go around this city — whether it’s El Sereno or Encino, South Central or West Los Angeles and the Valley — people have something to say…”

Respondents’ Reactions 

At each of The Planning Report’s luncheon seminars, “respondents” are asked to speak last, and reflect aloud on the preceding discussion. The first respondent, State Real Estate Director Dan Rosenfeld, told the attendees that he found the discussion “a little shrill. I think we should all slow down a little bit and think about the human side of what’s being proposed… I agreed with Nelson’s comments: this is still the nicest place in the world to live; we should appreciate what’s good about it.”

Public interest attorney and CRA Board Member Carlyle Hall, given the last word, redirected the tone of the discussion: “The panelists include some of the most progressive and creative minds in the city. But I was struck by how the panelists really bought into the Reagan/Jarvis rhetoric from the 1980s about how business is going to come to L.A. and be the salvation to our problems…  While these may well be true statements ... the way Proposition 13 works makes it more difficult to bring new businesses into our city…  New businesses are subsidizing long-established businesses through property taxes, and then they have all these impact fees on them.” 

Whether or not the discussion reflected a local Reaganism, it was clear that the tone of the debate on planning issues has changed dramatically since the 1989 municipal elections: growth management and quality of life have faded significantly and economic development has taken center stage.

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