May 30, 1994 - From the May, 1994 issue

A New Voice: Richard Alarcón on San Fernando Valley Planning

The Planning Report presents an interview with freshman City Councilman Richard Alarcón, representative of Council District Seven in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. One of the few districts in the city that still has open land and rural lifestyles, Councilman Alarcón describes the unique challenges and opportunities of increased urbanization for housing and economic development. 

Councilman, most people don't appreciate the diversity of your district. Share with our readers what comprises the Seventh and what is included in your planning agenda priorities. 

You are right that many people don't appreciate the diversity in the Seventh District. Many view it as something that is far removed from Los Angeles, and in fact one of my goals is to bring the Seventh District closer to City Hall. 

The Seventh District is an area that still has available, vacant land which I see as an opportunity to do things correctly; an opportunity to do things better than the way they were sometimes done in the past. That is not to say that we don't have pre-existing challenges, it's only to say that we still have opportunities to use our land that benefit from learning experiences. 

I also think people are mis informed about my district. They don't realize the extent to which there is vibrant industry such as Siemens Pacesetters, the second largest heart transplant manufacturer in the country; Kaiser Permanente just built the second largest research laboratory in the district; State Farm Insurance has a major regional claims office; Precision Dynamics ... These companies are all examples of people who know something about my district that others don't. 

My district has a good labor force with available land for industrial expansion, which creates a very positive foundation relative to land use. But we also have problems. We have areas that are overly dense, as a result of what I view as twenty years of bad planning, specifically Blythe Street and North Hills, both are areas which have been poorly planned and poorly developed. We have everything we can handle to keep those communities together. 

On the other hand, we have some unique opportunities in the area including the creation of a major regional park in the area at Hansen Dam. The federal government will be upgrading the dam, restoring the lake to its original condition, and I think that will serve as an anchor in the community. Also, there is the new Mission College which people said couldn't be supported and now it's the fastest growing college in the State of California. But while I see tremendous opportunities, there are also challenges. For instance, the General Motors plant is still vacant. We are fighting with the economic recession along with everyone else, and many of the aerospace workers who have been laid off came out of my district, particularly Lockheed, but also the other ancillary businesses along the San Fernando rail corridor that were supportive of the aerospace industry. 

What are your priorities for revitalizing the housing, and industrial and commercial land uses in your district? 

If you look at the district you’ll see it's kind of an oblong shape, and in the central part there are two major centers relative to industrial and commercial activity. One is San Fernando Road which basically bisects the district and the other is the General Motors Plant. The Community Redevelopment Agency has undertaken a feasibility study at my request, taking a broad brush look along the San Fernando Rail Corridor, and secondly, studying the opportunities for the General Motors plant. Relative to commercial and industrial development, I will be investing a lot of energy in these projects. 

Along the San Fernando rail corridor, which has less than exciting industries and looks blighted, I've initialed an effort to physically enhance the area. We are working on the Metrolink corridor to develop a greenbelt in the heart of the district which will include a bike path, lighting, and wrought iron fencing along the stretch of the corridor. But the harder work is going to be on either side of the street where we have to start looking at façade improvements and similar proposals. 

A couple of key projects include the Empowerment Zone initiative which touches along the rail corridor and there is a possibility of a Metrolink station at Van Nuys and San Fernando Road. The whole idea of having the census tract which includes Hansen Dam in the application is to develop innovative concession opportunities that fully utilize the Empowerment Zone benefits, while creating jobs and revenues to pay for operations at Hansen Dam.

Another project in the works is the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI) which identifies eight sites in Los Angeles. Eight sites were selected under the direction of the Mayor's office. The area in my district is Sun Valley along the San Fernando Rail corridor. The project that we have come up with has to do with improving the area with approximately $7 to $10 million in a concentrated infusion of federal funds. 

Tell us how you plan to address housing needs in your district, and what art the politics of proposing more housing? 

I don't think there is a clearer description of where we have an opportunity to learn from past experience than in the area of housing. 

I will not allow my community to be randomly densified without consideration for some of the long standing large parcels and equestrian uses in the district. Even though there are relatively large equestrian areas in the district, it's much smaller than it once was. There has been an encroachment on residential areas and some of the larger equestrian parcels, so I want to hold the line on encroachment of commercial uses into residential areas. An interesting point to note, is that the members of the Sylmar Community Planning Advisory Committee were recommending a 72 percent density formula, when the standing policy was 52 percent. It was the Planning Department which stepped in and said that we need to hold it to a 62 percent level. So the community is not necessarily anti-development, rather we have to utilize the opportunities for development that make sense. 

For example, at the proposed Metrolink station at Hubbard and San Fernando Road, it makes sense to use the 20 acres behind the station for rather dense housing. I know there has been an offer to build 180 single-family detached homes in the area but the entitlements would allow 300 condominiums. On the other hand, I've encouraged the 314 single detached housing that Kaufman and Broad is developing in Sylmar, particularly considering what they are planning to do with the park and traffic improvements. 

I absolutely don't want to increase housing density in the North Hills area and Blythe street, both of these areas, by the way were hit hard by the earthquake. Not so much because of the damage but simply because the federal response is not particularly suited to address the reconstruction of apartment units. So to the extent possible, I would like to rehabilitate units and reduce density by perhaps collapsing some apartments from 2 bedroom apartments to 4 bedroom apartments.

The highest average person per household in Los Angeles is in my district. In certain areas the density is over four, sometimes close to five per household. The only area that has had a population growth in the city in the last year was in my district. There are opportunities for housing in my district and I support affordable rental housing but I want to make sure we also take advantage of affordable home ownership pro­grams. 

I believe that the only HOPE 1 (Home Opportunities for People Everywhere) application administered by HUD in progress in the County is in my district. I've met with Secretary of HUD Henry Cisneros, he understands the need to balance creating affordable rental housing versus creating home ownership programs. I would even like to explore the possibility of allowing the housing project in my district, San Fernando Gardens, to tum it into a HOPE 3 program, allowing the tenants to purchase their own units. I hope to use all the available mechanisms of affordable housing but it needs to be spread, balanced; we need to use innovative ideas such as tiered projects which allow people of different backgrounds to live together.

Also, I'm very interested in mixed-use development, particularly along the transportation corridors. I want the Metrolink stations to be supported by childcare centers, housing and commercial activity. I don't have a specific plan for this development, but it's something I plan to encourage. 

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Let mt bring the last two questions together. You've talked about your request for CRA involvement in the district, yet the Mayor's budget proposes a reorganization of the CRA with the Housing Department, Community Development Department and other entities. Give us your perspective on the Mayor's proposed reorganization.

I've been a longtime advocate for centralizing the economic strategic process of the city. The bottom line is that this city doesn't have an economic strategy. On the first look, I don't have a problem with the notion of collapsing the CRA and Housing functions. On the face of it, one would think that the Housing Department ought to do the housing and the CRA ought to look at the economic opportunities in the project areas. In other words, perhaps the housing dollars that are generated out of the CRA ought to be managed by the Housing Department. I think that perhaps it makes sense to collapse the two departments into one agency. I have been frustrated with the fact that we have five or six different, specific economic strategies and none of them are consistent or comprehensive. 

In terms of an economic strategy. I would argue we need to define what we want to be as a city; what are the future industries for the city? Also, what we don't want? What do we want to phase out? We need to look at the development process, where do permits and fees enhance business and where do they reduce the potential for business? I don't think there is any real understanding of the difference between the two.

All the fees that were generated during times of prosperity, weren't designed for times of austerity, yet we have created a mentality in the bureaucracy that they are dependent on going after business. We need to develop a counter strategy to stop other states and other countries from coming in and picking off our industries. We don't have any mechanism which prevents businesses from leaving. We might have the Mayor's office jump in to save a large company, while the Community Development Department may work on another level with another company and then the CRA may work to develop different strategies. Our strategies are always reactive, catch-as­catch-can, with no overall goal. 

Do we glean from your comments that this part of the reorganization will move forward with Council support? 

To the extent that we can centralize the mechanism for economic development, I think we are moving in the right direction to develop a comprehensive strategy. I also think that it makes some sense to separate the Community Development Department’s Industrial Development Division from its human service function. It never made sense to have that department, then have the Mayor's office, CRA and the Housing Department all which have economic development potential, working in different directions. I think we have to pull all of these functions into a central mechanism, then we will be in a better position to develop a central economic strategy for the City of Los Angeles. 

Planning Commissioner Anthony Zamora, in the April edition of The Planning Report, raised the question of when is the appropriate time to have community input in the planning process. The General Plan Framework as well as the Mayor's taskforce reports will be making recommendations to streamline the process, possibly taking away some discretion from the council offices, how do you react to such proposals? 

My reaction is that the City Council is going to have to approve all of these proposals and you are asking them to give up their involvement in the planning process. My feeling is that you either give it all away or you leave it as is. If you allow any kind of authority then the Councilmember has to get into the process completely. 

I'm impressed with the efforts of the Planning Department to better define the concepts and notions surrounding planning and taking the ideas out to the community. So when we talk about an urban village, everybody is talking about the same thing. I think that's going to help solve a lot of the confusion. I don't happen to think that resident associations are necessarily NIMBY organizations, just as I don't think developers are anti-resident. Rather, quite often these two groups lack an ability to communicate with each other. 

The new definitions that are coming from the Planning Department are going to be very helpful in mitigating the tension between these groups. However, I think the debate surrounding the reorganization will boil down to how the Mayor's Office is going to politically argue why it is better for Councilmembers to give up authority in the planning process. I'm not taking anything for granted. 

How do you see the City's fiscal shortfall playing out? Are there any budget proposals that could impact your agenda in the district? 

First of all, I don't think that the budget is going to be as contentious as people might believe. The Mayor has been on a learning curve and knows the difference between a campaign speech and governance. While I think he has retained most of his agenda that he spelled out in the campaign, he also realizes that you can't accomplish everything in one year. 

Relative to my district, I don't think there will be any specific disproportionate, negative impacts related to the budget. We are all going to suffer as a result of cutbacks. But my district is more capable of taking advantage of unique opportunities, emerging from positive energy in the northeast San Fernando Valley that I'd like to think I've contributed to. We are well positioned to develop our own economic opportunities and at the same time take advantage of programs such as the Empowerment Zone proposal for which we rallied the entire San Fernando Valley. 

There is no doubt it's going to be a tough year. I am pleased the Mayor is not proposing to cut funding from libraries and parks, and quite frankly, I'm more concerned with the earthquake damage than the budget process. The ramifications of the earthquake have not been fully felt as of yet. The immediacy of the response was very reassuring but the long-term recovery will take years. 

I'm willing to work with the Mayor on the budget, but I do have some bottom lines. I'm cautious about further privatization because we have already have a significant privatization program already underway. For example, the Bureau of Engineering tells me that 60 percent of their work product is already handled by private companies. We must define criteria which suggests when it is appropriate to privatize and when it isn't. Presently, there is no consistency in proceedings when the City considers when to privatize. 

As chairman of the Public Works Committee, I am concerned about how the Mayor's proposed changes will affect the public hearing process. I have scheduled public hearings to discuss this issue in an open forum with the community so that we can take into account their concerns and opinions on this matter. 

By and large, I think we are going to have to make some hard decisions, but I think we can work with them.

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