November 30, 1994 - From the November, 1994 issue

Ridley-Thomas: Los Angeles CRA in Flux & Up-For-Grabs

LA/CRA reorganization plans, Development Reform Committee, affordable housing, and riot recovery planning are just a few of the planning and development issues that Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas has been pursuing most recently. The Planning Report presents an interview with Councilman Ridley-Thomas who was recently awarded the 1994 American Planning Association Statewide Leadership Award for a Public Official, on the many issues facing Los Angeles and Council District Eight. 


“I just know that the economic development delivery system of the City of Los Angeles needs fixing… I am not ready to make it more dysfunctional, as has been the case with the Mayor’s original proposal.”

Let's begin, Councilman, with the status of the City's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and the changes taking place there. First, you have initiated, and the Council will have before it soon, a proposal to have the City Council become the new board of the CRA. Elaborate for our readers on your intent and your expectations for this proposal. 

A couple of things in short. The primary objective is to increase and even maximize the accountability of elected officials. The fifteen members constituting the City Council will be directly accountable on the issue of redevelopment to the constituencies that they represent. One of the most controversial land use and development tools at our disposal would be unmediated, thus, increasing the level of accountability. 

On the other band, and not an insignificant point, is the increase in efficiency. Two unimportant steps in the redevelopment process will be eliminated with the council takeover because the matters eventually make their way to the City Council. Presently, there are so many steps in the process that in some places it seems superfluous and this is known by certain people who have tried to work through the redevelopment agency. Also, the Council work is conducted in the full light of day; with Channel 35, everyone who wishes to pay closer attention to redevelopment will be afforded the opportunity.

Finally, a by-product of CRA reform that has to take place in order to make redevelopment more credible is assuaging some of the hesitancies and disbeliefs that people have about eminent domain and the like. 

What's at stake, for both your constituents and for others in the City, that calls for consideration of such a change in the governance of the CRA?

Well, it is important from the vantage point of having Council members be attentive to what is going on in their council district, as well as having constituents know that they can deal directly with their representative, rather than having to go through an intermediary or an appointed individual over whom constituents have no control.

The Mayor has signaled in a recent address that he would veto such a measure if it were to come out of council. Share with us what the conflicting arguments are, and how you think this will be resolved? 

I think the issue centers on the fact that the Mayor wants to retain control over the agency. On the other hand, for the longest time, many members of council have made it increasingly clear that they, more than anyone else, suffer the consequences of redevelopment gone bad. To the extent that Council members are the most at risk, they ought to have the opportunity to be the most responsible. It's basically a matter of Council members recognizing what is at stake for them. In light of the fact that redevelopment project areas have doubled, almost tripled, over the last two years, much more is at stake. 

As Chair of the Council's Housing and Community Redevelopment Committee, you will likely vote on the proposal of the Mayor to remove the housing function from the CRA and consolidate it with other housing production departments. What is your position on this consolidation proposal and, again, what do you think will come of it? 

The original proposal - for recovery and revitalization - was initiated by our committee after the civil unrest, between the four general managers of the CRA, Housing, Community Development Department and Planning, to come up with a revitalization strategy. That led them to consider what the City was doing, was not very functional. Next, the department heads set themselves the task to consider various approaches o reorganization. That has now translated itself to the consolidation of various departments. That was all in '92 and the early part of '93. 

When Dick Riordan was elected Mayor, we afforded him an opportunity to present his view through Al Villalobos, then Deputy Mayor of Economic Development, who just didn't seem to come up to speed in terms of the policy implications. Then finally, when he did come forward, the Mayor made what was a very poor judgment, to try to tie the consolidation to the budget. It was not well thought out at all. The council rejected that effort. I don't know what's in his proposal now, and we will have to wait to make judgments upon seeing it. I just know that the economic development delivery system of the City of Los Angeles needs fixing. However, I am not ready to make it more dysfunctional, as has been the case with the Mayor's original proposal. 

There are at least three proposals. One was the City Council's proposal, another was proposed by the CRA, and then the Mayor's proposal. I suspect there will be other proposals forthcoming. 

The administration of the CRA is in flux. The Mayor has asked Dan Garcia to Chair the Board, and until a new Administrator is found to replace Ed Avila, CAO Keith Comrie is the acting Administrator. What, in your opinion, should the qualifications be for the next LA/CRA Administrator? 

Well, the person will have to understand the diverse community, and I mean "diverse" in the full sense of the word. It needs to be someone who has a real understanding of Los Angeles. To some extent, I worry about the experience of “outsiders", and the high-level, very politicized environment they must work in. We have two recent examples of that, to be specific - the LAPD and the MTA. I do think that part of why these agencies are experiencing a certain degree of difficulty relates to the administrators' inexperience in Los Angeles and the history that their opponents have in Los Angeles. There are distinct disadvantages, and redevelopment is, as or more controversial, in many respects than either transportation or law enforcement, quite frankly. Having someone who is not familiar with the terrain and its long standing roots may put him or her at risk. I offer that as a consideration, because of the political nature of redevelopment

On the other band, I think you have to have someone who is a very strong administrator, who will be a leader with an understanding of economic development, revitalization, neighborhood development issues, traditional development issues, and can integrate policies into redevelopment, the most potent tool we have to revitalize various parts of the city. The next administrator will be a key player. 

Let's switch gears and address the long-awaited Development Reform Committee proposals by Dan Garcia, to be unveiled by the Mayor in November. What's likely to be the reception in the Council to a systemic attempt to reform the City's development processes?

I don't know the answer to that. I know that there are many proposals, plans, reports and audits. The question is whether or not anything will be done with them. The real question is whether or not a consensus can be built. That is really where it is, and I don't know if that is the case. I am pleased that Dan Garcia was a part of the bearings that I conducted around the city in preparation for the report we did on the reorganization issue, trying to articulate or at least focus a new vision of economic development in this city. 

Dan Garcia, as quoted in TPR this past June, asserts that, "The point of this commission and this report is not to make it harder or easier, but to make the process definite, so you know what you have to do when you want to invest your money. The point is to make the process less arbitrary." Is his professed objectives in concert with your goals for reform? 

Well, I am not sure that is the sentiment of everyone who would comment on the subject. There is an appeal for individual treatment, otherwise known as discretionary consideration. So I don't know. If it means we talk about blanketing things, there ought to be some uniform standards that apply. 

Dan is also quoted as saying, “As it stands now the entitlement process is so unpredictable as to be arbitrary and the construction/permit process so slow and convoluted that it is notorious for being hostile for anyone trying to get a project completed.” Your reactions? 

Well, that may or may not be the case, you really need to refine what you are taking about. I take exception to wholesale comments that appear to be a caricature of bureaucracy. When in fact, much of what is at stake is regulatory, and not administrative. When asked to critique this rather extensive labyrinth called Building & Safety, there is not a whole lot that I have heard people suggest as to how to deal with it. The people in RLA made it a point to bang hard on Building and Safety, saying they couldn't get anything done. So I had Warren O'Brien, former General Manager of Building and Safety, lay out a chart that was the length of this table and I said, ''This is where you start and this is where you end up. Where is it that you would want to fix this?" I'd like to sit Dan Garcia and Nelson Rising down and say "How would you adjust this?"' Now they may have some good ideas, but I can tell you the original folks from RLA didn't really understand the process. 

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Lastly, Dan asserts, "If we are to be a business friendly city the current entitlement system must be more predictable, less capricious and above all more expeditious." Again, your reaction? 

What is that but a veiled appeal to a laissez faire form of government? What is it, really? This could be a polemic of a certain sort, but those are the broad strokes and when it comes down to the level of project by project, people don't go through the processes with the kind of sophistication that they perhaps ought to, and that may be on both sides inexperience with the person trying to process a project and the unfriendliness on the part of the people at the counter and so forth. There is a culture here in Los Angeles of sticking to the rules that I'm told is a bit uncharacteristic of the way building and safety departments operate in other places. For example, a Smith's Food King was recently built in the Valley. They brought the guys in from Utah to build the store rather than dealing with the folks that know this environment. And they almost lost their minds because they have never seen this kind of detail with respect to the code. 

I am not an apologist for the status quo, I am just a lot more interested in how you specifically revise, modify, and/or adjust the process. Some of this is the assumption that, the private sector knows best - "Just leave us alone and we will take care of everything." While this doesn't get articulated in that language, other than by the most rabid of the crowd, it's obvious, clearly obvious, throughout all of this. We're the ones that can deliver, it's straight out market values that they wish to impose in order to rid the city of its economic illness. I am not persuaded by this, I think that government plays an important role.

Can “certainty” early on in the development process, be achieved realistically? Politically? 

My point is that the process they make an argument for, is not simply a static process, it's dynamic. The changes that arc introduced are not always on the public sector side. It is interesting when it begins to be arbitrary and all capricious. And that is only at the point when the requests that they wish to have granted are responded to in the negative. I am very interested in how one accepts "NO" when you want the rules to be changed for you. Typically the case is, ''That doesn't make sense, that rule is unreasonable." Well, they are making an appeal for a rule-bound set of issues. When you have that, then you don't like it, well what do you want to change, change them when, change them how? Well, of course, they can be changed, but still somebody is not going to want to deal with the set of rules. Does that mean that we shouldn’t change it? Does this mean there is no room for improvement? Obviously not I think there a need for some to come off their high horses. 

Affordable housing is also under your committee's jurisdiction. What issues, like supply and replacement of quake damaged housing, are coming up before you that you would like to see better addressed?

Well, I think there has to be a greater appreciation for the role of affordable housing in the revitalization mix. There are notions that some entertain-dreams of commercial corridors throughout their community. This just seems to be unrealistic and uninformed. 

Residential development plays an important role in revitalization strategies. It does give meaning to the idea of the jobs/housing balance as one set of concerns. And construction jobs are important on residential as well as commercial projects. 

People need places to live that are decent. In South L.A. with most of the housing stock being built prior to World War II, it would seem to me that there needs to be significant infusions of rehabilitation and new construction. With a loss of well over 20,000 units in various parts of the Valley, it seems to me that we need to have a sane housing production agenda seen in the context of revitalization; not as opposed to, but, in fact, in tandem with commercial development. Given the way in which loan repayments are made, housing just ends up being a greater insured repayment as well as meeting important needs that under most scenarios would be the same as a human right. Intolerance for substandard housing vitiates a substantial notion of human rights in terms of decent and affordable housing. 

We understand that you have just received the American Planning Association Statewide Leadership Award for a Public Official. I assume this recognition grows out of your work with the Empowerment Congress you created in your district. What lessons have you learned from trying to reach community consensus on development in your own district? 

I've learned that development is very controversial and people want to learn about it. Also, they know relatively little about it, but, they do have a sense about what they want; it just simply has to be refined. But what you're testing against is what the market will bear, what resources are available, and what other peoples' views and values are, as to the way their neighborhoods should look. So the Empowerment Congress has been very important to help give me feedback, and at the same time afford me direct access with neighborhood businesses, religious leaders and community members on a regular basis in order to communicate on a two-way street.

Most recently, in relation to the First Interstate project, a $15 million project on the old Pepperdine University site to build a mixed-use development, we had some 40 or so persons in the Empowerment Congress - religious leaders, businesses, developers, real estate brokers, block club captains, and retirees, all of whom have an interest and opinion on what their community ought to look like. They came together to engage the semi-finalist teams which had won the right to build the project. It was a very powerful experience. That is what planning and land-use management has to deal with in terms of community sensitivity issues. 

Of course, this drives some developers crazy, thus, some of the comments that we see emanating in the previous The Planning Report interview to which you make reference. I don't want to beat up on Dan Garcia, because I think highly of him, but, there are "sensitivities" and there are "sensitivities", let us say. What is partially operating is somewhat of a political play to get more heightened sensitivities to the predicament of developers when, in fact, there is a range of considerations beyond the needs of the developer. 

In your opinion, what are the components of an economic strategy that make sense for this city and region? 

Well, I think we need to look at the available resources, the components of which, do change. Presently, one of the most significant components has to deal with transportation, largely because of the kind of resources available. For example, if it is agreed upon that the Crenshaw Corridor is marginal, with respect to economic vitality, then it makes sense that one of the candidate Corridors for development along Wilshire extend all the way out to the Airport. 

We already talked about redevelopment, so some of what we have to do on the public sector side is to layer resources. It just so happens that along Crenshaw there are several redevelopment projects in CD10, CD8, and CD6. So I think there has to be an assessment of what public sector resources can be brought to bear to stimulate revitalization. In areas that are under served, it would seem to me that the Community Reinvestment Act plays an important role as banks learn how to be more creative with respect to their participation and lending practices in both commercial and residential. That is an important private sector role.

Also, we need to examine how institutions, if you were to look at South L.A., particularly churches, which are the primary asset or institution, demand more substantial wealth with respect to real estate and related activities. There are various ways as to how to cause those assets to be leveraged in ways that they just aren't. Government does have to figure out how helpful it has been or whether it has been a hindrance and that is not always been easy to know. If it wasn't for government intervention, then we wouldn't have seen the new crop of non-profit developers and for-profit developers in affordable housing. 

It's been a couple of tough years for Los Angeles. Looking out over the next 12 to 14 months, what do you foresee? 

I see a lot of bard work still to be done and a need for consensus building in order to get things done. At this time, it is unclear to me how this consensus will come together, but I know it needs to happen in order to go where we need to go.

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