December 30, 1994 - From the December, 1994 issue

Deputy Mayor Rae James: “An Annual Assessment”

In June 1993, Richard Riordan was elected to the mayoralty of Los Angeles on a campaign of public safety, economic development and reforming City Hall. The Planning Report presents an interview with Deputy Mayor for Planning and Transportation, Rae James, on the status of Riordan Administration planning and economic development initiatives as well as new programs and policies that are likely to move forward in 1995. 

The headline of the November issue of The Planning Report is "LA/CRA In Flux and Up for Grabs"; what are the Mayor's hopes for the CRA? 

The Mayor sees his reorganization proposal as fulfilling his campaign promise of an economically developed city - a safe city; his consolidation proposals and his proposals for the expansion of the LAPD are part of economic development. Therefore, his hope is to provide City Council with a plan on which they can reach agreement. 

Is the Mayor flexible on reorganization or is the proposal he submitted in last Spring's budget his bottom line? Which of the various reorganization proposals are preferred? 

He's absolutely flexible. The plan has already changed. Originally he submitted a plan that people were calling a "Super Department" - a combined CRA, economic development and housing agency. But that plan seemed to frighten many people for very different reasons. He heard what the community, his colleagues and the City Council had to say. He realized that it might be too big of a proposal and decided to examine which pieces could be agreed upon. This September he presented a revised proposal which is currently before City Council committees. 

One of the proposals on the table is for the City Council to become the board of the redevelopment agency, which the Mayor signaled he would veto. Is the City Council takeover proposal on the table as far as he is concerned? 

It's the City Council's proposal, so it's their call. But I do know that the Council is in the process of holding public hearings. However, the Mayor is opposed to a takeover. 

The Development Reform Committee proposals have been long-awaited. What is the goal of the Committee's recommendations? What is really at stake? 

From our standpoint, we will look at the proposals as tools to make the city not only more business-friendly, but also a livable city. We are looking to the proposals for guidance as to how can we create this type of environment.

From another standpoint, the development community is not necessarily looking for by-right development standards but for predictability. They are asking themselves what is the best way to strike a balance between community input, by right development and predictability. If everyone says, "these are the rules", then the development community should agree with them. 

If you look to community organizations, they are looking to make sure they have sufficient input and access. If there is something absolutely onerous coming into a community, they will want assurances that they still have the opportunity to access the process and comment on the process. 

The report will mean different things to different people. 

To paraphrase Councilman Ridley-Thomas, "Developers suggest they want predictability but are notorious for always wanting modifications and amendments". Would more certainty be honored throughout the process under the development reform proposals? 

We have to say that we have a deal. We've all agreed to do "X". If the elected officials sit at a table and all agree on the way we are going to do business, then the development community has to honor that as well. You can't hold one side of the table accountable and the other side gets to slip through the cracks whenever they come up with an exception. I also believe that it would be naive to think that there are never going to be amendments or special considerations. Ninety percent of the development proposals should be able to go through but 10 percent or more may need some form of special consideration. 

What is the Mayor's position on consolidation or delinking housing production from CRA? 

We've talked to the development community - the for-profits, nonprofits, and homeowners - and what we have beard is that they do not like going to two different places with two different processes, timelines and standards. Over time, Los Angeles has created departments that work for government, but not for people who need to access government. We view the consolidation as an accessible system for the customer, not something that makes it easier for government employees. 

The Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI) is a project you've conceived and supported. What is the status of the program and has the funding been secured?

LANI has been funded by the federal government. We've received a letter of no-prejudice from them, which means they will be providing funding for this year. Also, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has advanced the program federal dollars. I would encourage everyone to visit the LANI neighborhoods and see what they are doing. It's what government should look like. The residents have really taken control of their neighborhoods, and are deciding for themselves what is important and what comes first in a way that is much better than City Hall could ever do. They are sensitive to diversity and equity issues; they are really making sure everyone is involved. 

Community members have gone door-to-door in the LANI neighborhoods to let people know what is being planned and how they can get involved. They are really examining their neighborhoods - some are planning street improvements, some want to buy housing or revitalize the commercial stock. They are trying to make their areas neighborhood friendly. 

I was talking to Councilman Alarcón the other day; he had been in Washington, D.C. on another matter, but everyone was asking him about his LANI project area. The federal government will be reviewing our prototypes for application in other U.S. cities. They are expecting some projects to succeed and some to fail, and they like the fact that each neighborhood is taking a different approach. 

Let me follow up on that; what should be the relationship between the Los Angeles Planning Department and the MTA - the builders of a regional transportation system?


Hopefully, the General Plan Framework has running through it, as its spine, the MTA Long-Range Transportation Plan. As far as I know, the City of Los Angeles is looking at development potential along the transportation corridors and hopefully they correspond to the corridors that the MTA plans to fund. Hopefully, the two entities are interfacing at some level. 

There has been some criticism, that for whatever the reason, the coordination hasn't been taking place. Is that a fair criticism? 

I would have to defer to the Planning Department, but as far as I know they do meet on a regular basis. My only concern is the fact that two agencies can meet often, but that doesn't ensure compatibility. 

Related to this, what are you looking for as the General Plan Framework begins its public hearing phase in January? 

Someone told me once that it would be impossible for the City of Los Angeles to have a single General Plan. But my hope is that the Framework sets the tone for Los Angeles' growth. It's not a question of no-growth vs. pro-growth, rather it's where and how the City is going to grow. I hope the Framework is able to set the direction. It’s my understanding that it will come very close to that goal. 

The Framework was originally scheduled to go to the Planning and Land Use Management Committee on November 17th but it has been postponed until December 15 and then public hearing will start in January. The MTA will be presenting the Long-range Plan in three segments, of which they have already completed two. We will have both plans moving forward together. 

What would you advise our readers to focus upon as the MTA goes through its Long-Range planning process? 

Historically, I don't think the City has been sensitive to the importance of transportation systems, and what the impact of the MTA meant. It's only been in the last year or two that people have really begun to understand the significance of a regional transportation system. I was grateful that our own Department of Transportation was involved in the analysis of the recent MTA board decision to close the Burbank/Chandler route. How can Los Angeles, as part of a regional planning body, make a decision without some technical analysis by its own transportation department? Fortunately, the MTA board listened to the Department of Transportation, recognizing that their analysis made sense. 

In terms of city planning, it's clear that access and mobility can either cut you off from what is happening or greatly enhance the viability of your area. People are just beginning to understand what transportation means to this city - we have to inform the city and the MTA board about the impact of the choices before them. 

Mayor Riordan’s homeless initiative has been getting a lot of press lately; what are the policies the Mayor's Office would like to pursue and what is the status of the $20 million HUD grant for Los Angeles? 

Again, Mayor Riordan sees economic development as a package deal; the homeless issues are just as important as the housing issues, public safety - all the factors that go into a livable city. The Homeless Initiative is a $20 million opportunity over three years to do innovative, new projects; it is not to promote what we have been doing. In that regard, the homeless provider community came up with a rough concept of what should be done. Of course, it became controversial because it was new and different, but I think the Mayor is looking for programs that make a difference. Whether it's the drop-in center or the substance abuse treatment center, it's clear that something must be done. There is something wrong with a city that allows people to be relegated to the streets. We're looking for alternatives to address this problem. 

Then has been some criticism that homeless programs are concentrated downtown, and thus, are exacerbating the problem. Will this initiative be a model for providing homeless services throughout the city? 

It's very interesting because that has been the prevailing thinking for many years. The business community was so fearful of having any additional services downtown that nothing was done. As a result, the homeless community has skyrocketed in the last six years. It doesn't matter why homeless people congregate downtown, the fact is that they are here. There are homeless services on the Westside and other areas. However, you can't have large institutional service centers in a residential neighborhood. We need more of the small, community-based service centers, but what has happened downtown is that the business community has realized the homeless are here and their needs have to be addressed. I think you'll see the Central City East Association and the Central City Association supporting the initiative to bring the services downtown. 

With First Street North having come to a standstill last month, and Governor Pete Wilson having been reelected to a second term, what are the prospects for downtown's historic core? 

I was walking down 7th Street the other day with a developer, showing off the beautiful buildings that are going to waste, and one model I keep tossing out hoping it will catch on is Savannah, Georgia. If a property owner maintains their historic building, the city business tax is waived and if they allow historic tours, the property owners also receive property tax relief. That is how they preserve their Civil War and Colonial era buildings and it works. That might be too radical for Los Angeles, but I think that type of program is an example of how we have to make the system work for people. 

We need to try these types of activities - maybe not citywide, but pick a district to see if it could work in Los Angeles. We have to preserve our historical structures. If you give up your history, you give up who you are. 

The Planning Report first interviewed you in the early months of the Riordan administration. What have you learned about the City and job since then? 

Both the good news and the scary news is that there are people out there who really count on you to do something, and you are always supposed to be right the first time. There isn't much room for error; it's a very unforgiving city at the moment, but that's is what we are paid for - to take the hard licks. But I've also learned that people are very understanding if you don't try to sell them a line, if you let them know what you can and can't do. I've also learned how to be patient, to take a win one day and balance that with a complete blowout the next day. If you take it all at once, it's very overwhelming.


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