May 30, 1995 - From the May, 1995 issue

Soboroff: LA Rec & Parks’ Unbuilt Capital Projects Finally Get Attention

What is the status of Mayor Riordan's campaign pledge to "turn LA around?" Too help answer this question and continue heightening the debate on the future of Los Angeles, The Planning Report presents an interview with the co-chair of Progress LA and President of the Recreation and Parks Department, Steven L. Soboroff. Progress LA is a private civic group formed to help implement the Mayor's Development Reform Committee recommendations. 

In addition to serving as co-chair of Progress LA, you are President of the Recreation and Parks Commission. What challenges confront the City of Los Angeles' Department of Recreation and Parks?

Providing our clients -- millions of park and recreation users -- with a quality parks and recreation system in a city with a small amount of per capita park space. In an era of tight budgets and difficult economic times, the Department must provide a broader range of recreational opportunities with fewer resources. 

We are one of the largest R&P departments in the world. In addition to 376 parks, we are responsible for 13 golf courses, the Greek Theater, the Griffith Park Observatory, two equestrian centers, the Cabrillo Aquarium, eight museums, the Venice Boardwalk, the Los Angeles Zoo, the entire Griffith Park, and the Hollywood Sign. 

Almost 5,000 full and part-time employees, plus thousands of volunteers make the department work. It's a challenge to be responsive to the needs of each individual facility and the Angelenos they serve. 

What can the Department of Recreation & Parks do to foster a sense of ownership and responsibility for our parks?

Promote volunteerism and acknowledge those who help their community parks. Mayor Riordan joins us in believing volunteerism is the key. 

Without people caring about their own parks, even twice the budget and equipment wouldn't make a difference. Individuals can coach teams, clean their local facilities, paint the benches, remove graffiti and organize classes. When neighbors feel they can make a difference in their local parks and programs, they feel ownership and re­sponsibility. 

For years the perception has been the Department of Recreation and Parks is one of the most difficult departments for community organizations, planners and others to work with. Is this an unfair characterization? 

I don't know if it was a fair perception before, but I think the Venice Community, the Encino Chamber of Commerce, the Zoo Association, the Laurel Canyon Dog Park users, golf and tennis associations, seniors and youth program participants, and hundreds of others will say the Department is now responsive, pro-active, and willing to listen. We have created a team approach to problem solving: It's called "Team Rec & Parks" and we even have special hats for those who perform! 

One area of frustration was delays in capital improvements and major facility repairs. We found funded projects that have remained unbuilt since 1974. This R&P Commission (Leroy Chase, Lisa Specht, Herman Leavitt and Vice-President Edith Perez) responded by creating "Project 24." 

Project 24 aims to take every one of the 308 funded-but-unbuilt capital R&P projects in Los Angeles and commence construction within 24 months. General Manager Jackie Tatum and staff have responded by empowering six project managers to each complete their approximately 50 projects. Each project manager has the authority to hire architects and consultants to meet the time deadline. We have pledged to the Mayor these projects will be substantially completed (over $150 million in improvements to our parks, pools, zoo, observatory and other resources) during his first term. We've pushed 38 projects into construction — over 10 percent of the projects in the first sixty days. 

By virtue of being on the Recreation and Parks Commission, you are also a member of the Coliseum Commission; share with our readers the present agenda of that body. 

I think the Exposition Park Area (which includes the Coliseum and the Sports Arena) has a large bearing on the future of downtown Los Angeles. It's very easy to throw up our hands, move our businesses, offices, or teams out to the suburbs (or other neighboring cities) and build new facilities. However, the Coliseum is a bigger issue than any one of the teams it houses. It is a wonderful (and rebuilt) facility that ranks as one of the world's safest venues for large-scale events. 

The Commission is committed to improving the Coliseum, the Sports Arena, and is working on the Exposition Park Master Plan. With USC as its neighbor, we are looking for nothing short of a neighborhood renaissance, and a positive effect on Downtown Los Angeles and its Strategic Plan and General Plan Framework. 

I think Raiders owner Al Davis has a good point. He's said a fan's football experience isn't confined to the arena. It's a door-to-door experience. That includes traffic, ingress/egress, parking, how you’re treated, food... everything until you're back at home. We are considering using the 1984 Olympics transportation management plan to promote bus service like the Hollywood Bowl service. 

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Coliseum Commission President John Ferraro and the nine-member commission (three appointed by the Governor, three by the Mayor and three County Supervisors) are working diligently to improve the venue towards a "state-of-the-art" facility. We think we can get close to such a facility and it should be enough to maintain an NFL team. A community-minded, well-marketed team will enjoy great success in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum - especially if they have the Davis "Commitment to Excellence and Winning." 

What do you hear about the Lakers' and Kings' potential move into a new facility Downtown? 

Irrespective of which three locations "wins" the RFP, the relocation of Forum teams to a world-class venue Downtown would be one of the most meaningful urban economic gains of the next fifty years. It isn't hard to imagine the positive economic charge an extra 15-20 thousand people, 200 nights a year, would have Downtown.

Switching gears, what has been the practical impact of Progress L.A. and is it fulfilling your expectations? 

Initially, we believed Progress L.A. would be a three-year effort on permit reform. After speaking with members of the City Council and the tremendous grassroots support for the Development Reform Committee (DRC) recommendations, we hope it will be a one-year issue. 

The City Council, almost unanimously, was encouraging. We told the City Council the DRC recommendations would require massive decision-making, and in some cases, relinquishing discretion. And, believe it or not, the typical response from the City Council representatives was, if you can get rid of all these headaches in the permit processing system, we'd be willing to give up some discretionary power just to reduce staff time, particularly since 90 percent of the cases are residential remodels that don't include additional square footage.

Progress L.A. continues to move this issue on the agenda. We have a full-time executive director working on a grassroots campaign, and we are pleased with our progress. 

Who comprises the leadership of Progress LA? 

In addition to co-chairs Dick Farman, CEO of Southern California Gas Company, and myself, there is a diverse and experienced Advisory Council (chaired by Jim Wood of the LA County Federation of Labor and Charlie Woo who is CEO of Megatoys) and a brilliant and energetic executive director Patrick Sinclair. Support and membership are equally diverse in many ways. It is a textbook "grassroots" organization. 

Does Progress LA have an agenda beyond "streamlining" the building permitting process? 

Not yet. The entitlement reform process is a full-time job. But, I hope it will. Progress LA is a great vehicle for change due to the wonderful people who are involved and the ability to raise large amounts of dollars to effect grassroots change. 

We don't think it is proper, however, to begin with new issues until we have completed our task-at-hand. And even then, we would need to consult our supporters. Personally, I am very interested in Charter Reform (and possibly even a new Charter) and was delighted to see the voters approve all eight of the Mayor's Charter Amendments. 

Finally, I'd like to expand my comments on the link between the mission of Progress LA and the economic "turning around" of Los Angeles. We all get very concerned when we see business moving out of our City or selecting another City just because our entitlement process is expensive and unpredictable. There is a direct connection between our quality of life (by virtue of infrastructure improvements, recreation and park improvements, and the quality/quantity of fire/police/trash and other services provided to our residents) and the emergence of Los Angeles as a user-friendly place to do business. 

Progress LA isn't about planning, or density, or design. It is about the 95 percent of projects that should not require discretionary approvals. We have a window of opportunity-a business-minded Mayor, lower land values and available financing. It's the perfect formula to "turn LA around" and Progress LA wants our entitlement process to become user-friendly, predictable and cost competitive.

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