November 30, 1995 - From the November, 1995 issue

San Fernando: Political Stability is the Key to Success

With 2.5 square miles, the City of San Fernando is completely surrounded by it's much larger neighbor, the City of Los Angeles. But its small size and progressive approach to planning allows San Fernando to react to problems in a way that Los Angeles seemingly cannot. As San Fernando grapples with changing demographics and problems foisted upon it by its larger neighbor, TPR presents an interview with the San Fernando City Administrator, Mary Strenn.


“The earthquake reordered our priorities.”

As the City Administrator of San Fernando, share with our readers the planning issues that dominate your administration and your City Council's attention.

Let me put this in context. San Fernando is a small community, with about 25,000 residents. We are completely surrounded by the City of Los Angeles, and almost totally built out. In that way, this city is at the other end of the continuum compared with other places in which I've worked. I have previously worked with cities that had considerable vacant land, and it was a matter of working my way through development projects. 

Here, land is scarce. Everything we develop and every business that comes in must contribute in some way. That doesn't mean that we don't encourage schools to build here, because that is also a contribution. We really try to work with business, residents, and industries to get an appropriate mix in this small area. 

Some of the issues that are on our agenda on a regular basis include business retention and attraction. And we deal a lot with neighborhood focus areas, were we target services in a particular neighborhood, and flood it with services and a variety of assistance for which residents will be eligible. Because we are so small, we can do that and really have an impact. When we walk away a year later, one can tell that a neighborhood focus area has been completed. 

San Fernando is a microcosm of what is going on throughout Southern California, except that we are probably one or two decades ahead. For instance, San Fernando is an old, historic city, with a traditional Hispanic character, that was rooted in the mission. About ten years ago, it transitioned to an ethnic majority community. Now we are a largely Latino community. San Fernando has families that have been here for five or six generations, and are probably as old as many East Coast families.

San Fernando also has many new immigrants. The two groups will have issues between them as to what the living standards should be, and what the crowding conditions should be. When people ask me whether my community is Democrat or Republican, I have to step back and tell them that it is not framed on such a simple basis anymore. 

There will be housing issues that come up on the agenda. We have documented overcrowding in this community, and we need to develop programs to deal with that. Often the overcrowding is due to illegal units being built out, but overcrowding is also sometimes a result of extended families.

What impact did the earthquake have on San Fernando, your priorities and resources?

The earthquake had a great deal of impact. This is the site of the Sylmar Earthquake 20 years before, which destroyed a number of properties. The Northridge earthquake probably destroyed the remainder of those properties that had not received some type of care in the interim. The earthquake reordered our priorities. Had it were not for the human devastation, it was an opportunity. We became very aggressive with demolition because the federal government and the state allows you to demolish under certain circumstances.

Many people in the community wanted their properties demolished because the buildings were so badly damaged. Overall, we demolished about 80 properties. This had a direct impact on how quickly we are rebuilding. We first of all got into demolition and debris cleanup business and shortly thereafter set up a series of policies for rebuilding. We offered some financial breaks—we didn’t require any fees, rebuilding was allowed in the same footprint, plan checking was done at the counter, etc.

Although as City Administrator you're not directly responsible for planning, how do you use planning as a tool to accomplish or achieve the City Council’s agenda? 

Let me relate this question to the earthquake. We had a contingent from the second largest city in Japan come to visit San Fernando, and a few other cities in the basin, to talk about earthquake preparedness and rebuilding. One of the questions they had was: "Have you used the earthquake to reorder your land use?” 

What we think is aggressive is only aggressive because we are in this country. When we described what we did, the contingent sat back and we could tell that our idea of action is quite different from theirs. Their idea is telling a property owner that he will not rebuild, because the state wants commercial uses where his house once stood. 

From that standpoint, neither San Fernando, nor any of the other affected cities have really done much in the way of planning due to the earthquake, at least in comparison to their countries. 

San Fernando is at the intersection of a number of freeways. As City Administrator, what should be the connection between transportation and land use planning? 

Clearly San Fernando benefits. We are surrounded by freeways. We have four major freeways, and we are in the center. We benefit from that; you can tell by the amount of industry and commercial businesses that are located here. 

We think that we have taken it a step further. We have traditionally been a transportation place; the railroad came through earlier, and stagecoaches before that. 

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We made a decision about five years ago with regard to the Metrolink. We realized that we were going to have all the impacts of Metrolink trains going through our city. If we really wanted to think of the future of our residents, we needed to direct transit development. We became involved in a joint project with the City of Los Angeles and the MTA to put a station just on the border of San Fernando. 

The project was very successful, with few of the usual intergovernmental arguments that attend a project of this type. We have enough right-of-way for a light rail or subway system. That will not happen until 2010 or 2020, but the right-of-way exists. When that light rail comes, it will definitely be an asset to the City. It shows that the Council was willing to take an active and forward-thinking role. 

Second, because we are small, and able to mobilize a little faster, we worked with the MTA to create a bikeway adjacent to the rail line. This is the first time a bikeway has ever been tried by the MTA next to track. We have also created a bike-link plan throughout the city. Our hope is that eventually the bikeway will go through Pacoima and other cities. Through a cooperative effort, we were also able to set up a day care center adjacent to the Metrolink station. 

I have a planning background, and the question has always been there: does transportation drive land use, or does land use drive transportation? I think I fall on the side that transportation has a tendency to drive land use, although that is in conflict with some other planners' thinking. 

As a small City surrounded by the City of LA, give us the benefit of your perspective on the MTA and LA's General Plan Framework policy debates. What insights can you share with our readers active in the City of Los Angeles? 

Let me touch on one. There is a lot of media attention given to the MTA. The MTA is experiencing some difficult times, and there may be disorgani­zation. The forcing together of two distinct organizations into the MTA is not an easy mix. I certainly hope it will not be the demise of the agency. There is logic to the joining together; but the cultures are very different. I don't think that the argument should be framed as rail versus bus. After all, we are trying to put in a transportation system.

The MTA had a Camelot period of time which is over now, and perhaps ended a little too soon. They were told to build a railroad, and they did just about everything they could to try and build it. They probably made mistakes along the way. But when you look at other major systems that have been put into place, they have had some rocky times also. 

At some point, you have to face the necessity of infrastructure investment, and it takes leadership to build a major system like this. I think that Los Angeles has had that leadership, and I hope that it continues to have it. I'm not nearly as negative as most people on the issue. 

What are some of the other impacts (assets and liabilities) you feel as a small city surrounded by Los Angeles? 

It makes our job easy to be surrounded by LA. Our residents like the services that they get, and we need to make sure that we don't sit back on our laurels. LA is so big that it is difficult for them to do things well. For example, our Police Department has a two minute response time. The Foothill Division of the LAPD is a good division, they simply cover too large an area. 

It makes our job difficult to be an island within LA from the standpoint that we share in some of the impact of the surrounding area, we share the image of a tough area with gang problems. Our crime rate is low, but some of the problems from Los Angeles do leak into San Fernando. 

What, in your opinion, are the tools that cities have to try to improve the economic climate of their jurisdictions?  

The greatest tool cities have, even before land, is political stability. Business cannot have instability. Business cannot make a major investment and find, halfway through development, that the rules change, the fees get exorbitant, or something else is altered by government. This doesn't mean that businesses don't pay; it means that there is some logic to the process, and business has some input in the process. Places that have political stability have a lot going for them in terms of economic development. 

Often, businesses will come to us and tell us that they are being wooed by another city. We let them know the incentives we can give. But we will also tell them that they are getting a police response lime of two minutes; we try to assure them of political stability and of good service. This means a great deal more over a few years than thousands of dollar’s worth of incentives. 

Lastly, is San Fernando often approached by disaffected businesses from Los Angeles looking for a better deal or more responsiveness? 

We are approached by business, primarily because our service level is better. However, we are built out, and we have a hard lime holding expanding businesses when they're looking for 10-20 acres. We are losing them to Santa Clarita or Palmdale, or similar areas. But for businesses needing a few acres, it is easy to sell them on our City.

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