January 30, 1996 - From the January, 1996 issue

Soboroff Proves That Leadership And Vision Make A Difference

The LA City Department of Recreation and Parks has embarked on an ambitious project to begin construction of $126 million worth of park improvements in 121 different LA parks within 24 months. As the department continues to move rapidly on these projects, The Planning Report presents a follow-up (TPR: May, 1995) interview with Steven L. Soboroff, president of the Recreation and Parks Commission; co-chair of Progress LA, a private civic group committed to implementing the Mayor’s Development Reform Committee recommendations; and vice-chair of Football LA, the NFL team/venture recruitment committee.

“First, NBA Basketball and NHL Hockey: It is our hope that the Kings and Lakers will build a new arena.”

Steve, bring our readers up to date on Recreation and Parks' capital projects—Project 24—and your Commission's ambitious agenda for the Department.

I'm very pleased with the progress. In 1995 we put the construction financing mechanism into place. With a $126 million total project, we needed to have a construction line of credit for $15 million. We then get reimbursed by the county and reuse the 15 million over and over again. We're using $5 millions of Recreation & Parks money and a $10 million loan provided by the City Council, so our financing mechanism is in place! 

The human resources side is working well. We have six project managers, and each one is responsible for between 15 and 50 projects. We have 25 on-call architects; a year ago today we had two. We have 15 on-call engineers. Most importantly, the project managers are now empowered to do what they need to in order to complete their projects. 

The bottom line is that the process is working well. Approximately one third of our projects are under construction or for have permits which are about to be pulled. We have completed the community input process in Venice, which is something that had been going on for 14 years! We've approved the Barnsdall Park Master Plan. We've managed to get a number of the difficult projects behind us, and even had community consensus on those projects. 

I think that within the next 18 to 24 months. we will have virtually all of the Proposition A projects either under construction or complete. I'm very pleased with the progress, and general manager Jackie Tatum tells me that other city agencies have come to us and asked for our project 24 model of empowerment, to build so many projects at once. We're starting something that's helping other parts of the city as well. 

The Department has some pretty large capital improvement projects under review. One is the Griffith Observatory, and you just recently approved a master plan for Barnsdall Park. What are the prospects for these projects? How difficult is it to get these projects done and done well?

It's very difficult. Let's take Griffith Park Observatory as an example. We have $18 million available, but the observatory's master plan requires $25 million. The department, historically a bureaucratic organization, would normally choose to wait for additional funding, however we went back to the observatory to request that they modify the master plan to be $18 million; otherwise the observatory would be required wait five to 10 years. So, unless the observatory, the private sector, is able to raise an additional $7 million "quickly," we will go ahead with the scaled-down version.

Palisades Recreation Center is the same thing. The gym was allocated $1 million but the master plan for the gym was $1.8 million. The community is taking the next three months to try to raise the additional funds. If the center can't raise the money, we have asked it to redo its master plan so we can build the project right away. 

We have a number of goals in undertaking these projects: 1) Bring the project within the budget; 2) working with the Council to make sure there are enough recreational and educational benefits included in the project so that we're not just building prettier facades; and 3) make the projects fit the overall plan of making L.A. safer. 

Could you share with our readers the goals and priorities for the department in 1996?

We have three major goals on a global level (although I have 17 specific goals). First, we want to encourage another proposition A to help fund capital projects.

Second, empowerment of 150 recreation center directors, in 150 parks to form their own boards of directors for their local parks. The directors would be allowed to engage in private sector fundraising (instead of going through the department's process) when they need specific improvements. The director would include the local community and be the president of the park, with a board of directors that could set policy for the park and empower the park directors to implement the policies (within a department guideline) without having to "come downtown."

Third, we want to gain better access to state and federal grand funds through: (a) We need to understand the menu of what is available, (b) We need the skills to make the proper applications, and (c) we also need the relationships to create the specific types of programs we need here in Los Angeles. You can almost envision a city grant clearing house, which would have access to all sorts of grants, sending grants to Rec. & Parks, the Harbor, Cultural Affairs, and others.

How important has Proposition A been for the Department's agenda, and how important would a new park bond be to fulfill your agenda as outlined?

Proposition A has been critical—a godsend—our only chance to make capital improvements in our park system. Historically, the money that Recreation & Parks receives is building-permit related, and economic-vitality of LA related. In areas where we were previously receiving $5 million a year (QUIMBY funds) we are now only getting $300,000 to $400,000.

The department was anticipating building projects in 1995 and 1996 with funds that never came in. Now we're virtually holding off on money to those worthwhile projects because of the lack of funds. Without the Proposition A funds to do capital projects, we would be in dire straits. 

Mike Hernandez has introduced Proposition K, a complementary measure to a '96 Proposition A measure. They are both salable; they can win in November '96. The funds are critical.

You have been asked by the Mayor to get involved with bringing new sports facilities to the Los Angeles area. Update us on the search for new facilities, and discussion about the existing facility in Exposition Park.


First, NBA Basketball and NHL Hockey: It is our hope that the Kings and Lakers will build a new arena. Of course, our number one choice would be proximate to downtown LA, but anywhere a new arena winds up will benefit our area. Second, Football! It is of primary importance, regardless of which site or team gets chosen by the NFL, that Los Angeles becomes the "Home" of the Superbowl by being awarded three or more Superbowls within ten years after the stadium opens. The economic impact of that scenario has been determined by to be $250 million each, with a present value to Los Angeles of over $500 million. The incremental revenue to be charged for stadium seats and suites will be a big help in financing the venues, so no public funds are required for the venues, unlike any other city in America.

We are in a unique position. The NFL wants to bring Superbowls to Los Angeles. Superbowls in Los Angeles will help finance the stadium, so we are not forced, like St. Louis or Baltimore, to commit public funds.

As far as Exposition Park is concerned I was a Coliseum Commissioner, and chose to leave the commission while involved with Football LA, because at that time, the Coliseum was one of the venues being considered by the National Football League. The League’s perception was that Football LA should be non-partisan. 

There are many positive programs, and funds being spent in the project. For example, over $100 million in improvements are being put into the museums by the State. Potentially, a $15-$25 million community center/swim stadium may be located there. Although they are losing eight day­time NFL games, there is potential for numerous soccer games, which will more than make up the loss, and actually increase the use of the park as a whole.

I think that the future of Exposition Park is imperative in terms of importance to the city, and its future is very bright.

Last month Dream­Works SKG and the City or LA announced their partnership and their plans for Playa Vista. What is your reaction to the merits and value and contribution this project will make to the economic vitality and life of Los Angeles? 

The project will make a huge impact. 

There are scores of reasons why people will continue to come into Los Angeles, especially for tourism and investment. DreamWorks is one of the "top ten". There are up­coming projects in Los Angeles—improvements being made—that bring with them the kind of civic pride and economic benefit that other states don't even have. Examples include: the Alameda Corridor; the airport expansion; DreamWorks; the Getty Museum; the development, over the next five or six years, of the greatest football stadium in the world - what I call "Bloomingdales, Macy's and big boxes," where a window of opportunity exists for retailers to come to Los Angeles, and create numerous jobs and economic benefit. 

There are a few reasons why these projects are bound to be successful—the stars have figuratively lined up for them. First, the interest rates are lower; second, land prices are lower by 30-40 percent over five years; third, there is an administration in place that is both business friendly and environmentally friendly. When you add these advantages up, you have an opportunity for major retail chains like Bloomingdales and big boxes to come in and make major investment in our city. 

Public education, which is obviously critical, has much potential. The development of the LEARN system and charter system—enabling the empowerment of neighborhood schools to take their future into their own hands—will be a healthy development in the next decade.

I'm very enthusiastic about the opportunities here. When I talk and listen to others, I think that optimism is catching. 

Let's turn to Progress LA. When last interviewed in TPR you hoped that a three year effort could be reduced to a one-year effort, and that you could move the entitlement reform process along successfully. As Cochair, what do you think or Progress LA's potential over the next couple years? 

Being a year wiser, I now hope that a three year plan can happen in three years. The first segment of changes have come in a timely fash­ion, and the trick with Progress LA is to keep the momentum up as the important issues come before City Council. I think that we're a third of the way there, but the first third was downhill. The second third is level, and the final third is uphill. 

We're very happy with the progress to date, but it's taking time—specific issues, one at a time—now have to go before council. It's important that Progress LA watch the issues one by one, not 30 by 30, and the first group was in batches. I know from retailers, residential developers, homeowner, and various others that interact with the city, that they are starting to feel a difference. The recent report card was a B-/C+ overall. 

In closing, we carried in December an article in The Planning Report's sister organization, Metro Investment Report, by Joel Kotkin. Joel suggests that there is "no there, there," with respect to the City of Los Angeles' economic development approach and strategy. You have been where the rubber meets the road, what is your reaction to his thesis? 

Joel's article, which I enjoyed very much, dealt with different kinds of relationships. One is a relationship with the federal government, one with the state government, and one with the business community at large. Where the rubber meets the road, as far as the business community is concerned, I think that LA's Business Team has done a remarkable job in helping hundreds of projects into and through the system—not around the system. I would cite Macy's/Bloomingdales as a specific example of where LA's Business Team, utilizing the talents of a respected Mayor, has done an incredible job. 

Every time that I speak with the Mayor about any of these issues, he's got three or four specific items that he is discussing with people in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. He is a tireless LA lobbyist, with the best interests of all areas of Los Angeles as his priority. It takes a vehicle full of Angelenos, Councilpersons, staff from 15 council districts, Room 305 of City Hall and the Mayor at the wheel. Communication is the fuel that powers the vehicle. The momentum is positive and the results should be there for Joel's next interview.


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