March 30, 1996 - From the March, 1996 issue

Sharon Morris: LA’s New Deputy Mayor For Planning, etc.…

As the new City of Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Housing, Transportation and Planning, Sharon Morris replaces Rae James, who was appointed Director of External Relations for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority following the ouster of the agency’s Chief Executive Officer, Franklin White Morris, previously a Board of Public Works Commissioner, and Director of Governmental Affairs with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, discusses her priorities and the Riordan administration’s agenda for planning and development.


Sharon Morris

“Although change is hard, it is clearly necessary for the City of L.A. not only to be more business friendly but also more resident friendly.”

Sharon, share with our readers the scope of your primary responsibilities as Deputy Mayor for Planning, and update us on your responsibilities with respect to development reform. 

Within the Mayor's office, I focus primarily on the areas of housing, planning, environmental affairs and transportation.

I have two primary priorities right now. First, I'm working on the Development Reform Committee recommendations. I am working with Progress L.A. and trying to get the ordinances developed and delivered to the City Council. I am also advocating for the recommendations, first to the Council's Ad Hoc Committee on Development Reform, then to the entire Council. 

Second, I am very involved in facilitating homeless projects, particularly working with LAHSA to get the drop-in programs in downtown L.A. working, and with the housing initiatives available at the state and federal levels. 

Councilman Mike Hernandez, in last month's issue of The Planning Report, expressed some concerns with elements of the Mayor's development reform proposals. Could you comment? 

The DRC recommendations that have been implemented thus far have clearly been the less controversial ones. None of the recommendation have been implemented in exactly the manner the DRC recommended them. This is part of the City Council process of tweaking and amending. As the various departments receive the recommendations that affect the department, they know what they can easily and legally implement, and what is going to be more difficult. Primarily, the resistance to the reforms are from people who are uncomfortable with change. Although change is hard, it is clearly necessary for the City of L.A. to be not only more business friendly but also more resident friendly. 

Would you also comment on the statements by a number of people in the last few months that there is no passionate support from the general public for the Planning Department's General Plan Framework, even as it continues to move through the process of being approved. 

The framework is clearly necessary to respond to concerns from the federal government with regard to the environmental impact of development in the City of Los Angeles. The framework also gives the City a unique opportunity to bring together elements of the General Plan that have been seen as disparate. The framework represents a much-needed overview for the City family, as well as residents, developers and businesses. The new framework will particularly help businesses who need to understand how various general plan elements within the City fit together. 

Do you anticipate that the Council will pass both the General Plan Framework and the bulk of the more controversial proposals from the DRC this term? 

Yes. I certainly see the Council working with the General Plan Framework. The framework has gotten to the point where people are comfortable with, it if not excited about it.

Some of the more controversial elements of the DRC recommendations are harder to predict because we haven't yet had serious discussions with the Council members on a few of the more controversial issues. But I am more than optimistic that we will be able to achieve consensus on most issues. 

What is the Mayor's intention and vision for the CRA, and how would you evaluate his prospects of successfully achieving results in the next two years? 

Clearly, the CRA administration, like the rest of the City, is going to have to be more creative with their declining resources. Here in the Mayor's office, we do see the CRA's role as a pivotal one. They have unique economic development opportunities to assist neighborhoods with needed changes, particularly in renewing commercial areas like Vermont and Broadway, which were once vibrant but have since become antiquated and need help. The CRA is the agency best positioned to assist in cases such as this. 

The Mayor is also interested in healthy neighborhoods—this is another of our major initiatives. We are going to be working with various departments to concentrate on City resources, including the CRA, the Housing Department, Community Development Department, and to some extent, the Housing Authority. Depending on the neighborhood targeted, we will work with these public sector entities to revitalize the commercial and residential sections of neighborhoods in need.

What is the status of the Mayor's departmental reorganization proposals—introduced more than a year ago—to consolidate elements of CRA, CDD, and Housing, in order to create a new economic development department? Are such proposals still alive? Has there been any cooperation between the Council and the Mayor? 

The proposals are still under discussion. There are so many different ways to reorganize, that if you ask five different people you'll get five different answers. The exact method has not been agreed upon. Some type of reorganization clearly makes sense, particularly as it relates to economic development. However, the most significant hurdles right now are in terms of staffing and resources—these are issues that have to be factored in, and it won't be easy. 

Concern has been raised by a number of people regarding under-utilization of the CRA as an economic development tool: for example, drawing upon the CRA to support the development of the environs adjacent to the convention center or joining it's public powers with RLA to fulfill the latter’s mandate.

Given the multiplicity of new CRA project areas, both in South Central and in the Valley, and given that Sherman Oaks has just formally rejected the Agency's assistance, what's your view of the CRA as a central player for both redevelopment and economic development in the City? 

We see the CRA's role as absolutely critical. I don't think that they're underutilized. They are in the process of establishing several new redevelopment areas and revitalization projects. I think we could use the agency in a smarter way. John Molloy, the new administrator of the agency has brought a lot of new ideas and new energy to the table. I expect that we will work closely with him to develop innovative ways to pursue an agenda of both neighborhood redevelopment and economic development. 

With respect to evaluating the City of Los Angeles' economic development potential, Burbank's Community Development Director, Bob Tague offered the following in Feb’s TPR interview: "The City of Los Angeles has talked about increasing resources and cutting out processing and permit time. These things are important. (But) Is L.A. going to be a competitor to the City of Burbank? No. (Moreover) L.A. is proposing a $5 million per year incentive program and 15-20 staff people to focus on economic development for a population of 4 million people (in a 400 sq. mile City), while Burbank, a city of 93,000, employs three full-time professionals, spends $250,000 a year on advertising, and $1 million a year in incentives." 

The implication seems to be that L.A.'s smaller neighbors: Burbank, Glendale, and Culver City, are focused and committed, while L.A. hasn't yet focused its public resources and attention on rebuilding a new, viable economic infrastructure. Can you respond?

I believe L.A. has focused. We clearly still have some work to do. But unlike our neighbors Burbank, Glendale, and Culver City, which are small cities with small geographical areas, Los Angeles has some unique challenges. We have nearly 4 million people who are geographically and socio-economically diverse; this requires special attention. 

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We also have special concerns, because many of the land use and development regulations were developed in the ‘70s and '80s, when the economy was growing and development was nearly out of control in some parts of the city. These regulations were put in place to slow things down, to give neighborhoods a chance to catch up and look at what was being built. Times have changed. The city's more built-out now. The economy has slumped, and there's less money for development. We need to change the rules and market the city in a different way today than we did twenty or even ten years ago. And we are serious about making those changes. Many have already been made.

Focusing upon Housing, the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget has not been resolved for this year, much less next year. Given the uncertainty of federal dollars for the City's housing programs, and the City's interest in the expiration of FHA's programs, what level of support do you anticipate for housing programs by LAHD and CRA in the near future? 

I'm not prepared to predict how much money we expect to get. We are, of course, waiting to hear from HUD. We're constantly in contact with HUD's L.A. Office, and they're working on our behalf with Washington. Something needs to happen soon, however, because we need to have a dollar amount before we can fund tax credit projects. 

Since the City's approval process for planning, housing programs and development reform involves both Mayor and Council support, is there presently a working consensus regarding planning and development among the Council, the Mayor, City Commissions and the civic community?

I think there is a general consensus that something needs to be done. When you start to address specific areas, consensus gets a little trickier. There are still communities that are fearful of development—particularly those communities that were so impacted in the '80s. The poorer communities on the Eastside and Southside that have traditionally received less desirable types of development. These communities want to be certain that this pattern of development no longer occurs. 

Everyone’s awareness is heightened and they want to make sure that we're making it easier for individuals and committees to get involved in the process. 

Mike Hernandez again said in last month's Planning Report that, "In terms of the reorganization, we're reviving it altogether—a lot of work went into this plan. Once Bill Ochi left, however, the plan died in the Mayor's office. Now my colleagues want some kind of common strategy, and I think that the time is right to bring it back." Your comment on this and how difficult it is to reach consensus on changing the development processes?

The plan has not died. It's still moving forward. I guess there was a big splash while the Development Reform Committee was meeting, and making announcements. Those things that were very easy to implement were done early. The things that are the most difficult—such as a reorganization—we're still working on. We just don't have as much fanfare now. 

Let me give you an example of what we were able to implement: an interim case management system housed in the development services center on the fourth floor. We now have greeters who help the developer or the homeowner who needs to come in and pull permits. Staff will go through the process with him instead of the visitor wandering around and wondering which counter to go to. Pending in Council now is the last step in that system, which would institutionalize the case management one-stop permit system. 

What about an example of one of the more difficult development reform changes still to be accomplished? 

An ordinance also pending before the City Council has to do with vesting in the conditional use permit process and streamlining conditional use permits so they run for a six year period. This would allow the applicant the surety that they have a conditional use permit for a project on a specific piece of land while the applicant assembles the project. This assures the applicant that while the project is being assembled, the rules won't change for the project. 

What's the Mayor's thinking about the CRA funding limit on the downtown Central Business District upheld by the courts last month? In last month's interview Mike Hernandez said that "The realities are that the City's general fund is going to be facing some liability because of the CRA cap. We might have to start paying some of the bond debt out of the general fund. I don't think that the City can afford that. I think the City now has to look at some of the assets the CRA has accumulated." Your reaction?

I am not aware of a threat to the general fund. We are of course, very disappointed that the cap was not lifted. We're working with the CRA to determine what the next step should be. However, obviously, it's a real blow to economic development activity at the CRA while the funding cap is in place.

Last month David Booher wrote in The Planning Report that “the structure or governance in the state, fiscal arrangements, infrastructure investment patterns, and regulatory rates are dependent variables of [the] land use system. If we are to make headway as a state in establishing growth and development patterns that are sustainable for the long term, then we must understand the systems in governance, rather than focus narrowly on one or two of its elements.” Your reaction to the general relationship between government structure and our ability to cope and adequately plan for growth and changes in our communities? 

I agree with his statement. Clearly, infrastructure is critical to any kind of sustainability, and critical to attract new businesses. Infrastructure investment would certainly help to bring in manufacturing and any businesses that would bring jobs into Los Angeles. 

As someone who is experienced in local government, give us an example of how hard it is to make changes, to accomplish goals—even those which are commonly accepted—and how difficult it is to create the environment to allow that change to take place?

Effecting change is very difficult. Among the difficulties is the desire to defer making many decisions because of economic concerns. It has taken a long time for the effects for Proposition 13 to fully realize themselves, and now that they have, we us a city, as well as other local governments in the state, have to make some hard choices. 

Everyone has a different priority. There are those wedded to the status quo because it's comfortable—they'd like to do things the way things always been done, even though they're not very effective. However, to be fair to this position, making changes costs money. You often have to decide between competing priorities in order to invest in change. 

Finally, an additional responsibility or yours includes Public Works. What can we expect in terms of reorganization, as recently proposed? 

I'm not in a position to predict whether the Board of Public Works will remain the way that it is. Having been a member of the Board, I can certainly see a number of ways the Department could be reorganized. As the Department is currently constituted, I believe that the strong Board structure is probably best.

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