October 30, 1996 - From the October, 1996 issue

Rita Walters: The Great 9th District’s Issues Addressed and Assessed

The Nineth Council District includes much of downtown Los Angeles, including the Convention Center—potential site of a new and hotly-debated sports arena; the newly-selected site for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s St. Vibiana’s Cathedral; and Los Angeles Street, a vital artery featured in the August TPR (Commerce and Homelessness Meet Uneasily on Los Angeles St.)

TPR is pleased to present an interview with Councilwoman Rita Walters, a wise and experienced member of the City Council since 1991.


Rita Walters: “The problems that plague Los Angeles Street are a City problem, not just a downtown problem.”

In our August issue, we featured a roundtable discussion on Los Angeles Street in which Stan Hirsch is quoted as saying: "This street is absolutely critical to the image of all downtown. It is not just a street that affects the garment district, the toy district, the flower district, Los Angeles street or the homeless. It is what the people pick up on; and what they see in their eyes when they drive on the street." Your perspective on his observation would be welcome.

The problem certainly is larger than one thoroughfare. The problems that plague Los Angeles Street are a City problem, not just a downtown problem.

How does the City, consistent with the laws and freedoms that we cherish, deal successfully with the issues raised, whether in your district, or around the basin? 

The City has a model that has been used with some degree of success. When my staff finds a homeless encampment, such as that found adjacent to City Hall between Spring and Broadway Streets, we call social service agencies to try to get the homeless into some type of shelter or program. We also rely on the enforcement arm of the Police to remove those people that will not voluntarily leave. Homeless encampments often constitute a danger to the homeless and to others. Living on the street is in itself a great danger to the homeless.

Rita, you were a supporter of the Archdiocese siting the cathedral on the site of St. Vibiana's. That now looks like a development that will not happen. What do you feel the consequences of that decision will be for Los Angeles Street, and that part of your district? 

I think that for the next 25 years, that hole in the ground and the structure will serve as a monument to the folly of the Los Angeles Conservancy. I am personally delighted that the Cathedral is being located, albeit elsewhere, in downtown. However, I felt that the old St. Vibiana's site had the prospect of creating a synergy in the area that would have led to some dynamic revitalization. A cathedral at the site would have been a wonderful asset for much of downtown. 

The cathedral will still be a tremendous asset to downtown in its new location; but it will serve a different need. 

In the Los Angeles Street TPR roundtable, MegaToys business owner Charles Woo says: "By having an area just west of Los Angeles St. perceived as shut down, it won't take long for homeless people to start going there... Soon it will be a problem." What tools do we have available within City government to combat this prediction? 

Homeless are already in that area. I would hope that other organizations would look at the area as ripe for redevelopment, and move there with an eye toward restoration of the buildings in the historic core that are restorable. St. Vibiana's was not restorable. 

I'm also hopeful that City, County, and State agencies will continue to occupy some of the space in the historic core. Positive examples are the state Reagan Building and the rehabilitation of the Luby building. 

How does the new Civic Center Plan and proposed 10-minute diamond fit within your vision for downtown's historic and civic core? 

The plan fits very well. The plan can be achieved without a great deal of cost to the City or other governmental entities if each agency examines its situation and makes an honest effort to see how their space can be made more amenable to pedestrian-oriented traffic. The establishment of pedestrian walkways with the City Hall rotunda as the center of the ten-minute diamond, is something we can do. It is an exciting and intriguing plan. I only hope that other City, County, state and federal agencies in the area support this plan. 

The Great Ninth District obviously includes more than Los Angeles Street. One proposal currently being considered for vitalizing downtown involves constructing a sports arena. Can you give us your prognosis on an arena at the convention center, how practical the timetable is, and on the apparent competition with the City or Inglewood.

I don't like to view it as a competition. L.A., through no fault of Inglewood, offers benefits that cannot be found elsewhere. Certainly, one of the major benefits is continuing the revitalization of downtown. We need to give people a reason to stay downtown after work hours, and to come downtown from other places in the evenings. From that standpoint, the arena is very exciting.

The peripheral development that the arena would possibly spark could be incredible. The danger, of course, is looking at the arena as a panacea. I see the arena as a great shot in the arm, but not a panacea. This is what we need to happen downtown, in conjunction with a Convention Center hotel. Together, the incentives for additional development will be a very strong magnet.

Is the convention center the only viable site in downtown, or does Union Station also offer an opportunity?

Union Station offers a different kind of opportunity, but not the kind of opportunity that I think would be helpful in the redevelopment of the sections of downtown that really need it. A convention center location would be the best strategic location, and generate the most peripheral benefits—both for the City and the owners.

Councilmember Wachs challenges the propriety of publicly subsidizing the arena and suggests that the subsidy is too great. How should our readers evaluate the proposals to date? 

We need to respond to that issue as a City. I want all the concerns that are raised to be responded to rationally. Everyone has a right to know what the dollar amounts are and over what period of time. The public needs to know exactly what we're talking about. I look forward to working with Councilmember Wachs and the CLA's office to find answers to all these issues.

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If we look at the arena development as an investment in long-term future of the City that it makes good sense.

Let's move on to the question or charter reform, which has lately been dominating discussion in City Hall. The Mayor and Councilmember Wachs have recently endorsed an elected charter reform commission. Mayor Riordan has been quoted as saying: "We have a system of government here in the City of L.A. that is dysfunctional. Government by Committee has never worked in business or in the public sector. In this case, the committee is the fifteen members or the City Council?” How do you respond to his rhetoric?

The Mayor may feel that government in the City is dysfunctional, but I can't think of anything at this moment that he has done to make it more functional. The problem the Mayor has is that he is constantly comparing the City to a corporation. The City is not a corporation; the City is a public entity. You don't do business in the public sector the way you do in a corporation.

In Mr. Riordan's corporation, he could sit as President and CEO, and say: 'thou shalt,' and there were only 'Ayes' coming back at him. "How fast can we do this for the boss?" 

The process of government is different, and rightfully so. Governance must be an open and deliberative process, and the public must be involved. The fifteen councilmembers of which he spoke are elected from districts, just as he is elected at large. We have a responsibility to our shared constituents to do everything we can to make this City work. 

The Council is contending that while we do have a need for reform, we need on appointive commission, rather than an independently elected commission, that will send its recommendations back to the Council. Is the question just how independent the reform body should be? 

One of the events that has brought this issue to the forefront is the Paula Boland secession bill, which attempts to make it easier for the San Fernando Valley to secede from Los Angeles. The question of whether reform is needed has yet to be answered. 

I hear people saying that the City needs charter reform. But when you ask these people which area needs reform, they don't know. Or, the area that needs reform is not a charter issue at all. For example, how long a project takes to get through the planning/approval process is not a charter problem. 

It is important for the Council to have a committee which takes a look at the charter and updates the charter to the extent that it needs updating, and then put those changes before the voters. The public needs to understand the history of the charter; they need to understand why certain elements are in the charter and why other elements are not in the charter. The public needs to understand the rationale at the time the charter was developed. 

There is much clamor about changing the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution has been amended only 26 times. There is a constant debate about what is an appropriate amendment. Some similar analogies can be made to the City charter. There were studies undertaken in the 1960s, and several attempts to change the charter since then. Changing the charter is not an automatic solution for more responsive governance. 

The Mayor has found that there are not 15 people sitting in Council waiting for him to raise his hand and asking what we can put into it—Coffee? Charter Reform? He does not have the control here that he would have in private business autocratic governance. This is not the way a government body should operate.

Is the State-City relationship more a problem than the City Charter? More precisely, how much of the problem lies in the loss of local fiscal control in the aftermath, intended or unintended, of Proposition 13? 

Since Proposition 13, state-city relationships have been a real problem. State-county and state-school board relationships have also been significant problems. Proposition 13 just upset the apple-cart all the way down the line, and forced governing bodies to take measures that had not been taken or contemplated before. For example, the state capturing property tax previously allocated to cities. 

Have we lost local control? 

Absolutely. School boards have been stripped of powers they once had. The loss of control is terrible. Increasingly, we feel the effects of this loss in the City. It is incumbent upon us as elected officials to ensure that our City structure is proactive in responding to the problems created by the loss in local control. 

In the Spring, we will have Citywide and Council elections. How should our readers evaluate the candidates, and how should our readers render judgment on the state of the City? 

Everyone has his own measure. I wish all candidates in all elections were measured against a criteria of public service to constituents; real service to the community of the kind that makes the community stronger and pulls people together. 

In doing that, recognize that in Los Angeles, with our diverse population, public service calls for an added dimension of enlightenment on the part of public officials. This means that our public servants must be dedicated to reducing tensions und bringing people together across lines of class, culture and ethnicity. This means we must constantly work at it, and constituents must hold candidates feet to the fire on these important issues.

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