May 2, 2000 - From the May, 2000 issue

Urban Infill Has Its Champion: Rep. Gil Cedillo

Like downtowns across America, far too many of L.A.'s most beautiful historic buildings are vacant. While great desire exists to bring back our historic cores, things like building and safety requirements often make it cost-prohibitive to revitalize these structures. But people like State Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, whose AB 1901 would provide tax incentives for adaptive reuse, could change the fate of inner cities statewide. TPR recently spoke with Gil about his bill, what it means for L.A., and why he thinks Downtown's time has finally come.


Gil Cedillo

Gil, not everyone in the real estate business believes urban infill will work in the marketplace. Many experienced developers in fact argue that State and local laws are going to have to change to facilitate adaptive reuse in our metropolitan areas. You are leading a legislative effort to change the rules for urban infill-tell us the objective of and prospects for AB 1901.

AB 1901 creates up to ten adaptive reuse zones, and provides tax relief and other incentives for the conversion of pre-1975, mostly vacant, commercial buildings into housing and live/work units.

This bill is part of an effort to preserve and bring back the State's historic urban cores. We want to revitalize underused, urban buildings so that we don't continue to build out into what remains of our open space. California's a beautiful, expansive State, but there's a lot of concern-especially in our suburbs and rural communities-that we're simply becoming one giant strip mall.

We want to level the playing field for developers who want to do something good for cities but are burdened with cost-prohibitive laws, such as seismic and structural requirements. The fire, safety and access laws established in the past all have a purpose-to protect people where they're housed-but we don't want those laws to prevent the revitalization of historic structures.

As a representative of Downtown L.A., there are particular needs and concerns we must address. The ratio of new jobs to new housing in Downtown is about 6:1, and we need to balance that. For example, we could build 30,000 units and have 120,000 people living Downtown, which would take 50,000 cars off the highway-and all without building a single new structure.

We need to think about housing as it relates to schools as well. New Schools •Better Neighborhoods has provided leadership in new thinking about how and where we build schools, and this effort complements those ideas as well.

The thrust of remarks by panelists at a recent LUSK Center retreat-which included Tom Lee of Newhall and others from around the State-is that it's just too hard to do adaptive reuse projects in the inner city. You've probably heard such testimony often-how do you react?

I won't say the inner city is the only place we can do adaptive reuse, but it's clearly the place that we must.

For example, in Downtown Los Angeles, we have several world-class museums, a new Cathedral, the Civic Center, State government buildings, a new Sports Arena that's going to be a marvel, restaurants, hotels. What we don't have are people who live there every day. But once we build attractive and affordable housing, we'll create a tremendous vibrancy, which will then lead to additional retail, markets, support services and all the other things that define a community.

So I definitely think you can do it in these cities because all the infrastructure and social amenities are already there.

The bill requires the California Trade and Commerce Association to design and implement up to 10 zones in the State. Understanding that the criteria have not yet been developed, what areas might qualify for designation? Will Los Angeles be one?

It's still a work in progress, but Downtown L.A. will clearly be one. My staff has worked very closely with the Central City Association, which sponsored the bill and adaptive reuse concept. CCA has been joined by the City of L.A., the Chamber of Commerce and the L.A. Conservancy in a collaborative effort. We're also working very closely with the Governor's Office, the Housing and Community Development Department, the Business, Transportation & Housing Department, and the Treasurer's Office to craft a bill that the Governor will sign.

But everybody in California wants it. Small cities and rural towns want it because it preserves America's history. You don't need to be a big urban center to have a downtown worthy of preservation.

About a year ago, the L.A. City Council passed an adaptive reuse ordinance targeting Downtown's Historic Core, which is in your district. In May of last year, TPR interviewed L.A. Planning Director Con Howe, L.A. Building & Safety GM Andrew Adelman, and developer David Damus about the ordinance. At that time Con Howe said, "The ordinance deals with zoning aspects; it doesn't change the State building code, the City's building code, or the seismic code." What do cities have to do in the way of planning, zoning and building codes to complement the tax relief incentive you're providing at the State level? Will adaptive reuse be meaningful without changes in other State codes?

These are fiscal as well as planning matters. The bill is designed to streamline the bureaucratic requirements that developers face by giving them tax credits and other incentives.

Those of us working closely on this important issue would like to work with cities, who can certainly complement our program with other incentives. And the City of L.A.'s adaptive reuse ordinance is a good example of that.

Many developers say that the biggest obstacles to rehabbing pre-1974 buildings are the seismic and structural requirements. The success that L.A. has experienced with adaptive reuse has been largely due to Building & Safety GM Andrew Adelman's voluntary commitment to Downtown revitalization. In our May ‘99 interview, he said, "We achieve [safety] by taking a ‘facilitator' rather than a ‘regulator' approach to code compliance There are some rigid regulations in today's code . We need to look at the spirit of those regulations and achieve equivalent safety within the limitations of the existing buildings." How do you hope to bring other agencies to the table? How can we bring attitudes like Andrew Adelman's to the State level?

I've been very impressed with the developers in Los Angeles. And everyone loves Andrew Adelman. Developers tell me that he takes a balanced, reasoned approach to this. He's been very responsible in maintaining safety issues, while helping to remove the obstacles to adaptive reuse.

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In many respects, it will be up to others in positions like his to embrace the possibilities. But the attitude he articulates is impressive. And when you have that kind of leadership-both in word and in deed-others will follow when they see how successful it is.

The bill you introduced last year was opposed by some members of the Legislature and eventually vetoed by the Governor. What brought on that opposition? Is this year's bill significantly different from last year's, or has the mood in Sacramento regarding adaptive reuse simply changed?

A little bit of both. Last year's bill had been narrowed down to L.A. only, and the Governor was concerned about that. Also, there are some people who just don't believe in providing tax incentives for market-rate and mixed-use housing. And I respect that.

But I believe mixed-use is the appropriate way to build communities, especially in Los Angeles. People have access to retail and other support services, as well as close proximity to jobs and schools. In addition, seniors and low-income people are not segregated from the rest of the community.

A Smart Growth Caucus has also emerged, chaired by Patricia Wiggins, and I'm very happy that my bill is part of their agenda.

Schools are also building blocks of community. Your constituency Downtown has been desperate for a new high school for 15 years, yet Belmont remains unbuilt. What will the impact of the School Board's decision to close Belmont be on the Legislature's willingness to fund new school projects in L.A. and to encourage new schools to be built as centers of neighborhoods?

I think people underestimate how much the current Belmont debate has come to epitomize everything that people-especially in Downtown-dislike about government. It has come to epitomize, in a word, "waste."

So if you live in Los Angeles, you're part of the political sparring that takes place. But to the rest of the State, Belmont is the epitome of bad government. That creates a burden for the entire Los Angeles legislative delegation to be good advocates for education-and it's sorely needed.

As you know, a Joint Senate and Assembly Committee was recently formed to consider all of the state/local government tax reform recommendations from the Speaker's Commission on State-Local Government Finance, the Commission on 21st Century Governance and the State Controller. Columnist Dan Walters argues that these proposals for changing the state/local fiscal relationship are worthy ideas, but that they have little chance of being enacted by the Legislature. In your opinion, do any of these recommended reforms-which are meant to encourage more housing and even industrial land uses-stand a chance in the Capitol?

They do. One, we have a good economy. Many of those land-use fiscalization policies came out of the recession of the early ‘90s. But because of our current economic cushion, we now have the resources and the political climate to change those formulas, especially if it means making our communities and our economy more sustainable.

And two, we have a bunch of new people-many from local government-who aren't bound by tradition and are willing to foster thoughtful change. That may be the silver lining on the cloud of term limits-people aren't bound by old formulas and old agreements.

Let's close by returning to adaptive reuse and the future of downtowns. People have been trying to revitalize Downtown L.A. for 50 years now. But with some great new developments in the Historic Core-like Staples Center, the Cathedral, Tom Gilmore's project and others-some say Downtown's renaissance is finally upon us. But why should we think these efforts have any greater chance of finally creating a 24-hour Downtown than those of the past?

There are several reasons. First, we're well on our way to establishing the social infrastructure that people need to live Downtown. I'm working vigorously to preserve St. Vibiana's. We've also funded and created permanent homes for the Latin-American Museum, the Chinese-American Museum, the Italian Hall, the Korean Museum, and the Japanese-American National Museum, which is just remarkable. In addition, the Governor has made a tremendous commitment to transportation investments to get people in and out of Downtown.

The second thing is simply that we have a good economy-and these are thoughtful strategies for sustaining that economy.

Third, we have phenomena like this Smart Growth Caucus-people emerging from local government and other entities who have experience shaping the way we build our communities.

We didn't have it right 50 years ago. When I worked for Mayor Bradley's Office in the early ‘80s and we tried to revitalize Spring Street, we didn't have it right then either. But today, we have the critical mass, the resources and the leadership to make this successful. So I have the most I will ever allow myself-guarded optimism about Downtown's future.

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