August 15, 2000 - From the August, 2000 issue

Goldberg's Way of Planning L.A.'s Neighborhoods: A Case Study

L.A. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg has received more media attention and critical commentary about her efforts to ensure freedom of speech for demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention than she has for her commitment to community empowerment & sound planning in her Hollywood district. But close attention to quality of life concerns has led to an innovative Station Neighborhood Area Plan for the Vermont/Western Corridor that is a model for smartly linking transportation and land use. In this interview with TPR, Jackie discusses the plan, gives advice to LAUSD, and outlines the issues she will tackle as a State Legislator next year.


Jackie Goldberg

Jackie, you've been the Hollywood area Councilperson for almost eight years, and one of the legacies you'll leave behind as you move to the Legislature next year is the Station Neighborhood Area Plan (SNAP) -designed to tie together the land-use and transportation agendas for the Vermont corridor. Could you elaborate on why you put so much energy into this planning effort, and what you hope the lasting legacy will be?

The Hollywood area is three times as dense as the City average, yet has five times fewer acres of open space. We're a very urban part of the City, and that's ok. We just don't want to increase that density without first ensuring a good quality of life for all our residents.

More than 5,000 students from this area are bused to outlying schools every day because there aren't enough seats-even though the schools are year round and multi-track. We have almost no park space either. In fact, the community is so park-poor that the residents supported a new McDonalds because at least there would be a playground. And we have almost no childcare of any type at any price, let alone that a blue-collar area can afford.

We want to accommodate more residential density, but first need to address these quality-of-life concerns, which is what the SNAP aims to do through the planning process. That means more open space-a program we call "Parks First." It also means childcare. And it means amenities like streetscapes and pedestrian-oriented districts instead of just more automobiles and pavement.

The Vermont/Western SNAP was created in part to repair the widening gap between demographic groups like the largely White population to the north and the primarily Hispanic and Latino populations to the south. How did you go about bridging this gap?

Because of the five Metro stations in the Vermont/Western area, we were able to get funding from MTA, which allowed us to hire consultants in transportation, economic development, and community planning. We had town hall meetings with 100 to 300 people at a time and in as many as five languages. We also had a charrette and smaller focus groups. And we've spent about two years making sure everyone in the community gets something out of the plan to meet their needs.

For example, the hospitals wanted increased Floor Area Ratios (FAR), and some transportation and urban planners wanted to increase height as well. Since hositals are the main economic engine of the area, we anticipate many new jobs for residents and have added job training as part of the plan. We also added conditions that it be connected to additional open space and childcare.

We eventually need to invest at least $10 to $15 million of both public and private funds to give people more open space. Our pocket park plan will create 50 small parks out of empty lots. Ideally, this area should have three five-acre parks. But that's unrealistic because even if we had the money, we'd be displacing so many residents that we'd undermine our goals.

What lessons can other large entities like the School District learn from your experience in working with the behemoth MTA, getting them to link up with City agencies in the neighborhood?

You have to bring in community organizers to get this level of participation. We hired a community development group from the East Hollywood area, Thai CDC, whose organizers are multilingual in Spanish, Thai and Tagalog. You can't get community participation simply by sending out a letter or flyer; you have to go door to door and explain to people-in language they understand-what's at stake. We also had help from an organization called Four Corners and our East Hollywood Committee of the Chamber.

Secondly, you have to make sure that MTA project money includes funding for community organizing. You can't assume that MTA's community relations staff-or the City Planning Department's, for that matter-is going to do the level of organizing necessary for this kind of participation. It takes a lot of hard work to get meaningful input-but it can be done.

It sounds like the Transportation Agency is really partnering with the neighborhood. Who are the professionals you brought in to support this community partnership?

We hired consultants from Sigel, Diamond Architects, Harris Architecture, Economic Research Associates, AIJK and Meyer, Hohaddess & Associates. All were good, some excellent.

Jackie, as a former School Board member and Chair, and now with your experience on the City Council, what advice can you offer the School District in building 100 new schools in a dense metropolis? What should their approach be? What would be more successful than the less-than-productive efforts that have preceded this conversation?

I'd say: Start with the open space you have-even if it's just a couple empty lots. And don't assume that it'll be easy to take either residential or commercial properties. To build a five-acre elementary school, you probably have to displace 100 households-at least. Therefore, I'd urge the Board to look at nuisance properties that the community would like to get rid of anyway. And every Council office has a list of those, believe me.

I'd also urge them to look at some far out, creative alternatives. We're looking at a lid over the Hollywood Freeway for park space. La Canada/Flintridge has one, and it's wonderful.

We can't just mow down apartment units or take away an entire commercial area. I still think concentrating on building primary centers is the best bet-taking all the K-3's out of the elementary schools and putting them in small, dispersed primary centers, each on one acre or less. Then converting the elementary schools for 4th through 6th grade, and making the middle schools 7th and 8th. I think this could go a long way in areas like mine to relieve overcrowding very quickly.

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Let's move to your Parks First Trust Fund and the joint-use possibilities of linking schools, parks and libraries. From your experience on both the Board and the Council, what does this portend as an alternative to the current single-occupancy strategy?

It's quite possible to do a joint venture, with parks and schools particularly, but you need at least two acres. It's very difficult to simply add a school to a park, or vice versa, but if they're planned together from the beginning-as in my District, where we're embarking on a three-acre joint-use between a school for 400 to 500 kids and a park-you can have great success.

Affordable housing: Clearly we have more demand than housing supply in L.A. What are your estimates of our current institutional capacity in the public, nonprofit and private sectors to remedy this shortfall in supply?

It's a disaster. Since the Republicans took control of the federal government, the funds for affordable housing have been cut systematically for seven straight years. And now, practically nothing is left. Tax credits are very difficult to come by, and it's hard to do a project without them.

And the zoning laws under the City's Master Plan direct all new development to already overcrowded areas. We couldn't even get the City to consider allowing "granny flats" in single-resident areas. If we want schools to catch up, people need to accept that building two units where only one is allowed is not the end of the world. But, creating areas that have five or eight times more density without the needed infrastructure is.

Let's move on to the City's structure and capacity to respond to these issues. With the implementation of Charter reform and the delegation of some planning responsibilities to the Area Planning Commissions, what are your thoughts on how this structure will play out with respect to these land-use considerations?

In the short run, I expect an initial negative response from the Commissioners because they think they've been selected to maintain the status quo. And that's going to make an already difficult job even harder.

But I'm optimistic the Commissioners will eventually understand that saying ‘not in my backyard' essentially means that people without a lot of money can't afford to live here at all. And I don't think anybody wants that.

However, all of this is moot without federal funding for housing.

The property taxes that once belonged to localities are now-post Prop. 13-the State Legislature's to dispense. Given your School Board and Council experience, what might you, as a State legislator, do to return homerule powers to local governments?

First of all, if we require Caltrans to replace affordable housing when they build a freeway, then we ought to require-and provide funding for-school districts to replace the housing they displace. You wouldn't have people saying, ‘Over my dead body you'll build that school here.' And you wouldn't be forced to pick sites with environmental issues. That's an essential change because there's no net gain in quality of life when you sacrifice housing for schools.

Also, instead of having one big statewide lottery on affordable housing tax credits, we should try a county-by-county allocation and let local elected officials determine the criteria for applying for those tax credits. It makes no sense to have one set of statewide criteria for Fresno and San Francisco and Ukiah.

Last question. While you are running for the Assembly unopposed, the L.A. races for Mayor and City Council are contested. What issues do you want addressed in the debates leading up to the Spring 2001 election?

Well, I'm sure we'll hear a lot about police reform, but somebody needs to make sure it actually happens this time. We need to know who's willing and able to make the police department accountable.

Secondly, people need to realize that while economic development is very important, not all jobs are equally good. If the City wants to stimulate job creation, those jobs need to be in fields that pay at least a living wage and offer some kind of career ladder.

And the single most important thing in terms of economic development is how to retrain a talented workforce. As many as 40% of the workers in the City of L.A. are not prepared for the technologically-oriented workplace. The City should be joining with the School District and the Community Colleges to devise a serious economic development plan that includes retraining. If we don't do that, we're going to become a second-class city.

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