September 5, 2000 - From the September, 2000 issue

The City of Azusa Seeks To Develop Smartly & Rick Cole Elaborates On a Process To Do So

Rick Cole, Azusa City Manager since 1998, has been widely recognized for his vision in renewing the older suburban city. He is determined to grow Azusa's existing manufacturing base, but refuses to accept the lower quality of life that often accompanies industrial cities. TPR was pleased to speak with Rick about why the city's current efforts to develop a comprehensive General Plan that both begins and ends with residents' direct participation is the best way to go.


Rick Cole

Rick, we interviewed you in August of last year, shortly after the voters of Azusa rejected what would have been the largest residential development in decades. You said then, "The most important lesson is not for developers; it's for communities. Cities claim to plan, but usually simply react to developer proposals. Communities should clearly define the values-environmental, social and otherwise-that they want incorporated into their neighborhoods." Can you give our readers an update on what has happened with the land-use issues in your community since last year?

We have launched the most ambitious general plan effort of any city of our size in the history of California. More than 500 citizens took part in our Future Fiesta last fall, giving feedback on the values they want to see guide the City's future. Azusa families treasure the City's hometown atmosphere and want to preserve it.

This May, we held our first ever Citizen's Congress to officially launch the general plan effort with more than 400 residents as delegates.

We've engaged some of the most impressive minds in Southern California to assist in this effort, but the Plan itself will flow out of citizen participation and will be written by our own staff. That's an important point because all the great plans in the world are worthless unless there's full buy-in from the community and full commitment from the staff toward implementation.

Elaborate on the team of professionals and technical advisors to your community consensus process that nourished the discussion and set the tone for the possibilities.

We've had the benefit of some of the most farsighted urban planners working today in California.

Henry Cisneros set an ambitious tone with his keynote address and helped people understand that they control their own destiny-not developers or outside trends. Stephanos Polyzoides has made a tremendous contribution in setting out the building blocks for what makes great cities, and Deanna Belzer of Strategic Economics has helped us recognize our opportunities for the New Economy. Michael Bates has set the foundation for rethinking our auto-dependence and creating a multi-modal community. And Peter Calthorpe has done great work on the University District.

You said a year ago, "Azusa is a fascinating case study of an older suburban community redefining itself for the 21st Century. Like most cities in this category, we don't have the advantages of fame and fortune to throw at the problem, so as a British statesman in World War II said, ‘We are out of money. We are going to have to think.'" You've now gone through this thinking process; what is the result?

We've produced an emerging consensus about what this community wants to be, and that is the basis upon which the plans will be drawn.

The next stage-beginning at our second Citizen's Congress in October-is to look at what that means in terms of land-use and transportation.

Does a city like Azusa presently have the tools and wherewithal to be the architect of its future-even with a consensus of values?

Communities that go beyond visioning exercises-by grounding those core values in a coherent plan-can absolutely guide their own futures.

In Azusa, we're refocusing on districts, neighborhoods and corridors that have been neglected for the last half-century because cities have not been planning, they've been reacting. By forming a comprehensive, overarching outline of what we want Azusa to be, we're planning for the long haul; as a result, battles over individual projects become less complex and less divisive.

The San Gabriel Valley gets far less attention than the San Fernando Valley, yet both are undergoing profound changes. How is Azusa coping and adapting to change?

Azusa is unusual in that it reflects the bedroom community pattern of the ‘50s and ‘60s while keeping a powerful industrial base. Our weak link has long been the retail, office and commercial sector.

We see the opportunity to balance the community, which is the 21st Century "livable-community" ideal. We're investing in revitalizing downtown, creating a University District, and softening the harsh edge of our industrial district to create a more solid mix of compatible uses.

By putting all of these pieces together, Azusa can be a model for a 21st Century suburban community. Without residents trading their quality of life for central city congestion, we can create a pedestrian-oriented mix of uses that diverts dramatically from the single-use zoning of traditional suburbs.

But your goals require the transformation of a built-out landscape. Elaborate on how you will address the challenge.

The Monrovia Nursery property represents more than 300 buildable acres, primarily in Azusa but also in neighboring Glendora. If the two cities work together, we can create a great mix of uses.

There's tremendous interest in eventually extending the Blue Line through the eastern part of the Valley and creating transit-oriented development around those rail stations. That can fundamentally change how our suburban communities work.

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You have been quite articulate in past interviews with TPR about the challenges cities face under our fiscal arrangements in California. Speaking as a City Manager, does Azusa-having reached a consensus on values-have the tools within its boundaries and the power to implement its own vision?

There is increasing recognition that the State fiscal structure directly disadvantages all cities, particularly ones like Azusa. But we cannot afford to wait for the State structure to be reformed-nor can we use it as an excuse in the meantime. The residents of Azusa would prefer to shop near home than travel to malls and big-boxes in surrounding communities. But we are not going to jump into the game of massive subsidies and poor land-use choices.

We're instead going to build on our industrial base and take advantage of the emerging e-commerce market with companies like Homegrocer.com that have chosen Azusa. We're going to bridge the gap between the auto-oriented 20th Century land-use patterns and the livable-communities opportunities of the 21st Century.

Azusa has done a unique and encouraging job of attracting niche businesses and manufacturing. When we talked a year ago, you were very dependent as a City on a retail motorcycle outlet. What has happened with that case study in terms of whether cities still have the capacity to nurture and maintain similar industries within their borders?

Burt's Motorcycle was the number-two sales tax generator in our City (after Costco). As a business that grew up from a bicycle retailer in the ‘40's, we wanted to keep them at home. But there were no sites large enough to accommodate their expansion needs. Covina cut them a very attractive financial subsidy to lure them a mile south. Under the Torlakson bill-which Azusa supported-if it were an auto-dealer, Covina would have had to share the sales tax with Azusa. But as a motorcycle and recreational vehicle retailer, Covina gets to keep all of the revenue.

From a land-use standpoint, the Covina location may be a better site than what they would have found in Azusa's constrained environment. But from a fiscal standpoint, it makes no sense for Covina taxpayers to subsidize a recreational vehicle outlet in order to get it to move to their city for sales tax dollars.

So what is the lesson to be drawn from your experiences for cities in the San Gabriel Valley or in Southeast Los Angeles that are similar to Azusa? For example, what needs to happen in way of State constitutional reform to enable cities like yours to be the architects of their futures?

Our City Council unanimously endorsed the Speaker's Commission recommendations. We take issue with the head-in-the-sand attitude of the League of California Cities, whose misguided belief is that because of the potential disadvantage of sales tax-rich cities, they should resist the tide of reform. Reform is too beneficial to the entire State-all cities included-for the League and cities like Azusa not to get on board.

As a former Mayor and now a City Manager, what are the day-to-day challenges that capture and demand your attention, both positively and negatively, as you try to accomplish your goals?

Our most exciting, immediate project has been the Neighborhood Improvement Zone. Last year, as a pilot effort, we focused $275,000 of our block grant money to a single neighborhood, and we clearly told the neighbors that they would decide how the money was spent.

And the results have been phenomenal. We are seeing record-breaking home sales and the formation of two authentic neighborhood associations. Homebuyers are choosing Azusa versus outlying suburban communities because they see the impact of efforts like the Neighborhood Improvement Zone: Crime has dropped 50% in the last nine years; we've planted 2,000 trees; test scores have improved across the board, and Azusa Pacific University has doubled its enrollment over the last 10 years.

With Azusa's consensus process now completed successfully, how do you get the message out to larger circles of your residents, given the fact that this region's media market typically drowns out substance and the particular?

We have one of the sisters of the Daily News-the San Gabriel Valley Tribune-which covers our town a couple times a week. It does a good job of covering the communities within its far-flung borders.

But as far as I can tell, the L.A. Times couldn't find Azusa on a map, and the TV stations have no interest in any story in which fewer than four people are stabbed to death. It's discouraging, but I think the media pay less and less attention to serious public dialogue. If public dialogue is going to take place, it will have to be along the lines of face to face democracy going back from New England to Athens. I think we'll see a rebirth of that, as I'm seeing in Azusa.

The extraordinary advantage Azusa has over cities like L.A.-or even Pasadena or Long Beach-is the access to people face to face. A year ago I mentioned that I knew the Monrovia Nursery plans would be defeated when they mailed every voter a flick promoting their project. We found that direct and honest communication with people, face to face or in their mailbox, has immense power. We're hearing more and more feedback that City Hall is truly listening to the community.

For example, when we asked our 6,000 single-family homeowners what option they wanted in regard to recycling, we got back 1,400 responses. That just doesn't happen in larger communities. So we're rebuilding the tradition of direct citizen participation.

Lastly, so we can hold you accountable in our annual interviews, what will we see a year from now in the way of progress towards your goals?

The opportunity to set goals and meet them is something for which big bureaucracies have no capacity, and academics and theorists have no opportunity. So here in Azusa, we're going to see visible progress toward creating a fabric of self-sufficient neighborhoods and a city government that is a partner in the regeneration of community. Azusa doesn't aspire to be the most affluent foothill community. Rather, we simply want to offer the best value for middle-class families and families that want to achieve the economic and educational opportunities that lead to the middle-class. And we're doing that one neighborhood at a time.

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