January 1, 2001 - From the January, 2001 issue

What Can Culver City Learn From Pasadena?

Bucking the tendency to rely solely on sales tax revenue, Old Town Pasadena's resurgence used a delicate balance of employment and housing as its driving force. With that experience under her belt, Marsha V. Rood left Pasadena in search of another challenge. Now, as Culver City's new Director of Community Development, Rood talks about the City's need for a similarly balanced revitalization--and why heavy sales tax reliance can ultimately kill a community's character.


Martha V. Rood

Marsha, give our readers a sense of your responsibilities in Culver City, and the major projects your Department is currently undertaking.

As the Director of the Community Development Department, I am responsible for Culver City's Planning, Redevelopment, Housing, and Building Safety operations. Together, we're committed to making Culver City a cohesive and revitalized community that reflects its small town character as well as the need for more urban experiences. A strong focus is on the Downtown and the development of Oliver McMillan's Town Plaza. The project has been moving along for about five years; however, with the recent lease termination of the AMC movie chain, the project has slowed somewhat. We've been working with Oliver McMillan to identify another theater opportunity, and perhaps some additional office use, to address the anchor tenant need. Another promising and innovative project Downtown is the revitalization of the Culver Theater into a 400+ seat performance theater, including children's programming and multi-cultural presentations. The Redevelopment Agency is in exclusive negotiations with the Center Theatre Group, which is based in Downtown Los Angeles.

Also, we do have a Business Improvement District, which has a budget of about $50,000 per year. The BID's mission is to revitalize the Downtown in conjunction with the City's efforts. Also, we are repositioning the Hayden Tract Industrial area as an innovative place for design and emerging entertainment related uses as well as cutting edge architecture.

Importantly, we're embarking on revitalizing the two major transportation corridors-Sepulveda and Washington Boulevards. The revival of these key areas will really knit this community together.

Marsha, you came to Culver City from Pasadena, a significantly larger city, where you served as the City's Development Administrator. What are the most important lessons you brought with you? What's the difference between the two local environments?

Perhaps most importantly, my work in Pasadena showed me how important public-private partnerships are to a city's long-term vitality. It's both the private and public sectors that make long-term investments, so developing and maintaining these partnerships is a very powerful tool to realize a city's vision for its future. It can be summed up as being pro-community, pro-business, and pro-quality.

However, while this may offer a basic direction, it isn't enough for a municipality or the private sector to simply develop a vision and make it happen without broad-based community support. All the stakeholders in the community need to be involved from the beginning in forming a vision. That way, everyone has a stake in its outcome. A lot of people will argue that this approach is impossible-it's too difficult, it takes too much time-but the lesson we're learning from governance all over the nation is that you simply cannot be successful by fiat.

Lastly, development must be comprehensive. You have to look at everything-from the business plan to the streetscape-in terms of these questions: What can they add to the economic value of the city? What's the market niche we are after? And how do these items relate to the overall vision and plan? The "build it and they will come" adage is no longer viable as a development strategy because development fads come and go. The development must be a piece of a larger vision of a community, which is grounded in the city's history and is place-based.

In terms of the similarity and differences between Pasadena and Culver City, both cities have a strong passion for their cities, a lot of community pride and involvement, an emerging New Economy with creative people, decreasing industrial space, and a sound, well-run government. However, Pasadena's role in its region is clearer, it more actively celebrates its history as part of its vision, and the private sector is more proactive in partnering with the City.

Let's hone in on a couple of these comparisons between Pasadena and Culver City. Under California's fiscal arrangement, Pasadena is a winner because it has a lot of sales tax revenue. Talk about that fiscal reliance on the sales tax dollar, and what it means in terms of a City's ability to be the architect of its future.

You can't look at a community based solely on its revenue stream. You need to understand the overall direction the community is heading and how it can be positioned to take full advantage of the current economy. Simply looking at the retail component skews that equation. The State's policy on the availability and sources of local revenue need to be reformulated with less reliance on local sales taxes.

If a city continues to make decisions based solely on revenue streams-the fiscalization of land-use-eventually it will lose its identity, its quality of life, and finally, its uniqueness. And once a city becomes ordinary, it will lose its market share as well.

So do cities like Culver City have the capacity and resources to control their destinies? Or is that an exception to the rule for cities today?

In general, there are always enough resources to do what you want. It's just a matter of throwing the net wider to include more partners in that vision, which increases the chances for success. There's no city in the U.S.-large or small-that can't chart its own destiny. It's all a matter of having the passion, pride and purpose to make it happen. And people are turning their attention to local control to create more livable communities.

Having said that, attention must be directed to securing a more stable, ongoing source of revenue to meet local needs and the provision of services. Today's heavy reliance on sales tax revenue drives too many land-use decisions.

Using Old Pasadena as a case study, how were you able to alter the revenue stream to make it successful?

We started out in Pasadena by being very proactive. In 1983, for example, the revenue stream from Old Pasadena was $10 million; that was our benchmark. Now, Old Pasadena has a revenue stream of over $200 million.

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To quantify those numbers, the ratio of public-to-private investment in Old Pasadena goes like this: for every $1 spent publicly, $16 was invested privately. And the annual return reflects the same kind of basic leverage, so Old Pasadena generates much more as a district than the City spends in the area each year. Pasadena was able to see these results mainly because the City did not simply tear down buildings to make way for new projects. As a result, it turned out to be a sound investment. And Pasadena is moving forward with this approach in the emerging Playhouse District and the Civic Center/Mid-Town area.

Is Culver City-which has a lot of big box retail-capable of following a similar strategy?

A similar strategy is indeed possible. Over time, I believe that we can build specific market niches that will encourage people to come to Culver City because it's clean, safe and friendly. A lot of people care about this place, which gives us a very good chance at moving forward to capitalize on its small town character while introducing more urban, cutting-edge uses. While you certainly need money to run a City, you can't compromise the community's values in order to obtain it.

Let's go back to that Pasadena/Culver City comparison. Culver City is currently revamping the Housing Element of its General Plan, and Pasadena has historically been very committed to its Housing Element. But I imagine being on the Westside makes it a more difficult strategy to pursue. Talk about the difficulty of creating a proactive Housing Element in Culver City as compared to Pasadena.

Our draft Housing Element is going before the Culver City City Council in the next two months. The Housing Element looks at available sites, considers the possibility of recycling some older sites, and even suggests introducing some infill mixed-use into Downtown. But the continual question remains: Will it be acceptable to the community?

We've investigated the ramifications-both positive and negative-of reducing the technical requirements for certain types of housing, streamlining the development process, and increasing densities in selected places. And in the hearings we've had so far with the Planning Commission, there's definitely a sense that there is support for moving forward with these ideas. Culver City's housing programs emphasize Section 8 rental subsidies, mortgage assistance programs, and neighborhood revitalization, with some infill new construction.

In terms of Pasadena's Housing Element, the City has a very aggressive affordable housing program, emphasizing rental and mortgage subsidy programs as well as new construction, mixed-income, infill projects, mixed-use projects, and market-rate housing in key areas of the City, including Downtown Pasadena.

Why are the stakeholders in Culver City resistant to housing in their Downtown? What factors made it possible to sell housing in Pasadena that aren't present on the Westside?

Having a mix of housing-affordable and market-rate, rental and for-sale-provides a certain economic stability. A city is not supported merely by retail, but by residents as well. When you combine that with workable transit, you get what was developed in Pasadena in the 1990s. And it turns out those strategies have become the leading national model for urban revitalization.

Some community activists in Culver City who oppose housing in downtown believe that housing is not desirable because it doesn't reap enough economic benefit, it increases traffic, it disrupts existing land-use patterns. And higher density development gives the message that the community is no longer small town in character.

But again, with changing demographics, cities really need to reposition themselves to take advantage of emerging markets-families with no children, retirees, etc. Even the growing entertainment industry, which is a large employer in Culver City, could benefit from increased housing.

The envisioned Baldwin Hills Park in West L.A. promises to provide critical open space for Culver City residents. In the June issue of TPR, we interviewed Esther Feldman, now with the Community Conservancy International, who's working on transforming those oilfields into a park. She said, "Easily accessible to millions of people and with sweeping panoramic views of the entire Los Angeles Basin, the Baldwin Hills present an unparalleled opportunity to create a state-of-the-art, two square mile regional park, recreation and natural area in the heart of urban Los Angeles." How does this effort fit in with the City's agenda to not only revitalize but reinvent how Culver City is perceived in Southern California?

One of the biggest things I've noticed about Culver City is that it lacks a true regional identity of place. People define it as five miles north of LAX, five miles south of Santa Monica, just east of Marina Del Rey, etc. So in terms of putting Culver City on the map, the park would give the City a clearer eastern boundary and an immediate regional recognition factor.

Let's bring this to a close by asking how our readers should measure success for Culver City a year from now? What are the benchmarks that we should keep an eye on?

Basically, success for Culver City would mean a community that is clean, safe and friendly-where people can interact with their neighbors in a setting that offers excitement, culture and old-fashioned, small town charm. This would include a performing arts theater, a movie theater, more restaurants, more neighborhood-serving uses, and pedestrians on the street-day and night.

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