August 1, 2002 - From the August, 2002 issue

Rick Cole Champions Azusa's Economic Growth Strategy Built On Housing Development

Last year, Azusa was 6th out of the 88 cities in LA County in overall property value increases. In just three years, the median price of existing homes has jumped 54%, sparking the first new private investment in Azusa's downtown in 30 years. A good deal of Azusa's success story results from the progressive forms of citizen participation in housing and development decisions instituted by City Manager Rick Cole. TPR is pleased to present this conversation among Rick Cole, TPR Editor-in-Chief David Abel, and Jane Blumenfeld of the Los Angeles City Planning Deptartment.


Rick Cole

David Abel: At a time of increasing focus on the L.A. Metro area's housing crisis, California's Department of Housing and Community Development recently commended Azusa for "addressing the housing needs of the City through the adoption of effective land use and housing assistance strategies that will work to revitalize the community and improve the quality of life for all residents." How has Azusa responded to the controversial issue of density in order to meet the need for more housing?

Rick Cole: Out of 31 cities in the San Gabriel Valley, 20 are not in compliance with State law. Our City Council unanimously approved a new housing element, with State support, as the first step in completing our entirely new General Plan. All cities struggle with community suspicion and hostility toward increased densities. Where Azusa has been successful is shifting the debate from the emotional topics of density and affordable housing to a community-wide discussion about the quality of new housing and the revitalization of older neighborhoods.

Over the next ten years, SCAG projects that our region needs to produce 600,000 new units to keep up with population growth. But communities continue to resist having affordable housing quotas forced on them. Without a larger vision to shape growth, we'll be stuck in a paradigm of non-compliance, litigation and failure. So I think it's crucial to engage citizens in the larger questions of how we are going to grow, to place the housing issue in the much larger context of ‘What's good for our community?' and ‘What's good for the Southern California economy?'

Through Azusa's Citizens Congress effort, we've re-framed the question from "How many units of affordable housing will we be forced to accept?" to "How can we attract new high-quality investment in our older community?" That resulted in a green light for building 500 new single-family homes. That's had a dramatic positive impact. Last year, Azusa was 6th out of the 88 cities in LA County in overall property value increases. In just three years, the median price of existing homes has jumped 54%, sparking the first new private investment in our downtown in 30 years. The success of the new single-family homes has created a new openness to townhomes, apartments and mixed-use residential projects-as long as they achieve the same high standards of quality development. We're moving toward a consensus for future development of the Monrovia Nursery site as transit-oriented neighborhoods, with another 1,500 homes proposed across all prices and market types.

David Abel: What might other city managers or a city council members in the other cities within the San Gabriel Valley or in the Metro LA area, glean from Azuza's experience with the Citizens' Congress and your framing the housing question as you have?

Rick Cole: It's a lesson that people in government constantly have to re-learn. The lesson is that people are not stupid. Bureaucrats and experts tend to assume that citizens are ignorant and selfish-that all they care about is "not in my back yard." Obviously, when residents are notified that a ‘low-income housing project' is going to be jammed in their neighborhood, the public debate is unlikely to be enlightened. But when you talk honestly to a broad range of citizens and ask them to help solve this tremendous challenge of finding housing for all the needs of our society-from poor people living in garages to middle class families looking for opportunities to move up-it turns out that people aren't stupid. They see we can't continue to sprawl. They understand the potential for older communities to take advantage of the tremendous need to build new housing to attract investment back to their neighborhoods. Depending on the question you ask-and how you ask it-you get a very different reaction and a very different set of answers.

Jane Blumenfeld: What's different about the community involvement process that Azuza used versus what you did in Pasadena and in other places where you've worked?

Rick Cole: I've learned there is a distinct difference between involvement and participation. If you want "involvement," you go out and ask people their opinions. If you want "participation," you challenge people to engage in problem-solving. The only way to break the deadlock that keeps us from revitalizing older cities-the stalemate that perpetuates sprawl-is to ask citizens to participate in solving the complex challenges that the bureaucrats and experts are confronting.

David Abel: But Rick, you know that this option has always been available. What inhibits city officials and electeds from really asking citizens to be part of a problem solving task-force. What keeps such collaborative planning from happening?

Rick Cole: The reality is that engaging the citizenry costs a lot of money and time to do it right. Obviously it's a challenging process. It forces elected officials and administrators to give up some power. In the end, though, government is far more effective when citizens understand and support needed policies. It's frustrating that so many have given up on solving our problems through the democratic process in our cities and region, instead using only State laws or litigation.

Jane Blumenfeld: I think one thing that happens in that democratic process is there is always the ability to opt out all together. Did they somehow not see opting out was a real option in Azusa, do you think?

Rick Cole: That was the reason we were out of compliance with State law for so long-the illusion that somehow we could control our own destiny. But it is increasingly obvious in older communities that our destiny is being shaped by regional transportation decisions and economic factors-and by the State's dysfunctional finances. Local communities can't control their own destinies by opting out. We have to take an active role in reshaping regional land use and transportation decisions. But we can't wait for those changes to promote better planning and decision-making at the local level. We have to lead, not follow.

David Abel: Rick, I would assume that other officials from other cities reading this interview would say, "Well, there must be something peculiar about Azusa that you've been able to do this that differentiates you from all of us. Maybe it just got so bad in Azusa that people were willing to finally opt in to problem solve." They're going to try and distinguish you as an isolated example. How do you respond to that kind of reaction?

Rick Cole: First of all, I don't think we're unique. A lot of good work is being done in cities across the Southland. We've probably put more of the pieces together than most cities, but I wouldn't want to disparage others. We look at cities like Santa Monica, Pasadena, Monrovia, and Brea as real inspirations and examples to learn from, both in what's been done and how they've done it.

However, I think it's important to realize that the reason we've been able to move so quickly is that Azusa is determined not to be left on the wrong side of the growing gap in LA County between communities that are prospering and those in decline. That is at the heart of the debate over secession in the City of Los Angeles-the fear of many in the Valley that their suburban ideal is threatened by the growing poverty and declining services of the city as a whole.

The regional economic tides are reshaping the landscape and Azusa clearly wants be ride the wave, not drown in the undertow. That's why we got behind our police to reduce crime by 50%. That's why we were the only city in LA County in the last decade to claw our way back to majority home ownership. That's why we are determined to raise test scores and property values. And we see building new and better housing as a great way to get there.

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David Abel: There are efforts under way with some foundation money and housing interests and neighborhood interests pressing for ways around the basin to promote urban infill housing. I don't know that those efforts touched your work in Azusa, but what advice would you have for those thinking systemically about Southern California and the LA Basin in the way of regulations, or funding, or extreme partnership that would pick up on the lessons of Azusa and extrapolate the work around the basin?

Jane Blumenfeld: What advice could you offer the urban infill foundation funded efforts going on in LA metropolitan area that hope to figure out what regulatory strategies or reforms might improve the chances for more urban infill housing?

Rick Cole: I hate words like "urban infill housing." They appeal to foundation people and policy wonks, but not to community residents. What neighbors care deeply about is quality of life in their own neighborhoods and places for their kids and grandkids to live nearby. If you respond to those concerns, what planners call ‘urban infill housing' can provide a pretty attractive alternative to the used car lots and tacky mini-malls on the dying commercial strips around them.

Those arterials also happen to be the transit corridors of our basin. Residents can get pretty excited about replacing the ‘crudscape' with quality townhomes or courtyard apartments. It breathes new life back on the street, increases transit use and brings back young buyers and renters to older areas.

It may not be Paris, but if you look at Beverly Hills or Pasadena, you see that density done with quality design, materials and maintenance has thrived for eighty years. Once residents embrace that vision, instead of figuring out ingenious ways to oppose new housing, they become eager to facilitate new investment.

David Abel: What research might you have made use of to encourage the improvement of your quality of life agenda through the addition of housing? Was there anything outside of the facts and information you had at hand in the City Manager's office, from state or reginal data sources, that would have been useful?

Rick Cole: That reminds me of what Richard Nixon said in the famous smoking gun tape, "Bob, nobody gives a damn about the Italian lira." Nobody cares much about research from think tanks.

We found two tools to be very effective. One was taking tours of well done housing and mixed-use in other communities-Ladera Ranch, Brea, Alhambra, Pasadena, Riverside. There's nothing better than seeing how it works on the ground to make the case that you can have quality new single-family homes, quality new multi-family housing, and quality new mixed use projects. Second, we used computer visual simulations to show how quality housing or mixed used development could translate to Azusa streets-before and after. Not only did we go and kick the tires, we used technology to bring it back home.

David Abel: It is understandable that what you're advancing in Azusa will move forward the City's quality of life agenda. What's not clear is how it works economically for the city of Azusa when most commentators believe that housing is a money loser for cities. How do you pay your fire department, police department, keep your libraries open, etc., with housing as a lead element in your plan?

Rick Cole: When our City Council unanimously voted to support AB 680, the sales tax sharing experiment, the Mayor of Cerritos wrote Azusa's Mayor Cristina Madrid a letter. He criticized us for building 330 beautiful new homes at Mountain Cove instead of commercial development. It reminded me of the bureaucrat back in Washington who wanted to sail a hospital ship up the Los Angeles River. A sensitive canyon environment is not the place for a retail power center.

But the direct answer to your question is: new investment provides leverage for older communities. New housing provides that stimulus in a community that has been starved for new investment for decades. We can leverage that new housing, which brings increased buying power and visibility in the real estate world, to bring investors and businesses to Azusa to experience the enhanced quality of life that we're creating for residents.

That's why we had six developers competing to build a new downtown mixed-use project and why the owner of our biggest strip center is proposing a complete mixed-use redevelopment of retail and housing in our University District.

David Abel: So to paraphrase, other cities are either busy being born or busy dying, and you want, as Azuza's City Manager, to convey the image of a city busy being born.

Rick Cole: Beyond the image, we want to deliver the whole package in the competitive environment in which cities operate. East of Pasadena, if you want to take your date for a stroll after a movie at the multiplex, you aren't going to do much better than window shopping at the Home Depot across the parking lot.

So in Azusa, we're creating walkable districts with old-fashioned appeal because they work for people. We call it "the Gateway to the American Dream," because we're striving for a family-centered environment, with a new library, quality parks, quality schools, and a quality streetscape so that people will be proud to live here and others will be drawn to visit because they don't have that at home.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.