March 1, 2003 - From the March, 2003 issue

Central City Association's Carol Schatz Outlines Strategic Vision For Downtown L.A. Development

The Staples Center may be the largest and most attention grabbing recent development in downtown Los Angeles. however, the demand for market-rate, for sale housing units is what may drive downtown's development in the immediate future. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Carol Schatz, President and CEO of the Central City Association, in which she discusses the recently published Downtown Development Strategy and how she envisions that document being used to guide activity in the coming years.

Carol, the Central City Association recently released the downtown development strategy. Talk a little bit about on whose shoulders this report stands and what is the target audience for it.

The CCA and the Downtown Center Business Improvement District decided to launch this initiative about three years ago when we could finally pinch ourselves and believe that development was starting once again. It has been almost ten years since we have seen any kind of development activity in downtown. The last big year was 1989. A couple of projects came on board after that, but there was no interest in investing in downtown until 1997 or '98.

So we took a look around and what we believed was missing was a shared vision for what development should look like. Individual developers have their own vision for their project, but there was no shared vision for the community. In looking at what other downtowns have done when they have decided that revitalization is a key priority, they usually start with a plan, or strategy. They ask the developers who are going to be coming into the community thereafter to buy into that shared vision and make sure that the principles that are in that vision are principles that they adopt.

What's the catalytic hope you have here, with the release of this plan?

We hope for several things. We hope that the city will continue to make downtown a priority, in terms of their help with expediting projects, allocating financial resources, and allocating planning resources. We hope that developers who are coming into the community and have an interest either in building anew or converting older office buildings to housing will take a look at the guidelines that we have suggested in this plan and work with them.

What's the downtown context? What does this fit within and what does it look like 20 years from now if it's implemented?

We thought this was the right time to do this because we see momentum in terms of the development that is ongoing. In the 80s, we saw a development boom, but it was all commercial. In looking at other cities around the country that have successfully repositioned their downtowns, we note that what really spurs revitalization is not usually commercial construction. It's not more office buildings, but sports, entertainment, and culture that bring more commercial activity.

What makes this time very different from previous development booms is the housing component. The Adaptive Reuse Initiative that we launched back in 1997 really has borne fruit. We are getting an amazing number of developers who are interested in converting older office buildings to housing. There is great demand for housing-mostly market rate, with some mixed income and affordable as well-that we couldn't even dream about four or five years ago. We expect another 2,000 housing units to be added to our existing stock over the next couple years; an amazing number. We want to make sure the underpinnings are there so that it's easier for developers to continue to invest in taking this obsolete building stock and turning it into productive uses.

The CRA has obviously been a partner in all of the plans that have led up to this. The CRAs statewide are threatened, given the budget crisis, with losing the bulk of their discretionary dollars. Where do you think the resources will come from? Who are the partners that can make this a reality?

Of course, public financing helps, but the private sector is still charging forward to finance the projects. The two redevelopment areas, should they be allowed to go forward, still will contain pockets of the central business district. And, of course, we have identified South Park and the Historic Core as very critical parts of downtown for which to develop strategies and they are covered by the new redevelopment areas. So, the CRA continues to be a very important partner in bringing this vision to reality.

We also continue to hope that the city can help particular developments go forward with financial incentives, permit streamlining, or expediting projects. In other cities, a financial incentive is often provided in priority areas-that is something that we have not seen. But, those are the places where we hope we can continue to see some partnership.

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A couple of years ago, we got the state to commit to a program called Downtown Rebound, which provided low interest loans and grants to developers who converted older office buildings to housing. It has helped to get three major developments under way in downtown that wouldn't have made it because they couldn't get conventional financing. Obviously, this year is not the year to go back to the Legislature to ask that this program be augmented. But, we have not forgotten about it. If this budget crisis is resolved and things get back to a relatively normal scenario, we're going to go back to the state and ask for continued funding for this program. It has created almost 800 housing units.

As your readers know, housing is the critical component of downtown's revitalization in Los Angeles. Housing creates the critical mass that puts people on the streets and creates a demand for basic retail services-the dry-cleaners, the video stores and the backstreet cafes. It is the best example of smart growth and should be a city priority.

Let's talk of this guiding principles and top priorities. If we're to realize this vision, what do you know to be the most critical challenges and opportunities here?

The top two priorities are culture and entertainment and housing. Both are of critical importance and serve as the cornerstones of all of the revitalization efforts we've seen around the country. If downtown can continue to be the center of new cultural venues -Disney Concert Hall, the cathedral, the Colburn School and MOCA-and if the city and county understand the importance of critical mass and locate more museums and cultural venues here, then you have focused on one of the key priorities. Again, these are the drivers of downtown revitalization that we see all over the country.

When you have people living here, then you create more of an interest in jobs in the downtown area. You have true smart growth in having people live close to where they work. You have dealt with the issues of long commutes, freeway congestion, pollution, all of those issues that living close to work allows you to avoid. The other dynamic, of course, is the spin-off development and retail that comes from having people live close to where they work, because they would also eat and shop in the area.

Well let's talk about mobility for a second. We hold this interview a couple of days after a Mobility 21 session on land use and transportation and a major address by Portland, Oregon's congressman, Earl Blumenauer. There appears to be a proposal for a streetcar in the downtown development strategy. How do you see this mobility issue playing itself out?

Well, you know how easy it is to get in and out of downtown. But, once you're here, how do you get around? That is the reason we are promoting the re-introduction of the Red Car, which was the old form of transportation in the area. The Red Car used to operate on tracks throughout the region and emanated here from the subway terminal building in downtown. The Red Car would be a destination, a point of interest, in and of itself. It would have a draw that the DASH system does not have, nor does the MTA. We know we're facing very tough times with respect to funding, but we are hoping that in the call for projects, we will see this move up the ladder as downtown continues to grow. We need a great way to bring more folks into downtown and to use it once they get here.

Carol, let's draw this to a close by noting that you dedicated the plan to Ira Yellin. Elaborate on why.

We cannot think of another individual that was more important to downtown's revitalization than Ira. We consider him to be the foremost pioneer downtown with his work with the Grand Central Market, the Bradbury Building, the cathedral, and with his work on the Caltrans building. This is a gentle man, and I mean to put it in that context, who really believed so strongly in the importance of having a thriving downtown. He invested his own time, energy, and money to make that happen. He looked at this plan before he passed-we had his blessing. The best way we can honor his memory is to make this plan as much a reality as possible.

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