July 1, 2003 - From the July, 2003 issue

L.A. City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa On His Priorities & Policy Focus

As Speaker of the Assembly, a mayoral candidate, and now a City Councilmember representing the 14th District, few public officials in Los Angeles have been as dynamic and visible as is pleased to present this interview with Villaraigosa, in which he comments on his time away from public office, his plans for his district, and the challenges facing the new Council.


Antonio Villaraigosa

Please share with our readers what your priorities will be as you assume your new seat on the L.A. City Council?

I'm excited to be on the Council and think that the Council gives me an opportunity to look at city policies with respect to economic development, planning, urban infill, housing and building and siting schools. It provides us with the opportunity of creating synergies around those efforts.

What did you hear/learn on the campaign trail that ought to be translated into public policy?

On the campaign trail, I heard from some communities concern about affordable housing and how best to get it built. There's concern about the siting of schools. There's concern about the lack of space for the growing population. There's concern about the lack of jobs and economic development. As I addressed those concerns, I spoke about rethinking what schools look like. Schools should be centers of community, involving the neighborhood in where they are sited and how they are planned. We need to consider joint use opportunities for our new school facilities, such as parks that can double as open space for students and open space for community recreation. There was a lot of concern about the lack of community involvement in planning for housing and growth, and about the lack of space for anything.

It's noteworthy that former Governor, now Mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown, is thinking now about running for attorney general with a campaign theme that stresses his desire to overcome the mistakes he made as governor. He appears to regret prioritizing state centralization at the expense of delegated authority to local governments and the private sector. Specifically, he seeks less regulation and more private sector involvment in neighborhood revitalization of cities. You're entering local government after having been speaker of the California Assembly. Are there state policies and programs you hope to revisit now that you're on a City Council?

Yes, although the policies in which I have an interest were not necessarily approved on my watch. In my two years as speaker, I began to see concretely the problems that have been created by the state in terms of the fiscalization of land use and the improper alignment of incentives for local governments to build commercial developments over housing. A property tax/sales tax swap is needed to promote and encourage better planning and better economic development in cities.

So yes, now as a council-member, I want to continue that effort of incentivizing smart growth, incentivizing better planning and incentivizing greater cooperation between jurisdictions. That's an area I started to work on during my last two years in the Legislature and I would like to continue working on it at the city level. As speaker, I put together the Speaker's Commission on State and Local Government Finance that delivered some very important recommendations that, frankly, the California Commission on Tax Policy and the New Economy is also addressing. So, I'm excited about continuing to work on this issue from this new angle.

Walk us through some of the communities in your district and describe what they need in the way of resources and attention.

On the North, I represent Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Glassell Park, Mount Washington, Monterey Hills and Hermon. On the East, there is El Sereno. In the South, Boyle Heights, and a small portion of Downtown connected to the west end of the Boyle Heights area. In each of these neighborhoods, there are many challenges we need to address.

In downtown, there is the challenge of what we do to create a 24-hour central core that is safe, attractive and livable. I also represent the historic core. The path we take to reclaim that core through the conservation of historical edifices alongside whatever's coming is going to be very important. I strongly believe in the idea of using historical architecture as a cornerstone, a foundation, for economic development and reclaiming neighborhoods. For instance, they did some of that in Old Pasadena and the Gaslamp District in San Diego. In parts of Oakland, they have begun to revitalize the historic core and we can do that here in Los Angeles.

Another obstacle to creating a 24-hour central city is the homeless problem. The truth is there is too much of an over-concentration of services in just one part of the city. We're going to have to have the courage to address this issue and more equitably shoulder the responsibility for the homeless throughout the city, not in just one part of the city.

In Boyle Heights, our first and foremost concern is public safety. We will address the escalating gun violence in our communities and create a partnership between the police and neighborhoods to reclaim safe streets one street at a time.

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The Gold Line to the Eastside, which will begin construction later this year, provides us with some opportunities to create a more comprehensive planning and economic initiative on the Eastside and in Boyle Heights. It can be an engine for economic development and lead to the revitalization of First Street.

Boyle Heights is one of the oldest suburbs of Los Angeles. It was the Ellis Island of Los Angeles a long time ago and continues to be a magnet for new Americans and immigrants who come to this city. It was an area in the 1920s and '30s where Jews and Latinos and Japanese and Armenians and White Russians and African Americans all lived side-by-side -- a microcosm of what L.A. is today. I'd like to see what we can do to bridge that history with the Boyle Heights of today. Thinking through what we can do there is something that excites me.

Changing focus, it is very rare for an elected official to take time out from the demands of office and to reflect. You've had a couple years out- after you were termed-out of the Legislature - and you spent time both at USC and UCLA examining an array of the policy issues and challenges for California and for Los Angeles. What's come out of that sojourn in academia?

Thank you for asking me that question because I don't think I've shared that with many people. I decided after the mayor's race that I wasn't looking for a job. I wanted to be the leader of what I believe is the most dynamic city in the country, and indeed the world. So what I decided to do was to walk away from politics for a while and do three things.

One, spend more time with my family, and I did. I joke that I've had more meals with my family in the last two years than I did in the six years I was in the Legislature, but it's really no joke.

Two, I wanted to spend some time reflecting. In the Legislature, there is very little opportunity to digest big ideas. So, I decided to read a lot more and to engage with some of the people that had been advisors to me over the years. I was a Cesar Chavez Public Policy fellow at UCLA, where I taught a couple of classes. I was a visiting professor at USC, where I sponsored a series of urban issues dialogues between academics and practitioners to not only identify the challenges cities face, but also to come up with real concrete solutions to some of those challenges. Earlier this year, we put our findings and some of our recommendations from these forums in a publication and on the internet. We feel it is a contribution to the civic discourse around the challenges we face and I encourage your readers to look at it.

Third, since I had come out of the labor movement and the non-profit sector, I decided to go into the private sector around a couple of major initiatives. I talked a lot about using pension funds to strategically invest in cities, using that as a magnet for corporate investment and as a pool of capital to invest and create good jobs in cities. I put together what was part of a private equity fund that created a new focus in using pension funds to create good jobs in the inner city.

Additionally, over the last few years, I talked about using UCLA and USC as engines for regional economic development. Silicon Valley blossomed from the intellectual capital at Stanford. I was tapped by Steve Sample and USC to co-chair the committee to develop a Bio-med Research Park at L.A. County-USC Medical Center. I'm proud to say that, with the assistance of Supervisor Gloria Molina and others, we are going to have a Bio-med Research Park there that is going to use the great assets of USC, UCLA and Cal-Tech to create good jobs in the inner city. So, those were some of the things I focused on in the two years I was working in the private sector.

Lastly, demographic projections suggest that in the next 20 years the population of two Chicagos is likely to be added to the density we already have in Los Angeles. Accommodating that growth requires that it be sensitively balanced against the quality of life demands of today's neighborhoods. How do we find that balance? What policies need to be adopted to affect a needed accommodation?

In the next 20 years, a big part of that growth will be in the city of Los Angeles. That is precisely why I've said from the beginning that we have to rethink what schools look like. There is just not enough land to build schools in the way that we used to. We have to rethink how we plan for this density. Some would argue that if we don't provide the infrastructure and the planning, maybe they wouldn't come. That is a prescription for disaster, because they're coming no matter what. Most of them are simply being born here, so a big part of the issue is whether our own children will be able to live here in the future.

One of the solutions is to create density along transportation corridors. We know that not every neighborhood in this city wants the density that is going to come in the next 20 years. We know there are other neighborhoods that do want to embrace that. Downtown, for example, is the perfect place to increase density and improve the economic vitality of the area. As the region's major transit hub, it's the closest thing to a laboratory we have for testing smart growth. There are places along transportation corridors, along Wilshire Boulevard and Ventura Boulevard, where we can accommodate more density. In Hollywood, for instance, you're seeing housing with commercial development around transit nodes and subway centers in a way that is new to Los Angeles. And the new Pepperdine/CSUN report suggesting that people in the San Fernando Valley are open to urban villages centered on transit is encouraging. The paradigm is slowly but surely shifting, and I believe it must or we risk becoming completely dysfunctional.

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