June 24, 2004 - From the February, 2001 issue

Portland's U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer Offers Pearls of Wisdom for Los Angeles

When MIR recently sat down with U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer (Portland) to get his perspective on what it will take for L.A. to shape its future in a livable way-including a 24-hour downtown, neighborhood schools, new regional boundaries, and softened fiscal zoning-the Congressman consistently pointed out that the real key for putting all of these things on the ground lies not so much in additional funding or better programs-but in an implementation phase that works. And that, he says, is where the next Mayor of L.A. must focus.

Earl Blumenauer

Congressman, you're in Los Angeles both to do this interview

for Metro Investment Report and to moderate a panel of L.A. mayoral candidates sponsored by USC's Architectural Guild. What should these Mayoral candidates be addressing? Lobbying for? And, what's at stake for all metropolitan areas like L.A. in the 2001 session of Congress?

The challenge is to formulate the partnerships necessary to make communities more livable. We didn't get to where we are today-for better or worse-by ourselves. It has been the result of a complex set of state, local and federal infrastructure projects, tax policies and financing options.

Now is an excellent time-with a new administration that is looking to be kinder and gentler and bring people together-to build on some things that we almost passed in the last session, like the CARA funding, as well as new partnerships for enhancing urban areas, housing and environmental protection. Even though we have two years before the TEA-21 reauthorization cycle begins, it's also a good time to concentrate on tying together the various pieces of the transportation infrastructure to see if we can coax more out of it.

With the projections of an additional 1.6 million people for metropolitan L.A. in the next decade, what constitutes a sensible request from this region to the federal government for help in building the necessary infrastructure to support such growth?

Actually, I'm less concerned about that 1.6 million (which is a big number coming from a guy whose entire metropolitan area is 1.7 million), and more concerned about what we're looking at over the next 20 years-where L.A. may be adding the equivalent of Chicago.

This region needs initiatives on three levels. One is simply an equitable share of federal resources and the flexibility to spend them in ways that are going to make the most difference.

The second priority is for the federal government to model the behavior that you want from your citizens. For example, we've been working on requiring the Post Office to obey the local land-use laws, zoning codes and environmental regulations that the rest of America does. This is a very powerful tool. The federal government has enormous presence and owns a lot of land in Southern California. It will be making many investments of its own, and it ought to be a full partner with you.

And the last-but by no means the least-is to adjust environmental protections and regulations to be more performance-based. That doesn't mean relaxing them or rolling them back; that is not what the American public wants. It simply means giving your citizens, government and businesses more flexibility in terms of how you achieve clean air or clean up brownfields. There's a lot of energy and vitality in the Los Angeles Basin, and a lot of investment is going to take place. If the federal government can enable you to be as creative as possible while still protecting and cleaning up the environment, I think we'll all be further ahead.

Before you were a three-term Congressman, you were in local government in Portland. Again, given your role in L.A. this week, what should be the galvanizing message of these Mayoral candidates as they grapple with the challenges of urban growth, land-use and congestion?

What it takes to be a vital 24-hour city is no secret. There are models up and down the West Coast, including Southern California, for what kind of development works and what doesn't.

The number-one priority for the next Mayor of L.A. must be to put this vision on the ground and vigorously translate all the talk of reform and revitalization into action. Whether it's building housing units, providing more transportation choices, softening the urban environment, or developing green infrastructure, the emphasis has to be on performance. The campaigns will obviously focus on how the candidates plan to do these things. But early in the administration, it's imperative to show some tangible results because that momentum will be infectious.

As I mentioned, I'm most concerned about what's going to happen to Los Angeles 20 years from now-because the truth is, we won't survive in metropolitan Portland if you don't survive in L.A., if just a fraction of your refugees swarm here. In fact, the entire country has a big stake in your success.

In addition to transportation dollars that flow from the federal government to this area, Congress just passed a school construction bill in the waning days of the session. We currently need to provide almost 100,000 new seats for the 730,000 students in the L.A. Unified School District. What is an agenda that makes the most sense for integrating these school facility needs with the greening, mobility and housing needs of a dense urban metropolis?

Again, it's implementation. L.A. has had money in the past, but the success has been less than overwhelming in terms of translating those resources into finished product.

Quality neighborhood schools are one of the most fundamental building blocks of a community. We need to make sure that these facilities are attractive, and that we have flexibility in implementing national standards for minimum size and renovation costs-which often don't make much sense-so that we don't abandon perfectly good sites.

I am a great believer in comprehensive neighborhood planning. Being able to use school renovation and modernization as an element to get people excited and to key off other infrastructure investments-traffic improvements, parks, etc.-is a golden opportunity. It also means using the school facilities year-round for the needs of the larger community.

It will clearly be a challenge for Los Angeles to put its school money to the best possible use in terms of revitalizing neighborhoods throughout the City. But with the right leadership, it truly is a golden opportunity.


There's a new federal administration, which seems to favor states and governors. What role, then, do you envision governors and states playing in concert with the Congress in terms of school construction and urban reinvestment? Is there a state to which California might look for model legislation or program?

Theoretically, there is a real opportunity for more activity and leadership on the part of governors in formulating national policy and getting discretion from the administration and the new Congress via waivers. With President Bush, we have a former governor in the White House, and there are governors sprinkled throughout the new administration. And the trend of more activity on the state level will continue across the country.

When a governor has a comprehensive operating framework, it is much more likely to get support from the public, resources from the legislature, and slack from the federal government. We've seen this with Governor Tommy Thompson's efforts with welfare reform, as well as Governor Glendening's Smart Growth initiative.

In California, the big weakness is that there is no comprehensive framework that encourages work with the planning process. This provides a ripe opportunity for Governor Davis and the State Legislature to step in and give local communities the framework they need, perhaps even softening the pressures of fiscal zoning. They could go a long way towards making these pieces fit together, and I think other levels would then respond as well.

Congressman, you've long been a leader in addressing the policy role of regions, both economically and politically. Clearly, the L.A. region is a mammoth entity-the 11th largest economy in the world. The Speaker of the State Assembly has just appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to provide recommendations for incentivizing collaborative regional problem solving. From your perspective, how do we better align-in a more effective and constructive way than we've done to date-federal/state/local governance with indigenous regional economic forces?

Part of it is working with communities and government at all levels to recognize that we could have a more rational basis for organization. Frankly, some of the lines that we've drawn are worse than no boundaries at all.

States are the worst. Do you know how we've traditionally drawn state borders? Straight lines on maps or bodies of water. That's simply nonsensical in terms of today's problems. What's essential today are watersheds, airsheds, trafficsheds.

The federal government needs to provide incentives to think regionally, while at the same time engaging in the development of citizen infrastructure. Everywhere I go, editorial writers, politicians and business leaders say, ‘Regionalism won't work. Our public would never accept that.' Yet what I inevitably find when working with citizens at workshops or forums is that it's the citizens that are pushing for broader and more comprehensive solutions. I truly believe there is more support on the grassroots level for regionalism, and it can be dramatically enhanced when people see good problem statements, creative ideas, and quality products.

As an elected official for virtually my entire adult life, I'm convinced that these old boundaries and structures-frozen in amber-are perhaps the greatest single impediment to moving forward.

So do you see an alliance with the new Bush Administration in accomplishing this realignment?

If it's approached properly, yes. If it starts from the citizen infrastructure-where individual neighborhood activists and business people are given greater voice and activity-I think this administration can be persuaded to do something innovative.

The Los Angeles Basin recently lost Julian Dixon-a significant leader who cared about public infrastructure-from its delegation in Congress. As a result, many leaders in this City are worried that we have no representatives on any of Congress' critical infrastructure committees. As a Portland representative, how do you see the strengths and weaknesses of the L.A. delegation regarding these concerns?

You have amazing depth and talent. While it may not be aligned directly with the current committee assignments, you have a large, well-positioned number of senior members.

Los Angeles also has something else that has not yet been capitalized. Over the years, a steady stream of politicians from both parties has flowed to the L.A. area for their own political purposes. It seems to me that it's time for the people who have gained so much political support and financial contributions from rubbing elbows with L.A.'s rich and famous to reciprocate and give something back. That resource-of people who care about Los Angeles, who have roots here, and who have extensive political obligations-has not yet been tapped.

Last question. California had a very close relationship with the Clinton White House for these last eight years, and our voters sided with the loser in November's election. How do you see the new administration addressing the West Coast in terms of priorities, funding and attention?

Any President who wants a second term needs to deal with political realities. If you immediately write off California's soon-to-be 55 electoral votes, you give the other side a tremendous advantage. On the other hand, if you had those electoral votes-which represent 12% of the national total-you could afford to concentrate elsewhere.

Oregon and Washington were close races, and Governor Bush wisely contested them. California, too, is in a great position of influence. In general, the West is growing in power, and this administration is too smart to write it off.


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