July 20, 2006 - From the July, 2006 issue

New VICA President Huffman Looks Forward to Championing Valley's Infrastructure Needs

Rarely do 1.8 million people have to go out of their way to be heard, but such has often the case with the San Fernando Valley, often known as America's largest suburb. As a part of the city of Los Angeles, the Valley benefits from non-governmental entities to assert its increasingly-diverse interests, and foremost among those groups is the Valley Industry and Commerce Association. MIR was pleased to speak with new VICA president Brendan Huffman about the Valley's economic future and its infrastructure needs.


Brendan Huffman

When The Planning Report interviewed VICA Chair Bob Scott in January he said VICA's agenda for 2006 was to focus on "over-regulation, unchecked fraud, abuse of the legal system, LAUSD's reorganization, and job creation." How have those goals advanced and evolved under your new leadership of VICA?

Next week marks my third month at VICA, and I'm pleased that we have made great strides towards our goals of making VICA more relevant in the decision-making process, not just in Los Angeles but also in Sacramento.

As Bob Scott articulated, we are focusing on many of those issues, particularly LAUSD reform. The new reform bill is out, and VICA was in Sacramento when the language was released. We immediately began talking to members on both sides about what this bill means for our students, employers, parents, and others. After some meetings with the mayor's senior staff and other education experts, our board decided to oppose the bill, which should be interpreted as a reinforcement of VICA's historical position of breaking up the district, not really a criticism of the mayor.

Tort reform is a very wide area, and we are focusing more on the issue of frivolous lawsuits and CEQA reform. We hope the Legislature will take Prop 64 a step further and protect builders and other important industries from lawsuits that serve no purpose other than to stop growth even in areas where it is needed the most and makes environmental sense.

And infrastructure has always been VICA's signature issue. Last month we endorsed the state infrastructure bond package and we're already working with the governor's and Sen. Don Perata's campaigns to educate Valley voters about the importance of the bonds and what they're going to do for the Valley and our economy.

If the Valley was its own city it would be one of the most significant cities in the United States; but it is part of the city of Los Angeles and the larger metro region. You worked with the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, and now you've moved from that regional body to the Valley. How does that change your perspective, and what is the role of the Valley in this region's economy?

I'm having fun working in the Valley, which is where I live. The L.A. Area Chamber at one time had been a five-county business organization with a much more regional approach, but it's much easier and more fun to work with local lawmakers on issues that impact not just my members but also my neighborhood and my family. I think VICA has a critical role; it's one of the region's top business organizations. With 1.8 million residents and almost its own media market, the Valley is extremely important in helping shape public policy decisions in our communities. I think my members recognize that we're an important part of the world's 17th-largest economy, Southern California, and we have some goals to work with our business partners to show the world that the Valley is part of that global economy.

How does VICA and the Valley's business community conceive of and envision the San Fernando Valley today?

In recent years VICA had concentrated on the portions of the Valley in the city of L.A. But Bob Scott and I are reaching out to the other cities in the Valley. Burbank and Glendale, for instance, are home to studios and thousands of entertainment and manufacturing jobs, and they're part of the Valley too. We're reaching out to business and opinion leaders in Calabasas, Santa Clarita, the city of San Fernando, and others.

When people refer to the Valley, I believe that they think of the traditional single-family homes and tract housing with a lot of open space. Unfortunately, there is no single landmark in the Valley that says "this is our home" the way there is in other parts of Southern California. You might look at the Cascades as a symbol of the Valley or the Disney animation studio as an architecturally recognizable landmark, but we don't have the skyline of Downtown L.A. or a bridge like Long Beach does or Watts Tower. So one of the things we have to do to market the Valley is get our arms around a selling point that symbolizes our identity.

The Southern California Association of Governments recently approved the Valley as its own planning sub-region, a goal that Bob Scott and others had long fought for. What's the significance of this designation?

We're excited about it. Our vision is that opinion leaders and office-holders in Valley cities will work together on regional solutions. For instance, the Orange Line is an important transportation corridor that is only within the city of L.A. It would be helpful to the whole region if we had a process and a body of these cities that could get together and look at how we could extend the Orange Line to other cities, maybe to Burbank Airport or all the way down Chandler to Glendale Bl. A SCAG sub-region, and, we hope, and eventual council of governments, will bring those folks together to work on these Valley-wide solutions.

You said one of the signature issues of VICA is infrastructure, and there are a number of bonds on the state ballot in November that deal with levees, water, transportation, ports, housing, and schools. VICA has endorsed these measures-what might each do for the Valley?

The state infrastructure bonds will provide money for projects like the Orange Line. The Orange Line is just a start of a public transportation solution. If we extended it to the Metrolink station in Chatsworth or further into Burbank, it would probably attract more ridership and get more people out of their cars. The mayor also says that the bonds will help extend the Red Line to the beach. The Valley is excited about that, because then we could take the Orange Line to the Red Line and get to the beach without having to sit on the 405 and pay $12 for parking once we get there.

There are also two water-related bonds on the ballot, both of which VICA has endorsed-Prop. 1E and Prop. 84. One third of our water comes from the Sacramento Delta; anything VICA can do to help the Delta region improve its levee system is a benefit for not just the Valley but for all of Southern California. The other is a parks and water bond. The L.A. River was at one time a natural river; now it's a concrete flood zone-I live right near it, and it's not very inviting. But the vision that council members Reyes and Garcetti have put forth for the river is exciting for Valley residents, and we're hoping that this bond might contribute to those projects.

In the transportation bond is $2 billion earmarked for cities and counties and their streets. Talk about how that earmark might be used in the Valley.

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The Valley planners many years ago designed streets that go north-south and east-west, which is a perfect opportunity to plan effective public transportation, and we're hoping that these bonds will provide money for to take advantage of that. Senator Richard Alarcón is talking about a dedicated busway down Van Nuys or Sepulveda, and it appears that the transportation bond would have some money for that type of project. The Valley has much more open space and fewer jurisdictions, so it's probably easier for planners to look at infrastructure solutions here.

What is VICA's position on both the state and city housing bonds?

VICA supported the state housing bond because it was part of the package, but of the four bonds, it has garnered probably the least enthusiasm. Yet, the board recognized that this is a package-there wouldn't be a transportation bond on the ballot if there wasn't a housing bond on the ballot. So the vote to support the entire package was unanimous.

Our board so far has declined to take a position on the city housing bond until we see what's in it and some complimentary measures that will help homebuilders create more housing. I've been serving on the steering committee for the housing bond, and I've expressed a lot of thoughts and concerns of Valley business leaders such as permit streamlining being a good issue for the City Council to address.

In the mayor's "State of the Valley" address this year, he said that the Valley needs to loosen its grip on the idea of single-family homes and start building up and not moving out. Does VICA have a response to the Mayor's vision?

VICA supports smart growth and transit-oriented housing. In North Hollywood at the Red Line station you see a perfect example of building up instead of moving out. The mayor is right to some extent, and it's not just the Valley that has to revisit that attitude-it's the entire region. So VICA will be looking at some zoning change proposals. There are some proposals to re-address what we do with our industrial lands in the Valley, which provide a huge job and tax base for the city, and we'll advocate what we think is best for our business climate and our unique quality of life.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in L.A. City Hall and knows the pressures of governing and working in city government, what are your thoughts on City Controller Laura Chick's scathing audit of the Building and Safety Department?

It seems to me whenever there's a strong manager at the helm of a department, whether it's at the state, city, or federal level, there are employees internally who don't like a new approach or a new standard or an expectation for them to perform their jobs differently than they had before. Andrew Adelman brought very high standards and a different way of thinking to that department, and I and many others suspect that some of the people who don't like his approach are working with the media and others in an effort to embarrass him.

VICA stands strongly behind Andrew Adelman, as does the rest of the business community. He's been a very strong manager, and I am concerned that if strong managers like Andrew Adelman are attacked like this in an effort to oust them, what does it say for the rest of our departments when the mayor is trying to recruit top talent, such as Gail Goldberg and Gloria Jeff, who are also making strong demands on their staff?

When VICA hired you, you described the Valley as "a sub-region in transition"? What's the nature of that transition, and what does it mean for VICA's agenda and your work?

It seems like all of L.A. is a region in transition, and that's what makes it exciting to live here. In the Valley, the population has exploded. When my grandparents lived here just before WWII-ironically, on the street I live on now-the Valley's population was about 60,000, and there were orange groves in my neighborhood. Now it's all two-story homes. We have entertainment corridors along Ventura and Lankershim, but at the same time we're losing our manufacturing base.

The Valley's economy is changing. Environmental regulations make it harder to operate a manufacturing facility. Some of the employer mandates make it more affordable to move some operations to Mexico or Nevada. And in the meantime the ethnic demographics are changing. When I met with Alex Padilla last month, he said that he wanted VICA to spend more time reaching out to his constituents in Pacioma and elsewhere, and I think he has a point. Most of VICA's membership is closer to the 101 corridor than to the 118 and I-5 corridors. So I think VICA needs to do a better job of reaching out to the newer economy and smaller businesses that traditionally haven't had much representation with business organizations.

A lot of people are rooting for you in your new job. But, as we asked Bob Scott to do, how should we measure VICA's success a year from now?

I think you can start measuring VICA's success now, but certainly in November when you can see how many of those infrastructure bonds pass. Passing them is a top priority; hopefully you will see VICA in the press urging people to vote for them. I think another measure of success is how we increase and diversify our membership, not just from an ethnic standpoint but also from an industrial standpoint.

Like Bob Scott, I'd like to bring more of the industrial folks back to VICA and to explore some of the growing sectors of the Valley's economy. International trade and logistics are significantly increasing, according to LAEDC, and VICA can work on goods movement, international trade, and regulations that sometimes inhibit some of California's fastest-growing industries.

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