October 31, 2014 - From the November, 2014 issue

A Success Story: Inglewood Mayor James Butts

Investment and development in the City of Inglewood is on the rise—with the Forum open, Hollywood Park Tomorrow in progress, and proposals under consideration for the Market Street site. Mayor James Butts discussed the significance of these projects with TPR, explaining how they fit into broader efforts to rebrand Inglewood, expand jobs, and reduce crime. With the possibility of an NFL team’s arrival and a Metro line under construction, Butts anticipates big things to come for Inglewood.


James Butts

"Business is not something to be reviled and taken advantage of, but is a necessary component of a prosperous city—meaning, prosperous for the residents.” -James Butts

Mayor Butts, TPR last interviewed you in May of 2013 and promised to return. Let’s begin with both an update on Inglewood’s Hollywood Park Tomorrow development project and the impact of the beautifully refurbished Forum on your city’s economic vitality. Are both realizing your ambitions as stated last year?

In our earlier interview, we talked about the need for economic and entertainment anchors.

The main thing on my plate at that time was getting Madison Square Garden to purchase the Forum and do a renovation. They did—and renovated it to the tune of $100 million. The hope was that we’d book between 30 and 40 events in the first year. Based on bookings as of October, they’ve exceeded that expectation by 50 percent. The crowds have also exceeded everyone’s expectations for a new venue that has to compete with Staples Center, the Greek Theater, and the Orange County venues.

The Forum has quickly once again become the favorite place of performing artists—in no small part because it’s iconic. Also, because it’s an oval, it has excellent sound propagation. By virtue of its recent reconstruction, it is state of the art for sound. We’re very proud of that.

The Forum also exceeded our expectations in its ability to help quickly rebrand the city, which is crucial for our economic resurgence.  It created that pop, that buzz, that “Hey! You can make things happen in Inglewood.”

When we signed the development agreement for the Forum, Hollywood Park Tomorrow almost simultaneously received pledges to complete the financing for their project. That investment was followed by the purchase of the Wal-Mart site, by someone who turned out to be an NFL owner. That added more buzz and interest in the city.

At the time we signed the development agreement, the Shopoff Group got into a bidding war with other developers for the Daniel Freeman site, which had lain fallow since Daniel Freeman Hospital exited for the Marina some 15 years ago. They’re putting up a luxury condominium in the $500,000-and-up range. The site backs up to one of the most prestigious and expensive neighborhoods in Inglewood—Saint John Place and Hillcrest Drive, where we have colonial-style mansions and very high-end residences.

We broke ground on a public-private partnership on October 30.  An abandoned gas station that has been a blighted eyesore for over 15 years will be the site of a new $500,000 Inglewood community center.  The owners will be allowed to construct a digital advertisement board from which the city will receive not less than $100,000 per year in revenues and have exclusive use of the site and center for 22 years. 

The Metro line now is in play, since it has begun construction. All these things are coming together. 

In our interview last year, you expressed frustration with Metro’s Inglewood station location decisions—wanting rail to maximize opportunities for transit-oriented development. Could you update our readers? 

I was frustrated that my predecessors and Metro made a decision to use the cheapest right of way through the city—the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad line—when it would have been much more economically stimulating had they gone south on Prairie from Florence, past the Forum, past what would be Hollywood Park Tomorrow, and then ventured west on Century Boulevard to the airport.

But that ship has long since sailed. We’re now trying to make lemonade out of lemons. We even engaged in litigation with Metro over the at-grade crossing at Centinela and Florence, but we lost at the PUC.  In the meantime, our efforts have resulted in compromise and negotiation for some betterments along our line and at our La Brea/Florence station.

Now we’re focused on maximizing our opportunity for transit-oriented development across from the La Brea/Florence station. We have a 2.3-acre parcel that used to be a Buffington Cadillac dealership. We want to make it into the gateway to the new Market Street—the D3 site. We just recently had a bidders conference for a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) process.

To digress just a moment, in Inglewood we’ve always held Request for Proposals (RFP) processes. We had people make proposals and then picked among them, saying “Oh, that looks neat—gee whiz!” That person would get an ENA for a year, which would always turn into 18 months, then into two years. In the end, low and behold, that developer couldn’t get the financing and didn’t have the wherewithal to do the proposed project, which wasn’t economically viable anyway. As a result, we have a lot of property in the city that has lain fallow for a minimum of 15 years, with some parcels unoccupied for 25-30 years.

But with our new orientation toward fiscal stability, quality, visionary government leadership, and the manifestation of that—renewing our infrastructure and balancing our budget—we now get to exploit the blessings of our geography. We have all this interest. Now we don’t need an RFP process—we did an RFQ. Over 70 developers from across the country showed up to our Council chambers for a chance to show us their qualifications. They walked from City Hall up and down Market Street. This was unheard of for a project where we offer no subsidies, save some Housing Authority parcels that we would make part of the mix.

We’ve narrowed that 70-some-odd group down to five that will give us proposals. We’ll pick among those.

Clearly a lot has changed since our last interview—all of it in keeping with the vision I laid out then.

You’ve also referenced regional successes, i.e. The Grove and Old Town Pasadena, as benchmarks that you’d like to see the City of Inglewood achieve or surpass. What progress has been made toward creating a great retail district?

Our intended vision for the Market Street project is to encompass the first two blocks from Florence to Queens Street, with residential on the second floor, retail on the first floor, and entertainment likely on the west side of the street. That would abut the Fox Theater, where we envision a renovation preserving its historic façade with a digital multiplex upgrade inside.

That is the start of our version of Old Town Pasadena. We want the D3 site to either be condominiums or a boutique hotel with an archway that invites people to come through the middle of the mixed-use retail on the ground floor, flowing onto Market Street. Whether it’s a hotel or condominiums will depend on whether we are getting a sports team.

What is the status of Inglewood’s efforts to attract a NFL team? 

You’d have to ask the NFL! All I can tell you is that we are hopeful—but there’s no deal ’til there is a deal.

An NFL owner does own 60 acres of land here. The owner does have a team that can relocate after next year. But it takes 75 percent of the 32 owners to vote to allow a team to move. The NFL has to sign off on a relocation, as well.

Of the sites that have been mentioned, in our opinion we are far and away the best fit. We’re at the center of four freeways. We’ve already proven that we can flow 60,000 people on any given day, from when the racetrack used to run. I worked the traffic signals as a police officer. 39-41,000 people came through during the week, with more on the weekends. Traffic moving outbound from there would sometimes flow against 17,500 people moving inbound to a Laker game. We’ve already got the universal lanes. We’ve been flowing that traffic for decades. We’re a mile-and-a-half from LA International Airport. We have ocean climate. We’re one of the only locations with an NFL owner that owns land. We have a lot of good factors.

With Hollywood Park Tomorrow’s development having broken ground, update us on its status and timeline. 

They broke ground in February of this year. They’ve cleared out the trees on Prairie, which they’re going to replant at other locations on the property. They’ve started the sewer infrastructure connections. They’ve gotten the city’s approval to rebuild and relocate the casino closer to Century Boulevard, where it will be more attractive. They’ve got plenty on their plate to carry them through for a number of months.

How many homes and commercial units will be built?

The plan on the table now is for 2,600 residential units—a mix of single-family residences, condominiums, and town homes at various locations on the property—plus four parks, a hotel, a movie theater, and one or two lakes, along with 650,000 square feet of retail. 

You say the word “now”—put that in context for our readers.

That’s what the plan is right now, but if there were a favorable outcome from the NFL, things could change. 

Also in our interview a year ago, you addressed the competition among cities for economic investment. Obviously, safety and crime are critical factors for attracting investment. You are clearly proud of how Inglewood’s public safety record has improved in your first term. Please elaborate.

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I’ve run three police departments in this lifetime, including Inglewood’s. I had the opportunity to hire a new police chief, who is going to be the best we’ve ever had. He and I have a strong collaborative relationship.

The last three years are the lowest three consecutive years of crime on record, and they stair-step down. Crime has decreased every year since I’ve been in office. We’re proud of that.

Even if you compare us to 2009, homicides are down 48 percent. It’s fascinating: If you take 10 years before I was in office and compare those to the three full years of recorded crime since I’ve been in office, the homicide reduction is still 48 percent. So this isn’t a case of cherry picking numbers. This is a substantive body of work, and I really praise Chief of Police Mark Fronterotta for that.

What explains Inglewood’s success in reducing crime?

We’ve engaged in a number of modalities.

First, we had a perception of gang-related crime and violence. We’ve implemented four gang injunctions—civil injunctions that prescribe certain types of behaviors, including where people are allowed to associate in public and use of electronic devices. It’s had an impact on the comfort level for criminal gang members.

In addition, the chief has implemented something I instituted in Santa Monica called PIE: Prevention, Intervention, and Enforcement. We focus first on prevention for young children through our Police Activities League. Then, we do intervention for minor offenders and redirection into mentoring programs. Finally, there’s enforcement at the punitive end of the spectrum.

Once you’ve received a felony conviction, our country more or less throws you away. You can’t vote. You check the box on employment applications so you can’t work. What are you going to do? You’re going to starve or you’re going to reoffend. We recognize that is untenable in our community. When I came into office, we had a very high unemployment rate compared to the region.

As a result, in every development agreement we implement job training and hard-to-employ goals. We ask that major developers set aside some funds to train local people that could do entry-level construction jobs.

At the Forum, Madison Square Garden put aside $250,000 to train Inglewood residents that didn’t have these skills. It was successful. We had a number of people that not only were hired, but that also continued with the companies when the project was done.

It’s a multilayered approach. Enforcement alone doesn’t do it. It’s a social phenomenon and the solutions have to be interlaced. The proof’s in the pudding that we’ve interlaced those solutions, lowering our crime rate and unemployment rate simultaneously.

With cities having fewer economic incentives for investment after the demise of redevelopment, what now drives your marketing of the city?

First, you have to set a situation where you can exploit your advantages. It’s a competition.

One of the things we had going for us compared to Los Angeles, Culver City, and Santa Monica is relatively bargain prices for land. Plus, our location is situated better than Culver City—we’re adjacent to Westchester. We would have been considered the Westside if we just had cultivated the trappings of Westside ambiance.

Right now, the City of Inglewood is exploiting its blessings, combined with something that comes along very rarely: a unified government that gets it. Business is not something to be reviled and taken advantage of, but is a necessary component of a prosperous city—meaning, prosperous for the residents.

When you have big businesses in your city, you have local jobs. People don’t have to spend that money on gas for commuting. That means residents potentially have more money to spend in your community, supporting local business. You have the prestige and pride that comes from development in your city. You also attract cars and people from outside your borders that, while they’re here, spend money. Those tax revenues and parking revenues increase your general fund balance, allowing you to provide superior services for residents.

People spend more on entertainment in this country than on just about anything else, probably including healthcare. We knew we needed an entertainment anchor, and from that, retail is flowing. After high-end retail and high-end dining come high-tech campuses, because those campuses never locate anywhere they can’t eat well and be entertained. That’s our big master plan. 

There’s no doubt that Inglewood has had a major turnaround. As you’ve shared,  its government is now cohesive and business-friendly. Does the latter explain why, contrary to the policy recommendations of neighboring cities,  you have opposed increasing the minimum wage in your city?

First and foremost, I would rather our city have sustainable jobs indigenous to the borders of Inglewood than put economic pressure on businesses that were having trouble making it in the first place. I feel that would stagnate us right now, just as we’re turning around.

As Kennedy said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” It’s true. Take the Forum: Every night that they have a concert, Sizzlers is off the charts. The mercados—mom and pop storessell out all of their snacks before and after the show. Lines at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles are out the door.  LAX Tacos on Arbor Vitae doubles their receipts on event nights, in large part due to referrals from the app Yelp. Anybody that has food does well, and we don’t even have our major developments yet. They are just now starting to reap the rewards for hanging in there with a city the recession had devastated and where poor policy decisions had been made in terms of running the government.

Why would we now say, “We’re going to take that back from you.” We want them to continue to be successful. We want them to continue employing people. Then we want higher-end jobs for the higher-skilled and educated workers here in town. We want craft trades to be here that pay much more than minimum wage but don’t require a college education. Because there’s so much construction and development, we have an opportunity to train our residents in jobs that will sustain them far beyond minimum-wage ones.

Our focus is on providing a plethora of quality jobs, not eliminating the entry-level ones for teenagers—usually the people working for minimum wage. We want to provide opportunities throughout the spectrum for all of our residents. 

Geographically, Inglewood is adjacent to Westchester, which the national media perceives to be the home of Southern California innovation—“Silicon Beach.” Is the City of Inglewood taking advantage of that new brand? 

We’re not trying to piggyback on Silicon Valley. We intend to establish Inglewood’s brand: entertainment, high-end retail, job opportunities, and open land that is opportune to be occupied by high-tech business campuses. 

When TPR comes back in another year, what will you likely be prioritizing?

Our priority is to go from good to great.

We will continue our ambitious infrastructure renewal program.  We will prioritize the rebuilding and modernization of Century Boulevard from the eastern to the western city limits.  We will secure funding for a new state of the art Senior Center.  We will continue to focus on job creation with strong local hire goals.  Our goal is to establish an ENA with the most qualified development group for the new Market Street project.

If we’re fortunate enough to be selected for a football team, then there will be a grand reshaping of our master plan for the city, because there’ll be massive investment in parcels that people thought would stay in the same owners’ hands for decades. Big money will probably come in and say, “We’ll pay your price because we want to be here.”

If not, it will be onto something altogether different that would likely exceed what we have on the table. A year from now, the first manifestations of Hollywood Park Tomorrow will be taking shape. At the very least, we will have the newest, best mixed-use residential property here in Southern California. We’re very excited about it.

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