March 24, 2015 - From the March, 2015 issue

Demographics Are Changing LA & 'Change' Has a Land-Use Champion: Sherri Franklin

Sherri Franklin, founder of the Urban Design Center, has spent a quarter-century devoted to the development of affordable housing, community facility, recreational, open-space, infrastructure, economic-development, and social-enterprise projects. Franklin spoke with TPR to share lessons from her years building the capacity of communities in South Los Angeles and other underserved areas—as well as updating readers on current UDC work ranging from the 6th Street Bridge, to the 710 Freeway Extension, to TOD and pedestrian-planning for Leimert Park Village. Franklin dedicates this interview to her mentor, Juanita Tate, who she celebrates in the piece.


Sherri Franklin

"How do we begin to link Central Avenue in South Los Angeles to the business needs of the emerging population moving back to Downtown LA? What kind of connectivity can we create?" —Sherri Franklin

"I consider myself a disciple of Juanita Tate… She knew how to make things happen by aligning different leadership who were able to execute the technical aspects necessary to bring issues to the forefront or to challenge them.” —Sherri Franklin

Sherri, as founder of the Urban Design Center, you’ve contributed for over two decades to affecting the physical landscape of the City of Los Angeles. How successful have you and your projects been in contributing to livability and equity? 

Sherri Franklin: I’ve been pretty successful over the course of 25 years. (I started working in community development in late 1989.) I’ve worked continuously with the local community to help them bring their ideas and plans to fruition, and to empower them to drive change on many different fronts. More importantly, I’ve been able to build human capital within communities and help facilitate the next generation of young people who are focused on change.

Give our readers a sense of the places and projects you’re most proud to have engaged in over your years at UDC.

I always have to start with my work at Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles.

I was working in corporate America in the late ’80s and was encouraged by a friend at UCLA to go work in the community. I met Juanita Tate at Concerned Citizens. She was focused on trying to build affordable housing and revitalize Central Avenue. We had -5 cents in the bank at the time, and we went about developing strategies to internally create a team at Concerned Citizens who could build housing without outside consultants. We ended up developing financing for six affordable housing developments all along the Central Avenue corridor and off the corridor.

We developed housing that now is fostering other development along the corridor. In 1990, we put the property on the corner of Slauson and Central in escrow for the development of a shopping center. We received a federal grant to plan the project. It took a long time for that project to come to fruition because we had to fight the railroad company to abandon the out-of-service railroad tracks, and then eminent domain was required to acquire all the land.

We wanted to bring a quality grocery store to the community. After many iterations of the project, if you drive by Slauson and Central, there is a brand-new, high-grossing, very well maintained shopping center there that Concerned Citizens was able to make happen. It is named in honor of Concerned Citizens co-founder Juanita Tate.

So, fast-forward 25 years, I’m now a consultant to help develop the Business Improvement District along Central Avenue. We tried developing a similar idea back in the 1990s but didn’t have the same level of interest and businesses there that we do today. We have new investment—a whole resurgence of people looking at the historic quality of the corridor. They’re looking forward to developing partnerships between the retail core and the large industrial core for retail manufacturing. We can look at building pop-up markets and pop-up retail along Central Avenue.

We have a new breed of leadership looking at other kinds of innovation. How do we begin to link Central Avenue in South Los Angeles to the business needs of the emerging population moving back to Downtown LA? What kind of connectivity can we create between transit nodes, as well as for co-branding and co-marketing opportunities? All the things that we thought of in the early ’90s are now in place because of the initial investment and leadership that was brought to Central Avenue. 

Sherri, you’ve done quite a bit of work in Leimert Park Village. Elaborate for our readers on the potential of that neighborhood/area.

In 2014, I went to a meeting to see what was happening with stakeholders in Leimert Park Village. They asked me to help them create a vision for linking the Village with the new Crenshaw-LAX rail line coming along, to make it possible for the businesses in the community to benefit from this capital investment. We went about launching the 2020 Vision Initiative so that we could build a marketing strategy for cultural tourism. Through it, we began to look at development within Leimert Park Village and along the corridor, seeing what can happen to create more jobs and a better economy.

We have also worked with the planning department to make sure the area remains a cultural district—and that it’s a pedestrian-oriented environment, even though it’s along the transit line.

We’re one of the few groups in the city that meets every Monday to talk about our strategy and new things that have come to fruition. For example, instead of trying to move the homeless population, we developed a campaign called “Taking Care of Our Own.” We’re looking at creating drop-in centers, as well as resources that we can bring to the park to support people who are not living in a residential environment.

We’re looking at revitalizing the corridors and the street. A few years back, I was able to obtain a grant for the former CRA/LA from the State of California Housing & Community Development Prop 1C fund to look at infill infrastructure planning between affordable housing and amenities in the community. That enables us now—with Metro and all the other development projects slated for Crenshaw—to create a whole new green street, including wayfinding. Specifically for Leimert Park Village, we’re able to complete the Sankofa historic walk through the Village linking it to the park plaza. We’re now pursuing additional funding to revitalize the park.

We were also granted a “People St” by the Department of Transportation. The application came out when we were just beginning the Vision 2020 plan. We went for it and were one of three communities selected. We decided to put the People St in front of the Vision Theater in Leimert Park. Now that People St will be the cultural center for many activities that happen on a daily basis in partnership with the Vision Theater (where I’m also on the board, helping to raise the $22 million needed to revitalize the theater—which is in Phase II of development).

KAOS network and Art + Practice also abut the People St plaza and will utilize the space for programs such as the monthly Art Walk. The plaza is there to bring the entire community together.

Now the surrounding areas are looking at this as an example of how to engage communities, drive economic development, and drive the planning process to be sure that any policies—in terms of planning, streetscapes, TOD, or transit ideas—are informed by how communities want to live and use their spaces. 

Inglewood’s Mayor Butts plans to build a NFL football stadium have been in the breaking news this month, but there’s much more coming out of the ground in Inglewood in terms of community development. Can you share what you know and the roles you’ve played there?

I served as a consultant in 1995 to help create a Business Improvement District in the downtown area of Inglewood—a nice cultural hub and retail enclave. We were very successful in bringing together the businesses and property owners. But at the time, there was not support by the mayor in office for empowering the people of Inglewood.

I do think that Mayor Butts is bringing a new type of leadership to Inglewood, which is going to help move projects forward.

There has been a lot of energy on Market Street. That area can now be a focus, because it’s going to link to rail and the TOD effort. It would be great if more attention could be focused on developing a TOD project in Downtown Inglewood. 

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Could you talk about your transit-oriented development work?

Within our Leimert Park project, we have been able to work on all fronts to see what TOD (or, for Leimert, Pedestrian Oriented Development) can do for a community—from planning; to developing housing; to creating new facilities; to making a community walkable for all residents, especially seniors; to cleaning up the transit line and making it more beautiful. Planning efforts include pursuing multiple funding sources, from Metro, to Metro Call for Projects, Prop 1C, and former bond money from the CRA. We were able to also work with Metro to help make sure that resources are available to businesses impacted by the rail line coming through the community. 

I understand you’re also currently engaged in work related to the 710 Freeway Extension. Please elaborate.

We’re consultants to CH2M Hill as part of their work with Metro to prepare an EIR assessment of the 710 Gap Extension Freeway Project. I’m not at liberty to give too many details because information has not been released for the 710. My role in the process was to look at each of the transit stations that are part of one alternative for the 710 project—the rail-line alternative—and see what kinds of TOD benefits can come from creating a rail line as part of the project.

My role was simply to look at each of the stations, the surrounding community, the kinds of development that could happen, how it would help to connect people, and what kinds of improvements need to be made in order to promote TOD—connecting people to jobs, educational centers, recreation and parks. The intention is to facilitate people utilizing the transit system.

You’re also a sub-consultant to CH2M Hill for their Department of Public Works Bureau of Engineering project management contract for the 6th Street (Bridge) Viaduct Replacement Project. Could you address the challenges involved?

Yes, that’s exciting. We are working with Urban Strategy Group and FAST to coordinate outreach efforts between the Bureau of Engineering and other departments, Council District 14, and the contractor for the site to make sure the community stays engaged on both sides of the bridge—from Boyle Heights to Downtown, including Little Tokyo and the Arts District. Our role is to make sure that community input is garnered and that information is made readily available so that people understand the opportunities and progress of this very technical project.

We’re also looking at it from a broader perspective, because this is an iconic and historic bridge in the City of Los Angeles. We’re working with the city to pursue grants and funding to develop opportunities that will come from the new installation—the park, the soccer field, restaurants and little cafes. How can new development around this transit corridor link to Metro, and what would that walkable path look like? What different types of development can happen in and around the bridge—from additional housing to other small buildings that can be revitalized, given that the new bridge is going to require removal of some buildings in order to expand its footprint?

There’s an opportunity to create a new relationship between the bridge and the LA River as it continues to be revitalized. How do we co-brand and co-market efforts happening through the LA River project and also make sure that any infrastructure installed for the 6thStreet Bridge takes into account use of the LA River?

Armed with a UCLA degree in cultural anthropology, you were one of the youngest appointees to a city commission—the Board of Zoning Appeals—by Mayor Bradley. You’ve also mentioned being mentored by Juanita Tate. How did that early experience influence what you do now?

I consider myself a disciple of Juanita Tate. She was a very unique woman. She led from her heart. She always wanted to get the best and the brightest to do what she wanted to see happen. She would say that she didn’t have any formal training or education—but she knew how to drive people. She knew how to make things happen by aligning different leadership who were able to execute the technical aspects necessary to bring issues to the forefront or to challenge them.

She was never afraid of building coalitions. That’s what I do now. Nothing can be done with just one individual. We must make sure that people with the requisite knowledge lend it in any way that they can. When you link knowledge together, you can create a master plan or a policy for change. Juanita didn’t care whether you liked her or not. If you had a skillset, she was going to make you bring it to the table.

There is no obstacle too great to achieve the change we want to see in this city. That’s what I learned from Juanita. It made me have no fear when working to move projects forward.

Let’s talk about the tools available in 2015 to assist or make possible community development projects. With no redevelopment agencies anymore in California, how are inner-city development projects being funded and built?

While we don’t have those tools, we still have the brains of the leadership that formerly managed CRA/LA. They’re everywhere! I’m really enjoying that new thought process about how to get projects done—from working with the County Supervisors Office, to Metro, to the Economic & Workforce Development and Planning Departments, to Council offices. This infusion of thought leadership is driving ideas about how to create new sources of funding and how to work together across city departments to leverage support for projects. That’s the best thing that we have now to help fill the void.

We do need to look at additional subsidies that can be generated from other sources. That leadership is thinking about it. New Market Tax Credits will be more fundamental for deal-structuring here in communities, as well as bond financing.

Bringing new investment ideas through social impact bonds and looking at ideas for social enterprise concepts are the strategies we need to put forth now. If we focus, I think we’ll be okay.

Lastly, what is the promise of the Federal Promise Zone designation that has been awarded to Los Angeles? 

I actually facilitated the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant application, which was submitted for Jordan Downs Public Housing and the Watts community in February. For the first time, every single leadership entity in Watts, the Housing Authority, and LA City departments came together to make a plan to revitalize Jordan Downs. It was incredible to see that kind of leadership come to the table.

The Promise Zones and Choice Neighborhoods federal grants make us take a look inward at what needs to happen, who needs to do it, and what other resources can be leveraged to create change. They also make sure you’re engaging the constituents in a very deep and meaningful way, so that they’re part of the process. That has not always happened before. As a result, you can begin to leverage a plethora of other resources to create change in an organized and strategic manner.

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