October 30, 2015 - From the October/November, 2015 issue

Blumenfield Proud of Warner Center 2035's Blueprint for Growth

Since City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield ushered the Warner Center 2035 Plan through to adoption in 2013, the new specific plan has helped guide development in the West Valley. Blumenfield sat down with TPR to share the remarkable retail growth there as the Village at Westfield-Topanga opens for business. He also comments on the need for improved public transit to serve Council District 3, particularly since the new plan and mall were both designed with expectations for a less car-centric LA. This is Part I of TPR's interview with Councilmember Blumenfield—Part II will appear in the next issue.


Bob Blumenfield

"In the modern world today, we want more pedestrian-friendly development. We want live/work/play in the same area. Traffic throughout the city has forced us to think in those terms." -Bob Blumenfield

Warner Center’s new Village at Westfield-Topanga, a top priority of yours since your election to City Council, opened this September. Elaborate on the significance of this $350-million Village development, and on the promise of the Warner Center 2035 Plan, for the City of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley more specifically.

Bob Blumenfield: What’s happening in the Warner Center as a result of the Warner Center 2035 Plan is incredibly exciting. My role was to usher it over the finish line—adding a bit more green and creating consensus around it.

Before I was a councilmember, the community had been working to come up with a new specific plan for the area. It was a major change that would create eight new zones in order to be clear about where building could happen and where it couldn’t. But like with anything, sometimes you need a closer.

When I came in as a councilmember, being that closer was one of my top planning priorities. We needed to have an updated plan if we were going to see smart growth in the area. I’m happy to say that I was successful in doing that. We got the plan done and approved by the city in my first six months in office.

We added a number of things to make it, bar none, the cleanest and greenest plan in the city—still, to date. When it was before City Council, I called up every city department and asked, “Is this the cleanest and greenest plan in the city, bar none?” Each of them said yes.

Was your hearing the equivalent of Congressman Waxman’s taking testimony from tobacco industry CEOs?

Exactly. I wanted to get that on record, because it’s something we can be proud of.

The plan was built on the shoulders and hard work of many people for eight to 12 years prior to its adoption. It’s a consensus document.

In addition to creating certainty about where things will be built and where they won’t be built, it creates a higher environmental standard. For me, that’s always been a positive trade-off. Back in my days with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, I found, in seeking to close deals and get an outcome that’s a little more environmentally friendly, that business doesn’t want something environmentally unfriendly. They want more certainty.

What interests in Warner Center needed to be aligned to gain political support for the current Warner Center Master Plan?

The community is multi-faceted, including neighborhood councils, chambers, the environmental community, and the business community.

It’s a good plan that has something for everyone, in many respects. For folks who fear any sort of development, they can rest easier with the certainty that their residential neighborhood will not be impacted. There are opportunities for development north of where they are, or in different areas.

Previously, the area saw hodge-podge development—wherein everything came to the Council and needed a variance, and every issue was a fight. The plan creates a smoother path with higher environmental standards that’s more pedestrian-oriented. It’s a plan that’s truly a plan.

The previous plan was created back in a different time: the ’70s. With car culture then, the idea was to construct buildings with a sea of parking around them. In the modern world today, we want more pedestrian-friendly development. We want live/work/play in the same area. Traffic throughout the city has forced us to think in those terms.

Modern ideas about pedestrian-oriented development and public transit all point in this new direction. That wasn’t addressed by the previous plan. 

TPR recently published interviews with Richard Katz and the Beyond the 710 Coalition on the transportation priorities of the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. What assumptions about new investment were incorporated into the transportation element of the Warner Center 2035 plan? 

I’m now vice chair of the San Fernando Valley COG and Chair of the COG’s Transportation Committee, and am trying to make those assumptions a reality in terms of Metro’s Measure R2.

As a side-note, the original plan assumed a monorail. As a result, certain buildings at the Warner Center have two levels of entrances. We are not assuming a monorail anymore. But we are assuming a beefed-up Orange Line and more transit-oriented development.

We are sorely lacking in public transit in the West Valley. There are 60 subway stations throughout the city, but only two in the San Fernando Valley. There are zero in the West Valley.

The most significant public transit that we have is the Orange Line, which was a breakthrough. It’s a great public transit option, and former LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was very much a part of that. I was part of it years ago, when I worked for Howard Berman and we were able to get a little bit of money to help close the deal with some landscaping.

Now, the Orange Line has hit capacity. When it was built, they estimated it would transport about 8,000 riders a day. It’s up to 30,000. There’s not enough headway to add more buses. We need to improve that capacity.

The Warner Center 2035 Plan also relies on us thinking differently and not assuming that we have to drive everywhere. The plan envisions more pedestrian-friendly and more bike-friendly development. If you can live, work, and play in an area, you don’t have to get in your car every time. 

What housing mix assumptions have been incorporated into the Specific Plan?

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This was a major community effort, with a lot of folks who contributed. I want to give credit where credit’s due.

In the end, I was able to steer it a little bit.

We’re talking about 30 million square feet for commercial and 32 million square feet for residential. That’s 26,000 residential units envisioned in the Warner Center plan—an increase of 20,000 units. Based on the ’08 baseline, it was 6,000. That’s a big increase.

They’re talking about 45,000 new, ongoing jobs as part of this. A lot of folks don’t realize that the West Valley has the strongest opportunity for growth in the entire city at the moment.

Those numbers are pretty staggering. In September, the Village at Westfield Topanga opened up. That new mall is a $350 million investment by Westfield. It is going to contain 100 new stores and restaurants.

To orient our readers, share the boundaries of Warner Center, and how mobility will be addressed. 

The Village is in between two existing malls—the Promenade mall on Oxnard and, just above Victory, the beautiful Westfield Topanga mall. They’re estimating that, between those three properties all owned by Westfield, they’re going to have more people per year than at Disneyland: 20 million at the West Valley malls.

When you get to any of those three properties, you’ll be able to take a “red car circulator”—designed to look like the old Red Car, but on wheels—that’ll move between the three properties.

Ultimately, the vision for Warner Center is to have more of those types of circulators—either by expanding the Westfield circulator to go down to Ventura, or by creating a DASH-type system. I’m working hard to make that happen through the Local Development Corporation (LDC), a fund holding mobility fees paid by new development projectsboth the fees from the old plan, totaling $10 million, and now the updated fees from the new plan that are being added to it.

With all this growth, the fund will grow tremendously. I’m in the process now of creating a framework for a LDC entity so that we can expedite and streamline the expenditure of those funds to add to mobility, because it is key for the area to grow in a smart way. 

Councilmember, please link your expertise in Budget and Finance to the needs of Warner Center’s master plan. In the absence of a CRA, what new public tools are available to finance the infrastructure investments being promised?

Different improvements throughout my district have taken very different tools.

I was the author of both the bill that eliminated CRAs and the one that recreated CRAs. We joined them together so that the governor had to sign them both. That way, we could re-create CRAs at about 80 percent of what they were before, with a new reform passage. It was a great compromise, and it would have been great for that revised CRA to continue. But CRA agencies, in my view, were greedy. They went to the courts and lost it all. The courts invalidated my bill that created the new CRA, but validated the bill that eliminated CRAs. I feel I have a personal stake in that.

When that was done, I authored several bills that would spin down the CRA so as not to go cold turkey on some of the funds. That’s a critical point, not so much for the Warner Center, but for Reseda. By doing that, I was able to gain control of three key properties in Reseda, as well as get about $20 million in excess bond money that we’re using for the Reseda Rising Initiative, which is separate. (See Part II of this interview, coming in TPR’s November issue, for a full discussion of improvements in Reseda.)

Turning back to financing for Warner Center, a lot of it requires basically getting out of the way. This is going to happen, and we need to facilitate. On the Village project, I got all the city agencies together and talked about deadlines. Since we had to make the deadline, we knocked out red tape.

The biggest city financial tool is subvention. There was a subvention issue that started before I was in office. I had to take that over the finish line, tweaking it substantially so that it was a good financial investment for the city. That changed the date for this Village property, moving it up by about 10 years to open in 2015. They were legally required to comply, or they would have lost a major subvention. They moved at lightning speed. It’s amazing. Every time you drove by Westfield during construction, it looked completely different.

Their goal was to open September 18. That’s pretty amazing. Legally, with the subvention, they had to be done by the end of the calendar year, but they wanted to be open before the holiday season. They worked overtime to make that happen, and we cut the ribbon on September 18. The new Costco—the fanciest Costco in the country—opened September 12.

I’m also trying to get an Enhanced Infrastructure Finance District (EIFD) for the entire river. That may help with funding the northern portion of Warner Center. EIFDs are a different mechanism than the CRAs, but it’s a way to capture the tax increment. 

Having addressed commerce, let’s turn to the 2035 Warner Center Plan’s housing element. What’s the expectation: single-family homes, rentals, condos, or mixed-use?

The answer is yes to all of them. The plan actually consists of eight different plans.

The different areas include: the North Village, the College District, the Commerce District, the Uptown District, the Downtown District, the Topanga District, the Park District, and the River District. Each of them has a different mix of commercial versus residential, and a different mix of residential types. Heavier residential uses will be located in the College zone and the North Village area. The mix is flipped in the commercial areas.

Part II of this interview will appear in TPR’s November issue.

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