December 21, 2015 - From the December, 2015 issue

Councilmember Blumenfield Finds Creative Funding Sources to Revitalize His LA District

In Part II of TPR’s interview with Bob Blumenfield, the city councilmember continues to share innovative ways he has identified to fund projects that can create a resurgence in Reseda, without the help of a CRA. Blumenfield also weighs in on Los Angeles River revitalization efforts, considering the impact of all 51 miles of the waterway on his district. Part I of this interview is available here and in the previous print edition.


Bob Blumenfield

“For years, Reseda has been in a depressed state financially. One of my goals is to revitalize it.” —Bob Blumenfield

Councilmember, please describe the development and the resulting  changes occurring in Reseda, a San Fernando Valley suburban neighborhood that you respresent on the LA City Council.

Bob Blumenfield: Exciting things are happening in Reseda. 

For years, Reseda has been in a depressed state financially. One of my goals is to revitalize it. The downfall of CRAs was very difficult for Reseda, because they were next in line for $60-70 million worth of potential projects. There were a lot of problems with CRAs that definitely needed reform—but projects in Reseda were some of the good stuff that didn’t get to happen. I didn’t want us to completely lose all that.

In particular, three key parcels have been derelict for years that are owned by the CRAs—two Town and Country properties on Sherman Way and the Reseda Theater. The Town and Country properties are separated by two parcels owned by CIM. Frankly, the whole area has been a major eyesore for years. I’m determined to turn that around, because I believe Sherman Way, and those properties in particular, can be a catalyst for major improvement in the entire Reseda area.

What are the tools a city or city councilmember is able to offer that potentially catalyzes neighborhood improvement?

Tool number one is the city gaining control of CRA properties so that we can put forward a cohesive development plan. To do that, we needed to obey the rules of AB 1484. I authored that bill, but unfortunately, it had to go through negotiation with the governor: I wanted to make the process much easier and he wanted to make it impossible. We compromised on making it very difficult, with multiple oversight boards: a local oversight board and a state oversight board that comprised all the taxing entities. All of them have to sign off in order to gain control of the property, and frankly, to gain control of the excess bond money out there. 

This is a long story because I spent a lot of energy on this—and not just for properties in my district. I also expanded this to the entirety of the city. We developed a list of nine properties throughout the city, then made a bid to the oversight board and to the governor’s people. 

I went up to Sacramento personally to ensure the city got control of these properties. We succeeded, but we have only 36 months from the moment we got control of those properties to come up with a cohesive development plan. Then the properties have to be sold at market value. The clock started ticking on January 1, 2015. We have 36 months to dispose of the property. 

I’m also looking at that big pile of excess bond money—almost $90 million. Those bonds were let prior to the day that the bill cut off the CRAs. They were in the pipeline, so what happens to that money? (The bill only eliminates the CRAs prospectively.) The same process—going through the oversight boards—was necessary to resolve that. 

Long story short, working with all the taxing entities and various other folks, we got control for the city of that $90 million, $20 million of which has to be spent in the Reseda/Canoga Park area.

Now I’ve got two major tools. I’ve got control of the properties, and I’ve got $20 million. The third piece is that, in my zeal to find development opportunities particularly for Reseda, we’re overturning every rock we can. One of the rocks we overturned was Prop K—park money. We found that in the 1990s, $3.9 million was written into Prop K that has to be spent on an ice skating or roller rink. For whatever reason, over these last years, nobody has figured out a way to spend that money. A light bulb went off. How do we bring this all together?

In researching that money, we discovered that it had grown from $3.9 million to near $7 million, because the interest on the projects that were written accrued to the project. Still, not quite enough to build out a full-scale ice skating or roller rink. 

So the next move was: Who can we partner with to make this happen? I’m a big believer in leveraging dollars. At a Kings game, I thought about getting a major hockey team involved, because who better to build it? I found strong interest—we’re negotiating so I don’t want to name the team. We have been working with them to try to create a partnership to build a world-class facility. The city would invest its Prop K money and a private entity could invest its money, then effectively run it.

Reseda Rising is an amazing potential project with time ticking because of the CRA climate, multiple moving pieces with Prop K, two different landowners, and a community that’s thirsty for a catalytic change. 

To make all that happen, I’ve spent a big chunk of money to engage the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI). Part of my philosophy of governance is community engagement. To get all of these moving pieces to come together at the right time and at the right place, we’ve got to have the community on board. LANI is helping me pull together stakeholders. I could’ve tried to do it through just my team, but we’re spread pretty thin. 

Describe how Reseda’s Great Street program factors into your plans.

When the mayor came, I gave him a tour of the district. I took him to the street. I told him, “I’ve got big plans for these derelict properties. And the street may not look like a lot right now, but it’s going to be fantastic and I want this to be the Great Street.” He agreed with me. The Great Street for the Third Council District is Sherman Way, right in front of all these derelict properties.

Councilmember, it sounds like LA City’s fifteen council offices have become mini planning and economic development departments. Help our readers understand how economic development and planning really work in the post-CRA world.

I think the council offices, even in the pre-CRA world, were and continue to be very influential in the planning processes in their district. Cities have to make decisions. When it comes to planning issues, there’s a lot of deference, among councilmembers to the councilmember who represents the area. If a councilmember in another district is looking at an apartment building and is hearing complaints, I assume they know best what their community wants. Similarly, if someone is poking their nose into what’s happening in my area, they better have a pretty good reason why it’s a regional issue. Otherwise I would expect similar deference. I think that system works well. 

Obviously regional projects are a different story. When you’re dealing with the Greek Theatre, Staples Center, or the LA River, it needs to be a regional effort, because these are regional facilities or go through multiple jurisdictions. 

What is the role of a city planning department in this era?

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They’re still absolutely critical to us.

We work hand-in-glove with city planning folks.

You’ve also been involved with financing for the LA River vision. What has been your office’s role in the river and its revitalization?

I’ve personally been involved with the river for many years. I worked for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy back when we were acquiring the River Center, when we helped create the river’s conservancy. 

But as Councilmember, representing the district that contains the river’s headwaters, I think it’s an amazing amenity in the rough. We can turn it into something tremendous. In my first two years, I’ve focused on the bike paths. We’ve opened up four miles of bikeways along the river since I’ve been in the Council. 

I’m trying to create parks along the river. I’m building one at the Aliso Creek/LA River Confluence. (I’m actually able to use some Prop 84 money that I was involved with on the state level. I made sure that we took steps to take down the state money I’d helped get for that part of the park.) We’re working with the Trust for Public Land. That project is rolling. We also have some money in this year’s budget to finish out that fully funded, major park right at the confluence of the LA River and the Aliso Creek. 

More generally, I’m working on a bill with Mitch O’Farrell to create a financing district along the river as a mechanism for creating serious dollars for investment.

You’re referring to an EIFD, correct?

Yes. I actually had an EIFD bill in Sacramento, which the governor vetoed. But then he did allow an EIFD bill to go forward a couple years later, and we’re working off of the authority it has given.

You, more than anyone, know that the river crosses many jurisdictions—so it’s really a regional deal. You involved LANI for engagement on Reseda Rising. When you see the breaking headline that Frank Gehry has been hired by the LA River Corporation, what’s your first thought?

It wasn’t breaking for me, because I had talked with Executive Director Omar Brownson and other folks at River Corps earlier. He’s a good friend, and it’s a small world in some ways. I’m excited by the prospect of a talent like that looking at the entire river holistically—trying to create threads that will piece it together to create a linear park. New York has its High Line. We can create something that’s a thousand times better, starting in the great Third Council District and working its way Downtown, then all the way down to the ocean. I went with the mayor last year to D.C. to push the Army Corps and to try to get funding. I was very active there, although none of those federal dollars will affect my portion of the river. 

The Army Corps is only engaged in an 11-mile stretch. The river totals 31 miles in Los Angeles and 51 miles overall. But I see it holistically, as an amenity for the entire city. Frankly, I want my constituents to enjoy it upriver and be able to bike all the way down. 

There are a lot of ways to go about the funding. With development, for example, our watermark project in Reseda requires developers to help create a gateway to the river as part of that project—and they’re happily doing it. It’ll be one of the major onramps to the river in the West Valley. Opportunities like that to fund river projects come naturally out of development. 

The biggest example in my area will be the Rocketdyne site. It’s a huge opportunity for the future, at twice the size of the Brooklyn Navy Yard project and undeveloped, that will reach the river and may provide opportunities for river development. 

Talking about financing, there’s overall financing like EIFDs; there’s project-specific financing that you just have to be opportunistic about; and there’s park financing, which you have to take advantage of and cobble things together. We’re doing that with Aliso Creek, which includes a combination of state and local funds.

Councilmember, what marching orders does your planning deputy have to support your ambitious agenda? 

I think what you’re asking is: What is the vision for the area? I take that seriously. Economic growth is essential, as is environmental stewardship and community engagement. The three of them together provide the North Star for the West Valley, in terms of trying to create amazing opportunities and improve the quality of life for the people who live there through smart projects. 

I worked at the Conservancy—I have no problem saying no to developers who are despoiling pristine lands or not doing good projects. But ultimately, to create improved quality of life in an area like the West Valley, you’ve got to embrace positive growth and organize it so that you don’t end up with unintended consequences that nobody likes. 

People will always be happy if they have a sense of where things are going and if they feel like appropriate trade-offs will be made. There may be growth in this area, but they know that there are also environmental benefits, and some protections are in place. I aim to keep things managed, inasmuch as you can manage the chaos of growth in Los Angeles.

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