April 26, 2016 - From the April, 2016 issue

The Priorities for a CA Senate District: Rebuilding Community

Katherine Perez-Estolano, candidate for California’s 25th Senate District, joins TPR for an exclusive interview to discuss civic involvement in planning and development. Perez-Estolano, co-founder of ELP Advisors and former Executive Director of the Urban Land Institute, Los Angeles District Council, explains her vision of aligning statewide efforts with local partnerships to enhance mobility and quality of life. She also comments on the state of planning in Los Angeles, and the controversial ballot initiatives regarding development that voters will be faced with in coming months.


Katherine Perez-Estolano

“We get the government we deserve. In the past, when Sacramento failed to do its job, California voters eventually forced change. Sometimes by sending new faces to represent them, sometimes through the initiative and the recall.” -Katherine Perez-Estolano, Candidate for State Senate

Traffic and development have become flashpoints in local debate in the City of Los Angeles and other communities. Are we focused on the right questions, or is the political debate misplaced?

Katherine Perez-Estolano: They are symptoms of deeper problems. Traffic and unplanned development are absolutely real issues, but the long-term solution is linking housing and jobs with transit. We aren’t building housing for working people, so rents are going sky high.  If we planned for new housing to support job growth, coordinated with transit, much of today’s traffic would be translated into people walking, biking, and using transit to get to work. 

There’s an important role for the state—Sacramento needs to partner more effectively with cities to reach our statewide environmental goals. The cap-and-trade program provides a new stream of revenue, but we need regional coordination so ensure our investments in infrastructure, housing, and economic development link with transit to actually improve our quality of life in the communities of California. For a long time, cities relied on redevelopment to promote economic development and sometimes affordable housing. I wouldn’t want to see “Redevelopment 2.0.” I’d rather we start creating “Rebuilding Our Communities 1.0” in partnership with cities and counties. Not only could that reduce our GHGs and petroleum use by making walking, biking, and transit viable in every community—but it will also make our economy stronger and our tax dollars go further.

Gas prices are lower, the economy is recovering, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants can now drive legally. So it’s not surprising that traffic woes are dominating local political debate. Can we have a substantive discussion of mobility or are we stuck with soundbites?

I get frustrated by traffic, too, but effective leaders don’t fight the last war. We’re not the car capital of the world anymore and we aren’t going back to the days of free-flowing freeways. So how can government open up more mobility options for people? 

In the proposed 2016 county transportation ballot measure, Metro has earmarked a 2 percent investment in active transportation to improve safety and access for cyclists and pedestrians. Improving those connections can solve the “first and last mile” challenges to make alternative mobility choices a reality. Remember, it took decades of tenacious leadership to build California’s road and freeway network—and a colossal investment of federal, state and local money. If we want to get beyond traffic gridlock, our leaders need to be just as determined and far-sighted. 

Remember too that California is the world leader in tech innovation. That’s rapidly expanding our definition of ‘mobility’ here in LA. Waze has radically reshaped traffic routes. We are on the cusp seeing driverless vehicles. Layer onto that the shared economy of Lyft and Uber, and car sharing services such as ZipCar and Car Go. That’s only the beginning. Our mobility options will continue to grow. 

The challenge for LA is that we built our cities around cars. It’s been 35 years since voters approved a regional transit system that is only finally beginning to come together now. The San Gabriel Valley is enjoying the opening of the Gold Line to Azusa and next month the Expo Line will begin service to Santa Monica. My kids will see a very different landscape that we need to be actively planning for now.

For generations, LA permitted land-use decisions to inhibit transit investments. Now we have the opportunity and responsibility to coordinate land-use planning and transit expansion to build our future around people, not their vehicles. We can’t waste any more time if we want our children to be able to afford to live here. We need practical, efficient, long-term planning to give them a brighter future instead of a hot mess.

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is clearly framing the battle lines in Los Angeles. Is the current system so broken that the voters will back such a draconian alternative to essentially stop development in its tracks and force an immediate rewrite of the community plans?

The initiative was entirely predictable. Intense levels of development combined with a frustration over the lack of coordinated planning reached a tipping point in LA. It’s a pattern we’ve seen before—when people feel that poorly planned growth is occurring too fast, they reach for the panic button. 

In LA, real land use planning has been undermined by the parochial interests of each council district. In order for community-based planning to have any teeth in LA, each councilmember would have to relinquish some of his or her power. Don’t plan on that happening anytime soon.

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In 2006, former LA Planning Director Gail Goldberg waged a heroic effort to update 10 community plans. Five years later, only the Hollywood Community Plan was completed and that plan has been sidelined by litigation. This latest effort to revive community planning in LA avoids facing the underlying problem: the lack of voter trust in the political leadership to deal with growth in a sensible way. Until the political leaders of LA manage development as one city and not 15 separate domains, things won’t change. Which means voters will use every means available to them to stop growth.

These debates are certainly not confined to the City of LA. Is there a place for state legislation here, or is the battlecry of “local control” too strong?

I believe in local responsibility. Every city should have the ability to make decisions about its future. But cities are inextricably linked to one another because issues such as homelessness, poverty, and crime do not stop at their border. In fact, it is enlightened self-interest for cities to work together to solve shared challenges. The state needs to foster that, rather than override it.

The state can work with cities to develop a statewide planning framework to support sustainable growth. It is critical for California’s global economic competitiveness that we ensure that we build the infrastructure we need for a prosperous and healthy future. These are the big issues.  Too few state legislators are paying attention to them. Unless that changes, the job won’t get done.

Although you’ve been a state commissioner and active in progressive politics, you are bucking the system of career politicians and special interest groups determining who can mount a credible campaign by their control of endorsements and fundraising. Can a substantive candidate running on the issues break through those barriers?

Yes, but it certainly isn’t easy. The political machines are alive and well. If substantive candidates can raise enough money to be heard, the voters are looking for more than slick slogans. They are hungry for answers that address their real worries about the future—and their real hopes for their families. As a progressive Democrat, I have been involved in many campaigns and usually voters chose the best candidate to address the issues of that time. Today, those challenges are workforce housing, water security, transportation, and climate change. It’s vital to see how they are all linked.  

In my race for the 25th State Senate District, I am running a strategic campaign that is focused on reaching targeted voters in the district. We aren’t sloppy with the support we have received from our donors. You won’t see my campaign placards posted in empty lots or street medians. I don’t believe that’s effective and it litters the district. The key is to cut through the cacophony of campaign rhetoric to reach voters who want to elect smart, sensible people to the legislature. 

California is the nation’s largest state and the world’s seventh-largest economy. Can a term-limited legislature successfully overcome the state’s challenges of water, housing, mobility, and a growing income divide?

The simple answer is yes, but in the end, we get the government we deserve. In the past, when Sacramento failed to do its job, California voters eventually forced change. Sometimes by sending new faces to represent them, sometimes through the initiative and the recall. We have a great history in California, going back to the original Progressives and continuing through the union movement, the woman’s movement, the environmental movement, the LGBT movement, and today’s broad movement to address economic and social justice. I’m proud to claim that legacy through my parents—and I hope to pass the same spirit on to my children. 

Ultimately State legislators have to be willing to take hard votes on the important issues that will affect the long-term livelihood and quality of life for Californians for generations to come. I call those legacy votes. They have the potential to have lasting impact on people’s lives—and often are the hardest votes to take. 

These are serious times in California. We need serious people in office in Sacramento. We cannot afford to have career politicians or people without the requisite skills to deal with the urgent issues of our time. Tough issues require people with the experience and know-how to rebuild the California dream.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.