August 18, 2016 - From the August, 2016 issue

Yes, City Planning Matters: East LA Community Groups Provide Examples For How To Engage Community In Planning Process

The landscape of community development in Los Angeles today differs vastly from even a few years ago. Redevelopment agencies are no longer a resource; the city's planning process is widely agreed to be in crisisLos Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority has taken on neighborhood-level development alongside its rapid rail expansion; and accelerating gentrification and displacement and compounding an affordable housing shortage. Through it all, the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC) has pushed regional authorities to better engage with low-income communities of color, who bear the brunt of these changes. ELACC President Isela Gracian and Rudy Espinoza, executive director of Leadership for Urban Renewal (LURN), join TPR to discuss their work on creating a forward-looking community plan for Boyle Heights that protects residents and reflects local needs. They also outline opportunities for innovation in planning, policy, and finance that could help deliver transformative resources to LA's underserved neighborhoods.

Isela Gracian

"It is critical that the City of LA’s Planning Department strengthen its engagement in community planning." - Isela Gracian, ELACC President

Isela, please share ELACC’s mission and its approach to comprehensive community development in East Los Angeles.

Isela Gracian: ELACC’s mission is centered on economic and social justice. Building affordable housing and community assets through real-estate development is one of our strategies for achieving those goals.

Other strategies in our model include community organizing and engaging residents in policy changes, as well as community wealth-building—supporting families in achieving economic stability and mobility.

Rudy, likewise, please share LURN’s mission and approach to community development.

Rudy Espinoza: LURN’s mission is to bring people together to design ways to build sustainable communities.

We feel passionately that we need to work together to responsibly revitalize low-income neighborhoods, and to find ways to ensure that investments and resources support the people who live in the neighborhoods. 

With the build-out of Metro railespecially in Boyle Heights and to the easta recurring planning question has been how existing communities can take advantage of new transportation portals. Isela, what are your thoughts about the housing opportunities that come with public investment in rail?

Isela Gracian: From ELACC’s perspective, Metro’s expansion is an opportunity to build out an equitable transit system with equitable development around it.

The major issue is building housing that’s affordable to LA’s core transit ridership, in part so that people continue to be able to use public transportation.

The reality is that the majority of our core transit riders are working-class, particularly the working poor. It’s critical that we focus resources on building affordable housing around transit hubs.

In Boyle Heights, for instance, ELACC was able to target our acquisition strategy in anticipation of the Gold Line extension into East LA. We now have five developments along the Gold Line that are within comfortable walking distance of a train station.

As the system expands, similar opportunities will become available in other communities. It’s critical that Metro include strong policies encouraging the development of affordable housing in neighborhoods where that is needed. 

Rudy, what are your thoughts on the opportunities and challenges presented by increased investment by Metro in older communities like Boyle Heights?

Rudy Espinoza

Rudy Espinoza: Any major public investment comes with a number of externalities. The challenge is that while some of those externalities will be generally good, some will inevitably be bad.

The negative externalities of major investments can be managed if the community is involved. But public agencies can never quite get their heads around how to truly engage communities.

ELACC and Isela have been significant leaders in advocating to Metro and other agencies that the purpose of their investments is to serve the people of the communities. Part of the work that they have done—along with other community-based organizations, like Calo Youth Build—is to make their presence known. They’ve forced themselves to the table.

Essentially, they’ve said to Metro, “This is our neighborhood and we have a say. These public dollars are our money, and we want to make sure they’re used to help the neighborhood and serve the people that live here.”

Specifically, they’ve said, “That means we want a say in how joint-development agreements are made, which developers you choose to work with, and what kinds of buildings are going to come into the space that you own.” That has added tremendous value to the process. 

Metro’s sizable infrastructure investments have drawn the attention of community developers and planners. If the new sales-tax measure passes in November, there will be another major increase in investments. Does Metro’s growing role in development mean that city planning is becoming less relevant? Is Metro is the public institution that matters most to neighborhoods challenged by growth?

Rudy Espinoza: No. It’s not just Metro. Everyone has a role to play. The Planning Department, for example, is undertaking the Boyle Heights Community Plan Update, which will serve as a guide for future development in the entire neighborhood, not just on Metro-owned property. But the city took on that project only after the community, along with organizations like ELACC, spent a long time advocating for it.

All these pieces work together to construct the community. But the overarching theme—the needle that threads these pieces together—is that the community has to be at the table. It has to influence and guide how these plans and investments are made. 

Isela Gracian: Although the investment dollars are currently coming from Metro, it is still critical that the City of LA’s Planning Department strengthen its engagement in community planning.

When ELACC started working on the Boyle Heights Community Plan in 2006, then-Planning Director Gail Goldberg aggressively allocated resources and put planners in place to help the department move forward.

Unfortunately, the economic downturn led to significant cuts. The community planning area of the department, in particular, was heavily defunded and de-staffed. It is no longer equipped to achieve forward movement.

ELACC stepped in, brought people to the table, and created a People’s Plan for Boyle Heights. We then gave that document to the Planning Department to help transform the tools they were using to engage residents—for instance, by using Legos to demonstrate height and Floor-Area Ratio (FAR).

The department’s community engagement process in Boyle Heights has improved substantially, and they’re now able to engage a broad group of neighborhood stakeholders. 

Isela, given that the Community Plan Update is still unfinished a decade later, and that no other community plan in the city has been produced or adopted in that time, are you optimistic that the Boyle Heights plan will be completed soon? If so, what must that plan include?

Isela Gracian: Given the staffing that exists, we expect the Boyle Heights Community Plan Update to be completed in the next two or three years, and hopefully sooner.

From what we’ve seen in the workshops, the plan includes a number of positive programs. In particular, it addresses environmental justice—a critical issue for residents of Boyle Heights, but one that doesn’t often get heard.

We expect to see the industrial zone in the area overlaid with an environmental justice zone that encourages sustainable industry, as well as the greening of the built environment. That was a key component of the plan that community residents advocated for, and the Planning Department heard them.

We’re also looking at increasing density in some of the main commercial corridors, where there could be opportunities to add housing and neighborhood-level retail. 

Rudy, in addition to heading LURN, you’re also on the city’s Transportation Commission and the boards of LA Kitchen, the LA Food Policy Council, and the LA Development Fund. How do you best represent each of those constituencies in the community planning process? How does your engagement with each inform your opinion of the value of planning?

Rudy Espinoza: The perspective that I try to bring to these places is that the community knows what it needs. If you’re looking to strengthen a project, to ensure it’s a good investment, or to build “good development,” the community already has the answers for you—you just need to engage them.

In all these entities, that’s always the missing piece. For the sake of doing things faster, we circumvent people who have great ideas and could add a lot of value to a project. Even within entities, we often work in siloes.


The best projects work because they incorporate different perspectives. Serving these organizations has afforded me a channel to see some of those different perspectives. 

I want to ask both of you about the nature of community. LA has continuously grown and evolved over the last century, reinventing itself with waves of immigrants—both domestic and foreign-born. How, then, does one define a community or a neighborhood in order to gather the stakeholders around a table, and ultimately reach consensus on a community plan?

Isela Gracian: Although the city’s population shifts and moves, there have always been people with historically deep roots in their neighborhoods. In particular, working-class and poor residents tend to stay in neighborhoods for much longer, due to their lack of income, employment opportunities, and housing options.

In ELACC’s work around wealth building, we’ve found that when low-income families purchase a home—particularly Latino and black families—they tend not to treat it as a transitional investment. They buy homes to set roots in a neighborhood for the long term. One component of community is connection to place—the strong pride people have for the neighborhoods where they’ve made their homes.

Using that lens allows for a diversity of homeowners, tenants, business owners, and landowners. Our process has been very successful in bringing those diverse groups together to identify the core issues in the neighborhood and to share their opinions.

We approach consensus-building with the understanding that there are going to be disagreements. It’s our job to locate the disagreement, figure out the degree of discrepancy, and see if there’s room for compromise.

In Boyle Heights, we were even able to bring people into the conversation who had previously not supported ELACC’s programs and projects—people who might fall into the “Not In My Backyard” category.

Addressing core issues through planning helps to build consensus. It encourages people to think about the whole, and not only for themselves, which helps get to a vision and a common goal. 

Rudy, it’s clear that Boyle Heights and other neighborhoods around East LA are now prime for real-estate development. How can communities east of the LA River protect themself from, for example, an international investor building two 30-story high-rises next to a Metro station? Are there presently processes in place to protect the wishes of the neighborhood?

Rudy Espinoza: There are processes, but I’m not confident that they’re enough. We should look at the work that local groups have done to advocate for more from developers. These requests can be a threshold for future development. 

We certainly should ask for things like clear value-capture strategies to ensure that new development benefits people who live nearby. But even those things are sometimes not enough; they certainly don’t feel like enough to community members and residents. We have to do more.

The first thing we have to do is call on our political leaders to step up to the plate. I have not heard any serious anti-displacement strategy from any of our elected leaders. There is no concrete policy plan to help people stay in their homes.

Local politicians have not said, “Gentrification is a major problem.” They have not said, “We have to make sure people who have lived in their neighborhoods for decades have the opportunity to stay there even as new development arises.” That’s something the community needs to demand from their elected officials.

The second thing we need to do is find alternative financing methods to help people own property. We need to think creatively about how to acquire property that’s community-oriented, and whose management is driven by the needs of the people.

We can’t rely solely on EIFDs or any other new tools coming down from Sacramento. We have to think outside of the box. For instance, we could look at models the private sector uses, and whether our neighborhoods could adopt something similar. Although they tend to be low-income, our neighborhoods’ buying power can be more powerful than that of some wealthy communities because of the number of people who live here. 

Isela Gracian: I second Rudy on the need for creative financing to expand ownership—and for new models of ownership, not just individual ownership.

There’s a growing interest across the country around community land trusts—shared, community-driven ownership of land. That model could be a critical tool to help residents be able to stay in place.

The Planning Department also plays a role here: They can craft policies to encourage these kinds of approaches to housing ownership and land use. 

Isela, you surely recall when Community Redevelopment Agencies actively supported affordable housing in partnership with non-profit developers like ELACC. Today we lack redevelopment authorities. How has ELACC evolved in the absence of the CRA’s stewardship—and funding—for affordable housing?

Isela Gracian: Our mission hasn’t changed. Our strategies of community organizing, community wealth building, and development are still critical. We’ve also increased our focus on economic development.

In terms of affordable-housing development, we’ve had to be more strategic about where we acquire land and for how long. We’ve also adapted by broadening our target demographic.

Our bread and butter has traditionally been family housing. Now, we make a greater effort to include other populations with high need, such as transitional-aged youth and veterans, that we had not targeted in our earlier developments.

We have been able to utilize cap-and-trade monies, specifically the affordable-housing money that came out of the Strategic Growth Council. Also, the Affordable Care Act created vouchers for people who are high users of the emergency-care system. That’s another strategy we’ll be using in future developments—particularly to reach deeper affordability. 

Rudy, how are you collaborating with Metro’s Joint Development Department around Mariachi Plaza? What does that collaboration promise for the Eastside?

Rudy Espinoza: I serve on the Boyle Heights Design Review Advisory Committee, which provides comments and advice to Metro and its partner developers on their plans for on Metro-owned parcels.

Metro created the committee to engage the community more efficiently. That decision was catalyzed by a lot of neighborhood activism calling for a place at the table. The committee is a good channel for us to speak our minds and influence Metro—and certainly, the community has influenced them a lot over the last couple years.

Metro’s current project managers for Boyle Heights seem mindful of the agency’s historical lack of community engagement, and they understand the current efforts to change the level of community involvement. They’re trying to put a good foot forward and do things right by obtaining help from the community itself. In my experience, it’s been an overall good process.

But community participation is still lacking. Unfortunately, at many meetings, tenant attendance is rather sparse. There has to be more effort to ensure that residents understand what is happening in their neighborhood and how it could impact them.

Isela, Mayor Garcetti recently announced the release of a Request for Qualifications/Proposals to develop housing for homeless people on city-owned property. What’s your reaction to that announcement?

Isela Gracian: The critical part of this announcement is that the mayor is leveraging land, a city resource, to support affordable housing. The cost and availability of land in LA is part of the challenge of developing affordable housing.

To truly solve the housing crisis, the city will need to deploy multiple strategies. Dedicating city land to affordable housing for people without homes and at risk of losing their homes is a positive step.

I look forward to being able to support the mayor’s team in crafting this plan, so that it can successfully serve homeless Angelenos with affordable and deeply affordable housing.

Lastly: Rudy, if we were to speak again in six months, what would you hope to be addressing regarding progress in your neighborhoods?

Rudy Espinoza: In six months, I want there to have been a major press conference, where the mayor and city councilmembers put forth serious policy proposals to give people a chance to stay in the communities they’ve lived in for a long time.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.