February 11, 2019 - From the February, 2019 issue

New LA PLUM Chair Marqueece Harris-Dawson Details His Priorities for 2019

Three years after his election, Los Angeles City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson finds himself with increased authority and profile as the new Chair of the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee, succeeding past chair José Huizar. The transition marks a key opportunity to further focus on housing and development issues in the Eighth District, South Los Angeles, and Los Angeles as a whole on its path to fighting the rise in homelessness, facilitating growth in sports and entertainment, and hosting the Olympics. Harris-Dawson joined TPR for a conversation about progress on housing project approval and construction, Metro rail projects and transit corridor development, and the ongoing challenges and opportunities that PLUM will engage on his watch as chair of the committee.


Marqueece Harris-Dawson

"We live in a city and county where 50,000 people sleep on the streets at night. There is no greater priority than making sure we have adequate housing for the people that share this city with us." —Marqueece Harris-Dawson

You had your first meeting as chair of the LA City Council’s PLUM Committee on November 20. What will be your primary focus and agenda as chair of this committee?

Marqueece Harris-Dawson: In the short term, we’ve got to stabilize the committee to make sure that city business is moving through. We’ve got to make sure that landholders and potential investors in Los Angeles have confidence in the city, our political leadership, and our ability to accurately and transparently execute the people’s business. That’s what I want to focus on—the Ps and Qs, like transparency, procedures, and follow-through.

Given the challenges that the PLUM Committee faces after the long-serving chair’s recent departure, what can homeowners, developers, renters, and others expect with the issues before you?

I think the issues are complicated, and dealing with them will be complicated. I want to make sure that we do so in a forthright, efficient, and timely way. That is the first order of business.

I’ve got a lot of experience with the City Planning Department from a community organizing standpoint—challenging what it has done or not around planning, particularly in communities like the one I represent now on the Council.

People should expect a clear articulation of processes—at least on the committee side—and transparency and timeliness in how we go about our business.

You’ve previously expressed to The Planning Report the challenges of balancing housing supply with jobs, infrastructure, and other amenities needed for livable communities. Coming down like a freight train at local government and planning departments across California is SB 50, the successor to SB 827—the takeover of local land-use decision-making processes by state law. What are your thoughts about the promise and challenges of this approach?

You, me, and all of us live in a city and county where 50,000 people sleep on the streets at night. There is no greater priority than making sure we have adequate housing for the people that share this city with us. I’m excited about how California voters stepped up to provide funding for affordable housing and housing for folks with mental health conditions. I’m excited that state lawmakers are trying to confront the problem of California’s housing shortage.

But it’s very hard to do a one-size-fits-all rule from Sacramento. It’s hard to do just for Los Angeles—even for my 29-square-mile district. It’s almost completely unconscionable to try to do it statewide. I like that Sacramento is looking at the questions and taking on the tough issues, but they've got to lean on local leadership to come up with actionable solutions. 

And yet the momentum builds for just the opposite. How do you explain that?

As long as rents are way out of whack with people’s actual incomes, and as long as we have tens of thousands of people living on the streets in LA, San Francisco, San Diego, and all our big cities, we will continue to see momentum build for solutions to the problem—as we should. Not every solution we come up with will be the right one, but I would expect my colleagues at whatever level of government to continue to try to come up with solutions.

What do your constituents want in the way of planning and density?

My constituents want what they feel their neighbors in other parts of the city have: a good balance of quality housing that is affordable for the incomes that people actually earn; quality retail, especially food; and transportation options that make sense and that can get them to work, school, healthcare, and recreation.

How might the Metro Crenshaw Line delay impact the marketplace that includes your district?

I’d much rather they slow down and get it right than be on time and have a bunch of mistakes that will cost us for the long term. That being said, every delay—even a delay of one day—is extremely costly given the disruption that Walsh Shea Corridor Constructors, the contractor, has visited upon the Crenshaw community. Fortunately, Metro has stepped up to help subsidize businesses that are suffering the worst disruptions and interruptions, but that’s not enough. It’s not natural economic activity, which is what we really need.

Let’s turn to the Vermont/Manchester area. What are your expectations and your constituents’ hopes for development there?

Vermont is a long-neglected corridor. It’s the second-most traveled corridor in LA County, but it has received some of the least transportation investment. Economic divestiture or apartheid has certainly been practiced here. One result is that this area is home to a food desert; it’s very hard to get quality food here without leaving the city of Los Angeles for Inglewood, Gardena, or Torrance.

We’re very excited that, after a decades-long struggle, the county of Los Angeles prevailed in court to create the conditions where the four-acre lot on Vermont and Manchester can be developed. We’ve stuck a high-quality school and housing there, as well as a supermarket and other retail. That’s going to be our anchor. Once we get initial investment there into the hundreds of millions of dollars, we expect that augmented investments up and down the corridor will follow—just like we’ve seen in other parts of the city and district.

How is the economic investment happening in Inglewood spilling over into your district in LA?

It’s spilling over in very real ways—some great and some problematic. The fact that the stadium and arena are being built without traffic studies and environmental reviews is very troubling to me. The western border of my district is a mile or less from those venues in some places, and so the traffic, pollution, and water implications of the development are visited upon my district. Yet we’re not a part of the deal to make sure proper mitigations are done. That is a sticking point for me, although it’s minor on the whole.

The history of this kind of economic activity is generally positive in South LA, and I don’t expect that the new investments in Inglewood will be any different. They operate as anchors and bring disposable dollars into the area. If you’re going to Inglewood from Downtown LA, Pasadena, or the San Gabriel or San Fernando Valleys, you have to pass through my district to get there. We hope that there will soon be places to stop and get something to eat—and maybe grab a cup of coffee or buy a nice T-shirt.

There’s much development ahead of the 2028 Olympics, including a transformation proposed for Exposition Park and the $700 million USC Village. Talk about how you, representing impacted areas, filter such opportunities through your prism of leadership on land use.

I’ve been vice chair of the PLUM Committee for my entire time on the Council, until recently becoming chair. I’ve helped to get these issues through, and I’ve been able to watch them very closely. I work very well with the areas most impacted by the USC and Lucas Museum expansion—Council Districts 1, 9 and 10.

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We’ve already seen a brand-new soccer stadium at the corner of Martin Luther King and Figueroa pump tremendous life into the area, and we expect that to grow. There will be new investment on the south side of King Blvd., and we expect that that investment will travel west of the 110 Freeway and create economic opportunities in our neighborhoods that haven’t existed before.

What are your hopes or expectations for the master planning effort for Exposition Park? 

My hope and expectation is that we will use this plan as an opportunity to accentuate the positive things that we see in our communities; to disincentivize the negative and nuisance land uses we see in this part of the community; and to do density where we can and where appropriate, as creatively and productively as possible.

There are new provisions in LA Metro’s Transit-Oriented Communities and LA City’s Transit Corridors Strategy, and new zoning regulations, that allow for live-work space. This master plan takes advantage of all of those things, and we’re excited about it. Some of this rezoning has been long overdue. The biggest thing you’ll see in the Expo Park plan is more opportunities for density in places where we didn’t see density before. 

Let’s turn to the new Opportunity Zones program created by the federal Tax Reform Act of 2017. As a councilmember and PLUM chair, do you see that program significantly changing the dynamics of what will be built or invested, and can be built or invested, in Los Angeles? 

I think so. We’ve been briefed more than once, and I look forward to more briefings because there are more questions than answers at this point.

What I do know—and can provide direct testimony to—is that investors see this as a very attractive opportunity to do business in our communities. To that extent, we think that it will be positive, but again, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how exactly the new tax law works, how it would work in Los Angeles, and what the potential pitfalls may be.

The Opportunity Zone program isn’t meant to be driven by the public sector; it’s a private-sector investment program. Does that pose a challenge or create a new opportunity?

I don’t think it’s inherently either a challenge or an opportunity. I think the private sector is just like the public sector: A lot of people in it are really good, most are average, and some are really bad. Good people in the private sector can do great projects, but lots of good projects can be done in the public sector, as well.

One issue PLUM recently addressed is short-term rentals. Give our readers a sense of the committee’s thought process on that matter.

The chair’s opinion—and only the chair’s opinion—on this matter is that we’ve spent far too much time on it.

We have to understand that this is a new science, a new way of doing business, and a new set of relationships. New technology presents lots of new challenges. The onus is on us to deal with those challenges as best we can, forthrightly and efficiently, with what we know now. Then we’ll revisit the issues as we learn more about them.

Now that we’ve passed something on this issue, I expect we’ll soon have to come back to it—once, twice, maybe even a half-dozen times—before we get it exactly right.

You recently coauthored an op-ed with Congressmember Karen Bass about the impact of high rents, gentrification, and displacement on South LA. Summarize your concerns and the ramifications of these issues for your responsibilities as chair of PLUM.

We have 50,000 people living on the street and rents that are out of whack with people’s incomes. A lot of people—particularly in my district, and particularly seniors, the fastest-growing population of homeless people—have lived in rent-controlled units for years. On a weekly basis, we hear about landlords trying to coax, cajole, or even force people out of those units. Those people are very vulnerable to homelessness.

The Congresswoman and I wanted to let folks know that they have rights as tenants. You don’t have to leave just because your landlord offers to give you money in exchange for leaving. Tenants need to know their rights.

At PLUM, we can make sure that reasonable housing proposals get the appropriate support and move through in a timely and efficient manner so that builders can put stakes in the ground, lay bricks, and put hammer to nail to provide places to live. I really think that’s the only solution to this problem.

In closing, the private-sector development community has always been skittish about dealing with the city of LA and its planning process—thinking it’s slow and, with the latest FBI raids, not always legal. Given your new tenure, how you would address that skittishness going forward?

I am a bit of a data nerd, and I like to deal in the world of facts as opposed to opinions. Just step outside City Hall and look at the cranes in the sky. It may be difficult to do work with the city of LA, but a lot of people have figured it out. That’s true from one end of the city to the other.

Of course, where there are problems, we want to suss them out and smooth them out. I really believe that if we emphasize timeliness, efficiency, and transparency, we can get around a lot of the problems we face.

I know that any government involvement on a project can feel like an intrusion. But some of that has to be done in order to make the city safe for the long term, and a place where everybody can live, grow, and prosper—not just an individual developer trying to create a profitable development.

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