July 23, 2020 - From the July, 2020 issue

Part 2: Culver City’s Tom Small on Post-COVID Budgeting to Enhance Economic Recovery & Address Housing Needs 

Governor Newsom last week ordered—in response to surging COVID cases across the state—many businesses to close again, which is likely to further slow the state’s economic recovery. In Part 2 of TPR's latest interview with Culver City's Thomas Aujero Small, he discusses how his city—soon to welcome both Apple and Amazon—is prioritizing its economic recovery from the pandemic. Small further shares Culver City's approach to housing and density in order to accommodate employees relocating to his just over 5-square-mile city.


Thomas Small

“The organization, Culver City Forward, was something that was on the brink of announcement when the crisis hit, but I'm hoping that as it continues to be formed, the group can help lead a new innovative, approach to how we recover here in Culver City. It's hugely difficult because there are so many unknowns on the part of our partners in government across the country.”—Thomas Small

How is Culver City strategically—given the very powerful public statement you've made about how the city is reacting to challenges of systemic racism and policing—addressing how to recover from a pandemic induced economic recession?

The first thing we try to do is triage: to save as much as we can and stop the bleeding. One of the first things we did as the crisis began—although outside the purview of the city—was to start the FeedCulver.org program— a remarkable alliance of willing participants across the city, including myself and Mayor Eriksson from the city council.

Feed Culver operates in partnership with the Exchange Club of Culver City. Its original funding came from Culver City Forward (I will have more information on this new organization soon) and some of the city's major corporate partners—Sony Pictures, Culver Studios, SoCal Edison, SoCalGas, and others. Culver City's culinary scene is so key to the vitality of the city, particularly our downtown, and to creating this walkable, European-type atmosphere that, in part attracts the big players like Amazon and Apple.

We came up with a fund to pay restaurants to keep their doors open, keep some of their kitchen staff making meals—even in the depths of the crisis—and send that food to our soup kitchen, the Grace Diner at Grace Lutheran Church, to augment the food program they already had. They had a soup kitchen there before the crisis that, on Mondays, fed some 60 people experiencing homelessness who would go to the church and get a free meal.

The program is now serving 200 meals, 5 days a week, and it's all being funded by the Feed Culver program, which has had a tremendous response both from the corporate community and individual donations. We have worked with over a dozen different restaurants in Culver City to help keep them open. Now we have an Economic Recovery Task Force that's led by city staff and with the participation of companies here in Culver City; we're trying to build a coherent effort.

The organization Culver City Forward was something that was on the brink of an announcement when the crisis hit, but I'm hoping that as it continues to be formed, the group can help lead a new innovative approach to how we recover here in Culver City.

It's hugely difficult because there are so many unknowns on the part of our partners in government across the country. We know we need testing—both diagnostic and antibody—and contact tracing, but our governments seem to have failed completely on that.

 As our businesses start up again, we're hoping to work with and coordinate those activities with them. I also hope to be able to bring the RAND Corporation in to help us. We've had a few large meetings with them to assemble a task force with national figures that has actually already rendered results even on a national level.

The city is also dealing with a new rent control program that is now on the books and stopping eviction on almost a daily basis. On the commercial side, everyone is expecting an impending flood of bankruptcies and a bunch of businesses having to close their doors. We hope to be able to address these issues as well.

At the beginning of 2020, you led civic discussions about how to prepare your city for an influx of new companies with large offices and thousands of workers in need of housing. That was yesterday’s major challenge. How have the events of the past six months impacted city planning for a “new normal” for Culver City?

There's no question that we need more housing. What we’ve done with ADUs and other approaches to housing continues with even more pressure from the lack of funding for them.

The twin problem of mobility and transportation is very confusing right now. We had a number of program and policy research initiatives that were moving forward before this crisis hit, and, now as we're in the crisis, some of those things are still going on that are outside of government.

I've worked a lot with the RAND Corporation on these issues, and we have some grant applications in play right now in regard to mobility, but it's very confusing. What is mobility going to look like six months from now? How many people are going to continue working from home and not go to their high-tech offices?

Right now, it's pretty easy to drive around LA; it feels like thirty years ago. But how long is that going to last, and how are we going to figure out what we're doing? As you might now, I also chair the Sustainability Council at LA Metro, which advises the Metro board. Metro is thoroughly engaged in trying to figure this out at the same time.

What we've done as a city—for our downtown and other parts of the city—is change the rules to allow more space outdoors for our restaurants. This is a radical change in the city. We are going to be closing the northbound side of Culver Blvd through downtown and open it to socially-distanced terraces for the restaurants. They're going to have multiple times the space that they have now.

We're also trying to take advantage of having a more walkable Copenhagen-like city, and our Public Works and Transportation department have been on top of this. We're going to have a lane that will be for emergency vehicles, buses, bikes, and scooters all in the same lane. Our entire downtown will be reconfigured with less access for cars and much more space for people.

We'll see how we can transition that into the future and try to not let a good crisis go to waste to improve the quality of life in our city in that way. Events have, to date, been met with grace by the restaurants that hopefully can survive and by many of our residents who are looking for this type of action.

On housing, for the last few years the state legislature has attempted to take ownership and control of local planning and land use issues to increase urban infill housing production. There have been many bills for density bonuses, streamlining planning and upzoning for more housing, or allowing places of worship, nonprofits, and colleges to avoid CEQA. While you've been understandably focused as a city leader on the triage challenges of the economy, systemic racism, and the pandemic, address what the legislature is advancing and your view of “local control” over landuse and planning? 

I follow it quite closely but have been less able to over the last month. Scott Wiener's approaches (SB 899, SB 902) are pretty well in line with what we're trying to do here already in Culver City. We try to stay parallel and ahead of it, so that we're instituting changes that are in line, but in a way where we can still maintain certain local controls. We put a lot of work into refining our ADU regulations in our different neighborhoods, and that represents a lot of work on the part of the staff and a lot of input from the local neighborhoods.

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We've probably spent too much time on ADUs, but this is the way to bring the single-family neighborhoods along and get them to understand that these changes are what will preserve the neighborhoods and not change their character in a bad way. Also, it helps us learn that we can have the three- or four-story garden-type apartment complexes that have been traditional in LA for most of its history.  These garden apartments are more dense than a single-family unit on a large lot, and can still be compatible with the way of life that we traditionally value. We're able to work in a way where we're going with the tide of that legislation in Sacramento, yet find ways to preserve the character of our city. That's the challenge for us.

How does the current pandemic factor into how cities ought to address planning issues involving density, health, and social distancing?

That's kind of an unknown and a problem for all cities. A vaccine will be a huge step hopefully within a year or so, but we need to expect this to repeat itself in the future. We're going to have to find a way as a society to accommodate that. Certainly, you see in policy journals folks saying, "I told you so" about density. But I don't think this is a situation in which you can draw any conclusions yet.

In one of Richard Florida’s most recent pieces, he predicts that cities are going to rebound much faster than we expect them to, and that the problem is going to be that we emerge out of this crisis without having solved our underlying problems of inequity—the fundamental cause of homelessness and many other issues.

I pay attention to that, and that's something we need to look out for. When we talk about what the congestion problem is going to be, there's certainly some worry that we may not have the same problems in our neighborhoods a year from now. If you listen to Florida, we may have them back in spades; I won't be surprised by either one.

How is Culver City assisting its restaurant businesses to survive during the pandemic? 

Culver City has a vibrant, walkable downtown with a lively retail and culinary community famous for our excellent, diverse and wide-ranging restaurants, attracting diners and visitors from all over the southland. As the COVID crisis struck, the city realized that we needed to act quickly to help save our restaurants from economic disaster. We immediately expedited permitting for expanded outdoor dining, both on private and public property.

We are now in the process of closing off traffic lanes and entire streets downtown and across the city to offer more space on both sidewalks and streets for safe, socially distanced outdoor dining. Collaborating with the restaurants themselves, and with our Business Improvement Districts and Chamber of Commerce, we are adapting our policies so that many of our eateries will continue to thrive. In addition, a volunteer group of individuals and organizations (not officially associated with the city) came together to create an innovative program called FeedCulver.org.

We raised funds from local residents, corporations and service organizations to pay for restaurants to make meals that we then deliver to a local soup kitchen to provide dinner for those most in need. This program has been hugely successful in offering thousands of meals to the public and helping to keep more than a dozen local restaurants in business.

Given the magnitude of the challenge, let’s segue to homelessness. How is Culver City addressing this growing crisis?

If we can wisely respond to our public safety funding priorities—offer a lot more services locally and have more staff to deal with those issues—we could perhaps have more success with meeting the urgent and growing need for shelter.

In terms of housing density and what the facilities look like, you're on the cutting edge asking that question. We have realized here in Culver City that the homeless problem has increased by leaps and bounds and has become a major issue, in a way it was not when I was first elected to office just a few years ago. We have encampments under the 405 and an episode where the City of LA was threatening to sue us because the encampment was just on the LA side, but now it's grown to both sides.

When this crisis hit, we were very actively looking for a site to fund and build a homeless shelter in Culver City. That has obviously been put on the back burner with all of these crises in front of us. But how we'll approach that, we can't know; all of this is happening at the same time.

I haven't heard about Project Roomkey in LA for a couple of weeks, so I don't know how this is working out with having folks be in hotel rooms. What does the next generation homeless shelter look like? That's a hard nut to crack at this point, and a hugely important question to be asking.

Lastly, as a thoughtful public official committed to addressing his city’s current challenges, will the “new post-pandemic normal” likely be much different than January 2020’s “normal”?

We're really living in a moment of historic change right now. Hopefully, we can take all of this destruction and try to push it towards being “creative” destruction. I was recently struck by an Ezra Klein interview on his podcast with Ta-Nahisi Coates, who's certainly often been pessimistic in many of his famous writings. When Klein asked him how he felt, he said he was hopeful and that progress was being made.

This issue of racial equity, racism, and actually facing the history of our country is massive. If we can face this and come out of it with advances in that arena, that could lead us to a vastly more productive culture.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.