December 21, 2020 - From the December, 2020 issue

Mark Ridley-Thomas' TPR Exit Interview from the LA County Board of Supervisors

Having won the election to represent District 10 on the LA City Council, Mark Ridley Thomas returns to the City after nearly two decades—following 12-years on the LA County Board of Supervisors and 3 terms as both an assemblymember and state senator in Sacramento. TPR’s exit interview with former Supervisor, now-Councilmember Ridley-Thomas appropriately focuses mostly upon his accomplishments on the county board and his significant economic development initiatives relating to housing, mobility, and LA’s burgeoning bioscience industry.


Mark Ridley-Thomas

“Might I hasten to make the point that since the dissolution of the CRA, the MTA is effectively the new CRA.” - Mark Ridley-Thomas

Supervisor, for almost two decades, The Planning Report has had the pleasure of doing interviews with you in your various public roles on the LA City Council, in the State Legislature, and on the County Board of Supervisors. Focusing on your most recent 12-year tenure as LA County supervisor, elaborate on what accomplishments you are most proud of re: affordable housing.

The Planning Report plays a pivotal role—a vital role—in terms of articulating issues around planning, land use, and how to move the region forward, and I appreciate the platform. Affordable housing has been a top priority for my administration on the Board of Supervisors following some of what I did on the City Council in the ‘90s, but much more.

I am quite proud that over 3,000 units of affordable housing have been constructed over the time I served as Supervisor representing the Second District. Some 1,300 units are currently under construction, and 2,300 more are in pre-development across the district—well over 5,000 units of supportive and affordable housing, some of which is for seniors, some is multi-family, some for the formerly homeless, and some of which is for individuals with special needs. Every unit elevates the quality of life of those individuals who are fortunate enough to secure residence in these developments. I am proud of that.

I am also proud that we were able to push the County’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund—originally aspirational to the level of $100 million—forward. We've worked on a number of ordinances to expedite permitting for more affordable housing, interim housing, motel conversions—all of which is a part of the mix to drive an agenda that essentially seeks to reduce and assuage the crisis of homelessness in the County of Los Angeles.

Councilman, this track record, which you've only partially described, will likely be built upon on the City Council. You and Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento were appointed by Governor Newsom to lead his Council of Regional Homelessness Advisors. From the vantage point of a Supervisor moving back to the City Council, what are the challenges to achieving state and local goals homelessness housing goals from the governance platform of the City? 

Theoretically, we should be able to get more work done in terms of building affordable housing, because it is not the role of the County, per se, by design, to be engaged in an abundance of land use related projects, although such is the case. The County's wheelhouse is the safety net; the City’s wheelhouse is land use. So, it would be my expectation and my intention to figure out how we can move at a much faster clip and how we build more affordable housing to stand up against the onslaught of homelessness.

I was advantaged in the ‘90s—round one on the City Council—by virtue of the fact that there was such a thing called redevelopment. Those tools are not available in the same way, and therefore it’s a much more challenging fiscal environment, but I believe where there's a will, there's a way.  

I think the market will have to respect the fact that there's a need for affordable housing. But does it mean affordable housing only? It does not. There's a market for market-rate housing as well. And to the extent that is the case, we just simply need to build—build well and build in such a way that is inclusive and that elevates the quality of life for the total community. We can do that, and I'm very, very committed to that proposition and anxious to get started. 

Supervisor/Councilmember: Moving from housing to transit-oriented development; you certainly advocated as a Metro board member for investing transit dollars in community development.  How will this agenda be carried forward at the City Council?

The most concrete illustration that I can think of would be the Crenshaw to LAX line—$2.2 billion in public investment with eight stations along the just-under 10-mile corridor. The objective is to articulate that corridor with commercial, residential, and other kinds of fabulous uses that will essentially change the face of Crenshaw into much more vibrant corridor that complements transit and elevates the quality of life for those who are transit dependent.  

Might I hasten to make the point that with the dissolution of the CRA, the MTA is effectively the new CRA. In other words, it has the powers of eminent domain, and while it does not have the capacity to reinvest tax increment, it can engage in writing down land and investing in it. So, there are already in place policies and practices that integrate transportation, housing development, and commercial development along the major corridors.

Crenshaw is just one; Wilshire is another corridor that traverses the 10th district. We are very cognizant of those potentials and to the extent that that is the case, we will be bringing all that to bear to the 10th Council District.

 Reflecting back on your experience this year campaigning for election to the Council, what were your constituents’ priorities—and expectations and concerns. How does the latter influence your public policy your priorities? 

Well, I think the most controversial conversation underway relates to the phenomenon often described as gentrification, and that's based in a fear of displacement. Gentrification wouldn't be as much of a threat if the public sector was able to participate by financial investment in projects that are coming online because it would have more say-so in the affordability of more projects.

What we have to do is work hard and be very creative so that the market does not exacerbate the conditions under which people live. I think we can do that; I think we must do that. I think compromises are to be brokered, and I think progress is to be made.

The difficulty is, often enough, there is insufficient familiarity with the development process on the part of communities in such a way that they can get what they want in the ways that they want. They need to have honest brokers on their behalf dealing with developers, and those honest brokers have to be as skilled as those developers in getting to ‘yes.’ That's what we do, that's what we intend to do, and that's what we've made clear to our constituents that we will do on their behalf.

An example of it is the Empowerment Congress Economic Development Committee where we’ve invited neighborhood council members to come and learn about the development process including what to ask of developers and what to expect of developers to make the process more open and transparent. What we did in the ‘90s, we will do again, and then this time we'll do it better for the sake of the communities for which we are responsible.

We do this interview on the day former City of LA Deputy Mayor & former LADBS General Manager, Ray Chan, was federally indicted for bribery and corruption. In light of your comments just made regarding the importance of transparency, speak to how you can convince your constituents to believe that local government can be a fair administrator of public policy and budget priorities?

Well, seeing is believing, and you have to measure that on the basis of the track record of the officeholders and the decisionmakers that are sworn to conduct themselves in a particular way.  I'm pleased that I have been able to do that and will continue to do that.

I don't spend my time criticizing or kicking others while they are down, I want to stipulate that—but there is no good reason not to play by the rules and follow the law. It is prescriptive, and to the extent that it is an impediment, change it, don't violate it—that seems to me what has to be understood. There is an abundance of rules, regulations, and ordinances that prescribe and proscribe behavior, and there are six investigative agencies that can cause you to realize that you're faced with minimal or maximal consequences for such violation.

Very few people in this business don't know what the rules are. So, proceed according to the established guidelines, and certainly don't engage in efforts that are self-dealing in nature or are self-enriching.

Pivoting to your long record of addressing the environment, resiliency, and sustainability, address your policy agenda going forward. 

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We've had a very robust set of conversations on the issue of environmental stewardship, broadly speaking, from air to water and anything that might be seen in between. The work around the Inglewood oil field is just one example. Much of what has to happen on that front is a function of state regulation. Yet, I'm proud of the fact that we have honored our commitment with respect to the number of studies that have been done, particularly around the carcinogenic impacts of drilling.

We've moved beyond that to create a wonderful space known as the Stoneview Nature Center, an environmental oasis right in the middle of the urban space next to the Kenneth Hahn Park—just over the bridge that’s now built there to help facilitate people's ability to travel some 13.5 miles from Baldwin Hills to the beach.

So, a number of wonderful things have happened again in the interest of elevating the quality of life. We tried to do this from the vantage point of interagency collaboration with Public Works, and the Department of Parks and Recreation.

We can set some new standards and create new possibilities for what can happen in our respective neighborhoods from Koreatown to Little Ethiopia. There's a lot to do, and I'm very excited about the possibility to do it.

Drill a little deeper on one of the issues that will confront you once again on the City Council—the management of streets and sidewalks and the competing claims on those city assets.

The conversation of transit-oriented community is an interesting one, but pedestrian friendly communities have to factor—in a prominent way— in the evolution of environmental standards and commitments to make life better in terms of walkable communities, bikeable communities. All of that is in play but has to be seen against the backdrop of density and the demand on the public space.  I don't know that we have been able to think that through satisfactorily, so that discussion still is underway, but it is not a new discussion.

I recall trying to figure out how we're going to deal with sidewalks in round one of my service on the City Council. How do we really cause broken sidewalks and potholes to be addressed? There's a lot of coordination that has to take place, public and private, and debate about who’s responsible for it. The private sector was not happy about the public sector doing it because they thought that was an encroachment on their opportunity.

These are not in any way uncomplicated issues, but they all can be worked out with someone who is committed to the fundamental proposition that work can be done, and it can be work done well.

You enter the council for a second term with an incredible array of public policy experiences in public life.  Do these state, county and city  experiences  give you an advantage in thinking about what the future mayoral leadership of Los Angeles should be—who the voters of LA  should seek for our leadership going forward? 

Ah, that's a subtle attempt; maybe not so subtle, Professor Abel. Let me answer in this manner: There is no one in public life at the local level that has the extent of experience that I've been fortunate enough to have on the state and local levels, in the Assembly, in the Senate, on the Board of Supervisors, and on the City Council. I think that commends itself in a way that makes me well suited to serve the people of the 10th district. Thank you very much.

The Planning Report published some months ago, an article written by Rick Cole, the former City Manager of Santa Monica and former first Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles, about the four horsemen of the fiscal apocalypse that cities face right now—cratering revenue, pension debt, neglected infrastructure, and community need—and their impact on the ability of cities to function and deliver the services that they promise. You enter City Council challenged by all four—do you still want the job responsibilities?

I will honor my oath as I am hardly intimidated by the unusual combination of factors and forces that make this work more challenging. The tenor of the times will be defined by a level of resilience that will be unmistakable, and to the extent that that is the case, I suspect we'll see public and private sector entities pulling together for the good of this city. That's what we need to see happen.

May I submit Exhibit A: there was a little hospital called Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital, which had intense public and private sector interest in causing something fabulous to happen. When you get that kind of synergy moving—and I declare that it can happen in a number of places and spaces throughout the city in Los Angeles—then you got it going on.

Given the resources that are resident in this environment and the fact that, in many respects, it's been described as the innovation capital of the nation— I will submit for the record that the latest iteration of that innovation is going to be in the area of bioscience, which is coming up so quickly and so forcefully right here in the region that we call Los Angeles.

 There is $41 billion pent up in this economy, coming forth from one end of the county of Los Angeles to the other. My objective is to cause a lot of that to happen within the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles, and the 10th district will be all about it.

Each moment in time where we face significant economic challenges, we work our way up. We were arguably on borrowed time; more than a decade of recovery is quite a run. Now, we need to take a deep breath and go back at it.

The latter response is a perfect segue to TPR’s last question. Who are the thought-leaders you’ve had the opportunity to spend time with over your more than two-decade public career whose ideas have inspired you and helped you frame your public priorities?

It's no secret that my 40-year conversation partner has been Professor Cornel West. He’s a standout in terms of a sustained personal, public, intellectual-based relationship, although we differ on a number of things political. There's no two ways about the role that he's played. My activity a decade into the Aspen Institute was connected with Professor West; my relationship with Senator Bill Bradley was Professor West; my relationship with Toni Morrison was Professor West and on, and on, and on. That's one example.

 In the arts, currently there is a fellow by the name of Michael Govan at LACMA who I have mad respect for and all of what he's doing. I'm a big supporter of his vision, his work, and the way that he has blessed the LA scene—and he's not done yet.

In the area of bioscience is my mentor, David Meyer. In the area of healthcare proper, I met with the launching of the MLK hospital with the following individuals: Dr. Robert Ross, Dr. Woody Meyer, additionally would be he who is now the president of the UC system, Michael Drake, and add to that the president of Duke Health Care, Gene Washington. And so, the five of us met with regularity over breakfast and steered, engineered, and gave definition and leadership to the vision of what that hospital could and should be, and I maintain conversation and relationships with those individuals to this very day. And finally, I’ll shout out to those who are on the ground making it work: Dr. Elaine Batchlor at MLK Community Hospital and Dr. David Carlisle at the Charles R Drew University of Medicine and Science.

Those are some of the individuals who have had a pretty significant impact on my development and investment over the past, literally, three decades. Now, a couple of others: Reverend James Lawson Jr., a teacher of nonviolence as designated by Dr. Martin Luther King, and Marian Wright Edelman and her husband, Peter Edelman, who I’ve become close friends with over the last decade; they have had a significant impact on my work and freedom schools and more.

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