May 20, 2021 - From the May, 2021 issue

Dan Rosenfeld: Retrospective on Gov. Pete Wilson & Revitalization of California Cities

In light of the economic recovery potential of California's $100 billion budget surplus and the ambition of Governor Newsom's California Comeback plan, TPR shares this retrospective by Dan Rosenfeld on the legacy of former Governor Pete Wilson on urban revitalization of California cities the 1990's. Rosenfeld, who served in the Department of General Services at the time, outlines how Wilson mobilized the state's vast real estate resources to support deteriorating downtowns by consolidating state operations into central urban cores across California. Rosenfeld further highlights the benefits of building restoration and adaptive reuse for inspiring private investment & contributing to public rediscovery of urban living.


"It may surprise you, but much of this wonderful resurgence in urban living - and the revitalization of California’s cities – results directly from the work of former Governor Pete Wilson."

"The State’s investment in downtown Los Angeles and in other cities inspired private investment in building restoration and adaptive reuse, drawn thousands to shop, dine and live in historic downtowns, and contributed to the public re-discovery of urban living."

When the pandemic abates, people will return to the streets and sidewalks of California’s cities.  Restaurants will set up tables with umbrellas, families with baby strollers and pets will pass by, stores will reopen and downtowns will thrive in ways they never did before.

It may surprise you, but much of this wonderful resurgence in urban living - and the revitalization of California’s cities – results directly from the work of former Governor Pete Wilson.

It has been common to associate Governor Wilson with controversies over immigration. What is often overlooked is his lifelong commitment to the health and prosperity of cities, both as Mayor of San Diego and especially as Governor, from 1991 to 1999.

Wilson’s tenure in the Statehouse was challenged by earthquakes, fires, workmen’s compensation struggles, and recession. But one agenda was maintained throughout his terms in office, often through unusual bi-partisan cooperation with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and the Democratic State Legislature. That was his intense interest in California’s “downtowns.”

 Wilson came to Sacramento with a strong background in urban revitalization, having directed the widely-admired development of the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego.  With the State, he expanded this vision to include many of California’s other cities. 

The key to this program was the mobilization of the State’s vast real estate resources to support the “come-backs” of deteriorating central urban cores.

Wilson accomplished this through two parallel and complimentary paths:  he consolidated the far-flung operations of the State into smaller, more organized office space requirements – which reduced costs and pleased fiscal conservatives – and he relocated those requirements into the Central Business Districts of established cities – which pleased urban planning advocates.  The results were a net reduction in facilities costs - the first and only such cost reduction in State history – and an influx of public and private investment into cities.  Tens of thousands of private-sector jobs were created in the process.

To implement this program, Wilson recruited former railroad real estate executive John Salmon as head of the State’s Office of Planning and Research. In the Governor’s office Andrew Poat and Kevin Eckery oversaw the program, which also included General Services Director John Lockwood and Cabinet-level Secretaries Sandra Smoley and Joanne Kozberg.

Salmon’s team started by identifying 185 separate State of California offices located around the San Francisco Bay Area (Salmon, whose email moniker is “Coho,” liked to say that “The only place we’re consolidated is in the Yellow Pages”). It was a nightmare for the public to find many of these offices and difficult for State agencies to work together.  Consolidating these “space requirements” resulted in the need for less space and therefor lower annual costs. At the same time, relocating this consolidated San Francisco requirement into an historic building and an efficient new structure in the city’s Civic Center helped upgrade that sensitive neighborhood.  Salmon did the same thing in Oakland, consolidating 70 State premises into a new tower on the heart of downtown. 

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Downtown Riverside got two State buildings, one using an abandoned former bank office, both in downtown.  “You have saved downtown Riverside,” commented Mayor Ron Loveridge.  Downtown San Bernardino saw the State build a tower for Caltrans and other agencies, the first new building in its central city in more than twenty years. 

But it was in Sacramento and Los Angeles that the program achieved its greatest effect.  The State Environmental Protection Agency was situated at 55 different locations, just in Sacramento - hard to believe, but true.  A new EPA building was constructed downtown, on the City’s struggling K Street Mall, at the intersection of two publicly-funded light rail lines, and within two blocks of the State Capitol.  Imagine that.  Several other State buildings following, all specifically sited to upgrade Sacramento’s very historic downtown, support public transit, and provide better service to the public – and all at lower cost. 

The Historic Core of downtown Los Angeles, located along Spring Street and Broadway, proved to be a unique challenge. For years, businesses and residents had fled from the central city in favor of the suburbs.  Instead of building a new structure in downtown LA, Wilson’s team acquired and restored two historic, existing buildings, one the former Broadway department store at Fourth and Broadway. And they did this at one third the cost of new construction.

What followed is evident today: the State’s investment in downtown Los Angeles and in other cities has inspired private investment in building restoration and adaptive reuse, has drawn thousands to shop, dine and live in historic downtowns, and contributed to the public re-discovery of urban living. 

The restaurant tables and umbrellas, young families with babies and pets, night clubs and bars, all followed. It was, in summary, a perfect example of using precious public resources not just to serve the community, but to lead it forward.  Of 55 largely abandoned, historic structures in Los Angeles that the State considered before it acquired the former Broadway store, every one is now retrofitted and re-occupied as loft apartments and “creative” office space, all done with private funds. The environmental benefits, transportation benefits, jobs, and civic cohesion that a strong central urban core provides go beyond mere real estate. They provide a vital doorway to our better, more unified, yet also more diverse, future.

 That is the other legacy of Governor Peter Barton “Pete” Wilson.

 

Dan Rosenfeld served in the State of California Department of General Services from 1992 to 1994.  He now lives and works in downtown LA. 

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.