March 14, 2024 - From the March, 2024 issue

LA Councilmember Blumenfield on CD3’s Big Investment’s in Public Projects

Over the past decade, the San Fernando Valley has witnessed a transformative period marked by significant economic development, cultural revitalization, and community-driven initiatives. Councilmember Bob Blumenfield has played a pivotal role in steering the region's trajectory, leveraging funds from former CRA resources to kickstart the Reseda Rising Initiative, channeling over $100 million into Reseda. In this interview with TPR, Councilmember Bob Blumenfield provides a comprehensive overview of his impactful initiatives, developing community hubs, and his approach to revitalizing Ventura Boulevard and the Warner Center. Blumenfield further explores housing challenges, his strategies for effective communication with constituents and concern over diminishing media coverage of public interest stories in Los Angeles county.

Bob Blumenfield

“As a council member, you've got to figure out creative solutions to get things done and to get funding … You can't expect the City to solely budget for these things… “ – Bob Blumenfield

TPR: Bob, let's begin with you sharing some of the CD3 economic improvement projects you've been able to nurture to fruition over the last few years.

Bob Blumenfield: I've been very intentional with economic development in my district even before I was elected, beginning these initiatives because they were dealing with former CRA money. The whole story with CRA, people mistakenly think that the governor or legislature killed it. For the record, it was neither of those. It was not legicide- it was suicide. They killed themselves through a lawsuit they were warned against bringing. They got greedy and the Judge validated the bill that killed them and invalidated the related bill that recreated them at about 85% of what they were. I can tell that whole story another time. Needless to say, I've been following the CRA money very carefully.

One of the last things I did as an Assemblymember was to author a wind-down bill for the CRA. The bill was intended to allow excess bond money — money that had been bonded prior to July of 2011 - to be expended by various cities. Without this measure those funds would have had to have been returned to the original taxing entities at pennies on the dollar. This was particularly important as it impacted a potential $92 million in the City of Los Angeles. Without this bill, those funds would no longer be available and as it happened, $23 million of those dollars were specifically designated for my district. I took a very strong interest in this as it all happened during the time I was transitioning from being a member of the State Assembly to being a member of City Council.

When I started in the City Council, one of my first imperatives was to make sure the City did not lose that money, and that involved both lobbying the oversight board to change their mind and going to Sacramento to deal with the governor and make sure he allowed it to happen. Long story short, we got the $23 million for the district to be used for the CRA areas. Leveraging these funds has been a critical part of my economic development strategy.

Now, $23 million is not nearly enough money to implement my vision, but it was critical seed money that I would leverage. It enabled me to start what I've termed “the Reseda Rising Initiative.” This initiative has driven more than $100 million worth of public investment into the Reseda community. That's more money than had been invested over the previous 20 years into Reseda and Reseda is an area of my district that's been historically underserved. The centerpiece of my Reseda Rising initiative has become a publicly owned Ice Rink. It's in construction right now as a $27 million project — only a small part of the total funding is actually from the CRA excess bond money.

The project came about because my team and I noticed that a City bond measure from the late 90s, Proposition K, included a specific line item for $3.9 million that was to be spent in Reseda for an ice and roller rink. Now, that measure was passed a long time ago and Prop K is coming to the end of its life cycle, but nothing was ever done to build the rink. I was trying to figure out why none of my predecessors figured out how to spend this money in the past 25 years. I said, I'm going to spend this money. I went to Parks and Recreation and asked them to build me an ice skating rink. They laughed and said they could build some ice cubes, but there's no way they're going to build an ice skating rink for a measly $3.9 million. I took that as a challenge and was determined to figure out how to leverage that money before it went away or was reprogrammed (something that would happen without intervention).

So, I went looking for ways to leverage these funds and find additional funding. To get started I used some of the CRA excess bond money to acquire a CRA owned property that, in many ways, had become an albatross for the community. It was this large derelict property that had been a place where gangs, homelessness, and crime were present. We bought that property with the hopes of putting the rink there, but of course, $3.9 million is not enough to build a rink. That's when I got creative.

On my 10th wedding anniversary, this was nine years ago, my wife and I went to the Kings game and had a nice dinner. In between periods I had made arrangements to meet with Luke Robitaille, who was the former hockey star head and of the Kings, in order to pitch him on the idea of a public-private partnership. He was very interested, so my team and I worked with them and even got them to the point where they were willing to put some equity into a deal. Long story, but we ultimately acquired the property. There were a variety of hiccups that slowed the process down, including a potential bigger deal that involved an adjacent property owner, CIM. But, with tenacity we ultimately cobbled together the $27 million needed and got the Kings to agree to be the operator of this public facility. To me, this project is about much more than an Ice rink. It is a catalytic project that is the centerpiece of the economic development initiative that I envisioned for that area.

The good news is, the walls are literally going up right now. We haven't done a formal groundbreaking but they’ve already broken ground. It’ll be built this year, and we are going to be skating on it this time next year– that's very exciting. We’ve already seen how the project is spurring additional investment and lifting up the whole community.

Could you elaborate on the Rising Initiative’s Sherman Way investment?

The Sherman Way streetscape project is another part of my Reseda Rising Initiative. Sherman Way fronts the Ice Rink. I was able to get it included in the previous Mayor’s Great Streets Initiative. This project includes $1.5 million for landscaping, streets, furniture, and a mini roundabout. Sherman Way is a street with great bones and this project helped bring out its beauty. Another related and major part of my Reseda Rising Initiative involves redeveloping the Reseda Theatre which has been dormant and decaying for more than 20 years. The iconic theater also fronts along Sherman Way and maintaining its marquee and re-establishing some entertainment purpose for the theater has long been a big priority for the local community.

We acquired the theater with CRA dollars and put out an RFP for its redevelopment. During the ramp-up we courted the folks from Laemmle theaters and encouraged them to bid on the project. I took community bike rides with Greg Laemmle to help him see the possibilities. He and his team ultimately put together a winning bid by partnering with Thomas Safran and Associates and they submitted a proposal that would redevelop the old theater into a new one while maintaining the iconic marquee and would transform the back portion of the property which had been an empty lot into an affordable senior housing complex. As we desperately needed affordable housing for seniors this was a win-win. It was a complicated win-win, but a win-win nonetheless. Complications included the need to leverage $4 million in Triple H funding and putting together a public -private partnership. It got much more complicated when COVID hit and Laemmle, like many movie theaters, was facing financial trouble and had to back out. The senior housing portion of the project was already underway, but I made it clear to Safran and Associates that it was a package deal and you can't back out of the theater. The theater was the impetus for the whole thing to begin with.

So, we figured it out. I ended up having to throw some more CRA money into the deal to make it pencil, but the bottom line is that we're on track and we're breaking ground on the theater/food complex this year. The housing is already up and running and being used by low income and formerly homeless seniors (PSH housing).

Could you also elaborate on your office’s other development initiative - the MADRID Theater and the creation of the related TAXCO Theater.

The Reseda Rising initiative is about helping the eastern side of my district. I've also got a focused redevelopment initiative on the western side of my district as well. This initiative is focused on Canoga Park. While this area had received some CRA assistance prior to my being elected and is also located in a CRA zone, it is also a very underserved part of the City and my district. Consequently, I was determined to do economic development there.

One of the strengths of the Canoga Park area has to do with the Arts. Consequently, it made sense to take advantage of this and create a “Cultural Arts Hub” initiative. The anchor asset of this community is the Madrid Theater, owned by the City of Los Angeles.

It was built almost 100 years ago. At one point, it was a public works project, then it was an adult entertainment place called the Pussycat Lounge until the earthquake hit in 94’ and made it inoperable. The City purchased it and transformed it into a community theater. However, over the last few decades it has been falling into disrepair. We decided to infuse some of the CRA money, along with other funds into it to upgrade the theater. This major transformation would be the centerpiece of the Arts Hub, but not the only piece.

Up the street from it was what was known as the Clyde Porter Theater, where the West Valley Playhouse performed. It was privately owned, but it was part of three historic buildings: an old library, and fire station, and then you had this beautiful old building that was being used as a theater. Unfortunately, Clyde Porter's heirs said they were no longer going to support this and were going to sell off the property. Its likely fate would have been conversion into an office building or fast food restaurant.

Our office looked into whether we could buy it and make it part of the cultural arts hub. Its fate is a long story with lots of hurdles that we had to overcome. Despite this, we cobbled together funding to purchase the theater and of course, as soon as the City purchased it, we had to make it ADA accessible, etc. Serious renovations had to happen. For legal and practical reasons, we had to rename the theater.

Taxco is the name of a city in Mexico which has a decades long sister-city/community relationship with Canoga Park. The Madrid Theater down the road was named to reflect the Hispanic heritage of the region. Looking back on that, we realized there may have been racism or misunderstanding because, of course, the immigrant community in Canoga Park was from Mexico, not Spain. We had community meetings and surveyed the local community and found out that, despite this history, people did not want to change the name of the Madrid theater as they had grown accustomed to it and had positive associations with it. As a nod to justice, and as something community members expressed support for, we decided to name this new City theater after a city in Mexico. The longtime (since the Eisenhower administration) sister-city relationship with Taxco Mexico made the City of Taxco the obvious choice. Many of the people who still participate in the annual visit/exchange between Canoga Park residents and Taxco City residents were on-hand for the naming announcement.

The renovations were just recently completed and last month we did the official ribbon cutting for the new theater. It is now in active use and it is beautiful. It is run by the Department of Cultural Affairs and is being used as an “Arts Incubator'' where productions can be developed, practiced and performed. There is a wonderful synergy with the neighboring Madrid Theatre. Another related part of the cultural arts hub, is the Canoga Park Youth Arts Center. It is located nearby in a historic building that once served as the first operator-assisted phone company in San Fernando Valley. It includes a gallery, workshops and studios, a computer lab, an exhibition space, and a garden classroom.

Reflecting on the success of your efforts, share with our readers how a council office, dedicated to such public investment, amasses the resources and public will necessary? Is the reinvestment in the Canoga Park Arts Hub an economic model for replication in the City of LA?

You always have to hustle for dollars. People think council members are given a budget you then spend on different things. I wish it were that easy.

As a Councilmember, you've got to figure out creative solutions to get things done and to get funding. You don’t just need to fight for resources, you have to figure out creative ways to leverage them. You just have to be tenacious and creative and forge partnerships. You can't expect the City to budget for these things solely, and nobody's going to come by to give you a big pot of money. And if you do find that pot of money, it’s never enough to do what you want to do. You have to look at the landscape and look for opportunities. As I said, we turned the Proposition K money into something much bigger, but we seized on that opportunity. Having the CRA excess bond money was very valuable as leverage, it wasn’t enough by itself.

Before turning away from economic development, could you share what your Council Office is doing on Ventura Boulevard and in Warner Center?

Some areas of the district need a helping hand and others just need you to get out of the way. For me, helping the Warner Center in Woodland Hills often means getting the City out of the way. Towards that end, we unleashed tremendous growth via a specific plan that has proven to be gangbusters for the Warner Center in Woodland Hills. It is called the Warner Center 2035 Plan.

I moved that plan over the finish line in my freshman year as a Councilmember. It had been brewing for almost a decade before I was elected, I can't take credit for its substance, but I can take credit for closing the deal, bringing it over the finish line, and making it the greenest/ environmentally friendly specific plan in the City. The plan has enabled development to flourish in the Warner Center and allows for tremendous density. It envisages a live, work, and play environment. Having one EIR for the entire plan, it allows development projects within the zone to simply reference the plan’s comprehensive EIR. It has made a huge difference in the timing of projects. Time is money and therefore many more projects can pencil out. Consequently, even though they have the highest environmental standards, it doesn't stop folks from developing. The value of time savings and approval certainty — a clear set of rules — is tremendous. We've seen major investment and growth in that area. Most recently Stan Kroenke/the Kroenke group, who owns the Rams, purchased the old Promenade mall site, the neighboring Anthem site and the neighboring Village mall. This makes them the largest landowner in the district. The first project that they're unveiling is a Rams practice facility where they will have two fields and several buildings. That is being built as we speak, projected to be up and running this season. Also, it’s important to note that the Warner Center plan requires that every project built in the Warner Center contributes to a massive mitigation fund (ultimately expected to be around $180 million) which we use to help mitigate the negative consequences of development such as traffic. To help determine how best to apply these mitigation funds we set up a community Planning Implementation Board (PIB).

The Re-imagine Ventura Boulevard initiative is also a great project, but it is located just outside of the Warner Center zone. Again, you have to be creative to make things happen and this project is no exception. The idea for it came from constituents and neighborhood council members who believed diagonal parking on Ventura Boulevard would improve and help revitalize the area. Their valid concern was that cars were just speeding by and they wanted to create a sense of place for those properties. I embraced the idea and worked to develop it, build broad community support, and find the resources to design and implement it.

Particularly because of the business competition caused by the growth of the nearby Warner Center, we wanted this development to be different. We wanted to help create a “Main Street'' feeling. We held several community meetings from which we've put together our “Reimagine Ventura Boulevard” initiative. This creative plan involves back-in parking instead of front-end diagonal parking. Doing so helped enable more parking and a new bike lane. The project also includes medians, crosswalks, and new traffic signals– that's all just Phase One. We’ve completed that phase and are now moving to Phase Two, which is the fun stuff related to landscaping, street furniture, concrete work etc. That is in the design phase and is moving along great.

Let’s pivot now to residential housing. A recent lawsuit was brought by the YIMBY group, challenging Mayor Bass’ ED1’s streamlining regulations to accelerate housing density …complaining about her exemption of residentially zoned R1 neighborhoods.

You represent a district with many single-family homes. Are single family R1 zones in danger of being densified without limitation by housing developers?

Just to be clear, their lawsuit addresses eight projects that sort of snuck in. I don't think they're challenging all of ED1. They want the City to look the other way and allow the ‘sneak in’ projects to sneak into what’s allowed under ED1.

They also want to expand ED1 to apply to all single-family neighborhoods, but they haven't questioned the City's ability to have it apply to 100% affordable housing along transit corridors. However, ED1 was never meant to apply to single-family neighborhoods, not that you couldn't build there but that it shouldn’t be done without community input and the regular process. The Mayor has made it clear that was never intended and the Departments have made that clear as well.

Before ED1 regulations were questioned, some developers thought that R1 single family neighborhoods could be included in areas where ED1 could be applied because it wasn’t expressly prohibited clearly enough, in their opinion. They thus quickly applied for permits and administrative approvals. Once the Mayor's office figured out that these developers (intentional or not) were misreading the language, that language was clarified to explicitly say that ED1 does not apply to R1 zones. The developers who had hastily thrown these applications together then said ‘oh, well we applied before you made that change.’ The planning department then responded saying ‘Well, it wasn't a change, it was a clarification. Nonetheless, your applications are not even complete so you’ll have to reapply anyway and the rules have now been clarified.’

Clearly you can't build a seven-story building in a single-family neighborhood simply based on ED1, because it was never meant to apply to that. The developers claimed to have vesting rights, they then appealed their approval denials so that this question came before the City Council. We said ‘no, you don't.’ Most of these ‘sneak in’ projects didn't even have the number of units listed in their application. It appears that their haste to ‘sneak in’ resulted in sloppy applications that weren’t complete.

Legally, the bigger issue is that since the application wasn't deemed complete, they have to go under the current rules, not the rules that they applied for with their incomplete application. That's the issue with ED1 pertaining to those very narrow ‘sneak-in’ projects.

Overall, ED1 is a tremendous success story; we have a lot of building that's happening across the city and in my district because of ED1. We have several projects in areas that are already zoned for multifamily homes. We're having projects move very quickly without any CEQA, like the Daylight project, the META project, etc. We're seeing the fruits of ED1 and we also intend to codify ED1 as a council.

It's a red herring to look at outlier projects attempting to use ED1 in a way that wasn't intended.

Bob, before concluding, how do you now inform your constituents of your successes – your public service? Is it your experience that too many constituents are unaware and uninformed about who their legislative and elected leaders are and what each accomplishes? Has the local media fulfilled their civic promise?

It's a great question because it's always frustrating to do all this great stuff and, you know, if a tree falls in the forest, it doesn't make any noise. But noise or not, making positive things happen in the community is its own reward. It’s the results, not the attention, that make my work gratifying.

That being said, we do communicate directly with folks. In addition to my newsletter and the press stuff that we do, I also have these community action teams (cats) composed of local folks. We call them bobcats, because I'm Bob and they are ‘cats’. We have various different teams. For example, we have an economic development bobcat, a domestic violence bobcat, an emergency preparedness bobcat. We communicate with these groups and other community groups such as neighborhood councils, Rotaries, chambers, etc., to get our message out. Oftentimes, the best way to communicate these days is directly– through newsletters, social media, and through some of our local papers like the Warner Center news. We're always writing articles there so people can see what's happening in their neighborhood.

Are you civically concerned about the continuing LA Times layoffs and the shrinking of the Los Angeles based news staff?

Very much so. It's so difficult to get them to cover important things. Unless it's salacious, they don't cover it. All this economic development news, that I think is incredible, barely gets noticed by the mainstream press. Now, presumably, if I get enough of the King's players to come to our grand opening, they might cover the story.

One last question. It’s predicted that the state and local jurisdictions might have the lowest voter turnout in their history this year. Is democracy really on the ballot?

It's a big concern. This is a different topic, but I have grave concerns for our democracy. Both on the local and national level, the Democrats and Republicans in Congress don't even talk to each other.

When I worked on Capitol Hill as a staff member, you would argue with folks but then you go out for a beer or for dinner with them afterward. It was a very different environment and I very much worry about the hyper-partisanship, not just the partisanship of Democratic-Republican, but the splintering of the left and the right. The far right, MAGA, and the far left are in many ways, hurting our democracy. I am very worried about that.

The turnout reflects that to some extent. Of course, the easy way to drive turnout is to have big scandals so that people come out and vote, but you want people to engage without those things.

So, the bottom line is that I am very worried about our democracy. The voter turnout issue is very serious because the governance of the people is dependent on the people having faith that their collective will is being carried out. If people are not participating in the process, then people don't feel a stake and they're not going to respect the decisions of their elected leaders. It's going to make it much more difficult to get things done and to get people to agree on solutions, if people don’t have faith and/or feel a stake in the process.


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