Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Who Will Save The LA River From The CRA?

My latest article over at CITYWATCH:

If one wants a reel (i.e., Hollywood) world equivalent of the real world danger to the LA River in Downtown, it would be a silent film starring Simon Legree (i.e., the appointed Community Redevelopment Agency leadership) tying the hopes and dreams of Downtown Los Angeles, for a LA River lined with parks and mixed uses, to the railroad tracks while a locomotive – packed with special interest groups - comes barreling towards us at ninety miles an hour.

To back up a bit, the City of Los Angeles is planning to spend at least a billion dollars (though no comprehensive business plan yet exists) to turn the LA River into a public amenity lined with parks and mixed uses – except in one area.

In the most per capita park poor part of the entire city – the part of Downtown represented by the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council - the approved plan will not allow us even a single park in our neighborhood; we will also not get even one unit of housing in the area with the single biggest jobs/housing imbalance nor will we get anything resembling the kinds of public amenities every other neighborhood in Los Angeles along the river will get.

And when I asked over a year ago why we were the only neighborhood not to be allowed any parks – I was told by two different staff members that it would conflict with the city's industrial policy since only industry was going to be allowed along the 'new' LA River in our neighborhood.

Now, no other city in this country – for that matter– no city on this planet (since Stalinist five year industrial plans have gone out of fashion even in Russia – if not in Los Angeles) would ever dream of lining a river in the most congested and populated part of the city with railroad tracks, high tension lines and wall to wall factories – forever.

Ironically, though – as I demonstrated in an earlier CityWatch article, while the city's industrial zoning policy will work in some parts of the city – this policy will actually destroy jobs and prevent jobs from being created in the older parts of Downtown.

But here's the best part. Since building heavy industry facilities in the heart of the city is no longer financially feasible – the CRA will have to give these factories 30 years of vast tax subsidies to pay them to destroy the LA River in our neighborhood.

Please inset the appropriate Vietnam War metaphor of your choice here.

But this situation had been recently – seemingly - looking up. Our three elected officials, Jan Perry, Jose Huizar and Ed Reyes had recently overturned the CRA's stonewalling of two major live work projects near the LA River and the city council had also just passed a resolution condemning the CRA and the Planning Department's unilateral implementation of their industrial policy. And … at public meeting after public meeting, at least 95% of the speakers – and sometimes 100% of them – strongly opposed every aspect of this plan.

Every single Downtown community and business organization with an elected board has opposed this policy – including those representing the property and business owners this plan is supposed to protect.

The only people to support this plan are appointed city officials, people being paid by city contracts – and organizations that do not represent Downtown.

So one would think that since the public the CRA 'serves', the industrial users the plan is supposed to 'protect' and the councilpersons elected by the public to represent them are all opposed to this policy– that the CRA would finally back off from their plan.

Well, not in LA.

Last week I went into an AIA (American Institute of Architects) meeting on the future of Downtown. One of the panel members was Cecilia Estolano, the head of the CRA. She greeted me warmly before the meeting started and I took that as a sign that she – finally – was willing to work with us downtown to develop a real world plan that
will create jobs, housing and parks along the LA River.

I say finally because after years of guarantees that the public would be involved in the drafting of this plan – the long promised public workshops were canceled last December – between Christmas and New Years Day when no one was in town. And then, even after the CRA and Planning were forced to hold public hearings on their betrayal, they still refused to in any way discuss or debate their policy with us. They just stoically listened to our testimony against their plan,
declined to engage in any kind of debate – and then went back to
implementing their plan with a complete disregard of the public input.

But instead of addressing any of that during her presentation last week, Estolano instead announced her latest initiative for Downtown – a policy that was created, as usual, behind closed doors - to line the banks of the LA River – particularly within the DLANC boundaries - with not just industry – but heavy industry. "Green" heavy industry

Yes, her proposal is now to destroy our environment with 'green' heavy industry to build products to improve other people's environments.

Again, insert appropriate Vietnam War analogy.

And the best part is – this new plan was again developed without any input from – or even the knowledge of - anyone in the affected areas. This was the first I had ever heard about it and when I asked around the next day, my suspicions were confirmed. Not a single one of the stakeholder groups had been contacted plus no one at Planning or
even in the CRA office in Downtown had ever heard of this new plan, much less had been consulted about it.

When the Q & A session started, I announced we had just witnessed why this city does not work; that we are still a city where some of the biggest decisions affecting our communities are still made behind closed doors. And that even when these plans are opposite of what the community wants – or needs – the community will still be ignored if they are in conflict with the desires of politically connected special interest groups.

Estolano's response to my remarks was that there was no green manufacturing policy for the length of the LA River in Downtown – even though she had just announced to the audience that there was one and she had just passed out a map showing the project's boundaries.

I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and agree she actually does believe in her mind that there will someday be some public involvement in this proposal. I'll do this despite the fact the CRA has still refused to engage in any debate with us on the specifics of the
existing industrial zoning plan and that it has still refused to allow any kind of meaningful two-way dialogue with the community on the planning process for this issue – for the past two years.

Now, on a cynical sidetrack, it appears clear to me that changing the 100% industrial zone along the LA River into a 100% 'green' industrial area – even though that would prevent – for a variety of reasons – the actual regreening of the LA River - is just a new way of re-packaging their old idea by adding the buzz word 'green' to their plan.

But the delusion that large factories making green products are going to be suddenly built anywhere in Los Angeles – much less in Downtown Los Angeles ( just like the 1990's hallucination that LA would suddenly become the center for the manufacturing of rapid transit equipment if we built subways) – is exactly that – a delusion.

What the politicians and special interest groups are ignoring is that with Downtown's outdated infrastructure, high wage costs, high business taxes, high utility fees and many other obstacles to manufacturing in Downtown – no one is going to set up heavy industry in an area that is far more expensive to do business within than in other states, other cities in LA County – or even in other parts of the City of Los Angeles. And even if they would – the massive public subsidies would far outweigh the gains.

Even more to the point, since green products are inherently more expensive than non green products – and they are often considerably more expensive - manufacturers must find the lowest cost places to make their products if they are to be at all competitive within the marketplace.

The bottom line is - of all the types of manufacturing – green products are among the least likely to locate in a high cost area such as Downtown Los Angeles.

And everyone who has a clue of how business works – and who is not dependent on the public teat – knows this to be true.

So where does this leaves us?

Well, pretty much where we started.


But at some point in time the CRA's leadership might actually learn they need to work with us to get anything done. Someday, they might even stop acting like an occupying army determined to destroy all resistance to their initiatives (and shooting anyone who dares go off-message) and understand they are supposed to serve our community – and not attack it.

The tragedy is that we all want the same things for our community. Good paying jobs, a greener environment, parks along the LA River, better transportation – and housing for everyone. But none of this will ever happen with the current bunker mentality of the CRA.

I might add that that when Estolano first came into office, I was very impressed by her speech on how the CRA would be actively involved in grass roots community building. I was so impressed I offered to give her a tour of Downtown to show how we had turned the former heroin district into a vibrant community filled with new jobs and how with modest amounts of working capital we had accomplished far more than
past, failed multi-million dollar projects of the CRA had in the same neighborhood. And she said she looked forward to that tour. But after six months – and a half-a-dozen unreturned and unacknowledged phone calls and emails and letters – I finally gave up.

Just like a lot of people Downtown are giving up on the idea that the CRA can ever be our partners in building a new Downtown for everyone.

But it shouldn't - and doesn't - have to be that way. So, just maybe, one day that attitude might start to change.

And, luckily, it will only take one person to accomplish that. But first she will have to start returning our phone calls.

(Brady Westwater is a writer, a long-time downtown and neighborhood council activist and Chair of the LA NC Congress Economic Development Committee. Westwater is a regular contributor to CityWatch. He can be reached at: bradywestwater@gmail.comThis email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ). _

1 comment:

Thea Mercouffer said...


I read your blog, and found your investment in the city very inspiring. I'd like to share with you and your readers a short film I made about the biologist from the Army Corps of Engineers who leaked an internal memo to Congressman Waxman and to the media, and helped save the LA River from drowning in bureaucracy.

Thea Mercouffer, Director
Heather and Goliath