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CRA, Change Your Way 

Can the city’s bad-boy agency ever learn to do good?

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

What’s left to say about the CRA? Downtown Los Angeles is the graveyard of its mistakes. Over its 50-year history, the Community Redevelopment Agency became the favored scapegoat of anti-government critics from left to right. Now, sapped by its obligations for its many failed projects, the CRA’s been laying off staff and lying low. No one even wears a “CRA Go Away’’ T-shirt to its meetings anymore. There’s been no need to. Pinned by its $750 million downtown Central Business District debt cap, it actually seems to have gone away.

Ten years ago the Community Redevelopment Agency, fueled by promissory notes on anticipated tax-revenue increases, was the city’s 600-pound gorilla. Now, with three quarters of a million dollars in debt to pay off, it’s more like the monkey on L.A.’s back. But hope springs eternal. The agency may be impotent downtown, but it’s busy in places the spending cap doesn’t apply. Hollywood’s TrizecHahn redevelopment proj-ect — just approved last year — was empowered by the CRA. There’s a busy strip mall at Adams and Vermont near USC that’s a CRA success story. There’s the Magnolia-Vineland center in North Hollywood, which has more than broken even.

Then there’s all that other stuff. Close to $900 million worth, much of it miserable failures. Such as the 1980s Spring Street Redevelopment, which now serves as a pissing wall for street people.

But the CRA is now worth looking at for two new reasons. First, the Los Angeles City Council is in the process of trying to take it over from its mayor-council-appointed board. And secondly, it’s just received its first objective outside assessment in years (not counting those Controller’s Office audits of uncollected rents and flummoxed loans over the past decade). This CRA report — compiled by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and prepared by UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education at the School of Public Policy and Social Research — is an incredible piece of work, complete with a shockingly upbeat ending.

But first the bad news, if you can call it news. The CRA’s spent hundreds of millions since 1990 and most of it hasn’t helped anyone but insiders. The report’s most impressive finding — particularly considering that for most of the past 20 years the CRA and big labor have been interchangeable — was that most of the jobs the CRA’s created (the agency claims there were 100,000 of them, but can’t back up that figure) pay below the $8.32-per-hour poverty-level wage. This has been bad for everyone. The CRA-financed Baldwin Hills–Crenshaw mall’s low-pay strategy failed to prevent Macy’s, the anchor retail tenant, from moving out. The downtown Grand Central Square redevelopment was a spectacular flop that cost the developer — Tom Bradley crony Ira Yellin — practically nothing. But it cost the city and the co-invested MTA plenty. Right now, it’s also costing the shopkeepers of the Grand Central Market jacked-up rents, which the report says has forced them to pay rock-bottom wages.

It’s amazing how often CRA projects, according to the report, end up screwing wage earners. The CRA-backed San Pedro Sheraton Hotel, when it first opened, offered well-paid union jobs. Then it was sold to new owners, who promptly locked out the unions. Bingo, an average of $6.25 an hour, no benefits.

Since the living wage is LAANE’s major focus, it’s not surprising the report advocates better-paying jobs. But what’s even more interesting is the upbeat conclusion that many more such jobs can be provided — if only the CRA switches its emphasis from retail to industrial projects, and from helping well-connected developers to nurturing independent business people.

My own problem with this scenario is that it’s hard to imagine most City Council candidates running on the promise of more industry for Los Angeles. Better-paying jobs, yes. But those who live, rather than work, in a given district are likely to resist the foundation for such jobs — factories with their big traffic problems, noise and 24-hour shifts, even if the new plants are smoke-free and ecologically sanitary. The LAANE report suggests further work on cleaning up old industrial sites to use for new industry. This does sound more doable. But not without a major neighborhood-coordination effort, since some of those sites abut residential areas.

Finally, the report agrees with many council members that the City Council should take over the CRA as a department that includes all city development. This is the way it’s done in smaller cities like Alhambra. The CRA is presently governed by a council-and-mayor-appointed board. Since the local council members control most of what the CRA does in their districts, the argument goes, you might as well open up the process and eliminate the middle man. Admittedly, one of the best indicators of how good a job a council person is doing is the way the CRA performs in his-her district. Ninth District Councilman Gilbert Lindsay’s two decades of CRA deal-making replaced housing with office towers and remade downtown L.A. into Quartz City, while Rita Walters’ impassioned foot-dragging in the same district helped create the more satisfactory Staples Arena project. Since then, Jackie Goldberg and her staff’s in-depth niggling on TrizecHahn engendered wider support for this huge Hollywood make-over than for any previous CRA project.

But can the council be trusted with sole oversight of all the city’s public development? I doubt it. Keeping track of proj-ects out of their districts will never be a priority for members. Even with the present CRA arrangement, most council members will endorse any CRA project in another district — no matter how preposterous — to assure a reciprocal vote for a project in their own districts.

If the council does get to replace the CRA, the mayor, beholden to no single district, perhaps ought to get more control of its decisions (the report, by the way, indicates that the CRA has functioned far less offensively under Dick Riordan than it ever did under Tom Bradley). And here’s an even better idea: Why not give the city controller a veto over proposed CRA operations? For the last couple of decades, via countless audits, the controller has had to sweep up after this incontinent elephant of an agency. If anyone knows its ways and wiles, he does. Maybe a special urban development commission should replace the present CRA; it would be made up of the mayor, controller and three to five council members. This would minimize the vote trading and maximize the oversight.

The CRA in East L.A.

 

Now there’s another CRA project on the front burner. It’s a redevelopment zone including most of the commercial and industrial property in the 14th Council District. Although it went to the council for approval before the LAANE report, it seems to respond in part to that report’s critiques.

For one thing the so-called Adelante Project avoids most residential areas (but not all of them — there’s too much intermixture). This is clearly to appease locals who don’t want their homes condemned. Adelante includes three major commercial east-west thoroughfares: First Street, Whittier Boulevard and Cesar Chavez Boulevard. Otherwise, it embraces the industrial-commercial south side of the district, extends north on its western, Los Angeles River, edge, then chucks down Valley Boulevard east to the Alhambra line. The zone includes some empty and many polluted industrial sites. It also includes many struggling industries — metal-plating firms, sausage plants, noodle factories, tortilla works and plenty of garment shops.

During last month’s council presentations, many Eastside property and business owners stood up for Adelante. Obviously, they believed that the tax increment and bond monies would help them expand and flourish. There was less enthusiasm from residents, for several reasons. First, there’s the long recollection of what the CRA did to residents of downtown. And second — this was also noted by some of those who spoke for the project — very few people seem to have been alerted to the neighborhood-participation meetings the CRA held to get input on the project. "You usually did see the same people at different meetings," one project proponent allowed.

Thirdly, the project is the brainchild of exiting City Councilman Richard Alatorre, and has the strongest support from council candidate Luis Cetina — Alatorre’s favored successor.

Which makes you wonder what role Alatorre and his crew might continue to play in the 14th District, long after he steps down in June.

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