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City Hall’s Revenge on Cecilia Estolano

Cecilia Estolano transformed the Community Redevelopment Agency, then was forced out.
Gary Leonard

As Los Angeles suffered with an unemployment rate approaching 14 percent, far higher than the national average, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spent early December in Europe. Villaraigosa used the trip to showcase his green agenda on the international stage at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen

There, he praised his struggling Clean Trucks program, aimed at upgrading older trucks that serve the port, and he boasted of his modest program, initiated with former President Bill Clinton, to retrofit conventional street lamps with LED bulbs. He also found time to call home to Pasadena-based radio station KPCC to advocate a more bike-friendly city.

Villaraigosa’s staff generated a press release — one of five chronicling his three-day, 5,000-jet-miles Copenhagen quickie — about an agreement between the Community Redevelopment Agency in Los Angeles and a green center in Berlin. The idea would build on the Los Angeles redevelopment agency’s Cleantech Manufacturing Center, launched in September 2008 on land near downtown known as a “brownfield” — 20 acres contaminated by industrial pollution.

The redevelopment agency envisions a sprawling industrial complex of forward-looking factories and businesses on the largely abandoned land along the Los Angeles River that might one day put Southern California on the green-tech map. In Copenhagen, Villaraigosa touted the Cleantech center as “a world-class model that combines sustainability with economic development,” and announced that Berlin and Los Angeles would share “best practices” to promote the economy in both cities.

Absent from the mayor’s release was any mention of the visionary Community Redevelopment Agency chief, executive director Cecilia V. Estolano, who created the foundation for the ideas the mayor was pushing during his European trip.

Estolano had transformed an agency notorious for using eminent domain to pursue top-down projects that ignored the communities it claimed to be fixing. Under her, the department became modernized and gained respect. Thought to be a better manager and smarter than the mayor, she was so well-regarded that the Obama administration tried to woo her away.

Yet just a few weeks before Villaraigosa used Estolano’s ideas to promote Los Angeles — and himself — in Copenhagen, sources say Villaraigosa’s administration secretly forced her out of her job, using the occasion of a petty dustup.

The mayor insists and Estolano initially claimed that she left voluntarily. But sources told the Weekly that she was pushed out.

Documents obtained by the Weekly show that Estolano was let go after questioning a decision to move the redevelopment agency offices to a new location. Estolano fought the move at first. She eventually changed her mind but by then, a decision to oust her had been made.

The records show that on November 3, Estolano e-mailed her immediate supervisor, Bud Ovrom, and another top aide to Villaraigosa, Jay Carson, stating that she would see them later that day — and mentioning the proposed CRA headquarters move. Within hours of that meeting, Estolano faxed Mayor Villaraigosa a “resignation” letter.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that the afternoon Estolano resigned, “someone in the mayor’s office” spoke to CRA Commissioner Alejandro Ortiz — a mayoral political appointee — about Estolano’s work. Although the agency is somewhat independent from City Hall, in that Villaraigosa cannot directly fire Estolano, the mayor names the seven commissioners to its board, and those seven political appointees had the power to fire Estolano.

Carson, Ovrom and Villaraigosa declined to comment to the Weekly. Estolano did not return L.A. Weekly’s phone calls.

The plan Estolano had opposed was to more or less merge the CRA with the city’s long-troubled and less well-known Community Development Department. The two agencies’ budget and financing divisions, among others, would share floor space. But the change would likely have a negative effect on the CRA, which supporters of Estolano say she had reformed into a focused, action-oriented staff.

E-mails reveal that Estolano strongly disagreed with the move. She said the agency should focus on creating jobs in a time of recession and didn’t need the distraction of moving.

Her argument grew heated enough with Ovrom — then a deputy mayor but now general manager of the Building and Safety Department — that she threatened to resign on October 15, documents obtained by the Weekly show.

By the time of the November 3 meeting, she had acquiesced to the move — and stated as much in an e-mail to her bosses at City Hall that morning.

That night, she was out of a job.

Her departure has many shaking their heads. “Cecilia put ‘community’ back into community redevelopment and I say that as a community activist,” says Laurie Goldman, who sits on the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “She made the CRA human for the very first time in my memory.”

Adds Mott Smith, who has been on both sides of the political fence as a developer and a policy consultant, “I don’t know anybody who thought, ‘Oh Cecilia, she’s just trying to advance this agenda or that agenda.’ She was actually trying to do good for the city. As far as I can tell, she wasn’t beholden to any special interest or any crazy ideology — she was just good at running the agency.”

 

In addition to the large and often controversial projects redevelopment agencies are known for, the agency under Estolano began to pursue a number of unusually imaginative projects, such as turning decrepit alleys in park-poor Watts into narrow parks. The Cleantech Manufacturing Center was among those ideas.

“It seems to me that the idea jumped out of her head one day,” Glenn F. Wasserman, the agency’s chief operating officer, told the Weekly. Under her plan, Los Angeles would create a corridor of green technology companies along a strip of the L.A. River near downtown. Estolano believed the plan would boost L.A.’s manufacturing sector and attract badly needed, higher-paying middle-class jobs.

One hot selling point, as Estolano had seen it, was that such a tech corridor could give battered L.A. new cachet and respect. But the project was not simply a one-hit wonder in environmentalism’s name, her backers say. “Sustainability was always very important to her,” notes Wasserman, who worked for Estolano.

Under Estolano’s Healthy Neighborhoods Policy, developers receiving more than $1 million in redevelopment agency funding must meet a certain national energy efficiency standard. Specifically, their projects must achieve a silver rating, known as LEED certification, from the U.S. Green Building Council. The program provided developers of smaller projects with green-building consultations at no cost.

Another fan of Estolano’s is Los Angeles County’s chief executive officer, Bill Fujioka. “She’s smart, she’s honorable. I absolutely think the world of her,” raves Fujioka, who has spent 33 years in local government and served as Los Angeles City Hall’s chief administrative officer — its chief number-cruncher — for eight years under various mayors.

“When Cecilia says she’s going to do something, she does it,” Fujioka adds.

The timing of her departure comes as the Villaraigosa administration is suffering from a brain drain that has left key departments scrambling to find top government managers with serious big-city experience. Her “resignation” came two days after the departure of LAPD Chief William Bratton, and the mayor in 2009 also lost the chiefs of the Department of Water and Power and the Department of Building and Safety, both of whom resigned amid controversy.

Villaraigosa also saw the departure in 2009 of his chief of staff, Robin Kramer.

Ovrom is widely seen as a capable government manager. He once headed the CRA and was Burbank’s city manager for 18 years.

But others chosen by Villaraigosa have left some City Hall observers baffled. In 2009, the mayor chose as his chief of staff the Reverend Jeff Carr, a newcomer to municipal government who briefly ran the mayor’s untested — and still unproven — antigang program in 2009, and who lacks serious credentials in government and in municipal policy-making.

Villaraigosa’s selection of Carson as his chief deputy mayor also raised eyebrows. Carson’s key calling cards are his Democratic Party and fund-raising machine. Carson was Hillary Clinton’s media liaison when she ran for president. He also worked for former President Clinton at the Clinton Foundation.

Carson is close to billionaire Steve Bing, a rich campaign-donation machine who gives huge sums to Villaraigosa’s causes.

Carson has little hands-on experience with urban issues or municipal policy. Yet he was given broad authority over such areas as transportation, commercial and residential development, and housing and economic development. Ovrom, a deputy mayor in charge of economic development, reported to Carson.

Estolano got high marks as one of the few people in the Villaraigosa administration who knew how to encourage job-creation. “She understood the basic relationship between the industrial economy and its ability to generate wealth and create upward mobility,” says urbanologist Joel Kotkin, an expert on the macroeconomies of cities. She knew that “You were never going to get lots of green jobs unless you had jobs.”

Kotkin, a senior fellow with the Center for an Urban Future in New York, adds, “I think Villaraigosa has no strategic vision at all. His strategic vision is money and power — for him.” Kotkin sees the mayor as someone who lacks deep interest in or understanding of how cities grow or maintain their health.

By contrast, Kotkin says, Estolano “understood more about the core drivers.” When Villaraigosa chose her to run the CRA, Kotkin says, “I was just astounded that Villaraigosa would appoint someone that intelligent.”

David Abel, who has analyzed planning and development in Los Angeles for 21 years through his Planning Report newsletter, credits Estolano, along with city Planning Director Gail Goldberg, for thinking about the broader economy even while other L.A. city leaders became too politically invested in the booming real estate market and land speculation that prevailed before the recession.

 

“She fought to preserve industrial land — that’s not a particularly popular topic in City Hall,” he says, referring to how Villaraigosa sided with real estate interests who were gobbling up industrial land for condos and apartments, wiping out well-paying manufacturing jobs as they went. That approach leaves the city more vulnerable to a land boom that went bust. The two women, Estolano and Goldberg, were roughly reprimanded by Los Angeles City Council members** over their fight to maintain industrial lands as a way to save badly needed industrial jobs.

But unlike Goldberg, Estolano had the experience, power and quasi-independence required to execute her ideas. According to Wasserman, under Estolano the city created 19,000 construction jobs as well as 5,000 permanent jobs.

“She was always more interested in the people who would work on projects and would benefit from them,” says Wasserman. “[The CRA] began, for the first time, to aggregate how many estimated construction jobs and permanent jobs will be created by our projects to benefit the community.”

“Cecilia was the first person in the history of the CRA to come up with a real, deep strategy for creating jobs for the city,” says agency commissioner Madeline Janis, who has worked with four different CRA CEOs. “Her passion was lifting Los Angeles out of the recession.”

Among her admirers, Estolano earned the respect of a top union leader and close mayoral ally, AFL-CIO head Maria Elena Durazo, who e-mailed the Weekly saying, “She recognizes that job creation should not be our community’s only goal in economic development; we must ensure that new jobs created by public investment are good middle-class jobs, not dead-end poverty jobs. Her support of the construction-careers policy led to a national model for creating career ladders for the unemployed living in blighted neighborhoods.”

Kotkin notes, compared to New York City, “We’ve done much worse than them in the recession. We’ve really done badly in this recession, which is surprising because the exposure in the financial services wasn’t that great — we didn’t have that many financial-service jobs to lose.”

Instead, Kotkin notes, Los Angeles “has lost all sorts of jobs . I’m not a Bloomberg fan and all that, but at least Bloomberg’s paying attention.”

On December 12, 2009, two years after the recession began, Villaraigosa convened an economic advisory panel to help him address the economic body slam L.A. has taken.

Though the members of that panel include individuals with serious business credentials, such as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, its marquee names lean heavily on the very industries at the center of the burst economic bubble: banks and developers.

The mayor did not name an industrialist or manufacturer to his advisory panel, nor any experts on sustainable industries. In fact, Riordan immediately faulted the Clean Trucks program for leading to a loss of jobs — the very same program Villaraigosa boasted about in Copenhagen.

No longer on the scene was the woman credited with a broad economic vision, who had sought non-bubble industries when the mayor did not, and melded jobs and sustainable industries for him.

**Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Councilman Ed Reyes was among the politicians who reprimanded Estolano for fighting to maintain industrial lands. Reyes did not do so.


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