Steve Barr, the ballsy, visionary, sometimes impossible founder of Green Dot Public Schools, still recalls the reaction he got from the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA/LA) when he suggested they partner to open schools in education-poor downtown.
“I remember them looking at us, and saying, why would we want to put in schools?,” he says.
Barr saw the schools as good for education in “what was probably the highest-need area” of Los Angeles — and as an enticement to developers.
“This was in the beginning of the [downtown] buildup,” he explains — around 2002. “It's a lot easier to maintain populations if you build schools, so that people like my wife and I, when we move downtown and we get pregnant, we don't have to move out.”
Barr had just returned from visiting Jerry Brown, then mayor of Oakland, who had announced his goal to attract 10,000 new residents to that troubled city's downtown. Barr told him, “You're not going to get 10,000 people to move downtown — unless you improve schools.”
The tunnel vision of the CRA/LA still stuns Barr, who says, ” How do you sustain that growth without coming up with a plan?”
But few new schools appeared during downtown Los Angeles' 2002-08 building boom, and the effects of that shortsightedness emerged in the 2010 U.S. Census. It showed that downtown's thousands of new condo units are heavily dominated by households without children. Families are staying away in droves.
California schools are at the heart of an escalating dogfight, this time between now-Gov. Brown and the powerful Los Angeles redevelopment agency.
Looking to patch the state's deficit hole and help public schools, Brown in January aggressively targeted the $5 billion in taxes annually collected by redevelopment agencies statewide, the biggest of which is CRA/LA.
Selected by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the CRA's leaders, including chief Christine Essel, frequently agree to subsidize projects that sweeten the bottom line for politically favored developers in areas that are no longer blighted, such as fashionable Bunker Hill downtown.
Yet CRA/LA has largely failed to support the Los Angeles sector with the most entrenched and widespread blight — working-class black and Latino South L.A.
Brown thrilled the CRA's critics by announcing in January that he would seek to dismantle all 525 redevelopment agencies in California — and use their pots of taxpayer money for pressing public needs. L.A. leaders fiercely fought back, with Essel and the L.A. City Council moving to legally commit as much of the money as possible to the city's purported “priorities” in fighting blight.
In late June, the Legislature approved a law — a modification of Brown's idea — that lets redevelopment agencies stay alive if they hand over some of their taxpayer money. The CRA/LA must give the state $97 million next year.
Essel's mad dash since January to prevent Brown from accessing CRA/LA's vast cash resources for schools and other public needs has produced a fascinating new list of 108 city “priorities.”
The list illustrates how Los Angeles goes about fighting “blight.”
Essel's spokesman, David Bloom, says the agency moved “to protect priority projects throughout the city,” and that “affordable housing” came out a big winner.
But when asked by the Weekly to provide the list, Bloom insisted that the sophisticated agency did not make up a list and, further, that the CRA/LA did not have a list of affordable housing projects the agency and City Council voted to protect.
In January the Weekly obtained an earlier “priority” list, which showed that $1 in every $10 the agency wanted to protect was to be spent on two luxury downtown projects associated with billionaire Eli Broad: a parking lot for his private museum, and the posh proposed Grand Avenue hotel and shopping district.
Now, a fresh analysis by the Weekly reveals that the agency intends to pour huge sums of “anti-blight” money into vibrant and bustling Bunker Hill, the Civic Center and Koreatown — while providing little to nothing specific for the Watts Project Area and only a fractional amount to the entirety of South Los Angeles.
One standout juxtaposition of rich versus poor is a $125 million proposed downtown “streetcar” to move tourists and sports fans between Bunker Hill and Staples Center. The streetcar is slated to get a CRA subsidy of $8.3 million — a big score for billionaire Phil Anschutz, owner of Staples Center. By comparison, the agency's entire South Los Angeles Region will get investments, loans and bonds totaling a mere $5.4 million.
The streetcar subsidy was approved even as the MTA slashed its regular bus service to the city's low-income areas such as Pacoima.
“Ten million for the downtown streetcar?” asks L.A. urban renewalist Robert Garcia, executive director of City Project. “You could put in buses for a fraction of the cost that could serve many more people at a much lower price and be fair and efficient.”
Bloom argues that the CRA could only set into motion projects that were ready. Still others say state law requires redevelopment agencies to spend property taxes in the same area where the taxes were generated by previous redevelopment projects. That means the taxes generated by downtown skyscrapers stay downtown.
What else was deemed worthy of CRA protection in its flurry of dozens of recent votes to approve contracts? For one, CRA/LA and the City Council approved $50,000 in consultancy fees for Bloom, Essel's spokesman.
Damien Goodmon, a transit activist who lives in South L.A., is disgusted. “I'm not caring about whether Eli Broad can build a vanity museum downtown,” Goodmon says. “I'm caring about whether people in the Crenshaw corridor in Watts can actually go to good-paying jobs, walk to paying jobs, as opposed to having to take four-hour commutes every day.”
Across the city, Luis Lopez, who owns an automotive repair shop with his father in Atwater Village, questions why taxpayers are subsidizing ritzy Bunker Hill. “It's supposed to take blight — that's the focus of the CRA — take a blighted area and make it better. … I've gone to downtown very frequently. It's a very nice place now. They should pull out.”
Garcia notes, similarly, that Grand Avenue in the bustling Civic Center area near Bunker Hill “isn't being improved for the underserved of Los Angeles. It's being improved for business interests. Businesses are making record profits that they're not putting into job creation. They can invest in Grand Avenue on their own.”
Broad apparently has grown embarrassed by the juxtaposition of rich and poor. An online Weekly analysis in January, widely read by Sacramento legislators and gubernatorial aides, showed that the Broad Museum parking lot would get $52 million while all of Watts would get just $5.5 million.
But Karen Denne, a Broad Foundation spokeswoman, now insists the costly garage was not what Broad wanted. “We are building it at the request of the CRA,” she claims. “Our preference was [to] contract with existing parking” downtown.
That's news to Madeline Janis, vice chairperson of CRA/LA's board of commissioners. “The parking garage was a part of the project that the Broad Foundation wanted,” she says. It “was an essential part.” Concurs Garcia: “If Eli Broad did not want the parking lot, they would not put it in.”
Still, nobody is apologizing for CRA/LA's interesting priorities. Describing the $97 million that it's now required to transfer to the state for pressing public needs, Essel spokesman Bloom had this to say:
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