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CCA Reflects: The Planning Report Interview with Jessica Lall on Next CD14 Councilmember

CCA Reflects: The Planning Report Interview with Jessica Lall on Next CD14 Councilmember

"It is imperative that we have an elected official in CD14 who represents downtown, and who can make that connection convincingly, boldly, and unapologetically." - Jessica Lall, President & CEO, CCA

Published Wednesday, October 23, 2019

CCA's Lall: CD14's Next Councilmember Must Champion Downtown as the 'Civic, Cultural, and Economic Heart' of LA

In this interviewTPR spoke with president and CEO of Central City Association (CCA), Jessica Lall, on her expectations for any candidate wishing to assume Jose Huizar's seat as CD14's new councilmember in 2020. Lall highlights downtown Los Angeles' significance as the economic and cultural heart of LA, and--on issues from transit to homelessness--its impact on the success of surrounding cities and region as a whole.

This past month, the Central City Association hosted in Downtown Los Angeles a Council District 14 candidate forum with the two 'leading' candidates: former Senate pro Tempore Kevin de León and LAUSD board member Monica Garcia. Without diving into what each said, what are you hoping will be the policy platform of any candidate wishing to be elected to represent downtown LA in 2020?

Jessica Lall: First and foremost, we would like any candidate to really embody an understanding of the incredible transformation that Downtown Los Angeles has undergone, the reasons for why it's happened, and why it's been successful. And, to have a really strong understanding of where we stand in the process and what we need moving forward--recognizing that we're not at the end point yet, but we're in process and there are still opportunities to be seized. The new Council representative is going to be the leader in helping ensure that we realize the full potential for downtown and the rest of the city. There is immense focus and importance on the success of downtown, not just for the sake of downtown but really for the rest of the city.

Secondary to that is the recognition that downtown has evolved from an office park, where people come in and leave as fast as they can, to a dynamic, diverse residential community with nearly 80,000 residents who feel largely optimistic about the future of not just their neighborhood, but of their city. The Council representative's job is to harness that energy, optimism, and pride to engage the residential community in a way that has not been done here before.

We hope that their vision, leadership, direction, and recognition of downtown--as the civic, cultural, and economic heart of the city--would drive them to have a bold agenda related to homelessness, housing, amenities like parks and schools, and growth in transportation to make sure that downtown continues to be a sustainable neighborhood for young people, families, and retirees who want to have a self-sustained lifestyle.

Before drilling down on your CD14 policy platform, please share who you, as president and CEO of the Central City Association, represent? Who does CCA advocate for in City Hall.

We define downtown by the DTLA 2040 community plan area and the surrounding neighborhoods. It stretches from Chinatown down to Expo Park and USC, and then from the River to MacArthur Park. Our membership is very diverse. We have about 400 member organizations from all around LA County. The reason for that is both to recognize that downtown is the heart of the city and to make sure things that are done here are going to have great impact citywide.

Part of our membership is made up of traditional, institutional employers like a major bank or airline. We have a very heavy focus in the real estate community by virtue of all of the growth that has happened downtown: developers, property owners, land use attorneys, architects. The other part of our membership that distinguishes CCA is the nonprofit community that has become activated. Roughly about 20 percent of our members are doing work in the nonprofit field, whether that's social service providers, people working on homelessness, Friends of the LA River, or major cultural institutions like The Broad and the Natural History Museum. I think having them and their perspectives represented in our membership has really accelerated and improved our policy advocacy by making it more comprehensive and thoughtful.

When you go to City Hall, elected officials take note of the breadth and the depth represented within the CCA membership; it really supports what we're trying to accomplish on their behalf.

CCA's candidate forum failed to address the Downtown LA 2040 Plan--what its priorities are, should be, and are not. Could you address this Downtown LA 2040 Plan in regards to what CCA hopes CD14's new councilmember will advocate and support?

We definitely want the new Council representative to have a strong understanding of the community plan, the zoning that accompanies it, and its importance. It's a milestone to actually make sure that we're setting up downtown for the kind of growth and diversity that we want it to have. What we're happy to see is that the draft plan is out, and the Planning Department is trying to take a different approach because they fully recognize the significance of this plan in addressing our housing needs.

We want to continue to make sure that the housing requirements remain flexible over time, and that--downtown being made of a mosaic of neighborhoods--each neighbor is able to have a variety of housing that serves all populations and that no one is left out or restricted from living in one community versus another. We love the elimination of the parking requirements, and I think that is going to open up the housing typologies that we'll be able to see. For example, we've done a lot of work around building micro-units, and the parking requirement elimination is critical to that.

There are a lot of positive things in the direction that it's going, but it still has a long way to go. As our community continues to grow and diversify, there are going to be more stakeholders at the table to make sure the process is sound and that we have a leader in that office who can work with the different groups, has a strong understanding of what's at stake, and understands the process to date. It's always challenging with term limits and transitions, so that is why it is important for the new councilmember to quickly engage the community on important initiatives like DTLA 2040.

We recently spoke and published an interview with former Councilmember Jan Perry who, when asked about the dearth of affordable housing that's been built downtown, said there's no logical explanation for it's absence. Can you share--with all the growth and development that's taken place downtown vibrant market--why there's been relatively no affordable housing built in the last six years?

Downtown has more than 12,000 affordable units and has nearly 2,000 affordable units in the pipeline, so I would challenge that notion that there has been no affordable housing. Broadly speaking, as a community, downtown will continue to have an outsized role in housing production and can and should do more to support affordable housing.

We need to create housing options for all types of people. When we look at what's being built, what we should be looking at--and we see patterns--are the city policies that are dictating and incentivizing housing and what's being built.

When affordable housing units are over $500,000 a unit to build, we need to look at why that is the case on a policy level and do what we can to start to reconfigure, so that we're incentivizing developers and creating an environment for them to build units that the market will allow and financiers will get behind without the need for a sizeable public subsidy.

It's a deeper issue. A developer is developing what they're allowed to, what can be financed, and what they can make a profit from. I'm sure many of them would welcome the opportunity to build more affordable housing--both with a little 'a' and with a big 'A'--but it's expensive housing to build, especially in high-rise buildings. We've got to look and work with our government leaders to remedy that core issue.

Councilmember Mike Bonin is calling for an 'empty homes' penalty on housing units in the city kept empty for investment purposes; similar to measures adopted in cities like Vancouver, Washington D.C., and Oakland. Is Bonin's proposal a policy you'd like your next representative in the City Council to advocate for?

I think we need more information on what the actual vacancies are, and why those units are not being filled. We need to know details of the plan before taking a position. In our next Council representative, we're looking for someone who--not to say that Councilmember Bonin is not doing this--thoughtfully dives in and understands. To speak proactively to what we're hoping for is that we have a councilmember who really understands the data, facts, and reality before taking positions on very consequential policy measures.

Times are challenging right now. Everyone is trying to find solutions to housing and homelessness, and too often we see knee-jerk reactions. We need to have leaders who can thoughtfully process data and information before reaching a politically convenient position.

Let's pivot to a TPR interview published two years ago with CCA Chair Tom Gilmore entitled, "21st Century LA Needs A Coherent Urbanist Vision," wherein he lamented that "Most of the development community is very optimistic about the future of Los Angeles, and gung-ho about the opportunities. But at the same time, they're also rudderless. They're afraid that there is no overarching philosophy driving the city--just hundreds of one-off deals that don't gel into a philosophy of urbanism of any real note." Is his lament relevant still?

I think we're still challenged by similar principles. We are three steps forwards, two steps back, but overall we're making progress and we have a coherent vision. I think the communities downtown are extremely united, which is important when redistricting happens so that we keep downtown under one Council representative. That's a big part of our advocacy agenda. We need one united vision for downtown, and we need one elected representative facilitating the conversations of the most diverse community in Los Angeles under one umbrella. 

The challenges we face downtown are unique. We’re a vertical community. We’re a jobs center with a transit hub. We are one percent of the land, but 20 percent of the growth. It’s imperative to continue moving forward to address the challenge that Tom presented, that we have one representative with a clear vision that all downtown stakeholders can get behind. 

Referencing back to CCA’s CD14 candidate forum, there was great attention paid to homelessness and how best to address it through policy. How would you want the next CD14 councilmember to address this issue?

What we expect of our elected official is for them to understand first and foremost that—while the problem has clearly metastasized to all parts of the city, state, and country in urban cities—Downtown LA is ground zero for homelessness and has been for decades. We need to be learning lessons from what’s happened in Skid Row and how that’s impacting the rest of downtown.

They need to influence the other elected officials to better understand the unintended consequences of city policies— a lack of enforcement of city policies— to try to communicate and get out of the mentality of just not wanting the problem to get worse in your own district. What we know and what we see happening in downtown has been a precursor to what the rest of the city has experienced.

It is imperative that we have an elected official who represents downtown, and who can make that connection convincingly, boldly, and unapologetically. And so, we can move out of two fundamentally flawed ways of thinking that causes downtown to repeat the same mistakes with containment in and around Skid Row. 

Skid Row has more of everything that we continue to say we need more of in order to regulate the sidewalks. We have the most shelter beds and services; we have the storage facilities, the mobile bathroom, the showers. We have all of these criteria, but the problem continues to grow more severely by the day. We’re seeing an increase in violence, and people working in shelters don’t feel comfortable going to work. Shelters that are operating there are losing funding because people who are going through treatment programs cannot get better. This has failed the city, and the more we continue to concentrate the problem there, we’re going to continue to see the same result. 

The second point is that our representative for downtown needs to be at the forefront sounding the alarm that the city must end the cycle of lawsuits and settlements that have absolutely crippled the city from implementing any reasonable policy around addressing homelessness. Until we have somebody making that case—understanding what exactly is at stake—I’m afraid the city as a whole is going to continue to experience the same challenges, and those challenges are going to continue to grow, as we saw with the increase in the homeless count this last year.

Related to homelessness, the LA City Council recently considered—but took no action—on a revised sidewalk sleeping ordinance that clarified its currently unenforceable ordinance and significantly limited the areas where sidewalk sleeping would be permitted. What position do you expect your future Councilmember to take on this issue? 

We want our Council representative to see the bigger picture, get out of the game of managing the problem through policy, and actually change the paradigm. Talking about where people should and shouldn’t sleep takes time away from talking about how to get people off of the streets. The Boise case that is being appealed to the Supreme Court, where several of our members and service providers were involved by signing on to the amicus brief, and understanding how taking away the city’s laws and its ability to regulate the public right of way, prevents the city from comprehensively being able to address the problem. 

No one is looking to criminalize people for being homeless; we’re looking to do the exact opposite. We’re looking to protect homeless people from those preying on them, get them off the street, and into interim or permanent housing where they can receive services. It’s going to take somebody really diving into these nuances to understand what exactly is worth the time, what they should be fighting for, and how to address the problem not just manage it.

You’ve mentioned the positive impact of the investments in transit in Los Angeles, much of which has been and is being made in downtown. Last year, TPR feature an interview with USC Director of Transportation Tony Mazza who leads the university’s private transportation operation both on campus and connected to its many busy satellite campuses. Curiously, USC services its 60,000 USC students, faculty, and staff mostly with private, outsourced transit resources rather than relying on the public transit system that presently surrounds the campus? What explains this?  

I’m not sure how directly I can speak specifically to that, but USC has shown a commitment to mass transit through supporting the Expo Line, and funding the stops that not only support the university but Expo Park, the LAFC Stadium, the Coliseum, the California Science Center, the Natural History Museum and the upcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

I went to USC and there was no light-rail transit line at the time. I think students now are greatly benefiting from that project, as well as the MyFig project, which I know USC supported. There could be things we could argue about what could be improved with MyFig, but the reality is the data shows that people are supportive of projects like that when they are built. The regional connector, the Purple Line extension, the West Santa Ana branch that will hopefully connect into downtown are all projects we’ve been greatly pushing for. They’re all examples of what has supported—and will continue to support—the growth of downtown.

It is noteworthy that LADOT GM Seleta Reynolds has said her vision is that of providing a symphony of transportation choices, which harmonizes to make “driving alone the option of last resort”. Is adopting that vision what CCA hopes its new councilmember will support?

We must have a big, bold vision, and we support Seleta and all of the amazing work she has done and led at DOT. Complementary to that, we also need small incremental paths to reach the full vision; it’s a transition that we’re supportive of. When we look at our LMU public opinion survey data, most people who eventually moved downtown wanted to have more transit options than cars. I know when I was at the BID, I talked to people who moved with two cars who could never have imagined living without both of their cars, and needed an extra space for a guest. Now, they’re down to one or zero cars. 

It’s important to make sure that we have the proper multi-modal infrastructure and that those systems are connected. It takes more than one department coming together to make sure that a network is supported, maintained, and that the vision is there and shared by all. 

For us, it’s making sure that we are not removing anyone too soon, and that we’re helping people have choices through better lifestyle options and opportunities that exist for them mobility-wise.

Since CCA represents much of Downtown Los Angeles’ business community, is there any concern on your members that there’s no candidate with business experience running for the City Council District 14? 

The reality is Los Angeles is seen as being somewhat not the most business friendly. Candidates don’t necessarily have to come from the business community to understand how government policy impacts business and development. We’re not necessarily looking for somebody who has certain experiences, but somebody who’s willing to listen, understand, and hire people on their team who have diverse experiences.

Our members are very open to looking at different candidates from different backgrounds, it’s one of the beautiful things about LA: the many different places people come from.  It’s the attitude and the approach that matters most once elected.

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