Saturday, February 26, 2011

CityWatchLA - LACityWorks! Taking Care of Business

CityWatch, Feb 25, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 16


If the City of LA is serious about taking care of LA’s business community, stimulating the local economy, creating more jobs, and attracting new business, then City Hall will get busy leveraging federal Small Business Jobs Act funding to create a one-stop “LACityWorks” shop that supports LA business.

The model for this concept can be found at FilmLA, a non-profit with a simple mission, to facilitate filming in the Los Angeles area. With a simple phone call or an even simpler online interaction, large studios and student films alike can navigate the many jurisdictions of LA County, they can pull permits, they can quickly navigate the rules and regulations, and they can rely on FilmLA to create common ground solutions when problems arise. FilmLA was created by Mayor Riordan in an effort to halt runaway film production and to support LA’s position as the entertainment production capital of the world.

There was a bit of a learning curve for everybody, at City Hall and on location, but ultimately the evidence is there that a non-profit can leverage funding that can support business, both large and small, and it can take place quickly.

LA’s business community is represented by a vast array of organizations, all jockeying for position in an environment that repeatedly generates lose-lose solutions that continue to create obstacles.

At yesterday’s Transportation Committee, Councilman Tom LaBonge’s Food Truck motion was on the agenda and the audience was filled with speakers from neighborhood councils, Business Improvement Districts, Chambers of Commerce, Homeowners Associations, trade organizations and the general public. All that was missing was LaBonge, the author of the motion. The motion was continued to a later date and the public in attendance enjoyed 60 seconds each of Kabuki Theatre public comment.

This is no way to run a Great City!

If LACityWorks were to use the FilmLA model for supporting local business, they’d have a Board of Directors filled with representatives from the chambers, from the trade organizations, from the community, from local and regional government, and from the streets of LA where the business takes place.

LACityWorks would offer businesses, both large and small, support in navigating the Byzantine process that is even bigger than the City of LA. Food Truck operators, for example, must navigate several municipalities and their unique permitting rules, abide by LA County health codes, drive and park according to California Vehicle Code, and find time to comply with federal and state tax codes.

FilmLA offers local and visiting film production companies one-stop shop assistance in navigating the many jurisdictions and authorities in LA County.

By contrast, LA’s City Hall offers local businesses “that’s out of our jurisdiction!” responses to requests for assistance that involve the State, the County, the LAUSD, the Metro, the Army Corps of Engineers, Flood Control, Caltrans, the Sheriff’s Department, or anyone else who has a piece of our streets.

If this seems extreme, consider that Venice Blvd. belongs to the State; Universal City is on County land; the LAUSD is the largest developer in the City of LA; the Metro is the second largest developer in the City of LA; and the City of LA’s inability to navigate its own halls leave the people of LA adrift in a jurisdictional quagmire that chokes business, both small and large.

FilmLA also provides operational guidance for production companies and the people who actually do the work. There is a code, a set of rules that provide the simple “do no harm!” approach to film production that is the foundation of a win-win solution.

With success and popularity comes an opportunity to mitigate the resulting tensions and competition for resources and FilmLA mediates, provides monitors, and brings together stakeholders in the creation of long-term solutions.

City Hall, by contrast, orders reports, fumbles meetings, measures outrage and postpones contentious items, demonstrating an inability to commit to long-term sustainable solutions.

FilmLA offers their clients support in navigating the many regulatory bodies and in pulling the necessary permits and processing the paperwork. Whether working with animals, minors, pyrotechnics, traffic or any of a limitless number of conditions, the need for permitting and oversight can be overwhelming. Yet it works because FilmLA offers the support.

By contrast, the City of LA is preparing to send penalty letters to people who worked last year and were paid as independent contractors. Pity the poor employee who showed up to work and collected a 1099 form but failed to register with the City of LA as a business. The threat of a significant fine that only applies to the few is a demonstration of the inherent systemic hostility that LA business and employees encounter in Los Angeles.

FilmLA also collected data that was used to support and encourage the film industry, data that can be used to fine tune programming and drive efficiencies and strengthen the industry.

By contrast, the City of LA is still unclear on how to support local businesses in simply offering their goods and services to city, state, and local governments. Forget about the larger local economy.

FilmLA has experienced a rough road over the last decade and the work is not done. But we are now in a position to benefit from that journey and put the lessons learned to work supporting LA’s business community.

The City of LA’s local economy has a huge need that is unmet by the local chambers, the local trade organizations, the local business districts, the local leadership and the community organizations. More specifically, LA is experiencing a crisis of Leadership, inside City Hall and on the streets where the business takes place.

Now is the time for the people of LA to come together and to create a city that works.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

CityWatchLA - Big Obstacles for Small Businesses

CityWatch, Feb 22, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 15


Last week I claimed “one of the simplest strategies for jump-starting LA’s local economy would be to retool the current ‘bigger is better’ approach to business development in favor of a model that supports small businesses.”

That proverbial swing at the hornet’s nest drew quick protests from both bureaucrats and academics.

Cries of “We’re already doing it!” to “It’ll never work!” coming from people who are content with a faltering economy left me convinced that I was on the right track.

From inside City Hall I heard, “Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner is already committed to streamlining the process so that small businesses don’t have to deal with so many departments.”

Apart from the fact that such a common sense standard applies to everybody, not just small businesses, this claim of victory falls so far short as to simply be an irrelevant non-starter.

Small businesses face obstacles at the local, county, state, and federal level and it is imperative that the City of LA leverage funding to create a network of support for those who are in the best position to create jobs for Angelenos.

By way of example, Film LA is a nonprofit that services the film industry and navigates the interdepartmental multi-jurisdictional journey for film production, a model that could be used to support small businesses. At one time, Film LA also collected data that was used to support the industry, again a model for leveraging funding and political will to drive the success of small businesses.

Small businesses spend 36 % more per employee than larger firms to comply with federal regulations. Very small firms spend 4 ½ times as much per employee to comply with environmental regulations and 3 times more per employee on tax compliance than their largest counterparts.

Cutting red-tape at city hall is a nice start but it is only a start. LA must take a leadership role in leveraging federal funds to create Small Business Development Centers that support LA’s entrepreneurs.

From Academia I heard “every day, many small businesses fail. Why pour our money into small businesses, many of which are likely to fail?”

Businesses fail, both small and large, but the simple fact is this: small businesses are responsible for generating 65% of net new jobs over the past 17 years.

As for longevity, 7 out of 10 new employer firms survive at least 2 years, ½ at least 5 years, ⅓ at least 10 years, and ¼ stay in business 15 years or more.

Perhaps it’s time to look at the obstacles that impact the survival rate, not simply cut our losses and walk away. While “facilitating the permitting process and eliminating other administrative barriers to growth” are noble first steps, they are simply first steps.

Small businesses struggle for working capital, for access to markets, and for the resources and benefits that will allow them to compete for talented and skilled employees.

Yet, somehow they are able to produce 13 times more patents per employee than large patenting firms. Somehow they are able to create and innovate and prosper while those in control debate their value.

Now is the time to come out from behind the City Hall counter, to get off the academic high horse, and to meet the small businesses on the street, where our economy takes place.

Start with the City of LA as a client and consider how difficult it is to do business in LA. Small businesses currently find it difficult to bid on City Hall contracts while larger companies find the process so cumbersome that the price immediately goes up when the City of LA is the client.

This is why small businesses eventually give up and move to surrounding communities where they find a supportive environment and eager customers. If City Hall can’t clean up City Hall, there’s no chance they’ll ever clean up the City of LA!

A couple of years ago, I sat with a group of community advocates in a small facility that was going to be developed as a community room. It was in a brand new building and our room needed to be finished.

A little paint, a little carpet. We were excited!

Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way in LA. Apparently no one will bid on a contract so small. We were told to think big!

The next time we met, an architect had come on board and the “finishing work” now had a budget of $250,000. Now this was a project that was worth bidding on!

The community room was never finished, it still sits empty, unpainted and uncarpeted. The weight of bureaucracy crushed it and the bias in favor of large companies willing to do business with LA reared its ugly head and destroyed our hopes for a community room.

Ironically, we were not allowed to do the work ourselves because we weren’t an approved vendor for the City of LA.

Small businesses are the backbone of LA’s local economy. They are agile and they are flexible and they put Angelenos to work. They provide the services and products that LA’s City Hall needs and that is the place to start.

City Hall’s role is not to make an “either/or” choice between large and small companies, it’s to support them based on their value and their potential for success.

That simple standard puts small businesses in a priority position for City Hall’s support!

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

CityWatchLA - LA: Complaint-Driven City

CityWatch, Feb 18, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 14

The City of LA is one of the greatest cities in the world but it is also one of the most dysfunctional, one where the delivery of city essential city services is driven by complaints, not a commitment to performance standards that the people of LA can depend on.

Councilmembers position themselves as gatekeepers who fill potholes and install speed humps as if they were personal favors bestowed upon the select few who have access to the council office.

This “pothole politics” approach to running the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful country in the world takes place while the budget deficit spirals out of control, while our infrastructure is collapsing, and while development runs amok.

It simply isn’t working. You shouldn’t have to go to your council office to get smooth, safe, well-lit streets that move traffic and get you where you need to go. You shouldn’t have to call 311 to state the obvious, that the large hole in the street appears to be...gulp...a pothole!

The simple reality is this, the city knows where the potholes are. They are measuring outrage and they are limiting liability.

The City Attorney regularly pays for damages caused by potholes, if the pothole had been reported before the incident. Your 311 calls don’t help the city find the potholes, they help the city absolve itself of responsibility and liability for the potholes not reported.

The Bureau of Street Services not only knows where the potholes are, they know where the new ones are likely to appear. BOSS surveys 69,000 street segments with a van that is loaded with video, laser, and computer equipment in a data collection process that takes three years to complete. They have the data.

What they don’t have is the support of City Council on simply moving forward with an aggressive and comprehensive plan for repairing our streets and sidewalks.

There’s no mystery as to the location of the potholes and broken sidewalks. The missing element is simply political will, the commitment to craft a budget that supports the Great City mandate.

Public Safety, Public Works, Public Health, and Public Education are the cornerstones of a Great City and it is imperative that the City of LA craft a budget that is balanced for the long-term and matches our long-term commitment to a well-planned and well-funded city.

The City of LA is bleeding money on short term fixes while ignoring the need for long term solutions.

The era of pothole politics is over.

Now is the time to demand a standards-driven city, one where our city administration delivers services according to standards that the people of LA can depend on!

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

CityWatchLA - Times of Crisis: Think Small

CityWatch, Feb 15, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 13


As the Active ImageCity of LA wallows in the midst of a staggering budget shortfall, it appears that one of the simplest strategies for jumpstarting LA’s local economy would be to retool the current “bigger is better” approach to business development in favor of a model that supports small businesses.

According to the latest jobs report, only 36,000 new jobs were added to the national economy in the month of January. At the same time, figures from Intuit Payroll’s monthly Small Business Employment Index show that payroll clients with fewer than 20 employees added 70,000 new jobs during the same month. The City of LA invests valuable time and resources courting large corporations but the results fail to justify the effort. Meanwhile, small businesses are demonstrating an agility and adaptability that allows them to leverage small investments into huge payoffs in jobs created, services provided, and overall economic impact.

Nationwide, small businesses have added more than 1 million jobs since October 2009 but in Los Angeles, where fully two-thirds of the local economy is made up of small businesses, entrepreneurs capable of bidding on local contracts clearly communicate the need for municipal assistance to jump start the process. During Mayor Villaraigosa’s January Neighborhood Council “check-ins,” residents commented on the need for a City services clearinghouse for small businesses.

Los Angeles is in position to capitalize on the Obama Administration’s new “Small Business Jobs Act” as an opportunity to bolster job growth in the small business sector. But to compete for federal small business grants LA will need to develop an effective framework to aid Small Business Development Centers that can implement federal funds quickly and efficiently.

Los Angeles is in position to partner with the local small business network in the delivery of core services, ensuring that project deliveries stay on track and that the city remains in compliance with federal guidelines. But fully 60% of the small businesses in position to deliver services and product indicate that they don’t have access to the capital necessary to bid on the contracts.

Small businesses are hiring at a faster rate than city government and big corporations and LA must support the economic drivers by looking for the small businesses within each industry and look for opportunities to bolster their position.

Supporting LA’s small businesses will yield results in these four ways:

  • It will improve upon LA’s implementation shortfalls of the federal stimulus funds and Measure R revenues;
  • It will optimize LA’s ability to qualify for federal small business grants;
  • It will provide local community organizations an opportunity to qualify for grants and partner with local businesses to provide the services that are no longer offered by the city;
  • It will increase the number of new hires within the small business sector, putting Angelenos to work and strengthening our economy.

LA’s small businesses drive our economy and it’s time that the City of LA treat them like giants, made up of the most innovative and creative people in the world, folks who need our help almost as much as we need theirs.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

CityWatchLA - LA Fails to Cash the Check

CityWatch, Feb 11, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 12

The City of LA is mired in a budget crisis, one that has prompted the mayor to go on a “confidence tour” while the city council conducts triage on city assets and the people of LA brace themselves for the next round of service cuts and fee increases.

While those in control would have us believe that this is all due to the current global economic crisis, it’s not quite true. Quite simply, the City of LA has been mismanaging money through thick and thin, through feast and famine, and even when the funding comes through, LA fails to cash the check.

While city hall attempts to balance the budget on the backs of the people who live here and who operate small businesses here, the real opportunities to pay our staff, repair our infrastructure, support healthy communities and partner with our schools are missed because of simple ineptitude.

1) The City of LA competes with itself for funding. The federal and state government both have Safe Routes to School funding, dispensed on an annual basis and LA allows the Department of Transportation, Public Works, and the CRA to all submit projects that compete with each other. A more efficient solution would be to allow Public Works (a charter department) to take the lead and then to ask the hard question, “Why is there a redundancy of services by the LADOT and the CRA?”

2) The City of LA simply fails to compete for great funding. The Office of Traffic Safety provides funds that can pay for public safety personnel and overtime but LA continues to go after funding for “Watch the Road” billboards as the city council debates furloughs and layoffs.

3) The City of LA qualifies for funding and then simply fails to do the work.

• It’s been years since the city council addressed the fact that 33 of the most dangerous street crossings for schoolchildren had not received safety improvements even though the funds had been in place for years. They blamed city staff.

• It’s been years since I stood on Wilshire Blvd. with LA’s gridlock busting Mayor, Transportation Committee Chair Wendy Greuel, and LADOT GM Rita Robinson to announce the federal funding that was going to be spent on revitalizing and rebuilding Wilshire Blvd., from one end to the other. Since then, the Mayor has lost interest, Greuel is now the City Controller, Robinson retired in frustration and works for LA County, and anyone who travels on Wilshire Blvd. does so at their own risk.

• As of last week, the city council continues to debate Wilshire Blvd., finally deciding to avoid making a decision until they had seen more reports and studies. Meanwhile, LA residents pay an average of $746 per vehicle in repairs per year as the result of damages from potholes and road debris.

4) The City of LA’s failure to complete projects and then invoice the federal and state authorities disqualifies us from funding cycles. City staff engage in the “sister agency” turf war that screams of the inefficiency of having such redundancy. The LADOT has two projects still open under a Cooperative Work Agreement (fund extension) which makes the whole city ineligible for BTA state funds that pay for city projects that improve safety and convenience.

5) The City of LA qualifies for funding but can’t do the math. When the LADOT was at the Transportation Committee to discuss plans for its share of the Metro’s “local return” funds, the numbers being discussed were based on 10% of net instead of 10% of gross. I pointed out the error ($7.3 million over 5 years) and it was corrected.

LA’s City Council has an obligation to protect the city’s assets and to the deliver city services. The Great City priorities of Public Safety, Public works, Public Health, and Public Education depend on an honest, open and transparent accounting of our funds. It continues with the responsible management of our funds and it moves forward with oversight and accountability.

As for today, it’s incumbent on the city council to “cash the check” and put city staff to work repairing our streets and delivering city services.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

CityWatchLA - Ballot Measure for Measure: City Hall’s cry for help!

CityWatch, Feb 8, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 11

It’s Ballot Measure season in LA and the voter information pamphlet is out, dedicating 90% of its 136 pages to the ten ballot measures that City Hall promises will provide everything from pension reform to clean elections to DWP oversight. If only it were that easy!

On the one hand, it’s unfortunate that the people of LA have to step up to resolve the turf war between the City Council and the DWP, to do the work of those we send to City Hall on our behalf. On the other hand, it’s a powerful moment for the people of LA, one where it becomes abundantly clear that the journey to full accountability and oversight at City Hall is our responsibility.

As for the Ballot Measures:

I’m voting YES on Measure G, which will provide $173 million in savings to the City of LA for every 1000 new cops and firefighters hired. While I’m in favor of pension reform, this measure is no more than a tepid step in the right direction, but it is a step.

I’m voting YES on Measure H, which will restrict campaign contributions from contractors and increase the Matching Funds Trust Fund. Again, I’m in favor of election reform but this measure is only a small step on a long journey.

I’m voting YES on Measure I, establishing the Office of Public Accountability and a Ratepayer Advocate. This is a huge victory for the people from the community who have fought so hard to bring oversight and accountability to the DWP and to City Hall. A small and diluted first step, but an important one.

I’m voting YES on Measure J, requiring the DWP to communicate its budgets and anticipated surplus transfers with the City Council on a timely basis. Responsible management of city assets should be de rigueur but given the turf war that roils in City Hall, it’s apparently now up to the people to demand accountability and oversight.

I’m voting YES on Measure L, providing incremental increases in funding for our libraries. I’m pleased that the people of LA have the opportunity to position libraries as an element of our Great City mandate but know that the work has just begun and that we must work together to prevent “cost recovery” from diminishing any funding increases.

I’m voting YES on Measure O, levying a $1.44 per barrel tax on oil extracted from the estimated 55 known oil fields in the LA area. At less than 2% of the current $80 per barrel, this seems like a minimal and fair amount from the oil companies that are enjoying record levels of profits. In fact, it’s kind of shocking that it took this long or that the tax is so low. (5% proposed for med marijuana but only 1.8% proposed for crude oil?)

I’m voting YES on Measure P, requiring the City of Los Angeles to establish an Emergency Reserve Account within the City’s Reserve Fund. While it’s important to plan for emergencies, it’s unfortunate that it takes a Charter Amendment to ensure fiscal responsibility. Again, this is a small step in what amounts to be a long journey to budgetary responsibility.

I’m voting YES on Measure N, cleaning up Campaign Finance language in Charter to comply with recent court decisions and to ensure that the City of LA is conducting its elections in compliance with the law. I am in favor of election reform but not when it violates the law.

I’m voting YES on Measure Q, again cleaning up Charter language that addresses personnel and employment issues, sometime requiring cumbersome processes that include certifying candidates for jobs that don’t exist. This is a necessary process that should be addressed systemically, not piecemeal, but it is a step in the right direction.

I’m voting NO on Measure M, a tax levied authorized on marijuana collectives while “recognizing that the sale of marijuana is illegal?” LA’s City Council seems hell-bent on incurring legal fees with moves such as this. Declaring something illegal and then taxing it sets a bad precedent. Approaching medical as medicine and cooperatives as non-profits and then taxing them sets a bad precedent. This is an invitation for litigation that LA can’t afford.

The March 8th Ballot Measures are a cry for help from LA’s City Council. Their turf war, their inability to solve the budget crisis, their inability to simply fund libraries (as is their responsibility), has become the people’s work. In essence, these ballot measures are a clear demonstration of the City Council’s legacy of failure.

At the same time, the March 8th Ballot Measures are an opportunity for the people of Los Angeles to take a powerful step in the right direction, one where Pension Reform, DWP oversight, funding commitments and clean elections are the goal that we work toward. With the understanding that, if passed, there is still much oversight to be done … making sure that the ordinances that follow provide the detail the people asked for and that the city’s electeds fulfill the promise these ballot measures intend.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Friday, February 04, 2011

CityWatch - Here Are the Rules for an NFL Stadium in the City of Greatness

CityWatch, Feb 4, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 10

Los Image Angeles is one of the best places in the world to live, to work, and to enjoy life. Every day people from around the world travel to LA to experience our greatness and in doing so, they remind us that LA is the city that sets the standards.

From the entertainment industry to the theatre community, from the philharmonic orchestra to the museums, from our rich arts & culture to our championship athletic teams, LA is the Capital of Greatness!

Against that backdrop, it makes sense to ask “Why don’t we have a National Football League team?”

It’s certainly within LA’s vision for greatness to welcome private developers who want to invest in a beautiful state-of-the-art football stadium and contribute to an enhanced convention center as part of the ongoing revitalization of downtown LA.

Accessible by the Metro, convenient to Angelenos from all over the city, adding to the vibrant LA Live attractions, a football stadium could have a tremendous positive impact on Los Angeles.

However, for this scheme to move forward, I contend that these standards must be met:

1. The vision must be clearly articulated. Great cities are built on a foundation of Public Safety, Public Works, Public Health and Public Education. The Farmers Field press conference took place with Mayoral cheerleading while the streets in Van Nuys were collapsing and homes were being evacuated.

LA’s vision for moving forward must be based on resolving the budget crisis, delivering city services, responsible land use policy that protects the people who live here, and great sports and entertainment that enrich the lives of the people who partner in LA’s greatness.

This vision must end the typical “either/or” propositions that the Mayor and the City Council have made de rigueur in these types of proposals. It’s time for the City of LA to commit to win/win proposals and to remember that this is Los Angeles, the NFL wants us, the developers want us, the world wants us. We’re in a powerful position and our responsibility is to set the standard, not lower it.

2. The plan must get very specific very quickly. LA’s Farmers Field is already drawing the same criticism that was leveled at the ‘84 Olympics when in the planning stages. Opponents were fearful of issues such as traffic congestion and financial risk, but LA proved to be a champion.

The ‘84 Olympics in Los Angeles brought out the best in everybody, setting an Olympic standard for operations in business model, in profits, and in traffic congestion relief. LA’s ATSAC went online for the ‘84 Olympics, setting a standard for traffic control.

Peter Ueberroth took to the air in a helicopter on opening day to survey the traffic meltdown and discovered that traffic was actually lighter than usual. This was the first privately financed Olympic Games and it resulted in a surplus of $250 million. The standard has been set.

The plan for LA’s Farmers Field stadium must unfold with a full commitment to meeting stringent environmental impact, social impact, and economic impact standards that actually raise the bar, not lower it. The current murmurings indicate that the sheer size of this project is causing momentum that not only cuts red tape but also cuts through regulatory controls that protect the people of Los Angeles.

The plan for LA’s Farmers Field must start with a standard of excellence, the same excellence that we will expect from the NFL team that plays in Farmers Field, and apply it to every element of the proposed stadium and convention center enhancements.

Now is the time to set a world-class standard for solid investor-driven funding, for sustainable construction and operation, for connecting with the community and enriching the lives of the people of LA. After all, when LA gets it together, LA does great things.

3. The budget must be a real budget, not a press conference budget. While the Mayor and the cheerleading squad were doing cartwheels over the $700 million commitment from Farmers, the fact that the city is penciled in for $350 million in bond guarantees slid right past.

Now is the time for the City of Los Angeles to establish a standard for sound financial behavior, not budgetary window dressing and sound bite accounting. Most of all, this budget must demonstrate clearly that the City of Los Angeles is not contributing to this financial proposition, but is indeed committed to benefiting financially.

This budget must reflect municipal pride in the City of Los Angeles, not desperation. This is Los Angeles! The world needs us, the world wants us! It is an abdication of responsibility if the Mayor and the City Council allow the price of AEG’s admission to drop simply because they get all excited over an autographed football and promises of VIP seats in the Farmers Field Skybox.

The budget must demonstrate clearly that the City of LA will benefit in the profits, that we will come out of the deal as winners, and that we will not in any way, shape or form subsidize the developers of Farmers Field or the future owners of LA’s NFL team.

4. Ultimately, it’s got to work for everybody and we’re already off to a bad start. A deal that has been brewing for two years hits daylight with a ticking clock. This is the City Hall behavior that must stop. Now is the time to firmly establish an open and transparent process that becomes the standard for all that we do. This is not “punting” on a decision, it is simply engaging in the business of running a city by acting like adults, while avoiding the seduction of the Skybox.

The Farmers Field proposal should prevail if it can meet the high standards of excellence that we set. At the same time, it should fail if it relies on variances, subsidies and exceptions.

Ultimately, the future of Farmers Field and LA’s NFL team must be judged based on results, often harsh but always fair. That’s how the game is played.

In many ways, this is a great idea but it comes along at a really bad time. The Mayor and the City Council must focus on city solvency, on the delivery of city services, on responsible land use, on education, on protecting our charter commitments to libraries and parks and arts & culture and the needs of those who are most vulnerable such as our children, our seniors, our disabled.

Through it all, it’s always a bad time to do hard work, but our commitment to greatness demands that we allow the developers and the investors to hit the high LA standards, creating a win-win situation that benefits us all.

It’s important to note that the AEG seduction is in play, that AEG is engaged in an end-run on the starstruck City of LA, heading for Sacramento in an effort to lower the environmental standards and gain inappropriate exceptions.

LA’s Mayor and our City Council have an obligation to serve the people of LA and to protect this city from developers who seek to lower our standards.

That being said, let’s partner in greatness!

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

LA’s CRA turns gold into straw - a view from the street

CityWatch, Feb 1, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 9

When Governor Brown met with Mayor Villaraigosa to debate the future of LA’s Community Redevelopment Agency, the meeting took place in the well-appointed digs of the State Capitol, surrounded by a formidable security force.
When the people in my neighborhood gathered to discuss LA’s CRA, the meeting took place on a busted sidewalk, outside the now empty five-story Gershwin Hotel, across the street from an empty lot surrounded by chain link fencing and graffiti. Security was a courtesy provided by the Department of DIY.

The Governor’s plan to phase out approximately 400 redevelopment agencies throughout the state and to return the revenue stream to local authorities for use in the community has prompted LA’s CRA to scramble in an effort to squirrel away $930 million of public money.

LA’s CRA contends that they have done good work resulting in a catalytic economic and social impact on the community. That may be true in the sense that building a development for $600 million and then selling it for $200 million has a catalytic impact on the CRA’s political cronies.

LA’s CRA argues that the redevelopment projects create jobs and stimulate the economy. That my be true in the sense that bulldozer operators have been busy razing buildings that have fallen victim to the CRA’s “induced-blight” scheme but not for the business owners and employees who have lost jobs through eminent domain.

Jean Ros, founding executive director of the California Budget Project challenges the CRA’s claims saying "The research shows that redevelopment doesn't give us the bang for the buck we need in these economic times."

The Public Policy Institute's study "Subsidizing Redevelopment in California" compared 114 different redevelopment project areas statewide to similar areas without redevelopment. It concluded that redevelopment agencies were not responsible for any net economic growth and that they were being financed at the expense of local schools and public services.

As for local data on the systemic effectiveness of LA’s CRA, Jim Dantana, Deputy to CRA’s CEO Chris Essel, acknowledged that there is no real data to support either side of the argument.

Last week, California State Controller John Chiang launched an audit of 18 redevelopment agencies around the state to get to the bottom of the debate over whether they're "engines of local economic and job growth or are simply scams providing windfalls to political cronies."

While many argue that we simply don’t have the evidence, it’s not quite true. As LA’s City Controller Wendy Greuel warily dips her toe in the audit waters, the simple fact is, she’s late to the game. The audits have been performed, 11 years ago by then-City Controller Rick Tuttle and 5 years ago by then-City Controller Laura Chick.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Hollywood, locals are left with the anecdotal evidence that the CRA’s presence can have a chilling impact on the community, one that results in businesses closing, residents leaving, buildings falling into disrepair, public nuisance abatements and...bulldozers.

The suspicion that the presence of the CRA not only induces blight but actually discourages the investment and participation of long term small business operators was most recently confirmed when Glendale hotel owner Ray Patel refused to sell his property to developer Rick Caruso, only to find himself facing an eminent domain action that will allow the American to expand using his land.

Matt Middlebrook, former Deputy Mayor in LA to then-Mayor Hahn and current frontman for developer Rick Caruso, defended the aggression and explained that Patel had no right to resist the seizure, after all, “Patel (hotel owner) knew a decade ago that he was buying a business inside a redevelopment zone. By that time, the city had already used eminent domain to push out small Glendale property owners and make way for other private owners.”

That’s the skewed logic at the core of LA’s “pennies on the dollar” scheme, one where the CRA spends the public’s dollars on projects that wouldn’t pass muster in the private sector, then sells them to insiders for pennies.

LA’s CRA built the Hollywood & Highland Center for $600 million and then sold it to the CIM Group for $200 million. The City of LA then ponied up an additional $30 million to remodel the Kodak Theatre for the CIM in a move that Curbed LA referred to as “Send in the Clowns!”
Meanwhile, as Hollywood’s Gershwin Hotel continues to decay, the CIM Group stands in the wings with a bag of pennies, ready to feed at the public trough on the land and property that has been secured with our dollars, all while the local children stare through chain link fencing at a building that has more broken windows every day, at a neighborhood that continues to suffer. If only the CRA would get out of the way.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)