In some ways, Christine Essel could not have come into her new job at a worse time – or from a more unexpected background. The new CEO of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, Essel had previously led Paramount Pictures' government affairs team. She is one of few executives to cross over from Tinsletown to the gritty streets of urban Los Angeles. Those streets, in CRA/LA's 32 project areas and 128 active projects, may get even grittier thanks to the state's $2.1 billion transfer of redevelopment funds this past spring. With the acknowledgment that she cannot just write a script that will solve L.A.'s woes, Essel spoke with CP&DR Editor Josh Stephens about her plans for the agency in these challenging times.
The entertainment community has not always been heavily involved in civic affairs in LA. What is the significance of this crossover, and how do you expect your experiences working in Hollywood to inform your perspective as CRA head?
I took on this position because I believe that I can bring a new and different perspective to the challenges facing CRA/LA. I've been involved with civic affairs throughout my career and I believe that my long career at Paramount offers a skill set that is vital to the current needs we have in the city and here at CRA/LA.
One of my primary goals is to make the agency more user friendly for the investment community as well as make what we do here at the agency more efficient, streamlined and effective.
The entertainment industry is a vital part of the Los Angeles economy and anything I can do to support the retention and growth of the industry is critical to our city's success.
What are some of your goals for CRA/LA?
The first goes to the overall message of redevelopment. What redevelopment agencies do can easily be misunderstood and in tough economic times; they often come under attack by the media and politicians. One of my primary goals is to educate people about the importance of redevelopment and the role we are playing to generate economic development in our communities, both through mitigation of blight as well as job creation.
Our team is also working to strengthen CRA/ LA's internal processes and make them more efficient and effective. We have begun the process of reviewing internal operations in an effort to streamline our procedures and cut as much red tape as possible.
Along with those improvements, I want to bring more focus to job creation. We've done a great job creating affordable housing and commercial projects, as well as public infrastructure improvements, but we have not been focusing specifically on expanding the economic base of the city and bringing companies to the city that produce jobs for the long term. CRA/LA is one of the few tools the city has to bring about job creation.
A stronger role in job creation underscores another goal, which is establishing timelines on key redevelopment projects, helping to secure the needed incentives and implementing these important projects. We are also looking for additional resources outside the tax exempt model, which is also essential to our success. Together, all of these goals focus on the long-term sustainability of our communities and businesses while supporting the continued growth of Los Angeles.
How is the agency coping with this year and next year's SERAF take?
We have been forced to put a number of key projects on hold for lack of funds. We are going to reduce our salary costs by 20 percent over the next two years through attrition and an early retirement package that is under negotiations. We are working to make our processes and procedures as consistent and streamlined as possible to try to compensate for the lack of funds. We are also focusing on our core services: what we do best and what is critical to our communities at this time. I am confident we will be able to continue to do great work in our project areas despite the hit we took to our budget. We are trying to be as lean and mean as possible, but the truth is there is no more money to take.
What redevelopment tools are going to be most effective in this economy?
Across the board, the city is seeing a drop in tax revenues and housing values with job cuts and overall unemployment in the city rising to unprecedented levels. As a result, businesses hesitate to expand and hire new workers and we are seeing a drop in private investment throughout Los Angeles.
The City and CRA/LA are facing many of the same challenges. In addition to the SERAF, CRA/LA faces a decline in revenues this year from a drop in property values. This all comes at a time when multiple CRA/LA project areas are expiring over the next several years, further reducing our revenue stream.
In response to these challenges, we are increasing our efforts to secure funding from other sources including securing grants from the state and federal level. Throughout this difficult process, I am continually impressed by how dedicated CRA/LA staff is and their commitment to continue the work we do with increasingly limited resources. My hope is that we will continue to develop streamlined ways to do our work, as well as strengthen the methods by which we deliver services to the community as a whole.
LA just culminated the $750 million, 35-year investment in the Central Business District Project, one of the most prominent in the city. What will be the signature projects of CRA in this generation, and what are the keys to success?
The Central Business District Project, adopted in 1975, in some ways tried to correct for what were perceived as failures of the all-clearance urban renewal approach to redevelopment, largely prohibiting the kind of wholesale clearance and emphasizing infill, rehabilitation and a finer scale of urban design with buildings generally built out along the street face.
Today we continue to commit to redevelopment with an emphasis on human scale and mixed use development, with a wide variety of housing types and income ranges, served by a mix of neighborhood scaled retail, entertainment, community-service and open space amenities. The focus continues to be on creating a series of neighborhood scale, interconnected pedestrian-friendly zones with easy access to a range of transit options for both local and longer-distance (regional) travel.
We promote easy access to amenities and services, mixture of housing and non-housing uses to promote day and evening-time activity, pedestrian walkability, incremental development, preservation of much of the pre-existing building stock and a more limited emphasis on "signature" projects.
How important is AB 2531 (CP&DR Blog 16 July 2010) to CRA/LA's work? If it passes, what does it mean for CRA?
AB 2531 places greater emphasis on attracting and retaining businesses and therefore, employment opportunities. Should AB 2531 move forward, redevelopment programs will expand for all businesses. Funding will be available not only to businesses undergoing a rehab, but also to any business that is creating or retaining jobs and/or "greening" their operations. Long-term sustainable efforts in the community that create jobs as well go to the core of CRA/LA's work.
How does Metro's 30/10 transit funding plan affect CRA/LA's priorities? How much emphasis will CRA put on transit-oriented development?
Although not all of CRA's project areas may be able to attract regional transit infrastructure investments, CRA/LA will increasingly be stressing access to sustainable mobility choices wherever we can and we would expect Measure R and the 30/10 plan to heighten the success of these efforts.
Measure R has been very important in giving developers the confidence that not only will a given transit station at some point become a reality, but that that transit station will be connected to a growing network connecting together the major hubs of employment, commerce, entertainment.
The 30/10 plan becomes especially important to CRA as we encourage developers to "build more for the future", to design projects that tap into the longer-term urban living and economic potentials, and to get investors to be patient and understand that there is support for a the longer-term vision.
What are the prospects for the Clean Tech Corridor (CP&DR Blog 13 Aug. 2010)?
The Cleantech Corridor (CTC) is a roughly two mile corridor of industrial land on either side of the Los Angeles River, at the eastern edge of downtown Los Angeles. The Corridor is a focus of CleanTech LA, an initiative to establish Los Angeles as a leader in research, commercialization and deployment of clean technologies. CleanTech LA is a broad consortium of local stakeholders, regional educational institutions, and business groups working together to make this area an attractive place to invest.
In addition, CRA/LA and LA's Department of Water and Power are partnering to develop a 3.1-acre campus in the CTC that will co-locate a variety of occupants related to the development and deployment of cleantech technologies. Occupants will include a DWP research and development space, research labs for regional educational institutions, and a CRA/LA Business incubator that will house office space, testing facilities, and support for cleantech entrepreneurs.
The CleanTech Manufacturing Center (CTMC) is a centerpiece of the Cleantech Corridor. This vacant 20-acre parcel is a development opportunity site for cleantech companies and/or sustainable manufacturing. CRA/LA owns the site and we are just about to issue a Request for Proposals from potential developers.
CRA/LA and other city departments are developing a program of public improvements to support businesses and residents in the CTC. We are also developing two incentive programs aimed to encourage industrial development in the CTC and beyond. The Industrial Incentive Program will assist industrial businesses hoping to expand in or relocate into the CTC by providing relocation assistance and funding for the purchase of capital equipment. In addition, a Façade and Building Improvement Program will help fund building improvements to existing industrial business.
Before the economic downturn there was a movement to convert industrial land to residential. How do you expect this issue to play out in the future and what strategy might CRA pursue?
CRA/LA is looking to a more balanced use of the industrial lands to ensure that Los Angeles can expand its ability to retain and attract innovative businesses. In addition, CRA/LA staff recognize the importance of providing room for the market to function. However, it is important to both new and existing occupants -- both residential and non-residential -- to have some certainty in future patterns of development, so that potential builders and investors feel confident making investments in Los Angeles' communities.
Picking up on the recommendations of the Urban land Institute Advisory Panel, CRA/LA will also work with others to see that the infrastructure serves the needs of both the existing and the emerging business and residential communities and to market these communities to potential investors.