Javier Mariscal is director of urban regeneration for John Laing Homes, where he helps one of California’s largest developers implement urban infill and reuse projects. Prior to joining John Laing in 2000, Mariscal was a project manager for The Olson Company. Before that, he worked for redevelopment agencies in Huntington Park, West Covina, Ontario and Cypress.
A native of Los Angeles, Mariscal holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Yale and a master’s in urban planning from UCLA. He spoke with CP&DR Editor Paul Shigley at John Laing’s office in Van Nuys.
CP&DR: You came here to start this program from scratch. Did the company have a goal or a vision for you to chase after?
Mariscal: There was the vision of recognizing the big trends that were going on, in the sense that the Latino population was the majority, that it was beginning to grow. There was a great deal of opportunity there. All this handwriting on the wall. And they [John Laing] recognized that they needed to begin looking into infill as the next opportunity for market growth. And they also understood that they needed somebody who had public sector experience because of the challenges that infill poses, and really that comes down to the political/entitlement process. And what I added to that when I came on board was, when you say political/entitlement, add to that community outreach — working with the neighboring residents so that it’s not just the contacts with the elected officials. It’s not just about making sure that you have this great relationship with the community development director. It also has to do with, can you identify the community stakeholders and bring then to the table?
CP&DR: So then what is your job?
Mariscal: My job really is to do exactly that. … The challenge now is to house 6 million folks in the next 10 years. Most of them are going to be in L.A. County. How are you going to do that? … It’s not just housing, it’s economic development. There should be mixed use, there should be transit-oriented villages, and [we want to] position John Laing Homes to be one of the most recognized partners when it comes to those types of development. We know how to build homes. We know how the merchandise them. We want to be that partner. If you want a guy who really knows retail, bring them on. It’s more about consensus building. It’s more about joint venture. One guy can’t do it alone anymore.
CP&DR: What are a couple examples of deals that you have worked on?
Mariscal: There’s a deal that we’re doing in Inglewood that actually we’re doing with our sister company, which is Watt Homes. … It’s a 38-acre parcel, a former oilfield right north of the Hollywood race track. In fact, I’m happy to report that just last night we got the entitlements. Lots of environmental challenges. This a huge project for the city of Inglewood. It’s in their redevelopment agency. It’s basically a brownfield.
CP&DR: Is the site vacant?
Mariscal: It’s vacant, but there are 18 oil wells that need to be capped. There are some groundwater monitoring wells. It’s challenging. But it’s something that we worked on together with the city. We worked through it, I’d say, pretty fast. We’re probably into it 14 months now, from the day that we looked at the site and started talking about it to the seller, the race track.
To go through this pretty complicated process, we did it quickly. And that was because the city was working closely with us and we were exchanging information.
CP&DR: What have you gotten entitled for?
Mariscal: It’s 395 homes. It’s right at about 10 units to the acre. There are a lot of New Urbanist type concepts. The idea would be to have traditional streets, parkway, try to hide the garages. One community has ally-loaded [garages]. Our community is a cluster of six-packs. [Points to site plan showing two houses on the street, with four houses situated behind the two.] So when you go down the street what you see are these two houses. You’re picking up what used to be some guy’s back yard. You’re literally picking up two homes. This is definitely geared toward young families – three, four bedroom homes, detached. We thought this was a good product for Inglewood. And then Watt has another product that’s probably more traditional, a little larger.
When staff saw this, they said, "What is this?" So we put key staff … on a bus. They saw this product where our South Coast division built out in Ladera Ranch. They saw this alley-loaded stuff that another developer built. The whole point was we took the time and the energy to educate them … to get them exposed.
If you look at Inglewood, it’s a traditional, 1950’s suburban city. 5,000-square foot lots are as small as you get, and after that you’re in townhomes. They got to see how these communities live. They saw how these communities work. Once they saw that, they were excited and wanted to do this. It was that kind of relationship. It wasn’t just that we were presenting and they were reacting.
That got us through a very difficult project. The hurdle was just their understanding our concept because you start talking about detached homes at 10, 12 units to the acre, and they’re like 10 and 12, you’re talking about townhomes. And we said, no, we’re talking detached homes.
CP&DR: Why would you want to do detached homes at 12 units per acre?
Mariscal: I think in this case it was a public policy. We were thinking that duplexes or even triplexes might do well to bring the affordability. But the city didn’t want attached housing, for whatever reason. And so the challenge then was how to do the detached. They wanted this to be the move-up opportunity for someone living in Inglewood because they suffer a lot of leakage. In the $400,000 range or high $300,000s, people tend to move out because the product isn’t there.
CP&DR: You say the site had 18 oil wells and who knows what else. How much do you have to know about a site like that before you pursue a project?
Mariscal: You need a participating seller. The seller understands that the property has issues, otherwise he would have sold it a long time ago. And what we asked for was the appropriate time to go out and do the soil testing and environmental review, health risk assessments, all that stuff. And they understood the process, and we shared that information with them so they knew that we weren’t just sitting around. We were spending a lot of at-risk money because if we do those studies and we decide to walk, we lose the money. … This is not for the weak-hearted. That’s why John Laing Homes is a great size. I think smaller builders, especially with a project of this stature, would have difficulty carrying those types of redevelopment costs.
CP&DR: Can you define the niche or project type you are looking for?
Mariscal: It’s not really driven by product. What we’re being driven by is where the opportunity is. And right now there are probably two big opportunities. The first is workforce housing, which is the teacher, the policeman, somebody making $50,000 to $100,000, more or less. We want to try for the upper end of that workforce housing. So that puts you in the $300,000, maybe $400,000 price range if the interest rates continue where they are at. Just real rough numbers. If you build that product anywhere, it will probably sell.
And then there’s the other niche, which is going for that higher end, the $400,000s and $500,000s — kind of the first move-up for people who are sitting on equity already. These are more like the young families who are doing quite well, as well as the empty-nesters, the baby boomers who raised their kids. They don’t need the big suburban house anymore. They are probably sitting on $200,000, $300,000 worth of equity. And those folks are choosing a lifestyle. Because the first group I mentioned, they need a home. They are going to raise their family. The [second group] says, "I have a home, I just don’t like where I live." They have a little more discretion. And so what they are looking for is that exciting, 24/7 downtown living — the idea that I can walk to the café culture. It’s kind of retro downtown living … and they’re willing to pay a premium for that.
A lot of people say, I want to live here. The schools are here. The shopping is here, everything is already here, but there’s nothing to buy. There’s no supply. To me, what a wonderful problem to have. We can’t build them fast enough.
The challenge is, in order to build that requires higher density. There’s no more room, so how do you create space? How do you decide what gets recycled? Something’s got to go.
CP&DR: How much does location matter?
Mariscal: It matters because not only do you have to make the economics work, it matters because political jurisdiction matters. Do you have the political will? A lot of times, these [sites] are zoned for nonresidential uses and you are converting it to something else. You need the political leadership that recognizes that this is important and can marshal the resources to make sure that staff and everyone is working in partnership — not just being in a reactive mode, but being a collaborator. To me, if that political leadership isn’t there, it’s a battle. If Inglewood was not excited about this project, it would have died.
I want to know, who’s the local council person? Do they get this? Do they want it? Do they recognize that jobs and housing are just as important as chasing a car-dealer? You should want to provide housing opportunities. That’s really important because that gives you credibility when you outreach to the community.
CP&DR: That leads to my next question. Do you go to city hall first, and then the community?
Mariscal: Usually, if the political leadership is there, they are plugged in with the community, and they’ll tell you who are the players that you need to go out and talk to.
CP&DR: What sort of community outreach and education do you do?
Mariscal It depends on the community. There are not set rules. Each community is different. Some of them are pretty damn sophisticated, and they’ll tell you exactly what should get done. Others just want to be part of the process. Those are probably the extremes.
CP&DR: At the outset, you mentioned the Latino market. Where does the Latino market fit into your strategy?
Mariscal: I don’t think we necessarily have to go out of our way to build a special product for Latinos. … I think what’s different, though, is going into neighborhoods that are Latino-dominated. That’s a different question. I think it’s more that these opportunities are going to be in Latino-dominated communities. So those relationships that we were talking about earlier have to take into account that you’re dealing with Latino communities, and there’s probably a different way of interfacing. And I think there’s a certain sensitivity to the fact that I’m Latino and I’m doing this.
I don’t think it’s an immigrant population, it’s people like myself. We’re becoming more mainstream. The big difference is that a lot us of wouldn’t mind living in a Boyle Heights because that’s where we grew up. That’s probably where we’re sending our kids for grandma to look over them while we’re working downtown. Those communities don’t scare us.
CP&DR: Do you approach a Latino-dominated community differently that you would an old, white community?
Mariscal: Yes, I certainly would … It’s different in the sense of the cultural things that go with a Latino community. The fact that speaking Spanish sometimes makes people feel more comfortable. So there are certain things that are different. To try and quantify it, it gets lost in the translation. There are certain things that if you grew up in the area, you just understand.
In our attempts, we’re not talking about urban renewal in the old 1960s sense where we’ll just bulldoze everything and figure it our later. You can’t do that anymore. And I think when you go to a Latino neighborhood, when you go to Boyle Heights, they still remember the 1950s and 1960s. They remember the freeways. The still remember Chavez Ravine. That was an urban renewal project, and they did the ol’ switcheroo and they built Dodger Stadium instead. That’s a sore subject in a lot of Latino neighborhoods. There’s always an air of suspicion. So if you ask me how do you deal differently with Latino neighborhoods, you have to remember that. Government was not always coming to help them.