Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa plans an ambitious economic development agenda reminiscent of former Mayor Richard Riordan's initiatives after the 1992 Rodney King riots.
Villaraigosa, who has brought in former Community Redevelopment Agency head Bud Ovrom to lead a restructured business team, is seeking to fast-track scores of major projects throughout the city.
The mayor's business team will also try to lure major companies to L.A. and keep firms here from leaving, as well as attract major biotech research dollars. "My emphasis will be on creating quality, well-paying jobs by focusing on targeted growth industries," said Villaraigosa in an e-mail.
The most sweeping initiative involves identifying 75 to 100 development projects of 100,000 square feet or larger and getting them completed rapidly. Among the likely candidates: Valley Plaza in North Hollywood, Marlton Square in South L.A., the old Sears warehouse site in Boyle Heights and the L.A. Live project next to Staples Center.
"These are projects that can have a big economic impact. The emphasis is going to be on getting these projects out the door," said Ovrom, deputy mayor for economic development. "When I took this job, Antonio told me, 'Bud, I want to see the cranes moving on these projects.'"
The agenda has raised expectations among development advocates perhaps to unrealistic levels. But it is seen as a welcome shift from Villaraigosa's predecessor, James Hahn, who pursued a modest economic development strategy and often left the heavy lifting to others.
"I understand the risk of over-promising, but mayors should be visionary and describe the big idea. They should set the bar high on expectations," said Chris Martin, chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
Villaraigosa's agenda hearkens back to the days when Riordan was mayor, cutting deals with developers and trying to prevent businesses from leaving the city. "This is a hands-on, transactional approach out of the mayor's office, one that's been missing for the last few years," said consultant Larry Kosmont.
'Hound these projects'
The big test will be in execution. Financing challenges, bureaucratic roadblocks and residential opposition all have stymied previous plans for sites such as Valley Plaza and Marlton Square.
A much promoted public-private partnership under Riordan called Genesis L.A. made little progress on a list of 21 high-priority sites in the late 1990s, and had to broaden its mission to invest in other urban redevelopment work.
Ovrom said he wants to "hound these projects on a daily basis, to break the logjams that have stalled them." He described setting up a "war-room" in the mayor's economic development office on the 13th floor of City Hall, where officials would track the progress of each of the projects on giant maps.
To help in this effort, Ovrom said personnel will be added to the business team, and an economic development cabinet of at least six city department heads will be created.
The first business team was launched 12 years ago under Riordan as a way of drawing back development to the city's urban core after the riots. Under the leadership of Rocky Delgadillo now city attorney it had some success in cutting deals with companies and clearing roadblocks for business expansions and relocations.
Hahn de-emphasized the business team when he took office in 2001 and changed its focus to developing affordable housing. Business groups acknowledged that housing was essential, but they lamented the loss of the high-profile deal-cutting that dominated the Riordan era.
Ovrom said he plans to multiply the business team's impact by working closely with other city departments to cut through red tape. "If we can get five or six other departments all on the same page with us on these projects, that's a staff of thousands of people with a budget of tens of millions of dollars," he said.
Unlike Riordan, Villaraigosa is likely to have the support of the City Council, where he recently served. Both San Fernando Valley councilwoman Wendy Greuel and Hollywood councilman Eric Garcetti said they welcome a more proactive lead from the mayor.
"It's exciting to me to see this kind of energy around economic development in this city," said Greuel. "We need a strong mayor to push these projects forward."
Garcetti said he did not expect any council resistance to the development push. The bigger problem, he said, would be overcoming neighborhood opposition.
Ovrom, who has dealt with local opponents to projects at the CRA, said the approach would be to try to convert NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard) to YIMBYs (Yes in My Back Yard). "Most of the time, it's not that people are opposed to doing anything at all with a site," he said. "They just want it developed on their terms. Incorporating this concept into our projects will be crucial."
Delgadillo said Riordan and Villaraigosa share an ability to shuttle between opponents and developers in hammering out a compromise. "There's no way we could have pushed through the MGM Tower in Century City if we didn't get that compromise with the neighbors," Delgadillo said.
Ovrom said Villaraigosa will be picking up the phone and asking local business owners what the city can do to help them grow. The business team will also market the city inside and outside the region.
"We have to do a better job of letting people know about the advantages and the incentives we already have," Ovrom said. "For example, there's a specific exemption to the business tax for entertainment companies locating in Hollywood and North Hollywood. But nobody knows about it."
There will also be efforts to develop industry clusters, especially biomedical and biotech firms. During the campaign, Villaraigosa repeatedly mentioned his work to push for the creation of a biomed/biotech park near County/USC Hospital in Boyle Heights. That project has stalled over jurisdictional issues between the city and county.
Last week, Ovrom said the Villaraigosa administration would be aggressively going after research grants from the Stem Cell Research Institute created when California voters passed a $3 billion initiative last fall.
"We will put the full resources of our city to work to be sure that UCLA and USC get those stem cell research grants," Ovrom said.
Meanwhile, Villaraigosa has said he intends to pursue further business tax reform beyond the measures enacted last year, and also eliminate red tape encountered by small businesses in their dealings with the city.
"To us, this is just as important, if not more so, than moving 75 projects to completion," said Martin Cooper, chairman of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association. "The mayor must realize that this right now is a business unfriendly city and move to act to make it more business-friendly."
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