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Glendale's New but Lonely Redevelopment Adviser Waits to Help Property Owners

December 27, 1990|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Virgil McDowell calls himself "the Maytag repairman of Glendale."

He's been on the job as the city's ombudsman for the redevelopment zone for six months, but has yet to be called to work.

McDowell's job is to serve as an independent adviser for property owners and tenants whose businesses are targeted for redevelopment. He is believed to be the first ombudsman for a redevelopment agency in the nation, city officials said.

So far, however, there has been no great demand for McDowell's services, Jeanne Armstrong, redevelopment director, said. Several notices announcing McDowell's availability have been mailed to property owners and businesses in the 400 block of North Brand Boulevard, where plans for a high-rise office and retail project are in the works.

"There have been no calls," Armstrong said.

"It's an unusual job," said McDowell, 63, of Los Feliz, an expert in redevelopment and real estate who retired six years ago as director of real estate for the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.

While other redevelopment agencies have staff members who serve as advisers to the public, officials said McDowell is believed to be the first hired to act independently of the agency, although he will be paid by the city. He will be paid $75 an hour when work begins to flow in.

McDowell said he had to look up the definition of ombudsman when he was offered the position in Glendale.

A recent addition to Webster's New World Dictionary, ombudsman is defined as "a public official appointed to investigate citizens' complaints against local or national government agencies that may be infringing on the rights of individuals."

Creation of the position in Glendale was recommended in 1983 by the Ad Hoc Committee on Redevelopment. The seven-member committee had been appointed by the agency to find ways to stem a tide of complaints over the acquisition and relocation of businesses.

Many critics were upset about businesses forced out or moved to make way for construction of the Glendale Galleria and other redevelopment projects along Brand Boulevard, Armstrong said.

The committee, led by Councilman Jerold Milner before his election, blamed opposition to redevelopment on "a lack of understanding . . . nurtured by feelings of frustration."

It suggested the city hire an ombudsman as one of nine measures to deal with controversy over redevelopment. Other suggestions included proposals that the city hire a professional public relations firm to explain the redevelopment process, adopt design guidelines, improve traffic planning and develop better procedures to handle development proposals and relocate businesses.

Eight of the nine suggestions were implemented within a year. But the final suggestion--to hire an ombudsman--was not acted upon until this year because the city has not been aggressively acquiring property, officials said.

While McDowell's business has been slow to start, officials anticipate it will soon pick up. The city is gearing up to begin acquisitions for another expansion of the Glendale Galleria shopping mall.

Over the years, the Glendale Redevelopment Agency has acquired about half of the properties in the proposed expansion area--the block south of the Galleria II between Harvard and Colorado streets, Central Avenue and Orange Street. About a dozen more properties remain to be acquired, officials said.

Under state law, the city must pay the highest market value for property it acquires for redevelopment, assuring property and business owners that they will be paid more than if they sold privately. But Milner said owners often distrust government deals and don't like to be forced to sell.

"One of the things that the ad hoc committee determined and came to grips with is that people who were involved in the system felt cheated," Milner said. "They felt they had been forced to do something they didn't want to do and were unhappy about it. We wanted someone who is not under the control of redevelopment to sit down with them and listen to their side and be an intermediary."

He said intervention by an ombudsman "is a way to soften potential conflict."

Armstrong said the agency expects to open a small office near the proposed Galleria project where McDowell will be stationed part time. She said McDowell was selected for the position, in part, because "he is a mature, experienced person who is easy to talk with and represents a real good demeanor. People feel comfortable with him."

McDowell has more than 35 years' experience in public and private development. He was instrumental in the development of Bunker Hill, the Crocker Center (which is now Wells Fargo Center), Promenade Housing, California Plaza and other projects in downtown Los Angeles.

Herbert M. Weiser, an attorney specializing in redevelopment law, said he has known McDowell for years and recommended that the agency hire him. "He is very open, very sympathetic, just a nice man. Everybody likes Virgil McDowell," Weiser said.

But McDowell's answering machine has had little use. "People either don't know I'm here or Glendale is doing a fantastic job" in its dealings for land acquisition, McDowell said.

"I would like to feel that he will end up not being needed," Milner said, "but that is probably a little naive."

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