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THE NEXT LOS ANGELES / TURNING IDEAS INTO ACTION : Livelihoods : Building an Economy With Global Reach

July 17, 1994|JAMES FLANIGAN | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles today is like an entrepreneurial company that has outgrown its early, informal ways yet clings to them, reluctant to take on the organization and structure of the metropolis it has become for fear of losing its youthful spontaneity.

But childhood's end has come. The five-county Los Angeles region is home to 15.5 million people, a population larger than many countries with an economy larger than most.

The area's old patterns of living and governing have reached the point of diminishing returns in a more crowded and demanding city.

So there must be changes, some highly visible and many less so. They must begin to happen now, and they must be realistic, pragmatic steps, not pie-in-the-sky pronouncements that sound promising but have little real-world impact on jobs and commerce.

Like it or not, Los Angeles in the next few years will see the beginnings of a true mass transit system, which will be built to comply with the federal Clean Air Act. The system, which is already being planned at City Hall, will involve high-speed trains running between major centers and connecting to informal minivans for local transportation.

Mass transit is imperative, not voluntary. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has issued orders on Clean Air Act compliance that if implemented would thwart Los Angeles' future as an international hub of business and culture.

So the city must act. Rail commuting will focus development of offices and malls at terminal points, enhancing the role of Century City, Van Nuys Boulevard and other major centers in the city's life. As cities have changed and grown in the past--New York's social and business life was once centered on now-neglected 14th Street; fashionable Georgetown was once a noisome backwater of Washington--so Los Angeles will change now.

But many changes will be less visible, though more profound. The city's Charter will be changed, probably to give more power to the office of mayor but in any event to reform the fractionated governance that has made dealing with City Hall a bureaucratic morass.

To induce rage in any business person, mention permits. Los Angeles issues 55,000 permits to do business every year, yet it is almost never a routine matter: 98% of the permits issued are termed "discretionary" or unique cases.

The business owner must obtain special approval from the City Council and the state government in Sacramento, whether the business in question is a juice bar, a dress shop or a condominium complex. "By the time you get the 11th permit, economic opportunity has moved on, the banking climate has changed, your business is dead," quips attorney Terry Christensen.

Yet there is an alternative to the Inquisition, called a ministerial permit. In such cases, rules are preset, business owners complete simple forms and open for business. Attempts are under way to increase the number of ministerial permits, which have been used only 2% of the time because City Council members and department heads guard their power.

That's why Charter reform is needed. "You cannot deal with the realities of the '90s with a government designed for the '20s," says Bernard Kinsey, a business consultant and former director of RLA.

Other institutions need updating. The public school system, which never was meant to hold 800,000 students, needs restructuring and reform.

But the next Los Angeles won't be born only of corrected faults. A positive shift in perspective is needed. Los Angeles, capital of the global entertainment business today, needs to become the intellectual and commercial hub of the information industry of tomorrow. Academic programs on new media are being instituted at the area's universities.

"We need to think of ourselves as global citizens in a great world city, not local players in the Southern California landscape," says Jeff Berg, chairman of the talent agency International Creative Management.

This is a great port city, through which $140 billion worth of goods passed last year. In that respect it is imperative that Los Angeles succeed in its efforts to obtain the rest of the $800 million funding for the Alameda Rail Corridor, which will speed freight out to the rest of the country and create jobs for the city's young people in import-export processing, light manufacturing and the financing of foreign trade.

We should be mindful of our assets: The mosaic of entrepreneurship that makes business life so vital in Southern California:

* New populations eager to open their own shops.

* More women-owned companies than any other place on earth.

* Institutions of higher learning that support the cultural and business life.

* The many organizations that nurture the landscape, both natural and man-made.

For visions of Los Angeles' future, look on the one hand at the Getty Museum complex being constructed on the mountain off the San Diego Freeway. That represents a $700-million investment in the culture of the city, and there should be more like it. Then look at the numerous multifaceted businesses opening up despite obstacles in all parts of this five-county global economy of 15.5 million people. The energy is remarkable, and so is the future.

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