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THE STATE : Once a 'Magic Bullet,' CRA's Now an Agency Without a Cause

August 20, 1995|William Fulton | William Fulton is editor of California Planning & Development Report, a monthly newsletter. His book on the politics of urban planning in Southern California will be published by Solano Press Books.

VENTURA — Los Angeles' urban-redevelopment effort is suffering from an identity crisis. After 30 years of pumping money into the problem, it's hard to argue that the goal of urban revitalization has been achieved. Downtown has been resuscitated as a gleaming office center, and a few lucky inner-city neighborhoods--like Watts--have received showcase shopping centers or housing projects. By and large, however, L.A.'s troubled urban neighborhoods are worse than ever.

Thus, it's not too surprising to learn that when John E. Molloy takes over next month as the administrator of the city's once-mighty Community Redevelopment Agency, he'll be the fourth man in a decade to step into the job. Coming from the top redevelopment job in Sacramento, Molloy will take over an agency wracked with financial problems, burdened by conflicting agendas and struggling for survival in the middle of a political tug-of-war between Mayor Richard Riordan and some City Council members.

The CRA job defeated Molloy's predecessors, all of whom were more high-profile political players than he. It's a job that could defeat him as well--and, more important, harm L.A.'s urban neighborhoods even more if the city's diffuse political leadership cannot agree on what role redevelopment should play in Los Angeles' future.

FOR THE RECORD - Editor's Note
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 27, 1995 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 2 Opinion Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Due to a mechanical error, an article about the Community Redevelopment Agency in last week's Opinion section was misprinted. Reprints are available on request.

Since the advent of federal "urban renewal" programs in the 1950s, the CRA has been a key player in efforts to revive decaying urban areas. Under Mayor Tom Bradley in the '70s and '80s, it rebuilt Downtown, stockpiled the resulting increases in property-tax revenue and became an influential power center in city government. In print, the CRA was typically characterized as "powerful," "rich" and "semi-autonomous."

Because Los Angeles has a long history of decentralized power, whenever a single agency accumulates enough power and money to appear strong, the politicians are seduced into thinking of it as the "magic bullet" agency--the one that can solve all L.A.'s urban problems. Like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority more recently, the CRA was viewed throughout much of the '80s as the city's magic-bullet agency.

The magic-bullet theory evaporated, however, after the 1992 riots. Crippled by its own history of heavy-handedness in the neighborhoods, the real estate slump and Bradley's eroding political power, the CRA proved powerless to prevent the social conditions that spawned the riots--and ill-equipped to deal with the consequences. As the agency struggled to justify its existence, the city's problems mounted: recession, earthquakes, overcrowding. With its power waning, the CRA was used to further all kinds of political agendas.

Even as the CRA's revenue began to drop, its budget was stripped to provide funds for the city's general budget. Housing advocates in city government, led by city housing chief Gary W. Squier, succeeded in getting 60% of the agency's money channeled to housing construction and rehabilitation. Meanwhile, Molloy's predecessor, Edward J. Avila, tried to turn the CRA into a recession-battling machine--a goal that Riordan adopted after succeeding Bradley. Further diluting the agency's efforts, the redevelopment bureaucrats, egged on by members of the City Council, created new redevelopment sites in riot- and earthquake-ridden zones around the city. After a while, not even the agency's senior staff could figure out what their priorities were supposed to be.

The problem of the CRA's confused agenda has been compounded by a continuing power struggle between Riordan and the council over who should control the agency. Envious of the mayor's iron grip on the CRA during the Bradley years (the mayor appoints all the board members), council members like Mark Ridley-Thomas have pushed to bring the agency back under the complete control of the council. Riordan, pushing his "business-friendly" agenda, has proposed his own reorganization to emphasize the CRA's economic-development potential.

Until recently, the two competing reorganization plans canceled each other out politically. Then Riordan appointed City Hall insider Daniel P. Garcia as CRA board chairman. Garcia--not Molloy--will serve as the true locus of power at the CRA. He has strong ties to many council members, and he has been openly critical of the agency's turn toward housing. What's required, he insists, is "a renewed focus on economic, job-creating activity."

The Riordan agenda got an additional boost when Ridley-Thomas was booted out of his job as chairman of the council's redevelopment committee and replaced by Rudy Svornich, who is considered more friendly to Riordan. Now it's possible that, at least at the committee level, Riordan's reorganization plan will get a hearing, while the council takeover proposal will get shelved.

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