NORTH HOLLYWOOD — One by one the workers--a janitor, a grocery clerk, a hotel employee--and advocates for the working poor stepped to the microphone to make their case.
The setting was a community forum last week on a proposed 23-acre retail-office project next to the North Hollywood subway station. If public money is spent to help develop the project, the speakers argued, the public should get something out of the deal beyond cut-rate prices on the latest fashions.
They asked for affordable on-site child care, job training programs and paychecks hefty enough to hoist workers above the poverty level. These things, they said, are fitting complements to the multiplex cinema, stores, restaurants and office space that are planned for the project.
Developer J. Allen Radford told those attending the meeting at Lankershim Elementary School that he wants his NoHo Commons complex, a $400-million project that could get up to $20 million in financial backing from the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, to include child care, a community health clinic and one-stop job training.
But he made no promises about requiring tenants of the complex to pay their workers a so-called "living wage" in excess of the minimum hourly wage of $5.75.
"I cannot tell Old Navy what to pay their employees," Radford said at the meeting, organized by the Valley Jobs Coalition, a labor/community group backed by the local group pushing the living wage campaign.
The Valley Jobs Coalition estimates the Radford project could create 4,000 jobs in all, including construction jobs to build the development.
Radford is among the developers nationwide who have been drafted, some of them reluctantly, into the living wage campaign. Labor and community groups pushing for the living wage see developments that receive public subsidies as the "smart next step" in a campaign that, to date, has focused largely on getting municipal ordinances passed.
"We are targeting the development sites because that's where the new jobs are coming into the city," said Cameron Levin, a staff member with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Beginning, a coalition of community activists, labor unions and clergy that provides administrative and research support for the Valley group.
"We feel that the only way to make sure that there are quality jobs coming into the city is through the development process. In the bigger picture, we're going to be looking at all development in the city."
In Los Angeles, Levin said, the movement got started with the $567-million TrizecHahn project, which is scheduled to open next fall at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue.
TrizecHahn has agreed to encourage its tenants to pay a "living wage," defined as pay high enough to raise a family of four above the federal poverty line. For Los Angeles, that's $7.72 with benefits, or $8.97 without them.
The company also will encourage tenants to hire workers from the area and will support job training, according to Beth Harris, a spokeswoman for TrizecHahn Development Corp., the Los Angeles-based arm of the mammoth developer and overseer of the Hollywood project.
"We're taking a leadership role in supporting the living wage policy," Harris said, noting that the project has lease commitments for 65% of the space so far. "We feel that the living wage policy is a positive thing for the community and we're happy to enact it at Hollywood and Highland.
"It is highly unlikely that employers who don't pay a living wage will be in the project," she said.
John McCoy, deputy administrator for operations with the CRA, said the North Hollywood project will is likely to have a package of "community benefits" similar to the TrizecHahn development.
But some worry that imposing such conditions could derail the North Hollywood project, at a time when the community is struggling to overcome years of blight and the upheaval caused by subway construction.
At the very least, others say, it's another hurdle for a project that has already had its share of them.
"We've had obstacles thrown at us all the time with the project," said Bert Abel, associate vice president with Grubb & Ellis, the leasing agent for the NoHo Commons project.
The development, scheduled to open in 2002 or 2003, has been scaled back substantially from the initial proposal and the developer has been forced to seek two extensions from the CRA.
Abel said he had "never heard of a developer compelling their tenants to pay a certain wage.
"I've yet, in my experience, had a conversation with a developer about what the tenants would pay their employees," he added. "But there's a first time for everything."
Abel said he is sympathetic to both sides on the issue. The community requests become just one more factor that figures into the negotiations.