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Nerve Center for Healthcare Nonprofits Opens in L.A.

Built by the California Endowment, the downtown Center for Healthy Communities offers a meeting place for the state's thousands of health-related groups.

April 07, 2006|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

Can a cluster of light-filled meeting rooms make California a healthier place?

That's the hope of the California Endowment, a $3.7-billion fund created nine years ago to improve the health of state residents.

On Thursday, the endowment officially opened the Center for Healthy Communities, an architecturally striking compound in downtown Los Angeles that offers the state's thousands of health-related nonprofit groups a simple but potentially powerful tool: a place to gather.

Ten public rooms of various sizes offer space for up to 400 people, along with support staff, the latest audiovisual equipment and soundproof translation booths. To book space, groups need show only that they fit the endowment's broad mission of improving the health of California communities, through housing, neighborhood environments, and jobs and access to medical care.

Center Director Gwen Walden previously ran the endowment's grants program, which funds more than 1,000 groups. She said her contacts consistently talked about the need for a decent place to gather, especially in Los Angeles.

"It was unanimous. They said give us a place where we can meet and collaborate," Walden said. "This way they can feel that they're connected to something bigger."

Built on the fringe of industry between Union Station and Chinatown, the compound was designed by the local architectural firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios to maximize light and flow into open spaces. It comprises two incongruous parts connected by a calming courtyard -- one side all glass, the other made of industrial metal siding in primary colors, set at whimsical angles.

Near public transportation and with a large, free parking lot, the compound is accessible to low-budget, grass-roots organizations. It also offers them something less practical but perhaps more important, the hard-to-quantify lift that comes from meeting in a light-filled, comfortable, well-equipped space, rather than, say, a dark church basement or windowless hotel conference room.

"We wanted to build a place where the heroic and important work of our grantees could be brought to life," said endowment Director Robert K. Ross, showing off the boardroom, which features a wall of glass opening to the courtyard and a polished maple oval table lined with 26 white mesh chairs. "This sends a message that what they are doing is valuable."

The endowment was created by state mandate when health insurer Blue Cross switched from nonprofit to for-profit status in 1996. Its mission, printed on the back of every staff member's calling card: "To expand access to affordable quality health care for underserved individuals and communities, and to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians."

Ross said the endowment has intentionally defined the mission broadly, to include the root causes of unhealthy communities in a state where life expectancy differs by as much as 12 years between racial and ethnic groups.

"Research shows two-thirds or more of what determines health quality has nothing to do with healthcare," he said. "We're trying to broaden and elevate the discussion, and we see this place as a venue where those kind of discussions can happen."

The complex also serves as the endowment's headquarters, previously based in leased Woodland Hills office space.

Eventually, it will house three complementary organizations that help nonprofits find grant money, talk effectively with the press and elected officials, and budget more efficiently.

"This building is just a physical manifestation of the way the endowment has acted all along," said Paul Vandeventer, president of Community Partners, one of the organizations moving to the building.

"I've been doing this work for 20 years, and I've never seen another foundation in Los Angeles work so hard to bring people in," he said.

Most of the center's rooms are booked for the next three months, Walden said.

Simone Best, operations director for the Community Clinic Assn. of Los Angeles County, was among the first to sign up, to bring together the association's 43 clinic directors later this month.

"We were having to rent a hotel to get everybody together, at $1,000 a pop. That's money that could have gone to services," she said. "Once, we tried cramming them into a room at our offices, but having people stacked on top of each other was not conducive to problem-solving."

Ellen Wu, of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network in the Bay Area, said finding suitable space in Los Angeles had long been a challenge, at the same time the need for it was growing.

"We have listservs and can instantly send out information and reports," Wu said. "But in these high-tech times, people want to connect. It's more important now than ever, as groups like ours try to build a movement."

To inaugurate its building, the endowment on Thursday opened a two-day conference on the future of healthcare in California. One key topic hints at the ambition of the center, asking: "How do we build political will for changing our approach to health?"

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