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Divided agency guides growth

L.A.'s volunteer panels often act in unison, but not the redevelopment board. The mayor's appointees have been increasingly at odds.

September 04, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

From every perspective, the Aug. 16 meeting of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency's Board of Commissioners went badly.

Tenants of a building in downtown Los Angeles were furious over multiple evictions, and Commissioner Joan Ling wanted to quiz them about it. Commission President William Jackson, who had just been called Osama bin Laden by one angry audience member, did not.

Jackson interrupted Ling, saying the commission needed to move on. Ling then cut off Jackson, saying she had a right to ask questions. The spat ended when Ling and another commissioner abruptly left the room to meet with the tenants.

And that was just the public comment period.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's volunteer boards and commissioners typically act in unison, voting unanimously on most of the big issues. But at the redevelopment agency, the mayor's appointees have been increasingly at odds over a variety of philosophical issues: how to preserve affordable housing, how much to demand from developers, even what a project should look like.

The split is playing out at an agency that pours millions of dollars into 32 redevelopment zones across the city, from booming areas like Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles to faltering stretches of Wilmington and MacArthur Park. With so much at stake, some projects are getting delayed, while others narrowly win approval only after protracted debates.

At its most basic level, the commission has two distinct camps: three pro-business members who favor the free market and three left-leaning members who aren't afraid to demand new, sometimes unprecedented concessions from developers on behalf of renters and low-wage workers.

"You've got both ends of the political spectrum there," said Commissioner Bruce Ackerman, who occupies the pro-business camp. "You've got a conservative, pro-development mentality, and then you've got a very pro- labor approach: 'Let's extract everything we can.' "

No one knows what will happen when Villaraigosa's newest commissioner, Natalie Cole, publisher of Our Weekly, joins the seven-member panel on Thursday, filling a seat that has been vacant for much of the year. But observers on both sides of the divide agree that the commission's deliberations have become increasingly unpredictable.

The commission split 4 to 2 in June, approving a public art project in North Hollywood. It deadlocked 3 to 3 last month over a five-story apartment project planned for Chinatown.

And in a 4-2 vote three weeks ago, the panel passed an $8-million loan to a San Diego-based affordable housing developer, an agreement one commissioner who voted against it described afterward as "an embarrassment."

The unpredictable meetings have infuriated some City Council members, who have begun intervening aggressively on behalf of projects in their districts. Last year, Councilman Bernard C. Parks was livid after commissioners demanded that a developer of student housing near USC pay its property taxes early, at $42,000 per month, into a fund for affordable housing.

Parks said the deal would have scared other for-profit developers away from his South Los Angeles district, an area starved for investment. "We went to the mayor and said this has to be overturned, because these commissioners are behaving as though they are the developers," he said.

The commission reversed itself. But the panel faces similar complaints from the powerful Central City Assn., a downtown-based business group.

Long an enthusiastic backer of redevelopment, the association says it sees the agency as an obstacle to economic investment. And other real estate developers are more blunt.

"I would rather walk on broken glass than go before the CRA board," said downtown Los Angeles businessman Tom Gilmore, whose company has converted office buildings into lofts and pioneered the restoration of the city's once-crumbling historic core.

While the city's business elite is irritated by the commission's left bloc, groups that push for better wages and more low-income housing are delighted.

Becky Dennison, co-director of the nonprofit Community Action Network, said the redevelopment agency for too long ignored downtown's poorest residents, razing their homes to build glitzy new projects.

That changed, she said, with the addition of Ling, a provider of affordable housing; John Perez, political director of United Food and Commercial Workers in Orange County; and Madeline Janis, who heads the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy, a group focused on improving the incomes of low-wage workers.

"John, Joan and Madeline are concerned about low-income people," Dennison said. "The others are concerned about how much businesses and developers can benefit from the CRA."

The new board was seated in November 2005. A month later, the commission's left wing showed it was willing to push for more "community benefits," concessions ranging from job training to new low-income housing.

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