With her characteristic rapid-fire delivery, Cecilia Estolano speaks about green urbanism, transient oriented developments, and creating economic opportunity, all with a sense of urgency. Three years into her job as the head of the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles, she continues to drive her vision for a Los Angeles with a strong middle class. At the CRA, her efforts have focused on creating family-supporting jobs, producing affordable and workforce housing, and making transformative investments in depressed or underserved areas through major construction projects. On a smaller scale, the agency also provides streetscape and community improvements such as repainting alleys and houses, and also does things like provide soft second loans to first time homebuyers. “We try to do everything from soup to nuts,” she said. With an annual budget exceeding $600 million and a work program covering 32 project areas throughout the City of Los Angeles, CRA/LA is the largest redevelopment agency in the State of California. In the Valley, there is much going on when it comes to major projects and redevelopment dollars, according to Estolano. The CRA/LA has a robust work program in its West Valley Region, composed of the Reseda and Canoga Park project areas; and the East Valley region, which includes North Hollywood, Laurel Canyon, Pacoima, and Panorama City. Question: What major projects has the CRA undertaken in the Valley areas? Answer: We have many active projects in those areas but let me start with Plaza Pacoima- we’re really proud of this project. We’re very proud to deliver the first Costco to the City of L.A. in 12 years into a place that badly needs it. This project is going to be a 200,000 square foot retail center, so there’s going to be a Lowe’s, a Costco, and a Best Buy on this site. We put in $9.9 million. This exemplifies what we are trying to do all over the city. This is a former brownfield site, it had been the site of the Price Pfister manufacturing facility, they shuttered their doors and they left behind a contaminated site and left many, many jobs behind. What we were able to do is revitalize this blighted site and turn it into a retail center that provides high quality retail for a community that has been underserved. It will provide local jobs and living wage jobs. That project is under construction right now, even in the midst of a downturn. We’re looking at completion by spring 2010. Q: What other projects are under construction? A: We have NoHo Commons, the third phase that’s under construction in North Hollywood. It’s a mixed use, office retail component. We’re also hoping that there’s going to be a Laemmle theater there and this is also going to be a Silver Gold [LEED] building. It also has a series of community benefits attached to it. This is a great project. It’s a $79 million project; we put in $8.5 million, so we’re about 10 or 11 percent of total development costs, getting really great leverage for our dollars. It’s going to have 182,000 square feet of office, 10,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, a seven screen theater, and we’re going to be bringing back the historic Phil’s Diner on the site. There’s a job training center and some community benefits payments that are going to go to the Valley Community Clinic and LA Valley College as a result of this project. This project should be completed by October 2009. Q: And in the West Valley? A: On the affordable housing side, we’ve done Hart Village and Tierra Del Sol, both terrific projects Going back to Sylmar, another project we’re very proud of is Drapes for Show, where we provided a $900,000 loan to the business that was thinking about moving to Las Vegas. We persuaded them to stay in L.A., we helped them find a location, helped them to finance their expansion and in exchange, all of those San Fernando Valley jobs are staying in L.A. and we’re adding more jobs. And it’s that kind of business assistance in retention and expansion that we are focused on during this downturn. Q: How much money is going into the Valley areas? A: In the East Valley alone our work program is about $75 million dollars, that’s money we have set aside for investment this year. And in the West Valley that number is about $43 million. As a whole for the CRA, last year at the close of our books we invested $140 million; we got the money out the door into projects. At the close of this year we may be close to $200 million. The Valley share of that is pretty significant. Q: Any future developments? A: We have a number of projects that are kind of in the pipeline. We have a number of affordable senior housing projects happening in the East Valley and the West Valley: La Coru & #324;a Senior Housing Project, Montecito Terraces in the area of retail we also have the Valley Plaza Project that’s been stalled. We’ve been working on it for quite some time but because of the recession it’s stalled for the moment. Similarly, the Reseda Theater is a project we’ve been working on but it’s been a little bit stalled because of the setback in the economy. But we also have the Zine Community Center in Canoga Park, which is going to open fall 2009, [and] the Constituent Center in Pacoima that is going to house a number of city services and that’s going to be under construction soon. Q: You mentioned the Reseda Theater, in the past the community has complained that projects like this take too long to come to fruition. Is the CRA doing anything to streamline processes and speed things up? A: Part of the issue right now is that private development has slowed down. It’s come to a screeching halt because the capital markets are frozen. So we have some projects in the pipeline, like the Reseda Theater, as we’ve mentioned, where we are working with the developer CIM and we’re trying to figure out a way to keep that project going even in the face of very, very difficult financial times. But in terms of streamlining city processes, we do what we can to help businesses navigate city processes, and we provide funding and assistance for small businesses all over our commercial districts. So if you ask me what are we trying to do to speed up the city processes, we try to act to facilitate and expedite for the businesses that need our assistance. But in terms of the market out there, it’s a tough market. It’s hard to get financing for projects. We’re trying to provide some of that gap financing where we can, but with really big projects like Valley Plaza, we’re just going to have to wait for the capital markets to start flowing again before we can see much progress going on in those projects. Q: How hard has the CRA been hit by the economic downturn? A: We’ve been hit pretty severely, and we anticipate that the next two years are going to be much more difficult. Our budget this year is about 30 percent lower than it was last year. We also saw the state of California try to take $15 million from CRA LA. We litigated that through the California Redevelopment Association and the Superior Court found that the state of California couldn’t sweep our funds or any other redevelopment agency funds. (The statewide take was $350 million and our share of that was $15 million.) But we understand that the legislature is contemplating a way to get around that court ruling. They still want to try to take redevelopment dollars to help solve their budget gap in Sacramento. We also project with property values falling and property assessments falling, that we may see a drop in our tax increment revenue somewhere between 26 and 47 percent in the next two years. That’s an enormous hit and we’re trying to plan for that, frankly. It’s unfortunate because this is the time when we really need economic development dollars more than ever, and yet we’re going to see our revenues fall off dramatically. So we anticipate the next two years are going to be rough going for us. Q: Is partnering with small businesses going to be a major focus in the coming years? A: While we’re waiting for capital returns to the real estate market we’re really focused on business assistance and retention and so we’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand our industrial areas in the Valley. We’re looking at what businesses are there, what kind of assistance can we provide them, what do they need to stay afloat, what do they need to expand, and so we have adopted a strategic plan that has the goal of assisting 300 businesses every year, whether that be through infrastructure investments, small business assistance loans, commercial facades, grants etc. And our Valley team is working very hard to make contacts with our manufacturers and our job creating businesses in the Valley and do what we can to help them through these tough times. So yeah, that is one of our main focuses of our attention for the next two years. Q: How many of those businesses will be in the Valley? A: We’re looking at [partnering] with 300 a year for the next five years. I would say that the Valley share of that is probably 40 percent. Q: What are you most passionate about in this job? A: That we have to rebuild LA’s middle class. That needs to be the primary focus of our work. If we want to have a sustained economic recovery that makes this city better for our children than it is for us today, we have to have a middle class, and that’s why we are so passionately focused about business assistance. The other thing that I’ve brought to this job and it’s really a function of my background – I came out of the environmental movement, I’ve been working on environmental justice issues for almost 20 years now is we’ve brought a new ethic of sustainable urbanism to the CRA and it’s reflected in a lot of what we do. It’s not just about the LEED buildings, it’s about where we site development, how we site development, promoting transient oriented development, promoting a more livable environment for the different communities of LA We’ve made a substantial investment in rail and in other forms of public transportation and we think a transit oriented development strategy along with very good planning and design, and promoting parks and open space, and energy and water efficiency, means that we’ll make Los Angeles a far more livable place. Q: That’s why you’re working to attract clean-tech companies to the Valley? A: We are trying to make Los Angeles the clean- tech manufacturing center of the nation and that’s where we can hit the sweet spot of cleaning up the environment and at the same time we’re creating a sustainable economic development strategy for the city. The Valley frankly has a lot of assets that will help the city get there. It has a lot of terrific industrial areas, we already have clean tech companies that are located in the Valley, we just want to do what we can to promote those companies, and help them grow and get more of those types of companies to locate in Los Angeles. SNAPSHOT: Cecilia Estolano Title: Chief Executive Officer of CRA/LA Education: Graduate from Boalt Hall School of Law, M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA Previous Occupation: Counsel in the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, focusing on land use, zoning, redevelopment, municipal law, the California Environmental Quality Act and environmental permitting and regulatory issues.
Big Plans for the Valley