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Developing Priorities

Throughout her many stops in her career, Margarita De Escontrias has maintained one consistent vision: to make her community a better place. A native Angeleno, she began her career as an intern at the Riverside office for Catholic Charities, while attending the University of California, Riverside. Upon graduation, she began working full-time for the organization in various capacities including a field worker, a community outreach staffer and the executive director of a pro bono legal aid program for indigent clients. Then in 1985, De Escontrias decided to make the transition into public sector work, taking a post at the Riverside Economic Development Agency, where she again rose through the ranks during the 15 years she spent at the organization. Finally in 2000, she opted to return home, taking a position as the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency’s Housing Manager. Then in May of 2004, she was assigned to the CRA’s East Valley Division to manage and oversee housing development in the area. But her biggest break yet came in August of this year, when David Riccitiello, who had headed the CRA’s efforts in the East Valley, was reassigned to the downtown region, and De Escontrias took his place. Currently, she is in charge of the CRA’s work in the East Valley’s three main sectors: Laurel Canyon Boulevard, North Hollywood and Pacoima/Panorama City. Under her watch, she is spearheading the development of major projects at the Valley Plaza Shopping Center, the NoHo Commons, the Florentine Apartments, the Metro Mixed-Use Project, the Pacoima Center Retail project, the Pacoima Town Center and rehabilitation of an office tower in Panorama City that has been vacant since the Northridge Earthquake. Question: Specifically, what is the status of the ongoing projects in the Valley, including NoHo Commons, the Valley Plaza Shopping Center and the Panorama Tower. Answer: The Panorama Tower is in need of rehab and we’d like to work with the owner in an owner participation role to either rehab the existing structure to use as a residential, mixed use development, rehab it into strictly residential use or demolish the building and construct a brand new mixed-use development on site. In fact, we’re meeting with the property owner this coming week to further those discussions. Valley Plaza is our biggest project on Laurel Canyon and it is a very high priority. We’d like to redevelop it as regional shopping center and we’re in discussions to include major retailers and an upscale cinema. NoHo Commons is still on schedule and I look at it every day outside my window. We’re currently entering phase three, which will be a retail component which is still in negotiation. Q: In the past, the city of L.A. and the CRA have been criticized for being too much of a bloated bureaucracy and for not doing enough to work with the community? Do you believe that progress has been made in making the organization more active in the community? A: Our regional approach now allows us to be pro-active and to encourage investment. We provide a cadre of local experienced staff at the regional level to investors, developers, corporations and small businesses and to provide technical assistance and resources. I don’t think that criticism has merit any longer. The regional approach really addresses bringing that local bureaucracy out into the neighborhood and we’ve been building our relationships with the neighborhood councils, the coordinating councils and other members of the community. Q: What are your priorities at the moment in your position? A: We need to continue to focus on mixed-use developments that provide local shopping and resources and entertainment. We also need to provide affordable as well as market rate housing. I’m also trying to preserve our older neighborhoods on Laurel Canyon, North Hollywood. Right now, Pacoima has a tremendous amount of overcrowding and certainly a priority is to develop new affordable units in that area. We’re also trying to fill four vacant positions for two assistant project managers and two project mangers and have been operating with a limited staff and resources right now. I’m also very focused on our nine priority projects right. Those are probably my top priority. Q: Your predecessor David Riccitiello was very well-liked and respected in the area. Has it been difficult for you to fill his shoes? A: I had the honor of being reassigned out here approximately a year before he left, so I got to work with him hand in hand on many of his team programming. I feel like much of what I’m doing now is implementing many of the visions that he had initiated here. But did I feel any pressure? No. My charge was to continue the momentum that he had established here. The most important thing is to continue the momentum and to fill the vacant positions and to provide excellent customer service. We need to complete our nine priority projects that actually create jobs and support affordable housing. Q: When Economic Alliance President and CEO Bruce Ackerman was recently named to the board of the CRA, he said that the organization should target smaller areas and specific buildings. His logic was that it’s difficult to get projects in motion when a large area is targeted. Do you agree? A: I absolutely agree with him. There are certain communities that require a more neighborhood approach and there are areas in North Hollywood where we’re embarking on a neighborhood improvement strategy to improve sidewalks, streets, curbs, gutters and lighting. Our neighborhoods definitely require investment and by focusing on the smaller projects we can help preserve and enhance them. Q: How has the composition and makeup of the CRA changed since Antonio Villaraigosa became mayor? Is the attitude and atmosphere different? A: Well, our former CEO Bud Ovrom is now deputy mayor now and it has certainly changed the organization in that way. I think there are certain defining priorities that the mayor has articulated, one of them is the issue of affordable housing in our city. Another issue is to become the greenest and cleanest big city in America. Our goal is to plant a million trees and now we’re doing a tree count at the CRA to make sure that our city is more attractive. The mayor has also stressed turning diversity into dollars. Our city is tremendously diverse with 100 languages being spoken and he wants us to thrive on new technology and new industry. His plans are leading us to focus on becoming a more vertical city, one that’s denser and taller. He’s also concerned that construction takes place along the mass transit lines, which many of our projects are being built along. Q: What is your vision for the future of the Valley? How do you want it to look? What would you like your legacy to be? A: Our community is known as the Valley of the Stars and I want to make our community diverse and offer a wide range of amenities in terms of arts, entertainment, shopping, dining and public open spaces for our children. I want to continue to preserve all the natural beauty that exists because I want it to have a distinct sense of identity. Margarita De Escontrias Title: Regional Administrator of the East Valley Organization: CRA Los Angeles Born: October 1953, Los Angeles Education: B.A. music and Chicano studies, M.A., music, University of California, Riverside Career Turning Point: When I shifted from the non-profit sector to the public sector in 1985 Most Admired People: Cesar Chavez Hobbies: Music and performing Personal: Married, one daughter

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