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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2023

INTERVIEW – Massive Overhaul

Massive Overhaul L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency head Robert ‘Bud’ Ovrom is redeveloping the unwieldy organization itself as he seeks to improve CRA’s poor reputation and bring it closer to the areas it serves By BRAD SMITH Staff Reporter Robert “Bud” Ovrom knew the reputation the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency had when he agreed to take the agency’s top spot in 2003. The CRA, which had spearheaded the redevelopment of Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, had lost staffing and funding in subsequent decades. Among Ovrom’s peers in public administration, the CRA’s projects were known as “poster children for failure” he says. The agency had a portfolio of projects and properties, many of them little more than vacant lots, scattered from San Pedro to the San Fernando Valley. In the aftermath of the Valley secession effort, which turned on calls that the city’s suburban neighborhoods had been neglected in favor of downtown, the demand from Mayor James Hahn to the City Council to the CRA board was for action. And Ovrom, the former city manager of Burbank, responded. In the past 18 months, he has de-centralized the agency, moving staff and resources in seven regional offices across the city, each led by a regional manager without civil service protection; and he has shepherded a reorganization plan that was strongly opposed by public employee unions through arbitration and the agency’s board, which voted 3-2 to approve it in August. The reorganization should go to the city council this month, for consideration in committee, with a full council vote this fall. Question: What was your reaction to the vote? Answer: I wish it had been a larger margin of support but in Los Angeles a win is a win. I feel good about the council; I think we’ll do well at the committee and good at the council. Q: What are the unions’ concerns? A: We have reached a tentative agreement with the unions; their position has been long and hard against it for the regional administrators not being part of the union. There was a big battle over that, but they lost that in arbitration. Their feeling was they were against the inconvenience or loss of prestige previously all their people were always being headquartered down here (in downtown Los Angeles’ Banco Popular building) and now they’d have to go to Pacoima or Watts. Q: Not that the Banco Popular isn’t a nice old building, but A: They shouldn’t feel so prestigious being here. But now that (the regional managers) have their own region, they are going to take NoHo and really move. Q: Do you expect any opposition at council? A: No, but I want people to know this is happening and it’s taken me 17 damn months to get here but you never know, in L.A. you never know. Q: If you get structure the way you want it, how long until Joe and Jane Taxpayer or Resident or both should be seeing some difference in these areas, that you talk about as poster children for failure? A: We’ve been doing de facto things even though we haven’t had the organization totally approved. I moved David Riccitiello (who worked on the Staples Center project in downtown Los Angeles) out to North Hollywood almost a year ago and I think in the Valley we’re making great strides. I think you’re going to see the NoHo stuff really get going, (developer) Jerry Snyder’s NoHo Commons (project) really get going now that it’s under construction and I really think we’re going to see the (former) Black and Decker site in Pacoima take off this year. I think we’re going to see the Kmart Montgomery Ward site in Panorama City take off this year, so I think were going to start seeing tangible examples this year. You’re going to see the results of this start happening very fast.” Q: But isn’t the history of CRA mixed? A: It’s just amazing to me the black eyes we carry. As an example, we have one parcel in San Pedro, the heart of San Pedro, right next to the Sheraton Hotel in downtown San Pedro. The redevelopment agency bought the land and scraped it for redevelopment 30 years ago. It has sat there vacant for 30 years! It’s just mind boggling to me. Q: Why has nothing happened there even though it’s near the water and in the mayor’s neighborhood? A: It takes us a while to get ready, until the economy is real strong. Then they start talking to developers, we finally develop a project, but by the time we’re ready to sign the documents the economy goes south and the project dies. Q: What is that land zoned for? A: It’s zoned for commercial, so they were planning movie theaters when the movie chain theater market busted 3-4 years ago, so it had been through those cycles. Then they were talking about offices and the office market dropped out on them , so they’ve been through the mill but 30 years? We will see that parcel under construction this year. Q: What is going to be there? A: There will be a mixed-use project with retail and commercial on the ground floor and residential on the top floors. It’s not going to be movie theaters, and it’s not going to be office buildings, but you can make it fly as a mixed-use project that keeps the village downtown with retail at the ground level. What really works in today’s market is housing; we can build housing everywhere all the time and so I think that is a good project. Q: So what’s the payoff for residents? A: I think projects that have festered for a long time, whether it’s in San Pedro, or North Hollywood, or Pacoima, or Panorama City, you’re going to see it happen in the East Valley, all that coming to fruition. Q: And in the West Valley? A: In the West Valley it’s not as urban and blighted as some of our areas, but you go there and they have the Reseda Theater, which is a shell of a building, and it’s been a shell of a building since the (1994 Northridge) earthquake. We’re going after that building, if we have to go after through condemnation or whatever we’re going to make something happen. I don’t know if we can get movie theaters in there but we can get mixed use, we can get residential and we can get commercial, Q: Talking about housing and mixed use, that’s a benefit, but you’re really not adding new jobs, you’re just adding to the burdens on services of additional denser population. Wouldn’t these areas be better served with schools, parks or libraries? A: In North Hollywood the vision they had for NoHo was they were going to build big office buildings and big studios and they were going to make NoHo a destination in terms of big commercial development and that’s not going to happen. I think each community has to carve out its own niche and find out what it can be. I think North Hollywood can be a destination in terms of a nice place to live and a nice place to shop, but it’s not going to be an employment generating base. It’s a transit center; most of the people are still going to get on that Red Line in the morning and go to Hollywood or go to Downtown to work and then come back to a very pleasant place to live, shop, or entertain. It is like Reseda I don’t see Reseda itself or Canoga Park being a big employment generator, but I think you will have nice communities, and if you go to Warner Center, they do have a lot of employment right next to Canoga Park. Q: You have some projects that are obviously designed to bring better quality of life to existing neighborhoods, which is fine, but what’s the thinking in terms of how the CRA can make jobs come to Los Angeles? A: We are doing that; there are areas where you will see jobs, including Downtown, where we are reserving land for future development. The downtown housing boom is so great, we have 8,000 units in the mill, so why are we sitting on (a given) downtown parcel, why don’t we develop that for residential ? The response is we’re waiting for the downtown office market to come back and when it does we’ll be able to say we have that land. Q: So where is the jobs growth through CRA going to be in the Valley? A: There are areas where there will be jobs; in Panorama City we’re working with the Voit Company with the rest of the stuff behind The Plant (development). In North Hollywood, were making sure everything doesn’t convert to residential, we’re doing an office (project) pad. SNAPSHOT: Robert “Bud” Ovrom Title: CEO, Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency Age: 59 Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, University of California, Santa Barbara Most Admired Person: Wife, Denise Career turning point: Peace Corps tour in Guatemala, 1967-70 Personal: Married, two daughters

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