While most of the city spent recent years punch drunk on the revenues and profits of the real estate boom, the CRA/LA was busy preparing for the inevitable downturn. Now the CRA/LA is well-positioned to leverage that preparation into the type of smart growth and transit-oriented development that can establish new standards for quality of life in the city's most neglected neighborhoods. In order to better understand the CRA/LA's strategies for redevelopment in such a vast and complex city, TPR was pleased to speak with CRA/LA General Manager Cecilia Estolano.
At the mayoral housing summit this month, you mentioned that the CRA/LA has changed from a passive to an active agency. Can you elaborate on that characterization? What specific actions with relation to housing have marked this transition?
I've always thought that redevelopment is really an activist activity. Our whole mission is not only to anticipate market forces, but to try to shape market forces. While this market is in an uncertain territory, that means we're even more important.
So we anticipated that this could happen-that eventually all of the high prices and increased appreciation of values might slow down-and created something called an acquisition fund, where we pooled the CRA/LA's scarce general revenue that was not tied to any redevelopment fund requirements or low-and moderate-income housing fund requirements. We collected the money from all of the different parts of the agency and created a $23 million land acquisition fund. Its purpose is to help the project areas that don't have resources to purchase strategic parcels that can become catalytic developments or part of a catalytic development site. The City Council approved the creation of that acquisition fund in our last budget, and we have already begun to move forward on a couple of projects, one of which is the acquisition of the Westlake Theatre and much of the block surrounding the Westlake Theatre. We think it's going to be an exciting, mixed-use, catalytic project right on the Metro line, perfectly located to implement our vision of how TODs should be developed.
There are a couple of other projects in the pipeline that we're going to be bringing to our board that will receive some acquisition fund money. This is the kind of thing I'm talking about, where we don't quite have the developer lined up yet, but we know this is an important parcel, key to redeveloping that project area, and we will do our best to assemble the land necessary to make it a viable development site.
We've also really looked at an emphasis of external resources, whether it's Prop 1C money, Metro call for projects money, or physical struggle earmarks, we are looking at other sources of funds so we are able to go in and be active participants in the marketplace. That's that kind of changing orientation that I'm talking about. We know our project areas better than anybody. Our project managers know every square foot of their project areas. They have great relationships with brokers and with property owners, and when one of these key sites becomes available, we want to be in the position to move on it quickly, acquire the site, and make it available to the development team for a catalytic project.
When TPR interviewed you in September of last year, you mentioned that the mayor had charged you with a special focus on South Los Angeles. What are the major CRA/LA projects going on in that part of the city, and what characterizes the CRA/LA's work there?
South Los Angeles really comprises three of our regions: it's a portion of the Downtown region, the South Los Angeles region, and the Wilshire/Crenshaw/Hollywood/Central region. In the Downtown region, we have the CD 9 Corridors project area that is doing a tremendous job. We have a mixed-use development at Adams and Central. They're going to have a grocery store as well as affordable housing. They're moving forward, and we're very excited about that. In Watts, CRA/LA has funded the Imani Fe affordable housing project that also has Community Development block grant funding, which we see as part of the mayor's South Los Angeles focus. That's in construction now. We also have the Vermont Seniors Project at Vermont and Figueroa that is about 87 percent complete. It's going to be a wonderful asset to the community.
In the Central area, along the Exposition Line and the Crenshaw Corridor, we're working with our partners at West Angeles CDC to try to help them master plan their campus. We're also working with Gabay on a project right at the future Exposition Line site at Crenshaw and Exposition on a commercial with crucial office development that's really going to bring much-needed jobs and retail opportunities to the community. We're looking all up and down the Crenshaw Corridor for opportunities to make that the gateway to South Los Angeles.
We're also very excited about plans to situate and enhance retail opportunities at the Crenshaw Baldwin Hills Mall. We hope to make an announcement with the developers, current owners, and the new owners of the property in the coming months. This is the kind of an enhanced retail/office/mixed-use focus that we're looking for in South Los Angeles.
Thirty-two of 59 TODs are now located in CRA/LA project areas. What is the importance of CRA/LA's role in the TOD areas, and how is CRA/LA working to maximize the utility of these developments?
We really view ourselves as the transit-oriented development agency of the city, it is no coincidence that the most important TODs in this city are located in redevelopment project areas. We can leverage our tax increment financing with funds made available through Prop 1C: both the transit-oriented development pot of money, with about $300 million, as well as $850 million of in-fill money, also made available through Prop 1C. We've worked very closely with the Planning Department, the Los Angeles Housing Department, Recs and Parks, and a number of other city departments to come up with plans around the top 12-15 TODs.
We're trying to position the city to be very competitive in pulling down the state money. We've worked very closely with the Speaker's office and Majority Leader Karen Bass' office on legislation and ensuring that the guidelines coming from the HDB give Los Angeles its fair share of TOD money.
We're also trying to leverage our investment in infrastructure around these TODs so that we can be more competitive. We view ourselves as an agency that can pull together all these loose parts, because we don't just build houses, we don't just build traffic centers, and we don't just build parks. We care about all those elements coming together in an integrated plan.
We're coordinators and drivers, coming up with projects that will be competitive, whether infrastructure or development, along these TODs, identifying parcels, and using every source of funding you could imagine to secure those parcels, secure sites, and to build the TODs that will maximize the benefit of this public investment. We want the TODs to have a mix of retails, to have a mix of uses, to be pedestrian friendly, to have outstanding urban design, and to promote the use of transit.
One of the goals and objectives of the CRA/LA is to increase the affordable housing supply and to stimulate economic development. For years, there has been a tussle between those in favor of housing and those in favor of the preservation of industrial land sites. Can we have both? Has CRA/LA found consensus on planning policy?
We think it's really about getting back to the basics of planning. We, along with our counterparts in the Planning Department, went out and surveyed the industrial districts of Los Angeles, parcel-by-parcel, block-by-block, to get an understanding of on-the-ground uses: the areas that could be preserved, that should be preserved, that had integrity as industrial areas, and those that had already converted. It's our view that once an industrial property is turned over to residential, it's gone forever, and that means jobs that are gone forever. So, with scarce resources for industrial-zoned property, it's essential that each opportunity to convert be evaluated against the backdrop of the entire city's economic development.
We did extensive public outreach over the last year, and we hope to have final recommendations presented to Gail Goldberg, myself, and our board, about practices we might adopt when we are evaluating proposals to convert industrial property to residential.
With the current uncertainty in the marketplace, we may see fewer of these proposals. Because it's not a red-hot market for some of these conversions anymore, there may be less pressure to convert industrial property.
The important thing is that we analyze this as planning professionals and economic development professionals. We're trying to give the policy makers something of substance-an objective analysis of how we balance the need for housing with the need to retain and grow jobs in the city of Los Angeles. I think we've done amazing work, and perhaps most extraordinary for the city of L.A. is that we have two departments working closely together with shared values.
The CRA/LA and the Planning Department invited Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba and governor of Parana, to talk about what he's done to build a sustainable, thriving metropolis that preserves jobs and provides a livable community. Why did you bring him to L.A., and what is L.A. doing in that venue in light of the fact that you're joining us for the GreenXChange Conference in December on that same topic?
We brought Jaime Lerner because we have to look at examples from other parts of the world. We grow and learn in Los Angeles by looking outwards, not always looking inwards. I think Jaime Lerner provided a wonderful opportunity for the people of the city to be inspired by the example of another city in another region. In fact, our planners, both from the Planning Department and CRA/LA, had an opportunity to spend some time with Jaime Lerner in a small setting. They had a real give-and-take about some of their ideas, and I received so much feedback from our planners on how much they appreciated the chance to talk to a real international leader in sustainable development.
Since I came to CRA/LA, I've made urban sustainability a core value of the agency, and since we've done that, the creativity of our planners has just blossomed. We've seen people come up with ways for a new park in areas like Hollywood and South Los Angeles. Everyone in the agency is really doing what they can to support the mayor's Million Trees Initiative, both in what we put our money into and what we're asking developers to put on their projects. We have a beautiful canopy in every CRA project area.
But more importantly, we are systematically going project-by-project, TOD-by-TOD, looking to develop urban design guidelines that should make the kind of sustainable, walkable Los Angeles that must be our future if we are to continue to grow and thrive. We recently adopted new street standards and design guidelines for the Downtown area, which should defray costs for the development, architecture, and urban design community. Similarly in North Hollywood, we recently adopted urban design guidelines. But we warn developers that if you build density, then they must provide additional affordable housing or LEED Silver in the projects.
So we're trying to make urban sustainability a value essential to the agency. That's driven through every decision that we make as an agency, as a development partner, and as a planning agency. The wonderful thing is that we have this terrific partnership with the Planning Department, where we share funds, we share planners, and we work with the design studio. We work collaboratively in a way that I really don't think has ever been done between our agencies. There is tremendous respect between our planners and the planners at the Planning Department. They will rearrange their priority areas so they're our priority areas-South Los Angeles is first in line to get an updated community plan. These are the kind of things we do to make urban sustainability a core focus for the agency.