OPINION: Meet Compton’s mayoral candidate Aja Brown

By Melissa Hebert

Aja Brown is a second-generation resident of Compton who has entered the municipal elections for Mayor of the City of Compton. Brown has an extensive background in planning and has experience working for Compton’s redevelopment agency.

imageAja Brown

Please state your name and time as a resident in the City of Compton, and which district you reside in?
Aja Brown, second-generation Compton resident. I reside in District 2.

What makes you qualified to run for the seat you wish to fill?
I have over 10 years of community development and economic development experience working with the municipalities of Gardena, Inglewood, Pasadena (former Planning Commissioner) and the City of Compton’s redevelopment agency. I am an urban planner by educational training. I graduated from the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, Planning and Development, and hold a B.S. in Policy, Planning and Development and a Master’s in Planning – emphasis Economic Development. [Read more…]

New vision of Slauson Avenue in South Los Angeles

Residents in South Los Angeles gathered together Monday evening to share their fondest memories of being on Slauson Avenue, while proposing a vision of what they see Slauson becoming, at Junior Blind of America’s center.

The meeting, held in partnership with LA Commons and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, was to help shape the development of the Slauson Corridor Revitalization Project, spearheaded by the Office of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. image

“I don’t want to go to Culver City to get a nice sandwich. I want to go right here, where we are and have a sense of pride in it,” said resident Roy Wheatle.

Everyone at the meeting agreed that they wanted the new Slauson Corridor, between Overhill Drive and Angeles Vista Boulevard, to offer more shopping and outdoor dining experiences, along with a pedestrian friendly atmosphere.

Karly Katona, deputy for sustainability for the office of Mark Ridley-Thomas, said making a livable, walkable community requires the input of its residents.

She said it was essential for those involved in the planning process to receive feedback from residents and local business owners to understand their needs and wants.

Erin Stennis, deputy to Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, added that it would have been impossible for the district to implement changes without feedback from the community. image

“This is a community that has traditionally been engaged,” said Stennis.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the revitalization is also an effort to “bring value to the land use and space.”

“My role is essentially one to catalyze the process, to attract attention to it and make investments into it with the resources of Los Angeles County,” said Ridley-Thomas.

He added that the project was not a publicly funded project, but one that uses the public’s input to help attract private investors.

“We are teeing this up in a way that is worthy of this environment…I don’t see that to be a pipe dream,” said Ridley-Thomas. “This is going to be an emerging market that will not be ignored.”

A portion of the meeting was dedicated to hearing development plans from student-led teams at USC and UCLA, as part of a real estate challenge organized by the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) and sponsored by Ridley-Thomas.

The challenge is a 6-week case competition where students from both schools are tasked with solving a development issue, such as the Slauson Corridor.

This is the 15th year the challenge has taken place between UCLA and USC tied with 7 wins each, which makes the Slauson project a tie-breaker competition, according to Ridley-Thomas.

The winning team has not been announced, but residents applauded both schools for the research put into their presentation.

Both teams proposed a space that would seamlessly mix dining and retail shops with senior independent living.

USC proposed a two-story parking structure with multiple entrances for residents and visitors.

UCLA had surface level parking citing that many grocery stores preferred it to structured parking due to safety and its ease of access. image

For residents, the most anticipated portion of both presentations was hearing the possibility of specialty retail grocery store, Trader Joe’s, making its home inside the renovated corridor.

USC believed the area had the potential to attract Trader Joe’s.

While UCLA said based on their meetings with the company, it would be difficult and proposed building a Lazy Acres Market, an upscale grocery store chain operated by Bristol Farms, which caused some in the crowd to become upset.

Ridley-Thomas pointed out that it was important for residents to have not one but several choices in where they would like to shop.

The next meeting, discussing the environmental impact report for the Slauson Avenue streetscape, is scheduled to take place on Monday, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. at Junior Blind of America.

Town and Gown Disagree about the New University Master Plan

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imageThe new plans call for a mixed-use development with retail space on the ground floor and student housing above. The housing is especially important, because USC students have moved into housing that would have been rented by local families. The proposed housing units in the new development should return 900 units to the community, according to the Master Plan for University Village. However, this may not bring the expected benefits to the neighborhood. Paulina Gonzalez, Executive Director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), a South Los Angeles community housing and economic development group, said,

“…even though the analysis that the university has released says that there’ll be 900 units
that will be released back to the community, those units have been lost [from] the rent
stabilization ordinance, so previously, where they might have been affordable to local families,
now they’re no longer under rent control—those rents can actually be significantly higher than
when they were initially lost.”

SAJE also has concerns that local merchants currently in the Village will not find a place in the new development. Akim Alam, owner of Quik Pix, a photo shop and portrait studio which has been in the Village for 30 years, echoed these concerns:

“Well, it isn’t a priority or nothing like that , so whenever they are done [with rebuilding], they
[the merchants] can apply…but that doesn’t guarantee nothing. It doesn’t matter how long you
have been over here doing business…you’re just like any other people.”

Information given by the University to merchants like Alam states that 160,000 square feet will be allotted for ground-floor retail space and 400,000 square feet for academic needs and conference spaces. That’s a 40% increase over the amount for retail. The Master Plan projects that the redevelopment will generate $1.7 million dollars in tax revenue.

University Village is owned by USC. It was created in the 1960s, when the City of Los Angeles used its powers of eminent domain to claim land for the university. Such a heavy-handed approach has left a legacy of distrust in the neighborhood which underlies the skepticism about the benefits of the new development. The new project will be paid for completely out of private funding and will not claim any land not already owned by the university.
A further concern of SAJE, Alam, and other merchants interviewed for this piece is that they have not been an integral part of developing the plan. David Galaviz, USC’s representative for local government relations, said that the community has been deeply involved, with over 100 public meetings held between 2007 and 2009. Community members, both for and against the development, were able to give feedback at these meetings throughout the planning process.

The redevelopment is now slated to start in 2013 and is expected to take six to ten years to complete. Merchants currently in the Village do not know if they’ll be relocated during the building process.

City approves plans to redevelop hotel in downtown Los Angeles

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The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to approve plans for a massive redevelopment of the Wilshire Grand Hotel. After two years of planning, a 13-1 vote approved plans for a groundbreaking development in downtown Los Angeles. The estimated $1.2 billion project will include a 45-story reconstruction of the Wilshire Grand Hotel with an accompanying 65-story office building.

image “I’m really amazed at how anyone could be opposed to this,” Councilman Dennis Zine said. “How anyone in their right mind would be opposed to this project that’s going to bring jobs, economy and help downtown Los Angeles.”

The agreement is between the city and two private companies, Thomas Properties and Korean Air. Council member Jan Perry says the project will bring in $22 million a year for the city’s general fund in 2015. Developers say it will bring in more than 7,000 construction jobs and 6,000 permanent jobs. The head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Maria Elena Durazo, is in full support.

“We ask you to not only support it, but to hold it up as an example that we want all employers and all developers to follow,” Durazo said.

The city council’s plans were met with some skepticism. Digital signage and LED lighting would cover the two huge buildings from top to bottom. Barbara Broide of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight said the signs could create a safety hazard to motorists on the 110 Freeway.

“You have abdicated your responsibility to protect our safety from these signs that are designed to catch the attention of all who pass,” Broide said.

The vast majority of the audience in city hall, however, was excited about the redevelopment.

“I just spoke to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and they both support this project,” said Kevin Norton, member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The existing Wilshire Grand Hotel is set to be demolished in December as part of the approved agreement.

Urban economics: the mystery of industrial vacancy in South Los Angeles

This story was developed by Eddie North-Hager of Leimert Park Beat and funded by Spot.us. View the original project on Spot.us.

Austin Beutner, the first deputy mayor of Los Angeles and the city’s economy chief, noted the irony: Fresh & Easy has opened up three inner-city grocery stores while Safeway, based in Pleasanton, and Trader Joe’s, with headquarters in Monrovia, watch on the sidelines.

“It takes a company from the U.K. to see the opportunity in the L.A. marketplace,” said Beutner, referring to Tesco, the British parent company of Fresh & Easy.

To Brendan Wonnacott, communications manager for the neighborhood market chain, said it was just good business to open grocery stores at South Central Avenue and Adams Boulevard in South Los Angeles, in Glassell Park in northeast Los Angeles and in Compton.

“The stores make money. Some of them are among our top performers,” Wonnacott said. “The bottom line: it made sense.”

The south portion of Los Angeles encompasses about 40 square mile and is home to nearly a million people. Yet it’s essentially bereft of many of the retailers that others around the city take for granted.

Innocuous numbers perhaps. But taking density into the equation, South L.A.’s annual income earned per acre is somewhere around four times higher than for the city as a whole: $350,000 a year per acre on average, compared with $91,000 per acre citywide.

The vacancy rate for office properties during the first quarter of 2004 for South Los Angeles was 5 percent, compared to 16.1 percent for Los Angeles County. For industrial space, the vacancy rate for South L.A. was only 1.2 percent compared to 3.3 percent for L.A. County.

The 2004 figures were the latest available.

The facts will surprise you

“The results are surprising,” wrote Jack Kyser, author of the report that included the vacancy rate findings. “The South Los Angeles area’s low vacancy rates do indicate a healthy ‘demand’ for space in the area.”

And though South Los Angeles residents account for 32 percent of the city’s total population, only about 28 percent of the city’s crime occurred within the area – meaning the amount of crime in South L.A. is less than its proportionate share when evaluating by population size.

“Crime rates in South L.A., therefore, are disproportionately low, which is in sharp contrast to many perceptions,” noted the South Los Angeles Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, which defines South Los Angeles as including Wilmington and San Pedro.

The document, prepared for the city of Los Angeles went on: “Many neighborhoods within South L.A. endure long-standing negative images of high crime rates and must begin economic development programs and activities with an effort to correct misperceptions.”

The current director of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, Nancy Sidhu, said these numbers must be pushed out.

“Safety and security” are important, Sidhu said. “The media is reporting and the people are reading about cops and robbers and killings and they are calling out South L.A. a lot.”

“If the numbers are coming down, accentuate the positive. It’s time to call out that set of facts. Who’s been out telling them this about South L.A.?”

Who indeed. Crime in all of Los Angeles is at a rate that hasn’t been seen in 50 years.

In 1992 approximately 1,200 people were murdered in Los Angeles and nearly 600 in 2001. Last year that number plummeted to 314. Boston, Phoenix, Ariz., and Omaha, Neb., have similar numbers per capita.

There are dozens of reports and studies over the past decade that research the economic plight of South Los Angeles. Sometimes the numbers are bad, such as unemployment and the Census-derived median income, which has been criticized. But most of the numbers were average. Some were good.

The reports stated the facts but didn’t always analyze the numbers, often not providing the context to show whether they were good, bad or indifferent.

Ignore the numbers, listen to your gut

The numbers all retailers pay close attention to are the total number of households and household income.

Retailers also commonly cite two other barriers to investing in inner-city neighborhoods: land availability and evidence of market demand for a particular business.

That’s in general. In urban areas the recipe changes, according to anonymous interviews the nonprofit Social Compact conducted for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“All interviewees agree that, in urban areas, determining a site’s suitability involves not only income or the number of households per se. … (That is) in addition to social characteristics such as home ownership, educational attainment and average household size, as well as physical characteristics concerning traffic, access, visibility and nearby competitors.”

And don’t forget the gut instinct. The study, “Inside Site Selections: Retailers’ Search for Strategic Business Locations,” confirmed that locations depend, “in large part, on retailers’ intuition and experience in particular markets and the field.”

A number of researchers have found that banks and supermarkets opt to not locate in poorer zip codes, leading the authors to conclude “retail locational decision may hinge on facts in addition to an area’s market potential.”

What sealed the deal for Fresh & Easy was a bus tour where the executives got out, talked to people and visited a dry cleaner, Wonnacott said.

Go with what you know

Personal experience is key, Ken Lombard agrees. Lombard knows more than most about investing in the inner city because he’s been doing it for 18 years, first with retired Lakers star Magic Johnson’s host of businesses and now as president of Capri Urban Investors, which owns the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza.

People who are not from South Los Angeles cannot make a “60,000-foot look” from an airplane and decide to invest in South L.A.

“You have to get them in the car and drive through the neighborhoods – Leimert Park, Ladera Heights, View Park, Inglewood,” Lombard said. “They walk away with an entirely different perception.”

For Keyshawn Johnson, the former USC and retired NFL wide receiver, it wasn’t a difficult decision to invest in South L.A.

“It is his neighborhood; it’s where he’s from,” said Jerome Stanley, Johnson’s lawyer and business partner. “He believes the area is underserved and rich in opportunities.”

Johnson was an investor in Chesterfield Square, an early foray into the L.A. inner city that attracted a Home Depot, IHOP and a Starbucks, on the corner of South Western and West Slauson avenues. Stanley said it’s natural for people with money to invest in the areas they know. And rare is the case where the inner-city investor is the lead on a large project and decides where the money goes.

“Where does capital come from? The source already has an affiliation from a certain area,” Stanley said. “So it makes sense.”

One solution, Stanley said, is a campaign by the city to show investors where a retail presence would work, both by the numbers and the location.

“You have to make people aware it makes sense,” Stanley said. “To a degree that is a subsidy. When you show them land, now they save the money because they don’t have to look for the land.”

Carson Mayor Jim Dear knows all too well the importance of shepherding the deal in an area considered urban or ethnic. He believes his middle-class city of 90,000 can support sit-down restaurants, movie theaters and more but since there’s a dearth of options, they all drive to other nearby cities to spend most of their money. And the retailers know it.

Despite a regional mall with a Target, Sears and an Ikea, restaurants like Red Lobster told him that to keep their Lakewood and Torrance locations thriving, they weren’t planning on opening in Carson. “They didn’t want to pirate their customers,” Dear said.

A chance encounter at a charity benefit with Magic Johnson led to seven Starbucks opening in Carson. And a face-to-face during the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas led to a Chili’s restaurant.

The Chili’s was Carson’s first sit-down restaurant in 17 years and it ranks as one of the chain’s top five performers out of 800 restaurants. Despite the success, the city has only managed to attract two small area restaurants in the five years since.

The bright side of South L.A.

Inglewood’s Century Boulevard is a bustling thoroughfare of big-box stores and restaurants. Compton has a Target and T.G.I. Friday’s. Plans are in the early stages for a Target and a Fresh & Easy on Crenshaw Boulevard.

“It’s not as much as I’d like to see, but it’s the beginning of a track record and a story,” Lombard said. “We are not moving farther way, we are moving closer.”

And the table is set for Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza to renovate the old Magic Johnson movie theater and have a national chain run it again, which Lombard recently announced. The movie house, the only one for miles around, opened to great fanfare 15 years ago. But sorely needed technical updating and remodeling when it was closed in May.

“Doing deals in urban locations is not easy,” Lombard said. “But I like to look at the brighter side.”

The partnership with Rave Motion Pictures was months in the works and many in the community worried that the delay in finding a replacement operator meant the theater would not re-open.

“We could have stayed with the existing operator, but we opted to say no and continue with the commitment that the residents of this community have the finest entertainment experience,” Lombard said. “There were risks.

“But most developers don’t understand the sophistication of this customer base. L.A. is a mobile city. If you don’t provide the best experience, they will drive to a location that will.”

There is a much larger benefit than pure convenience in having these amenities close to residents who would patronize them. Jobs are created. It’s better for the environment. The money spent locally has a better chance of staying locally.

“Local private amenities such as grocery stores, restaurants, banking facilities and other retail services, can also have important quality of life implications for neighborhood residents,” according to “Bodegas or Bagel Shops: Neighborhood Differences in Retail and Household Services.”

Clint Rosemond of the Leimert Park building improvement district was succinct in his assessment.

“People in this community are hungry for places to spend money locally.”

Proposition 22 chooses local projects over statewide programs


By: Chris Foy

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Read the audio script:

If Proposition 22 passes, tax revenue decisions would be in the hands of city and county officials. Right now, the state government can choose where fuel and property tax revenue goes. This revenue usually supports schools and other social services in the form of state-issued bonds. But Proposition 22 would stop the state from using tax revenues to pay for bonds. Because of fiscal problems, many local budgets are in the red.

Proposition 22 would fund new and exiting highways, roads, transit systems and redevelopment projects with money from the general fund, instead of gasoline tax revenue. Supporters say transportation and other incomplete projects would finally be guaranteed funding. Mountain View Councilman Mike Kasperzak is one of the local officials who supports Proposition 22. In an online video advertisement, he said he does not want local tax dollars leaving his community.

Kasperzak: Why should the state be able to come and steal our money to balance their budget? I can’t go to my neighbor’s house and rob his piggy bank to pay my bills. It’s the same thing.

Proposition 22 would take an estimated $1 billion from the general fund to pay toward transportation debt and redevelopment projects. That is out of nearly $6 billion a year from fuel tax revenue alone. The legislative analyst’s office breakdown on Proposition 22 says by putting the burden on general fund, the state will have less money in turn to spend on everything else.

Opponents of Proposition 22 say this means over $400 million would be drained from public schools each year if the initiative passes. Elaine Manley of the Cupertino-Sunnyvale League of Women Voters said in a video analysis that prop 22 would increase pressure on the general fund.

Manley: The proponents, cities and local public safety officials want local government budgets to be under less strain and feel that transportation issues have taken a back seat for too long. The opponents, teachers and statewide public safety officials feel the general fund is in such a crisis that this loss of flexibility will have dire results for those social services funded from the general fund, and that redevelopment agencies should not be favored over those social services.

Proposition 22 brings up an argument over California’s only pot of money. The debate is over what is more important: state programs or local projects.