Public Risks and Private Profits

Los Angeles plays host this week to the annual meeting of the Urban Land Institute, a national organization of private entrepreneurs and public officials dedicated to development. These are the people who, for better or worse, generally shape our cityscapes.

It is the private entrepreneurs who turn realtors loose to assemble sites, who hire architects and tell them what to design; who support politicians through generous campaign contributions, and who pay for the lawyers to finesse needed zoning and environmental approvals.

For them, ULI is a clearing house of sorts for business and political contacts, common concerns and, on occasion, enlightened strategies to various problems plaguing our cities today.

As for the public officials who belong to ULI, they tend to be the ones who embrace developers and let them pick up the tabs for drinks and dinners beyond the pale of their expense accounts.

But all is not play at the conferences. The officials recognize well that their future depends on getting the private sector to build things that generate jobs, pay taxes and pad their bureaucracies, as well as pleasing the politicians who oversee their agencies and who might be indebted to a developer or two, or three.

In addition, today's public official often is tomorrow's private developer, or at least a well-paid consultant to one. This tends to make ULI a big family, and mutual back scratching, along with some backbiting, an informal conference activity more important than the formal program.

Put another way, there is a lot of buttering of both sides of the bread at ULI gatherings. It is in these sessions that the private/public partnership, the recent popular catch phrase for development, was once defined for me as projects in which the public sector takes the risks through granting land write-downs, zoning bonuses and tax abatements and the private sector takes the profits.

To be sure, this does not mean that what comes out of the deals struck at ULI conferences or elsewhere under the banner of private/public partnerships are necessarily bad.

Indeed, there is a recognition in the more responsible segment of the development community that projects to be successful really must work for the public good as well as for private interests; that doing good can be translated into making good. This is a point that ULI has emphasized in its prestigious awards program.

Beyond the awards is the cold fact that the toughest judge of projects these days tends not to be loan committees, architectural juries, planning commissions or city councils, but rather the marketplace. It is just too bad that some bombs of buildings have to be constructed to prove how wrong developers, financiers, critics and public officials can be.

Actually, for the development community, these buildings are worse than bad.

Once scarred by a gross mini-mall, a ticky-tacky apartment house and an overscaled office block, local communities are not prone to look sympathetically at sensitively designed projects that just might serve them and their neighbors well.

The situation is often further exacerbated by private developers and public officials who consider the targeted local communities the enemy, to be manipulated, coerced or co-opted. In their short-term goals of ramming a plan or a project through, they don't seem to realize that the communities consist of users and voters, who, in the long run, have the last say.

As a result, private/public partnerships in these days of increasing community concerns over development teeter between self-interest and self-destruction, with the ULI trying to hold the line.

While the concept of private/public partnerships most likely will be aired at the ULI conference, it is being put to the test in various forms and in various Los Angeles communities.

In Center City West, bounded by the Harbor and Hollywood freeways, Olympic Boulevard and Witmer Avenue, a coalition of commercial interests there, in cooperation with the city, is sponsoring the development of a comprehensive urban design and land-use plan. The coalition is at present rounding up the usual suspects to decide who will conduct the effort.

A little further west in the Wilshire Center area, bounded by 3rd, 8th and Alvarado streets and Wilton Place, a coalition known as the Wilshire Stakeholders is sponsoring a more modest planning effort. It is being dutifully conducted by the Urban Innovations Group (UIG) out of UCLA.

Of concern is that funding of the efforts is coming mostly from the private sector, in particular from commercial interests in the area that can substantially benefit from subtle shifts in zoning and land-use patterns.

This is somewhat like the situation that a few years ago sank a privately sponsored UIG plan for the Mid-Wilshire area, and, more recently, cast a shadow over Hollywood Redevelopment program, where major property owners loaned the city's Community Redevelopment Agency money to fund the planning effort.

While property owners have a right to act to improve their investments, whether directly through a zoning change or indirectly through a general plan, there is the question of the greater public good being pursued, if not simply protected. A dangerous precedent can be set if the prerogatives of public planning in the interest of expediency are turned over to the private sector, no matter how altruistic.

In the formula for private/public partnerships, the public must dominate. So far in the shaping of the Center City West effort the office of Councilwoman Gloria Molina seems to understand this and is holding the reins. We trust her grip will be strong.

The Stakeholders present a similar challenge to Councilmen John Ferraro and Nate Holden, and to the targeted residential community. It is hoped that they will be able to assert themselves in the planning process, for the sake of the credibility of the private interests involved, and of UIG, as well as the plan itself.

Farther west, in a private/public effort of another sort, the Santa Monica Arts Foundation and Commission (SMARTS) has proposed a monumental 80-by-42-foot welded steel arch at Wilshire Boulevard and Franklin Street to serve as gateway to the bay city. SMARTS is seeking $100,000 for the arch, designed by Tony Delap and dubbed "The Big Wave."

Nice, except that a citizens advisory committee that met a few years ago to consider gateway projects in Santa Monica recommended against such constructions as a poor man's St. Louis arch and instead urged landscaping. Further, it felt that the sleazy strip of Lincoln Boulevard as a corridor into the city needed more help than Wilshire, and deserved a priority.

The citizen committee was thanked for its effort and dismissed, and the private/public partnership arbitrarily recast. This is a problem with the concept of partnerships when directed by a self-annointed few. They tend to end up serving the vision of just a few.

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