The city commission that oversees the Community Redevelopment Agency voted Wednesday to appoint Burbank City Manager Robert "Bud" Ovrom to take the helm of the agency and shift its focus from massive developments like Staples Center to creating jobs and housing through smaller projects.
In the 17 years he has run Burbank, Ovrom revitalized the city's dilapidated downtown by aggressively courting entertainment companies and retail stores to the area. Los Angeles CRA commissioners said they believe the 57-year-old will bring strong managerial skills to an agency long plagued by financial problems, bureaucratic wrangling and upheaval.
"Bud is well-known out there in redevelopment circles," Commissioner John Ornelas said during a news conference at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood after the unanimous vote by the seven-member board. "He's a great communicator, a great collaborator and a really great technician."
Ovrom's appointment, which must be confirmed by the City Council, comes as the CRA Commission attempts to implement a new strategy to rid the city of blight. Instead of providing incentives to private developers to build huge entertainment and retail project like Staples and Hollywood & Highland, the agency wants to nurture smaller developments that provide housing and decent-paying jobs.
"The bottom line is this agency has such enormous potential to be helpful ... but it has been essentially somewhat dysfunctional for the last 10 years," said Commission Chairman David Farrar. The emphasis on high-profile commercial projects "was a great plan for the '80s and part of the '90s, but we quite frankly have enough shopping centers and too many tall, empty office buildings."
Instead, Farrar said, the CRA should use its eminent domain power to assemble small parcels for new housing projects and industrial and manufacturing companies.
Although Mayor James K. Hahn and other city officials say they support that focus, the agency's use of eminent domain to purchase occupied land is one of the most controversial tools at its disposal. And some developers said the CRA shouldn't abandon its involvement in large projects, which have successfully revitalized some neighborhoods.
"I would agree with half of the old school and half of the new school," said Steve Soboroff, president of the Playa Vista development, who helped broker the Staples Center deal for former Mayor Richard Riordan. "I think they should do both."
During a brief address to the commission after the vote, Ovrom said he recognizes and embraces the agency's new mission.
"This is a new CRA; there is no question about it," he said. "Jobs and housing, that's what we're all about."
If Ovrom is confirmed by the City Council as expected, he will round out a new leadership team for the agency. Six of the seven CRA commissioners were appointed by Hahn in the last year. And last week, Richard Benbow, a senior CRA administrator, was made chief deputy administrator, a new position.
Ovrom would take over for departing Administrator Jerry Scharlin, a former corporate turnaround specialist who streamlined the agency's budget and internal workings. He faced criticism early in his four-year tenure, however, over his firing of some top administrators and use of private investigators to look into allegations of financial improprieties in the agency.
Commissioners credited Scharlin with accomplishing some important goals, but some said the agency has suffered from a leadership vacuum.
"This is a huge agency, the largest redevelopment agency in the entire country," said Commissioner Madeline Janis-Aparicio. "It has the potential to be an amazing tool to make some difference in people's lives.... But right now, it's totally headless."
On Wednesday, Scharlin said he is proud of his track record at the agency, noting that he was brought in at a time when the CRA was in crisis and given a mandate to turn it around.
"I'm not a redevelopment professional," added Scharlin, who has one more week on the job. He will remain on as a consultant to the new administrator for 18 months. "I did what I was asked to do. Now it's time for somebody to take it to another stage."
Several city officials said Ovrom has support on the City Council to succeed Scharlin.
"He's certainly an impressive person, and highly, highly respected by his peers," said City Council President Alex Padilla.
The mayor acknowledged that the Burbank city manager, who has also worked for the cities of Monrovia, Simi Valley and Downey, lacks experience with larger urban issues, such as homelessness, that plague Los Angeles. But he said he is convinced Ovrom will be able to tackle those problems.
"I think he's got a great, great track record of being able to pull together resources to really improve quality of life," said Hahn, who met with Ovrom last week.
In an interview, Ovrom acknowledged that he would be undertaking a daunting job.
"It's going to be a big challenge," Ovrom said. "A person would be blowing smoke if they said they could do this with one hand tied behind their back."
One of the biggest problems facing the new administrator will be coping with huge budget reductions triggered by the state's massive shortfall. In a report to the commission last week, Randy Wilkins, the CRA's chief financial officer, warned that the $342-million agency could be forced to cut $48 million over the next two fiscal years, equivalent to a 20% reduction in revenue.
The agency and the city are also in a legal battle with the county over a downtown redevelopment project that county officials say will divert needed property revenue from social services.
Farrar said Ovrom is the right person to lead the agency through its next phase, noting that the city he manages was cited during the recent secession campaign as a place that provides better services than Los Angeles.
"Burbank was the poster child for why people didn't want to be part of our city anymore," he said. "We're pleased that that person is going to help us."
Ovrom emerged as the top candidate for the CRA post after a six-month search that involved 50 candidates. But unlike the recent hunt for a new Los Angeles police chief, which involved public hearings, the list of final candidates and the decision-making process were not released.
"The board basically decided that we would have a better chance of getting the best qualified individual the less political the process was," said Farrar, defending the commission's decision to keep the process confidential.
Times staff writer Beth Shuster contributed to this report.