Similar goals, different approaches
On a sunny Friday morning, men flitted around the MacArthur Park bathrooms like moths to a flame.
“See that activity there?” Los Angeles City Council candidate Jose Gardea said. “Drug activity. That has got to stop.”
The squat building that borders Alvarado Street, Gardea says, represents the problems with the park, which has long been a stronghold of illegal activity.
Cleaning it up, which Gardea estimates could cost $18 million, would include adding police, restoring the red-flagged boathouse and putting boats back on the lake. It’s one issue that council candidates are facing in the 1st District. Incumbent Ed Reyes is terming out, leaving a fight between two candidates with similar upbringings and goals but very different political histories.
Gilbert Cedillo, 58, has been in the Legislature for 15 years, representing districts that included much of downtown and some of the 1st District. He faces term limits on his Assembly seat. Gardea, 44, is Reyes’ chief of staff. The men say they approach issues as their training has taught them: Cedillo through compromise and discussion, Gardea by working with neighborhoods.
Both hope to revitalize the 1st District, where job growth declined 9.6% in 2011, according to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, and the average wage was third-lowest in the city. Creating jobs and funding public safety are issues both candidates discuss frequently. But proposed developments in areas near downtown have sparked some of the most contention, including plans for a major residential complex in Elysian Park, as well as Wal-Mart’s ongoing efforts to build a grocery in Chinatown.
“Our future hinges on who represents us,” said Echo Park Neighborhood Council President Ari Bessendorf, who has fought the Elysian Park development. “The council seat can decide everything.”
The 1st District cuts a diagonal swath from Pico-Union to Highland Park. It’s the third-smallest council district by area and one of the poorest. Half the voting population is Latino. Nearly 15% is Asian. Cedillo and Gardea both grew up there: Cedillo in Boyle Heights, Gardea near MacArthur Park.
Gardea describes himself as an organizer who wants to continue the work he did under Reyes, including creating affordable housing, multiuse developments and business improvement districts. He wants to revitalize areas like Chinatown and Highland Park without ruining their culture or character.
“Historic preservation is economic development,” Gardea said. “Gentrification doesn’t have to be a bad word.”
Gardea’s opponents have blasted him for being weak on job creation and unfriendly to businesses. Since January, the Chamber has spent nearly $32,000 on yard signs and mailers that blame Gardea for what they say is a $13,000 wage gap between 1st District workers and the rest of the city.
The district’s economic development slowed when the Community Redevelopment Agency dissolved in 2011, Gardea said. That threw into limbo proposals for affordable housing and business development in Pico-Union, Westlake and Chinatown.
Gardea blames state lawmakers for reclaiming property taxes that flowed to the CRA. Finding money for projects now will require cobbling together funding from many sources, he said. Cedillo said local lawmakers, including Reyes, were at fault because local CRAs would not share their money to fund social services for the poor.
From 1990 to 1996, Cedillo was the general manager of the Service Employees International Union. He has never held a local political position. He is sometimes called “One-Bill Gil,” for his nine attempts to pass a law that would make undocumented immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses.
“We are the modern-day Ellis Island,” Cedillo said. In the immigration debate, he said, Los Angeles should lead by example.
A large portion of Cedillo’s funding comes from labor and business organizations. Cedillo has raised $272, 533, with $254,688 more contributed from political action committees. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Jerry Brown have both endorsed Cedillo.
Gardea has raised $307,834 and has been endorsed by multiple neighborhood groups, as well as the local union for food and commercial workers. (A third candidate, businessman Jesus Rosas, has raised $2,923 -- not enough to qualify for matching funds.)
Gardea and Cedillo have clashing opinions on the expansion of the 710 Freeway. Its proposed routes would narrowly miss the 1st District, but the traffic and construction would affect its residents.
“This could become reality,” said Antonio Castillo, president of the Highland Park Heritage Trust. “People focusing on the issue have viewed that as a dividing line between Gardea and Cedillo.”
Gardea opposes any extension. He says he doesn’t trust Caltrans and calls the plans a “20th century model.” Cedillo authored a state bill that blocks above-ground expansion but supports a tunnel that would connect the 10 and 210 freeways.
The Barlow Respiratory Hospital, a 101-year-old cluster of buildings in a leafy knoll of Elysian Park, has been another rallying point for community members. Facing expensive upgrades to meet earthquake building codes, the hospital plans to rezone for high-density development, sell most of the land to developers, then build a new hospital.
Bessendorf of the Echo Park council has circulated an anti-development petition with more than 2,000 signatures, Gardea’s among them. Cedillo has said he opposes the current plan, which could create more than 800 units in an area the size of Echo Park Lake. But the labor federation, which has given more than $152,000 to Cedillo’s campaign, according to campaign finance data, has publicly endorsed the project.
Wal-Mart already has building permits for a grocery in Chinatown that would be roughly one-fifth the size of a typical Wal-Mart discount store. The company has started remodeling a vacant storefront at Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues. Reyes proposed a temporary ban last fall on all big-box retailers in Chinatown, saying such stores could destroy the area’s unique culture and history. The measure failed.
Gardea does not support the Wal-Mart and has said so publicly. Cedillo says he will find a compromise. A better solution would have been a Ralphs similar to the store in downtown Los Angeles, Cedillo said, which is friendly to labor.
In MacArthur Park, Gardea wants to pay for upgrades through a business improvement district, propositions and private investment. Cedillo plans to use his relationships with the governor, law enforcement and business organizations to make the area safer.
“If you can do things that are really difficult,” Cedillo said, referring to his time in Sacramento, “you can do things that are easy.”