Collaborative Planning Process Used to Benefit School and Community

June 20, 2006

New school site plan integrates school district facilities into neighborhood life.

LAUSD, LA City, A Community of Friends, and New Schools Better Neighborhoods have completed a collaborative process that has resulted in a plan that includes Gratts New Primary School, family housing, childcare facilities, a Boys and Girls Club, an early education facility and a playground that will also serve as a neighborhood park. In this interview, Councilman Ed Reyes, ACOF CEO Dora Leong Gallo, and ACOF Project Manager John Wolter, reflect on the process to acheive these community benefits.

Dora and John, your organization, A Community of Friends, had wanted to develop an affordable housing project in the Westlake area when you found out that LAUSD also wanted to build a school on that land. With NSBNís assistance, this situation led to a long, negotiated, and ultimately successful collaborative planning process between ACOF, the school district, the neighborhood, and the Redevelopment Agency. How would you describe the projectís successes?

John Wolter: With the direct assistance of New Schools Better Neighborhoods, we captured a preliminary vision of what can happen in neighborhoods as we redevelop housing, schools, and open space. We successfully managed increasing densities in housing. Through the MOU process, we were able to, I think, create a common vision for what could happen on this site. The success of the Westlake/Gratts project really was the realization that bringing together a group of stakeholders, in our case potential adversaries, and asking them about their goals and needs, can result in each party respecting and working together to realize all of those shared and individual goals.

Councilman Reyes, in your view, what is the vision and how close have we come to achieving it?

Ed Reyes: The vision is to maximize the space available at the site and minimize the loss of housing units and displacement of families from the construction of a school. With the help of NSBN, First 5 LA, and A Community of Friends, we have made a good shot at mixing in housing and services and complementing the very strict construction schedule of the school district.

What has been the result of that process? What have you gotten out of it? What lessons have you learned?

Dora Gallo: A number of things come to mind. One is an appreciation for how hard it is to get things done, especially when you have to work in collaboration with other entities. Secondly, we have an appreciation of the linkages and intricacies of the various components that make up a better quality of life, such as schools, parks, and affordable housing, and the need to work jointly.

JW: We also received some practical benefits. I think we came out of the process with an enhanced housing project. During this process, the opportunity to include a Boys & Girls Club arose because the public schoolyard space is shared between the housing and the new schools.

ER: We learned many new lessons about how to assess the land available and understand the opportunity costs. In this case especially, the Section 8 units on the site are very important and very hard to replace. I have also learned that we have to work even harder with the state to change code and building standards that in my mind envision only a Midwestern, flat type of topography and culture. Los Angelesí dense, multicultural, multilingual environment requires us to reassess how we define space and to stimulate a new vision that is able to harness all the energy we have in the city.

We are between a rock and a hard place; we need a school, but we also need housing. So, we need people who focus on housing to start thinking about how educational needs and school development policies are their problem, and people who are developing schools to see housing issues as their problem.

At the beginning of this project, it was zero-sum; either the school district built its project, or you stopped them. Through negotiation, it has evolved into a school with housing, early education programs, and some open space. Out of this Herculean effort, what could be replicable to the hundreds of other school facility investments in neighborhoods throughout the Los Angeles Basin?

DG: What is replicable is the process, but I am hesitant about the end product. When a site is chosen for a school, it is fairly easy to seek out the stakeholders in that neighborhood, like the housing developers, the neighborhood councils, and the community organizations and ask them how a school could be added in a way that meets community needs. But, the hard part is making sure that the same players and institutions maintain that commitment. I think that we all know that the result is a better product. But sometimes everyone is so focused on their own roles and missions, it is difficult to look at the larger community benefits.

JW: In addition to what Dora just described, these types of projects require funding from a variety of sources, all which have their own timelines, restrictions, approval processes, and timing. We learned on the Westlake project that the players at the table were committed, but we all had to answer to other outside requirements. We had to somehow figure out how to layer all of the various issues together, and the timing was very complicated.

Any opportunity to expand on this concept would really require some master organization, like the CRA or the city, to come in and master-plan the multiple uses for target sites. To expect this to be replicable on an individual basis is I think naÔve, given the reality of building houses and building schools, unless someone can pre-package ready-to-build sites and coordinate the timing, the assemblage, and the approval processes. It is very difficult to envision this project being replicable on any large scale.

Councilman Reyes, how do we find the common ground to create healthy neighborhoods and better educational environments at the same time? Can we do it?

ER: I believe we can. We could better leverage the funding we have if we also understand the significance of time to developers, nonprofit and for-profit. Another key is to understand the pressures on Superintendent Romer to meet his deadlines from the state. We should bring to the table the state officials who have set the funding rules. I think that the missing piece then is the needs of families. The schools are there for the kids and their families. But the irony is, what good will they be if the kids canít live in the area anymore because the housing is gone? With transportation and housing problems taking their toll on the folks who live near these schools, we need to reassess our approach and literally bring to the table the major players who are moving the timelines, establishing the milestones, and review projects for funding.

Dora, if you were giving a speech to the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing about the notion of schools as centers of community in combination with affordable housing, what would be the lead your remarks?

DG: ďWalk in with your eyes wide open.Ē We, A Community of Friends as an organization and John and I as individuals, believe, that successful neighborhoods are comprised of a number of different elements, including schools, open space, affordable housing, and parks, that contribute to improving peopleís quality of life. But, weíre all in this for different reasons. The school districtís job is to build schools. Our job is to build affordable housing. As much as we agree on a vision for the community, it is very hard to implement given the pressures on each of us. For us to do nothing with this property has cost us tremendously financially. And so, there are going to be a lot of positives, a lot of opportunities, and a lot of relationships built for future projects, but you need to walk in with your eyes wide open and be prepared for the negatives.

Councilman Reyes has tried to amend some of the cityís criteria for housing funding in order to encourage this kind of collaboration. What state and local reforms would give developers incentives to responsibly participate in collaborations and lessen their financial impacts?

DG: He did try to do that, but Iím not sure if it actually resulted in a financial system that helps nonprofits. What would be helpful locally would be more flexibility of deadlines. The city and the state both have funding deadlines of when we have to be in construction or we lose the money. I also think it would be helpful to get pre-development financial assistance. When we sit on a property for four years, we are still paying interest, property taxes, maintenance, and insurance. We have had to scramble to come up with sources to pay for these holding costs Ė weíre talking hundreds of thousands of dollars.

ER: You raise a good point. The way that funds are allocated and structured in the state doesnít allow for these nuances and the needs in these very difficult places. I believe that this is primarily because the stateís standards are focused on suburban and rural models and donít prioritize dense, metropolitan environments like you find in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a very unique place, and the state looks broadly statewide. So, we need to create that flexibility, for places that have 20, 30, 35, or 40 thousand people per square mile. I have been working with Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg on this, but she has an uphill battle. She has to convince her colleagues, when their realities are nowhere near the kinds of conditions that we have here in Los Angeles. That is a challenge. Hopefully, we will get leadership from decision-makers like Speaker NķŮez. The Westlake area is part of his district; we are talking to him and he has been responsive.

JW: I would add that the real home run would be if someone assumed the very early risks of making sites available for development by preplanning them and obtaining the entitlements. If the community could muster the resources to make some tough decisions, assemble the sites, and handle pre-approvals so that developers could come in quickly and efficiently, we could as a community save millions of dollars and years of delay and end up with higher-quality projects. Underlying that in my mind is the concept of performance-based standards. There are some planning models where basic functional requirements and performance standards are established, and then developers are held accountable for meeting and/or exceeding those criteria through creative design and land use.

DG: Which would be very hard. What John describes is the ideal, but it also crosses three distinct regulatory jurisdictions. Nobody wants to give up their home-rule rights.

What do we lose if we continue with the old way? What is at stake for the City of Los Angeles; its neighborhoods; our children and families?

DG: I absolutely think that joint development is worth doing the right way, even with the extra time and financial costs. What is at stake is Los Angeles growing in a haphazard way. You will have neighborhoods that really arenít neighborhoods, where people are isolated and never come together. If it doesnít happen at a neighborhood level, how can we expect it at the city or the national levels?

Councilman, you have been deeply involved with planning issues in the city. L.A. City is looking for a new planning director. What lessons from this experience in collaborative community planning of schools, open space, parks, and housing might impact the selection of the cityís next planning director?

ER: The planning director has to have the capacity to shift gears often. We need someone who has a sense for the international and national perspectives, because we are an international city. At the same time, he or she has to understand that what is happening in the core of the city and its surrounding neighborhoods is very unique and different from what is happening in Chatsworth or the West Valley. Our planning base is rooted in the mindset of the 1940s and 1950s. Some areas have been, in a way, ďfrozenĒ through specific plans. Yet we have a population increase the size of Chicago coming to Southern California in the next 25 years. Where are these people going to live? We need a planning director with the ability to engage, stimulate, and draw out stakeholders to start defining their own spaces, so that they can say this is where new housing will go in our neighborhood.

In my mind, we need to have an individual who understands the cultural nuances of people from outside the country. Here in L.A. we have the second-largest Mexican population outside of Mexico City, we have the largest Korean community, the largest Filipino community, and one of the largest Chinese communities; you can go on down the list. So the new planning director canít use a one-size-fits-all approach. It has to be very fluid and reflect an ability to think of systems in such a way to move projects while maintaining community input as a high priority. I think we need an international search.

Could you share with other community leaders the best way to practically replicate this collaborative planning process?

DG: Planning is not done in a vacuum. It is so important for somebody to look at Los Angeles as a whole and see how we can include the communities and the neighborhoods in which we are living. I think that we really need to go back to the original concept of planning, what it means to foster a vision of how we want the city to grow. Itís not approving projects and buildings on a piecemeal scale; itís much more organic than that. We have gotten away from the organic nature of what planning is all about.

JW: I think it really comes down to how we invest in our city and our infrastructure. Do those taxpayer dollars for new schools create spaces that are isolating and that discourage a sense of belonging to a community? The billions of dollars that we are investing could be an opportunity to create centers like those that New Schools Better Neighborhoods has promoted, that are community assets, that allow people and families to participate, to join, to belong. It is goal that we as a society need to embrace, expect, even demand.