It still seems like a ways off until the next Los Angeles mayoral election, which takes place on March 5, 2013. But it is important to start the discussion earlier as much has changed in Los Angeles during the time the current LA mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, took office in 2005. We have a lot to digest and a lot to talk about.
Some of the changes in Los Angeles have been nothing short of a miracle, and the passage of Measure R in 2008–where a “super majority” (66.67%) of LA County voters was needed to pass the measure (we passed by 67.22%) to fund critical transportation infrastructure projects–was proof that Angelenos were overwhelmingly frustrated with our regional congestion and wanted change. Measure R funds the creation of a new and modern public transit system that will revolutionize the way Angelenos traverse through this “center-less” region.
Another miracle that has occurred in Los Angeles (well, at least within the context of a sprawling suburban monster that we’ve become) is the amazing revival of our once completely abandoned downtown core. There has been an underlying paradigm shift where many Angelenos demand an alternative to suburban living and an authentic urban experience that residents of New York or San Francisco take for granted. You see, in cities like New York or Chicago, you have the option to live in the suburbs or the city. In LA, it was the suburbs…or the suburbs.
That demand for urban living is clearly evident by some concrete examples. According to the latest demographic survey from the Downtown Center B.I.D., there are now over 45,000 people who call “Downtown LA” home and their median income is $86,300 (higher than Beverly Hills at $81,200). This new demographic shift is in addition to the countless companies and businesses that have moved into Downtown LA within the last decade.
As someone who has supported LA Mayor Villaraigosa’s strong commitment to expanding our public transportation system (along with improving other critical pieces of infrastructure in our city such as LAX and the Port of LA) and getting businesses and jobs to come back to the City of Los Angeles, I also know that behind every great man is a greater team and First Deputy Mayor, Austin Beutner, has played a critical role in LA’s economic upswing. And when Villaraigosa is termed out, Beutner is vying for his seat.
Beutner, who also teaches at USC, is sometimes called the “Business Czar” of Los Angeles. He has been instrumental in getting many businesses to come back to the City of LA like BMW and BYD. Beutner and I met downtown last week (at The Farm of Beverly Hills restaurant at LA Live) to discuss what’s important to the Downtown LA community including how he would handle “business and urban related issues pertaining to Downtown LA” as the next mayor of Los Angeles.
BY: Everyone loves all the new restaurants opening in Downtown LA and the City’s hospitality express program has been successful, but as I learned from several restaurant owners in Downtown LA, it can still be a huge headache to get approvals for patio seating. What can be done to remove these barriers? Can we learn from “patio friendly” cities like Oakland or San Francisco?
Beutner: I was part of the team along with Ray Chan and Carol Schatz who got the hospitality express program started. But we have to continue to ask: “What is the role of government?” It’s upside down right now. The city government has tunnel vision, which is the wrong approach. I was at a rooftop restaurant in Venice the other day, and I could see multiple parking lots around, but the City is enforcing the restaurant’s parking requirements by making the restaurant take out some of their tables. What we should do is convene everyone in a radius to contribute to parking, not take out half the tables. Government shouldn’t just enforce rules, but become problem solvers, not be confined in such a narrow box.
BY: As you know, the Downtown LA office stock still has a high vacancy rate of around 18%. Since taking on the role of “business czar” for the City of LA, you have successfully attracted companies to do business in LA, including BMW and BYD. What can be done to encourage more companies to come back to Downtown LA?
Beutner: The gross receipt tax is a deterrent to growth. We should make it go away. As a business, the tax makes you pay a portion of your top line. We got to do something to change this. We did come up with the business tax holiday, which was influential in attracting Gensler, Zurich, and Lucky Brand Jeans to move downtown, Google with 800 jobs in Venice, and Blackline Systems in Woodland Hills. We need to understand the needs of the employers and ask how can we help.
BY: Historically, Downtown LA was a retail hub in Southern California, formerly home to grand flagship stores such as Bullock’s and Robinson’s. What can be done to encourage retailers and their tax revenue to come back to downtown?
Beutner: Retail had dispersed from city centers across the nation, so it was a national phenomenon. And I think in LA’s case, we get something like $100 in sales tax revenue for every $200 in the outlying areas. But to encourage retail businesses to come back we have to 1) support retailers who want to be here, 2) transit will play a major role to support retail growth, and 3) join the fight with the state for internet companies to pay their fair share of taxes versus brick and mortar stores.
BY: Speaking of “supporting retailers,” according to the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, they make a concerted effort to maintain a strong rapport with the famous retailers that have put them on the international map by making a trip out to New York, I think annually, where many of these brands are headquartered.
Beutner: I don’t think we should compete with Beverly Hills necessarily in this case. I think we should work together with our surrounding communities. We have to think on a regional level and find ways to build cooperation on policy planning.
BY: Downtown LA has a lack of good parks. Pershing Square is one of the most underutilized public spaces in LA and I think it’s in dire need of a makeover to reach its full potential. Can Pershing Square be re-imagined in a similar way to San Francisco’s Union Square and become a regional draw for shopping and tourism?
Beutner: I think we lack leadership in community planning. We just don’t have planning in LA. Pershing Square is a symptom of a larger problem. Focusing just on Pershing Square is not looking at the bigger picture. We need to find a way to get to “Yes” and make it happen. The City shouldn’t be in the role of deciding what retailers come downtown, but as the NFL comes, and you have more residential growth, and more visitors, that creates the demand. The New York Diamond District adapted and ours will too. Retail is demand driven, not supply driven.
BY: Mayor Villaraigosa has made improving mobility in Los Angeles a key part of his agenda since he came into office. Will you continue his legacy as mayor by making transit a top priority?
Beutner: Transit planning and implementation is very important. We need to put shovels into the ground. That’s my nature as a doer. [Washington] D.C. is expanding rail, and why are we tearing down a bridge along the 405 when we could use that money to connect LAX? It just doesn’t make sense. Same for avid cyclists, like taking a public transportation system that doesn’t make sense here. A bike lane just ends at Santa Monica Blvd and Sepulveda. What does the cyclists do when he gets to the end of the bike lane? Why have we not thought through this completely?
BY: Before we run out of time, one last question. Dozens and dozens of new restaurants have opened in Downtown LA within the past few years, so what are some of your favorites?
Beutner: [Laughs] I have four kids, so they dictate where I eat most of the time. But I do like The Farm of Beverly Hills and Philippe’s. New and old ones serve the needs of the community. I’d like to see many more successful restaurants in Downtown LA in the future.