Winter 2005 Newsletter
NSBN Leverages School Bonds
To Benefit Children & Families
In 2003, LAUSD, the City of L.A., A
Community of Friends-the developer of
special needs housing, and NSBN signed
a Memorandum of Understanding pledging
to cooperatively plan a city block in
Westlake, an inner city neighborhood
just west of downtown.
Their planning has resulted in
the parties agreeing to build
Gratts New Primary School,
54 units of family housing with
Childcare & a Boys and Girls
Club, an early education facility,
and a school playground
that doubles as a neighborhood
park. In this interview,
Councilman Ed Reyes, ACOF CEO
Dora Leong Gallo, & ACOF Project
Manager John Wolter, reflect on how
this win/win/win/win was achieved.
Dora and John, your organization,
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 NSBN's assistance,
led to a long, negotiated,
and ultimately successful
process between ACOF,
the school district, the
neighborhood, and the
Redevelopment Agency. How
would you describe the project's
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
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 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
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 Angeles'
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
naïve, 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 can't
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 first paragraph?
DG: "Walk in with your eyes wide open."
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 people's quality of life.
But, we're all in this for different reasons.
The school district's 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 city's 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
DG: He did try to do that, but I'm 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 - we're talking
hundreds of thousands of dollars.
ER: You raise a good point. The way that
funds are allocated and structured in the
state doesn't allow for these nuances and
the needs in these very difficult places. I
believe that this is primarily because the
state's standards are focused on suburban
and rural models and don't 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 decisionmakers
like Speaker Núñez. 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
What do we lose if we continue with
the old way? What is at stake for the
City of Los Angeles and its neighborhoods?
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 little
neighborhoods that really aren't neighborhoods,
where people are isolated and never
come together. If it doesn't 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
city's 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, "frozen" 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
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 can't 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. It's not approving projects and buildings
on a piecemeal scale; it's 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.