connect / 2014

LA Riverworks: A Vision to Engage LA Communities in River Revitalization

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA) and Public Counsel

LA Riverworks wants to engage LA communities in River revitalization.

Please describe yourself.

Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

LA Riverworks wants to engage LA communities in River revitalization.

Does your project impact Los Angeles County?

Yes (benefits a region of LA County)

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

  • Northeast LA

What is your idea/project in more detail?

A new project to revitalize the LA River promises to deliver 18,000 jobs, billions in private development, and tremendous environmental benefits. But a fundamental question remains: who will access these benefits?

Today, diverse and dynamic neighborhoods line the LA River’s banks. But with this investment, outside interest is intensifying. Rising rent costs and real estate speculation threaten to displace low-income families in the area. SEACA and Public Counsel want to make LA the best place to connect by engaging local community members to join together in crafting and advocating for policies that will allow them to remain in their neighborhoods and benefit from the job and recreational opportunities a revitalized LA River will bring.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

Too often, community voices are left out of major decisions affecting the build out of our neighborhoods. Unless local residents are actively engaged and equipped with the tools to shape investments and large scale development projects, any resulting benefits and opportunities will not automatically reach current low-income residents.

SEACA and Public Counsel are proposing to engage residents, city officials, and other stakeholders in LA River communities to ensure that the return on our investment is shared by the low-income residents and families that called this area home long before it caught the eye of politicians and real estate developers. Through community engagement, legal research, and advocacy, we aim to maximize the positive impacts of a revitalized River, such as local job opportunities and expanded park space. And we aim to minimize negative impacts like the involuntary displacement of local residents and community-serving small businesses. Specifically, our project will achieve the following:

  1. Conduct a community assessment. SEACA and Public Counsel will analyze data and speak with local community members, community-based organizations, and economic development experts/researchers to gain a deeper understanding of River-adjacent communities—including mapping community assets and assessing the risk of gentrification and displacement.

  2. Launch a community-informed policy and organizing strategy. We will use information gleaned from the community assessment to develop policy and organizing strategies that address LA River-area residents’ needs and priorities. In collaboration with stakeholder groups, we will educate and mobilize residents at workshops on the River investment and its impacts on the community. Then, in partnership with residents and other stakeholders, we will identify and develop legal and policy tools to help ensure the River build out benefits ALL Angelenos, including local communities. We will then work with city officials to include these policies in River investment plans.

  3. Monitor development to ensure community-developed policies are implemented. Many residents are not aware of the magnitude of the potential investment, nor the potential opportunity the River brings if the investment is shaped with local communities in mind. As LA River development begins, we will monitor activities and share information with residents to help develop tools for meaningfully shaping River community benefits.

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to CONNECT today? In 2050?

In 2050, a revitalized LA River will serve as a main artery through the city, connecting many diverse and dynamic neighborhoods across the region. A greener and cleaner LA River will also strengthen a collective connection to our environment, providing all Angelenos with access to a precious source of recreation. To achieve this vision, jobs will be created and River-adjacent communities will see new investment. Our project is focused on helping existing residents connect with this process so they too can access the health and economic opportunities that the River promises.

By engaging low-income residents, families, and entrepreneurs in existing River-adjacent communities to voice their concerns and advocate for policies that support local needs as well as regional goals, SEACA and Public Counsel will ensure that the communities that are connected to the River today can remain connected and thrive alongside a revitalized River 2050. Specifically, our project will help make LA the best place to connect today by:

● Engaging a broad range of stakeholders such as local residents, youth, seniors, and small business owners in multiple languages around the LA River plan ● Connecting local government policies to the needs and priorities of River-adjacent communities; ● Linking local residents and other stakeholders to the political process; ● Connecting with a network of economic development experts to evaluate and cultivate strategies to address the needs of local neighborhoods; ● Leveraging the River restoration and related developments to expand access to opportunity for local residents and other stakeholders; ● Promoting the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing the median travel time to work through local employment opportunities and increasing the amount of affordable housing in this transit-rich area; and ● Addressing concerns about gentrification and displacement of residents and small businesses.

A barricaded concrete River bisecting underserved neighborhoods has been an unfortunate image of disconnect and spatial inequity in the geography of our city. With this unprecedented investment, all that can change. But connection is key. Connecting local residents to opportunities starts with a connection to each other and the process.

Whom will your project benefit?

Our project will benefit a diverse group of youth, families, seniors, small businesses, and other stakeholders who live, work, and play in the neighborhoods along the LA River. Many of these individuals are from predominantly Asian and Latino communities like Chinatown and Lincoln Heights, where low-income and working class families—the vast majority of whom speak a language other than English at home—work and shop at local small businesses; and Elysian Valley and Cypress Park, where long-time residents have cultivated a strong neighborhood identity with thriving commercial and creative spaces. These are neighborhoods that have made much from little; historically disinvested or underserved communities that have persevered while investment and opportunities repeatedly went elsewhere.

More than 11% of adults in the investment area are unemployed, compared to 8% countywide. Wage theft and overcrowding are common. In many LA River neighborhoods, incomes are much lower than the county average and poverty rates are much higher. And despite the proximity, physical access to the LA River or other recreational opportunities is limited. These are communities that have already waited too long for the opportunities and benefits that a revitalized and healthier River infrastructure can provide. Our project will help residents in these communities connect with the process, and in doing so, connect with the opportunities.

For small businesses and entrepreneurs, a revitalized LA River carries the potential of reinvigorating the area with new customers and business opportunities; people coming to spend a day at the River will need places to shop, eat, and rent recreation equipment. Large-scale infrastructure construction projects will require smaller contractors and suppliers. SEACA and Public Counsel will work with existing businesses and entrepreneurs in the area to ensure that they are able to continue operating in and benefit from the revitalized space.

More broadly, the LA River revitalization plan will benefit all Angelenos by providing them with a place to explore the outdoors, get active, and play. By working to maintain the area’s diversity, we will ensure that people from all over Los Angeles feel welcome to enjoy the area and its offerings.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

SEACA and Public Counsel have agreed to collaborate on this project and have worked together to connect and mobilize diverse communities and create a more sustainable LA for the last five years. Through our partnership, communities have been able to come together to identify solutions to key needs such as jobs and affordable housing. SEACA trains hundreds of youth to become leaders in their communities in order to educate and mobilize seniors, working adults, and youth in five different languages. SEACA’s members include individuals residing in several River-adjacent neighborhoods. Public Counsel provides the land use knowledge to turn community priorities and goals into policy proposals that can be eventually adopted into law.

In 2013, SEACA and Public Counsel successfully worked together to engage residents and develop a groundbreaking new land use plan for the Cornfields Arroyo area north of downtown Los Angeles. The campaign empowered and educated youth leaders to advocate for more affordable housing, environmental justice, and good jobs. As a result of our joint efforts in mobilizing the community and providing policy and legal support, the plan is expected to be an effective tool for producing affordable housing in the area and for preventing displacement of existing residents. The LA Times called the plan “A Model for LA Planning,” and it garnered the support of environmentalists, for-profit developers, labor unions, affordable housing advocates, transportation experts, AND the local community.

In addition, Public Counsel regularly partners with legal and policy experts like the Community Benefits Law Center and we expect to engage these partners as our platform is developed.

The three factors that are critical to our success will be our ability to:

  1. Actively engage local residents around complex policy issues;
  2. Build a diverse coalition that brings together residents, local businesses, community organizations, and other stakeholders; and
  3. Identify and implement the appropriate legal and policy tools to ensure that River revitalization efforts are responsive and accountable to existing residents’ needs.

How will your project impact the LA2050 “Connect” metrics?

  • Median travel time to work
  • Government responsiveness to residents’ needs (Dream Metric)
  • Transit-accessible housing and employment (the share of housing units and percentage of jobs that are located within a half-mile of transit) (Dream Metric)
  • Attendance at public/open street gatherings (Dream Metric)

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

Our project will impact the above metrics through the following:

Government responsiveness to residents’ needs The size and scope of the LA River plan has attracted intense interest from a wide variety of stakeholders, from local environmentalists to private developers. By developing a coordinated legal and organizing strategy, we will bring together local residents and city officials to collaboratively develop policies and programs to ensure that local needs are prioritized as River restoration moves forward.

Median travel time to work As many as 18,000 jobs will be created as a result of River revitalization efforts. At the same time, poverty and unemployment/under employment in River-adjacent communities are among the highest in the city. By creating tools to help local residents connect to these jobs, we can improve the economic vibrancy of River-adjacent communities and help workers remain housed in job-rich areas instead of being forced to relocate to far-flung suburbs.

Transit-accessible housing and employment Several River-adjacent communities are also in transit-rich neighborhoods and transit usage reflects this fact. One in five households in Lincoln Heights is car-free, while nearly one-third of working adults in Chinatown walk to work. Our project seeks to ensure that local residents are able to remain in these transit-rich neighborhoods and to increase access to local job opportunities and transit-accessible housing so that car ownership becomes unnecessary.

Attendance at public/open street gatherings We will sponsor at least two community events (i.e. open house, Twitter party, community forum) for local residents to discuss their concerns directly with elected officials.

Our project, simply put, will help local residents connect to the decisions that are being made about the River, and in turn, will help connect the jobs and opportunity that the River brings to local residents.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

The project will utilize a mixed methods approach to measuring progress and impact. Outreach logs, sign-in sheets, and attendance records will track attendance and outreach to community members. We will also engage in an evaluation process with community members utilizing self-reported data collected at key intervals. This process will include individual surveys, group evaluations, and tracking progress towards meeting campaign goals.

Outcomes will include: ● 150-300 residents, small business owners, and other stakeholders engaged ● 20-30 youth trained in advocacy and civic engagement ● Development of community-informed research assessment ● Development of policy platform informed by community assessment to bring greater opportunity to local residents ● Community members will report greater knowledge of LA River investment strategies and impacts ● Community members will report greater connection to other residents across various River-adjacent communities ● Community members will report greater knowledge of tools to advocate for policies that support accountable River investment ● Community members will report improved capacity to influence decision-makers through meetings and introductions to City officials and key allies, as well as an understanding of ways to provide public input and increase leverage

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

We believe strongly that investment decisions may not realize their intended goals (and may have unintended consequences) unless the communities most impacted by those decisions are involved in the decision making. Some impacts (like displacement of small businesses and residents) cannot be rectified after they have occurred. This is why, at the state and local levels, we have focused on bringing these perspectives into policy discussions at the front end of the decision making process. In our experience, the most successful policies and investments are the ones that meaningfully engage affected residents BEFORE major decisions are made. Examples of these types of campaigns include our work at the Cornfields Arroyo to help develop an equity-focused plan, and the work that the Alliance for Community Transit is doing to help establish an equitable transit policy citywide.

Another lesson we have learned is that diverse partnerships are necessary to help influence decision making processes and achieve meaningful change. SEACA and Public Counsel have been effective partners for the last five years because we are able to use both organizations’ strengths to our advantage. SEACA brings to the table a diverse group of community advocates ready to become leaders of the economic and environmental justice movement, while Public Counsel has the legal and policy expertise necessary to develop and monitor needed policies and laws to protect community interests. Both groups have strong networks of community and government partners built over many years.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

SEACA and Public Counsel are confident that we will be able to implement our project in the next twelve months. We have already begun to determine a scope of work for our community assessment and are in discussions with research firms about this scope of work. We have also begun to engage decisionmakers, economic development legal and policy experts, and other stakeholders. Finally, both our organizations have experience in land use planning, local policy advocacy, and community benefits campaigns. This experience will help us quickly identify appropriate policy and organizing strategies to achieve our goals. Of course, achieving the outcome of connecting residents to economic opportunity may depend on the timing of the political process, but the legwork we will do in engaging communities and connecting them to the process will be implemented in the next 12 months.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

Two major challenges we anticipate and our strategies for overcoming them are as follows:

  1. Key decisions about the LA River are being made now. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recommended a $1 billion proposal, and money may begin to be allocated to this project as early as next year. This means that if communities don’t get engaged now and have their voices heard, they may lose the opportunity to have input in the plans. With our proven engagement strategies and understanding of land use and equitable development policies, we are confident that we can overcome this challenge.

  2. Local investments are complex and involve many public sector decision makers. Our organizations may encounter potential jurisdictional overlap, as a number of agencies – local, state and federal – have varying degrees of oversight and interest in the LA River. And different sets of regulations bring different requirements that may influence the creation of a community benefits policy platform. With our existing relationships with key government officials and our capacity for complex legal analysis, we are confident that we can successfully navigate the web of governance considerations. Public Counsel also has a strong pro bono network of expert lawyers in a range of fields we can engage as needed.

What resources does your project need?

  • Money (financial capital)
  • Publicity/awareness (social capital)
  • Community outreach