Los Angeles takes stock of all the property it owns

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The City of Los Angeles is in the process of figuring out how to unite a fragmented real estate portfolio, with private developers hoping to be included in the process at the early stages.

As the second largest city in the country, Los Angeles owns a lot of land. In an effort to track the City’s assets, late last year City Controller Ron Galperin released PropertyPanel.LA, a database that maps City’s real estate holdings—nearly 9,000 parcels.

While many of these properties are currently dedicated for important city functions, a good deal remain underutilized and even vacant. Among the municipal buildings, parks, and libraries in the city’s real estate portfolio, Los Angeles owns a vintage theater in San Pedro and 17,000 acres in Palmdale that would have been an airport. Now with the data available in an accessible, centralized location, city officials, developers, and the general public can use this map to see how exactly Los Angeles is managing its land.

Last Friday, the Westside Urban Forum convened a panel of city officials, architects, and developers to discuss LA’s land holdings. Representing the City was Ron Galperin, City Controller, and Shmel Graham, the Director of the Operations Innovation Team in the Mayor’s Office. Representing private developers were the architects Lorcan O’Herlihy with Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects and Kevin Wronske with Heyday Partnership. Director of Housing for the Los Angeles Housing & Community Investment Department, Helmi Hisserich, moderated the discussion.

Prior to the creation of this database, there was no one central list of the city’s property assets. To create such a list was no easy task for Controller Galperin.

“We found that the City of LA owns titles to property in about 45 different names,” Galperin said.

The consideration of the 8,974 properties compiled by the City Controller as part of a city-wide real estate portfolio represents a shift in the way the City operates. City departments don’t conventionally see themselves as real estate owners even though they might own a lot of land. This poses the first challenge to unlocking the potential of LA’s surplus property, and the Mayor’s Operations Innovation Team is working to reform real estate asset management across the city departments and elected offices.

“Especially absent the CRA [Community Redevelopment Agency], there hasn’t been a group of people within the city strategically looking at how to leverage your public property for other initiatives, such as homelessness and increased open parks and green space in the city. First, in order to do that, you have to know what you own,” Graham said.

Before Governor Jerry Brown signed ABX1-26 in 2011 to dissolve California’s redevelopment agencies in an effort to close the state budget deficit, the Community Redevelopment Agency in Los Angeles had led revitalization efforts in twenty-six project areas. The CRA is the most recent precedent of the kind of ambitious real estate asset management discussed on the panel. However, Los Angeles already owns the properties it can potentially redevelop, a key distinction from the CRA, which acquired new land throughout its revitalization efforts.

Galperin called for a new paradigm to manage LA’s land and a way to solicit and vet ideas from communities and developers. The architects on the panel emphasized their potential role in bringing innovative ideas to challenging properties. For example, the smaller wedge- and sliver-shaped parcels that dot the County and the parcels near freeways might call for creative designs.

“For us, it’s exciting, because we’re trying to solve problems. It’s what architects like to do,” O’Herlihy said.

At this stage, it’s too early to know exactly how Los Angeles will pursue redevelopment of its surplus property and how its real estate portfolio will be managed. Now that it has the land it owns mapped out, the City is in the process of figuring out how to unite a fragmented real estate portfolio, with private developers hoping to be included in the process at the early stages. The Mayor’s Operations Innovation Team is exploring models that not only provide a comprehensive vision for the development of city-owned property, but bring in communities, activists, city leadership, and other stakeholders into process as well.

“There’s a potential opportunity to form a kind of quasi-governmental entity that can function in a more nimble manner, bring in the subject-matter experts, but knows how to engage the city stakeholders and leadership and speak their language so that no one feels like their needs aren’t being met or their community is not being served,” Graham said.