DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On the afternoon of May 20, First District City Councilman Ed Reyes was beaming. Standing at a podium set up in a Chinatown parking lot on a warm afternoon, he was presiding over the groundbreaking ceremony for Blossom Plaza. It was no small feat, considering the $95 million development had bedeviled him for more than a decade. Community cheer was high for the project that will connect to the nearby Gold Line station.
Five weeks later things are completely different. I come by Reyes’ office on the fourth floor of City Hall to find that pictures and plaques have been pulled from the walls. With less than a week until he is termed out, packing boxes are everywhere. Though a Monday afternoon, a skeleton crew is in the office. Reyes has been trying to help find positions for many of the staffers who won’t have a job come July 1, when he is replaced by Gil Cedillo.
During an extended conversation, Reyes is cordial and thoughtful, reflecting on the past but still eager to look forward. He’s battling a harsh cough, but has plenty to say about topics including the Los Angeles River, affordable housing and the future of the city.
Los Angeles Downtown News: You’ve got just a few days left. How do you feel about your 12 years in office?
Ed Reyes: I’m being very nostalgic as I go through the files and package the different awards and plaques. I’m getting flashbacks from great moments on a whole range of projects, programs, people and policy that is now coming to an end.
It is bittersweet because it is sad to leave. I love my job. This job, I woke up looking forward to each day, and as tough as it was I knew there was something good that would come from that day.
Q: I realize it’s ridiculous to boil a decade’s worth of work into a single answer, but what do you think people will say about the Ed Reyes era?
A: I think the community leadership, the folks who sacrificed their time and weren’t on anyone’s payroll and were doing it because they wanted to see something better for their neighborhood, I think those people will probably say that we didn’t forget about the basics. That we responded to them. Even though at times we couldn’t give them the answer they wanted or have the result they sought, that we were very honest with them about what we could and couldn’t do. That wasn’t always the answer they wanted to hear, but it was the real answer.
I can honestly say that I never forgot what a public servant is supposed to be. It wasn’t about entitlement or my title. It was the privilege, and I am very blessed about that.
Q: At the Blossom Plaza event, you said the groundbreaking was important “because most people say planners just plan and do nothing, most planners just do a lot of talk and no action.” Is that how you view yourself in office, as a planner also able to implement?
A: It’s my first calling as a strategist, using the planning discipline. To me the planning discipline was like a giant toolbox that spoke of space and use of land and trying to find that scenario that speaks of relief.
But when it comes to elected officials with term limits, the understanding of what the planning discipline can do is easily forgotten because the result takes so long, and they’re not going to be there for the ribbon cutting, for the most part.
Half the projects I’ve been working on, I won’t be there for the ribbon cutting. It will be somebody else. And that’s OK with me, because I knew that from the very beginning. What is more important is to have a safer crossing, a bike path, a wider sidewalk.
Q: What do you expect Blossom Plaza will bring to Chinatown five or 10 years down the line?
A: Every building has a potential of being a landmark, but this one is like the lighthouse. This is the one that stands out because it’s a bridge to a light rail station that’s connected to a regional network. So five, 10 years from now, when [Los Angeles State Historic Park] is finally completed, when we finally get the state funds we should have gotten years back, you’re going to have a pivotal point on a major park/entryway to a whole new skyline.
Q: Before you arrived, most people viewed the Los Angeles River as essentially a concrete trash dump. Now, after work from the organization Friends of the Los Angeles River and your office, there has been a shift in perception of the waterway and its potential. How difficult was this to orchestrate and why was it a priority?
A: It was very difficult, because you are dealing with a mindset, a perception that was aggrandized by Hollywood: It’s the place people crash cars, chase the bad guys.
As a kid I understood what relief meant when I got to the river. To go down there, the acoustics are such that you don’t hear the freeway, you don’t hear the noise of the city. The only noise that is coming at you is the water running as it flows through the rocks. That is such a calming sound. For a kid who could not play in the local park — my brother had so many fights it wasn’t funny. But when we found that river, boy, me and my friends, that was our Shangri-La. If I could feel that — when I realized what the planning powers of the city could be, I just went for it.
Q: You spent a lot of time and energy on affordable housing, on trying to ensure that as many residential projects as possible had a low-income component. Why was this so important to you?
A: Because it’s our home. I see the goodness in people that are hard-working. Because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re dirty. Because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re foul. Because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re corrupt or suspect.
I strongly believe that the mixed-income environment is healthy. You decentralize poverty. Inherent in your own day-to-day experience you create role models, whether you know it or not, and the youngsters who are struggling, who are hurting, who don’t get to see their parents because they are commuting across town, have someone nearby to look up to. We have to do everything we can to inspire kids.
Q: Many people would agree with you in concept, but there’s a big difference when it come to persuading or twisting the arms of developers to include an affordable component in a project.
A: As chair of [the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee] I was very respectful and cognizant of everyone’s rights, but it did not mean I could not share with them the advantage of looking at scenarios differently, and I was very opportunistic. I’m very, very grateful that some of my colleagues listened in cases. At least now it’s on the radar. If I could do it all over again I’d probably push even harder, knowing what I know today.
But you can’t take away — and this is a very delicate thing to say: Sometimes the players of the theater, when they are doing a change on this scale, you will see are not in the most timely position to take on these kinds of policies because it hurts them and their careers, their political opportunities.
Q: Your chief of staff, Jose Gardea, lost the recent election to Gil Cedillo. During the campaign, Cedillo repeatedly described a wave of enduring failure across the district. What was it like to hear that criticism and to recognize that that won the election?
A: I don’t think that won the election. I think $2.2. million [in spending, including independent expenditures] won the election. I think his ability to say yes to different masters is what won the election, to have the money to describe a picture that was very superficial I believe won the election.
I wish him the best, because if he succeeds the district and the communities benefit. And the failures he described are the superficial failures that he could only see because he didn’t understand how deeply organized the communities really are.
But it was very difficult to overcome monies from the billboard companies, money from Wal-Mart and money from the special interests, the corporate special interests that doused him with millions of dollars, literally.
Q: What was the most surprising part of your job?
A: The influence this job has at the neighborhood level, citywide, national and international. It’s the second largest city in the country, in addition to [the job] being one of the most highly paid — people make you understand that, and they have expectations.
But to be able to go to Israel, to go to Oslo, to go to London, Mexico, [El] Salvador, and be treated with the decorum that speaks to that respect is an eye-opener.
Q: Not bad for a guy who grew up in the First District.
A: A kid from Cypress Park. The son of a janitor. That took me by surprise. You see that in other people. You don’t see that in yourself.
Contact Jon Regardie at email@example.com.
New Man River?
Ed Reyes Looks at a Waterway for His Next Step
In the era of term limits, many politicians jump to the next elected office. That’s not the case for Ed Reyes, who was termed out of his First District City Council seat after 12 years.
Reyes, 55, doesn’t have his next job lined up yet, but he isn’t about to run for a State Senate or Assembly seat.
“I have good options. I’m weighing them,” he said last week. “I know I can do a whole range of functions, but I want to love what I do. I want to have the passion so it’s not work the way this wasn’t work for me.”
Reyes says an ideal next step would involve working on improving the Los Angeles River. He chaired the council’s Ad Hoc River Committee and eagerly describes a vision of tearing the concrete from the waterway and installing rubber dams. That, he noted, could lead to water from winter rains remaining there for eight months a year, enabling kayaking and other activities. It would all improve neighboring communities.
Does that job exist?
“I think so,” he said. “If I could find a university that would work with me to push this scenario, and working with the mayor in some capacity in his office, I could probably harness the energy and leverage both worlds, because now I can promote policy based on studies, based on research, based on consensus building, and that is what the university could offer with great exposure to students.”
He continued, “From the mayor-elect’s point of view, it would make him the most effective mayor in seeing a whole new revenue base evolve from this district that would benefit the general fund and create an amenity base that is based on public-private partnerships.”
©Los Angeles Downtown News.