DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On July 1, 2012, following a vicious redistricting battle, nearly all of Downtown was pulled out of Jan Perry’s Ninth District and inserted into José Huizar 14th. It marked a major change for neighborhoods including South Park, the Civic Center, the Financial District, Bunker Hill, Skid Row and Little Tokyo — Perry had represented them since being sworn into office in 2001.
Last Monday, Perry, who is running for mayor, sat down with Los Angeles Downtown News to discuss the changes that occurred Downtown during her watch, and the challenges that continue to face the community.
Los Angeles Downtown News: This is the first weekday since you were elected that you don’t represent most of Downtown Los Angeles. What’s going through your mind?
Jan Perry: I’m proud of the work that I’ve done here since 2001. My interest and fascination with Downtown go back to when I was in college at USC. I always wondered how to connect the Figueroa Corridor and South L.A. to Downtown Los Angeles. To be a part of that, that growth and expansion and the strengthening of the connection, is something that is beyond my wildest dreams.
Q: You fought the redistricting process very hard. Are you angry with the way things turned out?
A: I am sad that public testimony was ignored. My relationships with the people that I have all over Downtown, including Skid Row and Little Tokyo, will continue. That’s not going to change. The relationships I had with people were not because of the title I held.
Q: You were sworn in in July 2001. What do you recall thinking about Downtown back then?
A: Downtown was a quiet, underdeveloped place that had this enormous potential for bringing [homes] closer to where people worked and building a whole community where there was none. There was the chance to build on what we already had there, the early pioneers in the Arts District, and to give Skid Row what everybody else wants, which is housing and cleaner streets.
Q: What was the difference in the approach to Downtown between your office and that of your predecessor, Rita Walters?
A: Because we have term limits — and during the course of my service we were extended one more term — I always felt the pressure of time and that everything was urgent, and so I was very, very aggressive in terms of getting projects done, built and open, especially housing and in particular permanent supportive housing.
Q: The general perception was that the previous administration didn’t care a lot about Downtown — Walters even opposed Staples Center. Was this area not getting the attention it deserved?
A: As an elected official you have to stay very aware and abreast of changes in whatever district you’re in — the demographics, the needs of emerging communities — and you can’t rely on traditional ways of thinking about a community if you want to move an agenda forward. Maybe the difference was traditional thinking versus being forward thinking.
Q: L.A. Live, Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels were the most prominent projects to open during your tenure. What other projects do you think were crucial but that didn’t get as much attention?
A: The Downtown Women’s Center. I not only love the building, I love what goes on inside the building. To me it’s a place of healing, of recovery, and it’s a beautiful setting, both inside and out.
There’s also the New Carver, over by California Hospital Medical Center, and Michael Maltzan is the architect. My favorite part of the project is the laundry room. That’s an undesirable location because it is between two freeways, so he took the freeways and made them part of a sort of kinetic art piece. There’s this long slice of window in the laundry room and you see the freeway as you’re doing laundry, and it looks like this moving piece of art.
Q: What has been your biggest frustration in Downtown over the years?
A: It has always been the time it takes to get things done, particularly when you have projects that have some component of public financing.
Q: One project that never moved forward is Related Cos. Grand Avenue plan. It’s still stalled.
A: Supervisor [Gloria] Molina had the foresight to get the money for the park upfront, so the park clearly is going to open, and thank goodness she did that. Then the Broad museum came along and was able to utilize one of the parcels for probably the largest contemporary art collection right here in Los Angeles. Great for us.
But we have three more parcels that remain undone, and [Related] will have to come up with some financing or reduce the scope of the project or something to be able to move it along. I think in February they’ll come back before the Grand Avenue Authority for review.
Q: Is this a lost opportunity?
A: This project is of a huge magnitude. Of course I would have preferred it would have been completed while I still represented the area, but given the worldwide recession, they got hit like everyone else. It’s my hope they’ll be able to find some alternative sites for financing so maybe they’ll be able to move it forward, at least in some phase.
Q: You spent more time addressing Skid Row than any elected official had in decades. There’s no political payoff — you don’t get financial contributions or more than a few dozen votes. So why spend all the time and resources there?
A: Because I thought it was horrendous that the city would even leave people out there on the sidewalk to live as if that was some kind of a solution to homelessness, and it wasn’t. The [monthly Skid Row] walks were useful because you got to see somebody new each time and learn something new each time.
I spent a lot of time talking to people who were both in housing and not in housing. The people who were in housing and who’d gone through recovery programs always said we want to be safe, we want somewhere nice to live. I just believed people wanted the same thing no matter where they lived.
Q: You have had to contend with a core group of activists who seem to protest any city-led changes in Skid Row. Is that frustrating?
A: Everybody has their own value system, and I have my belief that it’s important to get people off the street and into a stable situation so they can recover. To leave people on the street is something that will never be acceptable to me. I think it’s just wrong and a dereliction of our own moral obligation to take care of people and help them recover.
Q: You referenced the goal to connect South L.A. and USC with the core of Downtown via the Figueroa Corridor. Where are you on that?
A: The connection has been severed because of redistricting and because of the demise of the Community Redevelopment Agency. It will require a whole new approach. USC is a private nonprofit institution and there is no redevelopment agency.
I had done some legislation a while ago to incentivize developers to develop further south by purchasing air rights from over the Convention Center, and in exchange they would get greater floor area ratio and density bonuses to build workforce housing on areas on the Figueroa Corridor all the way down to Martin Luther King Boulevard. I think if we continue to push the envelope we can eventually take the impact of Downtown down to Martin Luther King Boulevard.
Q: What are the biggest problems Downtown still faces?
A: I think time, lack of continuity, financing, disruption of vision, and there must be a continuation of the effort to house people who are homeless. It has to continue. It can’t stop. That is going to be a problem for everybody, citywide.
Q: Do you take pride at the changes in Downtown over the last 11 years?
A: Absolutely. And true happiness.
I still feel optimistic. One thing I can tell you about Downtown is that even when the rest of the world is down, Downtown is always on the rebound and always on the climb and always redefining itself, whether organically, neighborhood block by block, or by large projects. The people who come here are unique by the very nature that they have chosen to come here.
Q: If you were to offer any advice to a council representative, whomever that may be, whose territory covers Downtown, what would you say?
A: You’d better be prepared to work harder than you ever have in your life, and the peoples’ needs come first, and these relationships are very, very important. Every single one of them.
Contact Jon Regardie at email@example.com.
©Los Angeles Downtown News.