POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 10, 2014
LOS ANGELES » From the 73-story skyscraper that just broke ground downtown (the tallest in the West), to the blizzard of office, shopping and apartment complexes rising from there to the Pacific, construction is bustling in Los Angeles. Home prices are up, and the foreclosure rate is declining. Crime is down. There is a new mayor in City Hall. In many ways, Los Angeles, like many once-beleaguered cities across the nation, seems on the upswing.
Yet at this presumed moment of promise and potential, Los Angeles is enduring a series of blows that have challenged its self-esteem and even its long-term stability. Some appear more symbolic, like the departure of "The Tonight Show" for New York, followed by the plaintive appeal by Mayor Eric A. Garcetti that CBS move "The Late Show" to Los Angeles when David Letterman retires next year. Others are beyond its control, such as the disconcerting wave of earthquakes that have rumbled the region in recent weeks, reminding residents of how unprepared Southern California is for a cataclysmic temblor.
But the most worrisome blow by far is a scathing verdict on Los Angeles' civic health that was delivered in a one-two punch the second on Wednesday by a committee of lawyers, developers, labor leaders and former elected officials who make up something of the Old Guard here. The Los Angeles 2020 Commission presented a catalog of failings that it said were a unique burden to the city: widespread poverty and job stagnation, huge municipal pension obligations, a struggling port and tourism industry. and paralyzing traffic that would not be eased even with a continuing multibillion-dollar mass transit initiative.
Their conclusions amounted to an indictment of a city and its culture, a place that the commission said was brimming with talent and resources but was nonetheless falling behind other major cities across the globe.
"Los Angeles is barely treading water, while the rest of the world is moving forward," the commission said. "We risk falling further behind in adapting to the realities of the 21st century and becoming a city in decline."
"Year by year, our city which once was a beacon of innovation and opportunity to the world is becoming less livable," the report said.
The first part of the report was released in December. Its bleak portrait of Los Angeles' future was designed to break through and draw attention to the city's plight like "an alarm clock," said Mickey Kantor, a former U.S. secretary of commerce who is the co-chairman of the commission, adding that the committee wanted to ensure that the document did not become "another report gathering dust on the shelf."
But as exhaustive as Chapter 1 was in laying out problems, the follow-up presented here Wednesday was strikingly less ambitious and specific, testimony to what municipal leaders have long said was the intractability of the challenges, the difficulty in getting things done in a community with a history of lackluster civic involvement and an institutionally weak mayor.
On what is widely seen as perhaps the biggest threat to the long-term fiscal stability of the city the crushing cost of pensions and worker benefits the commission recommended appointing another commission. Kantor and Austin Beutner, a former deputy mayor and Wall Street investment banker who is the other co-chairman, said they did not have the expertise needed to suggest what the city might do. Hence, the proposal for a "Commission for Retirement Security."
"Yeah, we did kick the ball to someone else, because we didn't have the staff at the time, the resources to really do what would be a professional job in coming up with correct recommendations in this very technical area," Kantor said.
Whatever its intent and aspirations, the report stirred a strong response from some civic leaders who described it as exaggerated and potentially damaging.
"Los Angeles is so good about saying privately what we love about our city and publicly" complaining about what is wrong, Garcetti, the mayor, said in an interview. "I'd like to invert that."
"If we are really going to tackle things, that is going to require a common purpose," he added. "I think it's better to lead with our optimism and our strength, rather than going into a corner and being pessimistic."
Russell Goldsmith, president of City National Bank in Los Angeles, who served on a similar blue-ribbon commission six years ago, called the new description "an unfortunate characterization" of what Los Angeles is like today.
"It is certainly not in decline," he said. "Los Angeles, like many cities, has some serious issues and problems, but it also has remarkable resources and opportunities."
In some ways, the commission might have made things more difficult for itself. Beutner said he and Kantor had wanted all the recommendations from the commission to be unanimous. That meant forging a consensus in a group that included representatives of two municipal labor unions that have long been wary of the sharp cuts in worker benefits that have been pressed as one answer to municipal woes.
When the first part of the report came out, bristling with criticism, many people in City Hall predicted that the second part would fall flat. As it turned out, much of what the commission suggested was procedural: The report said that Los Angeles should move its municipal elections to November from spring to combat low voter turnout, and that the city should merge the now adjacent (and competitive) Los Angeles and Long Beach ports as well as a thicket of competing tourism bureaus.
Other suggestions were for the creation of an independent budget office that would evaluate the fiscal implications of legislation and of an independent rate-setting commission that would oversee the perennially besieged Department of Water and Power.
For all that, the most contentious aspect of the report might be less in the details and more in the image it portrays of Los Angeles, a city that has always been very sensitive about its reputation, as a municipality in decline.
"Because it points an inappropriately unduly negative picture of Los Angeles, it can't help the image of the city," Goldsmith said. "I'm surprised by it, but I don't know why they took such a strikingly negative view. Maybe they felt they had to do this to get attention."
Paul Krekorian, a Democratic member of the City Council, dismissed the exercise as "an opportunity for a collection of people to share all of the things that aggravate them most, rather than a thoughtful consideration of the status quo of the city right now."
Beutner, who briefly ran for mayor of Los Angeles last year, defended the tone of the report. "It's a bit of a wake-up call," he said. "If the report is seriously sobering, maybe it's because the facts are seriously sobering."