The Smartest Person in Los Angeles

cecilia-estolano.jpgIt’s been almost 20 years since I met the smartest person in Los Angeles, Cecilia Estolano. She was on the staff of Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, I was on Mayor Bradley’s staff. We were having one of the typical meetings you have in government — too many people who had nothing better to do, clogging up what should have been a smaller, shorter meeting with an excess of posturing. I don’t remember the subject, unfortunately, but it was something to do with the environment.

Suddenly, this voice piped in from the end of the table — a young woman’s. She spoke rapid-fire, impatiently, like a college student in a hot debate. In a few seconds, she summed up everything we needed to think about, framing the issue in macro terms while paying due respect to the many devilish details. For my purposes, at that point the meeting was over. There was nothing left to say.

Who are you? I remember asking her after the meeting was over since, characteristically, she had spoken her name and affiliation too fast for me to process it. She introduced herself with a firm handshake. She was new to Galanter’s staff. Friendly, but intensely focused. She really didn’t fit in at City Hall. It takes forever to get anything done, and most of the people there are unfriendly and unfocused. I figured the slow pace would cause her to spontaneously combust. But it didn’t. When I left the mayor’s office to begin my illustrious PR career, I recommended Cecilia to replace me.

Since then, Estolano has worked for the U.S. EPA, the city attorney’s office, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Now she’s CEO of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. This week’s Downtown News has an interview with her. It’s the first one I’ve seen since she took the job about a year ago. Why the thoughts and plans of this dynamic new leader aren’t of more interest to the city’s more prominent media, I couldn’t tell you.

Two things are interesting about this interview: What it reveals about her management style, and the issues to which she’s directing her attention. Here are a couple of excerpts that illustrate what I mean, (with the key statements in bold letters):

Q: With a name like Community Redevelopment Agency, you would imagine that community building would have been the founding principle from the start. Why hasn’t it and how will you ensure it does?

A: I think in times past, the agency has looked at catalytic projects one by one, project by project, and we really are trying to look at, from a planning perspective, what are all of the different components that make a healthy community? Instead of just doing a one-off deal, we’re also looking at how does the fabric of the community work? Is it a healthy place for families to live, shop and work? What I wanted to do coming on board was set a very clear sense of what the mission of the agency was and communicate that consistently and repeatedly throughout and drive down those goals through every rank of the agency. And I think I’ve been somewhat successful at that. Our budget this year is aimed at reflecting those goals, so that means we’re adding capacity on workforce development, on local hiring, on affordable housing, on green urbanism. We really do want to reflect those values in our budgeting, in the way we measure our performance, in the way that we communicate with the community.

Q: What are the biggest obstacles to taking the agency where you want to take it?

A: I don’t really see a lot of obstacles, to be honest with you. I think it’s a matter of getting people the resources they need. We have an incredibly motivated staff here. It has to be one of the strongest mission-driven workforces I’ve ever been a part of. I compare it to when I worked at the EPA where people were very mission-driven about protecting the environment. I haven’t seen that level of commitment until this job. It’s really impressive. So, I don’t think of it as a challenge so much as an opportunity. The other thing we really want to look at is trying to track more private sector investment. We’re looking at a time when there is more private capital chasing urban in-fill deals than ever in history. And we have to find a way to pull that money into our project areas.

Q: Is your background as an environmental lawyer new for someone in your position? And how does it inform your decisions?

A: I think it’s an unusual package for a redevelopment executive director and it informs everything I do. It’s wonderful to be working for a board and a mayor and council members who see the value of sustainable urbanism. But when I came here I wanted to make sure that was a core value of the agency and so in every speech I gave, and every time I talked to staff members, I made it clear that I expected us to move into sustainable urbanism, that we would find a way to reform the agency’s internal practices as well as our relationship with developers to encourage that kind of activity.

And:

Q: Do you see red flags in Downtown’s boom and do those concerns play into your decision-making?

A: We have to try to maintain a balance of incomes in Downtown. We also have to be mindful of all the people living in the single room occupancy hotels and how precious that resource is as a reservoir of scarce housing. We have to deal with Skid Row; we have to deal with the homelessness problem. That is an enormous challenge that is going to take an extraordinary level of cooperation with the county. You asked me what the biggest challenge is; to me that is probably the single biggest challenge we face as a city – not just for Downtown but as a city – grappling with the homelessness problem and our inter-jurisdictional conflicts.

Q: How would you rate Downtown in terms of being a mixed-economic, mixed-income area?

A: Well, it’s funny you ask that question when we’ve just seen the survey come out from [the Downtown Center Business Improvement District] about the new residents and how they have a much higher median income than the rest of the city. I think it’s a challenge to keep it of a diverse economic background. Right now, we pretty much have a bipolar Downtown residential population. We have the homeless and the SRO dwellers and we have the folks that live in the lofts and there is a big gulf in between. That’s not a healthy community. We need to have more workforce housing; we need to have people who are the administrative assistants who live Downtown as well as the associates of law firms. We’re just happy to see that there is a residential development boom occurring in Downtown – we don’t want to put the skids to that – but we do want to make sure that we have more of an income mix.

The politics are thick and greasy downtown — especially now that so many more developers are making so much more money than before — but Cecilia’s intelligence, clarity and experience will hopefully act as a solvent. I like how she describes her leadership style — no wasted energy, focused on the big picture.

The story repeats a rumor that Estolano is considering a race for a westside City Council seat, a rumor she dismisses. It’s so tempting for intelligent people in public service to go that route, but I hope she doesn’t. It’s been proven over many decades that you don’t really need to be that smart to be a successful councilmember. But downtown LA needs a leader, and the timing of Cecilia’s emergence in this role is perfect.

(Hat tip: LA Observed.)

2 thoughts on “The Smartest Person in Los Angeles

  1. What a vibrant, focused personality! As you say, it seems just about any idiot can be a council member (examples abound – insert favorite here), but people like Cecilia are rare treasures in government service. We need more like her. Here’s hoping that junior staff there take note and follow her lead.

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