Equity is more than an outcome; it is a process. It is a common interest, not a special interest. These quotes were the cornerstone of the discussion at this year’s Urban Marketplace, hosted by the Urban Land Institute (ULI). Equity is the concept that common resources should not be distributed evenly, but rather as needed; those with the least have the opportunity to thrive and grow which enriches the whole over time. The half-day conference focused on equity and the role of both the public and private sectors in pushing past equality to reach truly equitable outcomes in development and city building. The day kicked off with an amazing panel that shared honest, thought-provoking insights and opinions on some challenging questions facing Los Angeles and our future. After the panel, attendees had the opportunity to participate in 20 roundtable discussions delving into various facets of bringing a development to life.

For the last 18 years, ULI has challenged the Los Angeles development community to “make a deal and make a difference” in under-served and under-developed low-income areas in our city, tackling the hard conversations that surround challenges unique to urban areas through the Urban Marketplace. The brainchild of Michael Banner, this marquee event regularly brings in several hundred attendees, a full array of area movers and shakers, and representatives from several SCAG cities.

Urban Marketplace took place on March 28th and was set in the beautifully renovated MacArthur. The Future is Now: The Convergence of Policy, Partnerships, and Equity took a deep look at how equity should and will help drive policy initiatives, and the public and private investment responses to bring about a better infrastructure for all Angelinos. The panel, made up of Bradley Cox from Trammel Crow, Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Vanessa Carter from the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, and Robin Hughes from Abode Communities as moderator kicked off the morning discussing data that USC has pulled together showing heat maps of housing and income disparities and discussing further research published in “An Equity Profile of the Los Angeles Region.” The data proves out that inequity holds back growth in the long term, and underinvestment in some areas makes the entire city inefficient and underperform. The social tensions that have been written in the early pages of Los Angeles’ history have, unnecessarily and to our detriment, created winners and losers. We must push for equity over equality to maximize the full potential of our region. 

Private investment struggles with equity, more so than the public sector, but the public sector’s role is to pave the way and pull the private sector along, according to Councilman Harris-Dawson. With measures such as JJJ and HHH, the expansion of Metro and the TOC guidelines that follow, the public sector is working to bring some relief to the private sector interested in creating new developments. The key to accepting change and new construction, according to the whole panel as well as the leaders of the roundtable discussions, was to engage the community early and to listen to the concerns and needs of the locals in the area to understand what will work and be accepted by neighborhoods, truly utilizing local expertise rather than forcing a change in established areas.

Housing is the overarching challenge that touches virtually every topic in the city. Our massive housing crisis may see some relief from new legislation streamlining associated with SB 35, SB 540 and the Housing Accountability Act. While many are excited about the possibility of easing the process of getting housing built as a way to entice more units to come online, the cautious request from the majority of those in attendance was to develop new housing with care and a sense of responsibility. Low-income neighborhoods often carry an undue burden in building multi-family housing, and specifically affordable housing units. Cities that already have low-income units rarely see other types of projects go through their building departments and accept what is submitted simply due to a lack of choice. Meanwhile, the continuing development of affordable housing in low-income areas of the city is widening an existing divide and putting equity and equality further out of reach, artificially segregating an already segregated population.

Several tables focused on discussions surrounding Metro, including the initiatives for first/last mile, the TOC guidelines that surround transit and encouraging diversity in ridership. The transit authority was a focal point for many as a means to achieving a more sustainable, equitable future by allowing everyone access to more areas of the city and thus a greater fluidity in career and housing prospects.

Surprisingly, during the Q & A session the panel was addressed by a representative of a small city about to be tied into the Metro rail system, who voiced concerns over the costs associated with contributions cities are being asked to provide for the operation of stations that could end up being a large percentage of their general funds. Additionally, there is a threat of displacement of the current tenants as new development moves in to take advantage of the Metro line. Furthermore, there is a cost associated with building the necessary amenities, services and infrastructure expansion needed when transit moves in, including park and ride lots, shopping centers and the accordant strain on utilities and roads. Transit is often seen as a bearer of opportunity, allowing connectivity to the disadvantaged, however the reality is it may bring undue hardship as well. Solutions might lie in looking at problems in an interconnected way, with the push coming from community activists forcing all agencies, developers and other agents of change to look at the area as a whole to see beyond housing to the need for other services such as shopping centers, educational facilities and parks holistically.

The flashpoint for many citizens concerned with new developments is the treatment of landmarks, local culture, and sensitivity to current residents. Several tables were focused on the revitalization of areas and specific sites long neglected such as Pershing Square, MacArthur Park, the LA River, Exposition Park and Jordan Downs, all community-oriented projects intended to “lift the whole boat” as Councilman Harris-Dawson put it.

The day was full of interest, collaboration and hope for what could be in store for Los Angeles – a city on the verge of achieving its full potential if we all agree to a common destiny and take action to achieve our goals.