Q: What are your priorities for the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee in 2006?
A: I want to continue the policy direction set by Sen. Torlakson and Senate leadership by focusing on smart growth Ė promote housing near jobs, and maximize infill housing.
Secondly, I plan to work with the legislative leadership on an infrastructure bond, and to move the Senate Transportation and Housing Committeeís focus towards more sustainable programs, and a greener, more environmentally-friendly transportation policy.
My ultimate goal is a zero emission transportation system, and Iím focusing on goods movement, eliminating pollution, and working towards eliminating use of high sulfur content diesel fuel.
Q: How do you see the prospects for an overall infrastructure package?
A: I think they are good. Throughout the state we have huge congestion problems that have caused air pollution problems. There is a distinct lack of affordable housing, and really, we have an over- reliance on petroleum products. We need to have an infrastructure package that reduces traffic, and looks for green solutions.
Q: As a former chair of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, you are certainly aware of the difficulties communities face in attempting to balance growth pressures with the need to preserve and protect environmental resources.
But you also have an interest in housing. What is your perspective regarding the stateís need to build housing and infrastructure to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population, vs. the need to preserve open space and protect environmental resources?
A: Iíve always been a member of the Smart Growth Caucus. The solution to housing is not sprawl. The solution is better utilization of existing urbanized areas, doing much more infill, revitalizing communities through as much restoration protection of neighborhoods.
The important things are to not allow ongoing loss of housing stock by neglect, and promote new housing and infill that is built near transit corridors. We also need to tie our funding for transportation and housing closer together.
As long as there is an incentive to allow sprawl, and reliance on sales tax in newer communities, and little incentive to build infill projects, weíre not going to deal with the balance that is needed between housing and protection of scarce open space. You can only do it by changing incentive systems and taking seriously the idea of infill.
Q: Your background is as a professor of community psychology at California State University, Long Beach. What got you interested in government, particularly local government?
A: Even when teaching, I was always working in my local neighborhoods and communities on projects. I became a community activist and ran for the Long Beach City Council. I never had any aspirations of going higher. It was fortuitous that the incumbent in 1998 chose to leave the 54th Assembly District seat to run for Congress, and there was an opening, so I decided to run for the seat, with little understanding of where it was going to take me.
I think thatís why I brought to the Assembly the importance of partnership between local and state government.
Q: Every year, there are measures introduced that seek to address land use issues by moving more authority to the state. Local officials typically oppose these proposals, arguing the benefits of "local control" and that "one size does not fit all." Yet clearly, there are many policy issues that the state cares about.
What are your thoughts on how to strike a policy balance between state regulation, and allowing local communities to have flexibility to respond to unique local circumstances?
A: I think there is a balance between state regulation and local responsibility. There is a need for the state to set overall policy, to require that all cities comply with the general need to designate enough sites for affordable housing, and comply with state regulations on a timely basis.
On the other hand, what is needed is the ability to understand that there are different conditions in different cities. This means that you must have a flexible policy. You need to build in a cooperative process. If you start from the fact that the state knows all, and cities will break the law, then you will have real problems and conflict. But if you assume both are partners, and each has own responsibilities and accountability, you can come to grips with these issues.
Q: Redevelopment played a big role in revitalizing Long Beach Ė your hometown. What is your view of redevelopment tools in the context of urban renewal? Can these renewal projects go forward if eminent domain is removed or restricted? How do you see the current scrutiny on eminent domain and redevelopment playing out in 2006?
A: Letís begin with eminent domain ó one of the tools that can be used by the redevelopment agencies (RDA). The real issue is Ė are RDAs working effectively? Are they engaging the public, looking for ways for public to give input to agencies? Do they follow the law in making sure redevelopment is used only when a neighborhood is blighted?
California is not Connecticut. We have clearly defined statutory limitations on the use of eminent domain. RDAs must declare physical and economic blight Ė and blight must be so substantial that it causes a reduction in the use of the area. This blight canít be just alleviated by private sector alone. So the state provides this tool to overcome blighted condition.
If eminent domain is used cautiously, Iím not opposed to it. However, there may be ways we can tighten up requirements even further. But there isnít a need to eliminate it, and I donít think thatís the real issue in the State Legislature. One issue that could be looked at is the use of eminent domain with owner-occupied single-family residences. I think it is rarely used there, but we may need to modify it in those situations.
I think some of the initiatives go far too far. Sen. McClintock and some others are not friends of redevelopment. To me, redevelopment is a tool, and if a community has full public comment on an issue, itís a good tool. I think we need to look at eminent domain, but we have to remember not to throw the baby out with the bath. Redevelopment and eminent domain are successful in most communities.
Sen. Alan Lowenthal, a resident of Long Beach, was elected to represent the 27th District of the California State Senate in November 2004 following six years in the California State Assembly.
As the former Chair of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee and current Chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, Sen. Lowenthal is committed to protecting the environment through innovative policy solutions and strong stewardship of public lands.