by Ryan Vaillancourt, Staff Writer, LA Downtown News Dec 2, 2011
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – Last month, few job offers seemed as unenticing as the post of executive director of the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District.
In September the board of the BID, which taxes Historic Core property owners to pay primarily for street cleaning and security services, fired longtime head Russell Brown in a session that many alleged violated public meeting laws. They then hired Roberto Saldaña, whose former employer had clashed with 14th District City Councilman José Huizar. Under pressure from Huizar, the BID voided the Saldaña hire and opened up the position to applicants.
After a month of politically charged rhetoric and intense scrutiny, the board hired Blair Besten. The veteran of the Downtown real estate scene had worked for developers the Kor Group (Santa Fe Lofts, the Pegasus) and Amerland (the Alexandria Hotel, the Rosslyn Lofts). Most recently, she worked in commercial real estate with broker Ed Rosenthal.
In her first month as director, Besten, who says she took a pay cut to join the BID, oversaw an effort to expand the district. It passed, just months after a previous effort had failed. Now, she plans to focus on more neighborhood improvement projects and building the community support that will be necessary to renew the BID in December 2013.
Los Angeles Downtown News: Given the controversy and infighting, why did you want this job?
Blair Besten: After I heard the position was available and some people suggested I go for it, it took me a week and a half to mull it over and weigh the pros and cons. I knew absolutely what I was getting into. And, for the work that’s involved, there’s talk about the salary not being adequate. But I have a deep love of Downtown and it just made sense for me. It’s the old adage, there’s more to life than just money. I knew this job would be something I could sink my teeth into and hopefully make the area better and make the BID work better.
Q: How does your real estate development background prepare you for this job?
A: This is a chance to do what I was doing with individual developers for a mass of developers, and to effect change on a grander scale. A lot of the skill sets will be good for the job, like creative negotiating, working with the city and working with people in general. I see challenges in an optimistic way. That comes from working with developers. A developer will say, “We need to get this done,” and you don’t get to say, “That’s impossible, no.” They’ll look at you and say, “Then what are you here for? You’re fired.” So you figure out how to get it to work.
Q: What was your first priority?
A: Expansion. We needed the money, bottom line. Secondly, on many deep levels, we needed that success. I think it could be a good indication going forward of how it will be with the renewal. Do people believe in us? We needed to reassert ourselves.
Q: Why did the expansion fail at first, and why were you successful the second time?
A: It’s my understanding that there was a technical error, which enabled us to do a vote again. Also, the language on the ballot was unclear. People were under the false impression that their assessment would go up. But ultimately, it was about campaigning and that has to be done on a grassroots, relentless level. We did that the second time.
Q: You were hired in part to steer the BID in what board members called a “new direction.” What is that direction?
A: It’s about going beyond clean and safe. Right now, that’s the bulk of our budget. Our clean and safe vendors do their job really well. That leaves us with bringing new business into the area; branding and marketing our neighborhood; unifying our building owners; and really networking with the stakeholders. This is the best neighborhood in Downtown, I think. But when you see empty storefronts, we haven’t done our job. And we need to take a more upfront role with neighborhood initiatives like Art Walk and a farmers market.
Q: State law requires BIDs to spend the majority of their budget on clean and safe services. How much wiggle room do you have to spend money on other efforts?
A: Very little. We need free help. One of the other great things about this neighborhood is there are so many creative people who want to contribute and put their time in. It’s about utilizing the creative resources we have right here.
Q: In 2013, property owners will vote on whether or not to renew the BID for five years. What would be the impact of BID expiration?
A: Enjoy seeing bags of trash pile up and dog waste on the sidewalk forever. There are times when it’s overlooked, but many parts of these streets would never get power washed. We get 40 hours of power washing a month in our budget that would go away. The Christmas decorations, which I think are important, would go away. When you get scared and call the police and they are overwhelmed and can’t respond right away, our people are there in a matter of minutes. They’re first responders and liaisons. I think they make people feel more secure.