Suja Lowenthal Challenged By Janet Ballantyne For Long Beach 2nd Council District Seat
By George Economides, Publisher
And Tiffany Rider, Senior Writer
March 27, 2012 - On paper, it looks like a one-sided, 'David vs. Goliath'-type race for the Long Beach 2nd Council District.
After all, it's a six-year incumbent with a complete understanding of district and citywide issues, versus a downtown condominium resident who almost didn't get her candidate paperwork in on time and is cramming to learn about redevelopment, the port, the airport, the city budget and more.
Suja Lowenthal is poised on April 10 to be reelected in a landslide, possibly setting up a run in 2012 to be elected the next mayor of Long Beach.
She's up against Janet Ballantyne, a five-year resident at a condo on The Promenade, where she serves as president of her homeowners association. What Ballantyne lacks in her knowledge of issues she certainly makes up for with an outgoing personality, a sincere desire to help residents and businesspeople – who she says have been ignored by the incumbent – and a genuine passion to make Long Beach a better place to live.
If Ballantyne has any chance of pulling off an upset – the biggest since another Lowenthal, current State Sen. Alan, beat a 16-year incumbent in the same 2nd District 20 years ago – it would be due strictly to an anti-Suja vote.
Not that a big anti-Suja movement exists, but the articulate, highly-educated, single mother of one is not afraid to let people know exactly how she feels about issues – especially when they deal with the future direction of the city. In doing so, she has made some enemies, especially since she's faced numerous downtown area hot-button issues during her time on the city council. She's also drawn the ire of many residents because she led the charge to ban plastic bags.
While most Business Journal readers might associate the 2nd District with Downtown Long Beach, the downtown makes up less than half of the area. The district boundary stretches along parts of Ocean Boulevard east to Redondo Avenue, then goes north to 10th Street and adds a few blocks of 11th Street, south on Alamitos Avenue, then west along portions of 3rd Street and Broadway to the Long Beach Freeway.
The district includes most of the businesses downtown and most of the high-rise office buildings. It also encompasses The Pike at Rainbow Harbor, Shoreline Village, the convention center, the Queensway Bay, most of the Port of Long Beach and much of the Broadway and 4th Street business corridors. The 2nd District includes the largest number of high-rise condominium units in the city, many of them located along Ocean Boulevard.
Lowenthal joined the city council in 2006, easily winning a special election for the then-vacant 2nd District seat. Two years later, she ran unopposed for a four-year term. Therefore it's been six years since residents have had an opportunity to vote for a city council representative, which might lead to a low voter turnout of 15 to 18 percent, with most votes via absentee ballots.
Q&A With Janet Ballantyne
New York-born Janet Ballantyne, who has worked for a financial services firm in El Segundo the past 10 years, said her experience in relationship building and work in the private sector makes her the leader local businesspeople and residents need so they receive "the representation they deserve." She has served as president of her condominium building's homeowners' association board for the past four years.
Ballantyne has an associate's degree in business from Fullerton College and a bachelor's degree in business from National University. She has put her pursuit of a master's in business administration from Pepperdine University on hold for the campaign.
A five-year resident of downtown, Ballantyne said she has been thinking about running for the city council seat for the past two years. According to her candidate statement, she believes, "Making things happen in the 2nd District means doing more than just forming partnerships with current and entrenched interests. It means seeking new directions, new coalitions and new interests to build a stronger community which is a better representative of the constituency."
LBBJ: Share with us what brought you to California 20 years ago and what brought you to Long Beach in 2007.
Ballantyne: I was born and raised in New York City and I came out to California for a vacation. I saw my first palm tree and the community at the beach, and fell in love with it. Then a lot of my high school friends started moving out here so I decided to take the plunge as well. . . . I first came to Fullerton and then I went to Newport after that [because] I found myself driving to the beach all the time. Then I moved to Irvine and owned a house there. I then lived in Lomita and Hermosa and now I live in Long Beach, which I absolutely love. It has been really great. I've lived in Long Beach now for five years.
LBBJ: So there wasn't a particular reason why you moved to Long Beach in 2007?
Ballantyne: I wanted to live in a more urban environment. When I lived in New York City, you could walk to the restaurant, you could walk to the dry cleaner, [walk to] do your food shopping – that's the kind of environment I was looking for and I found it in Long Beach. I actually have a lot of friends from my office that live in Long Beach, so they were saying, "Janet, check it out!" I went down there and said, "Wow, this is great." There was a new development on the Promenade and that's where I live, on the Promenade. It's really quite nice.
LBBJ: We understand you're a manager of sponsor relations for a major financial services firm. What firm is it?
Ballantyne: It's called Financial Network. They sell financial products to individuals . . . mutual funds, life insurance, fixed insurance products, stocks, bonds . . .
LBBJ: So what is a sponsor relations manager?
Ballantyne: I manage all the key relationships for the firm. So all the product companies and all the product vendors that do business with us, I'm the key contact for them and I guide them how best to work with our firm, how to best market their product within our firm and I also market their products and their resources to all my advisors. We have about 2,500 investment advisors.
LBBJ: You've been doing this for 10 years. What about your work experience prior to that?
Ballantyne: I worked for Chase in New York City for the investment division of Chase Investors and then I moved out here and worked for Merrill Lynch. I also wholesaled an annuity product for Alliance insurance. Then I found this position at Financial Network and the people are just great.
LBBJ: What's your favorite part about living downtown? Is there something that stands out?
Ballantyne: Absolutely, yes. I love being able to come home on a Friday and park my car and not get back into my car until Monday. That is the jewel in the crown, for me.
LBBJ: So you just walk everywhere?
Ballantyne: I do. I walk everywhere. I'm looking into buying a bike right now so I can get a little bit further into the neighborhood without taking the car.
LBBJ: Is the condominium where you live the type of place where you can meet people or is it like a dormitory, where it's a long hallway?
Ballantyne: I think every building might be different but in the building that I live, there are two towers and we know everybody in the building. There is a lot of camaraderie. We have events. We invite people down for wine and cheese [and] we open our houses up at holiday time and we all go to each other's homes.
LBBJ: Now that you've been here for four or five years, is there a particular business or type of business you wish would locate downtown?
Ballantyne: Trader Joe's has been a huge request from all my residents [saying], "Janet, can you get Trader Joe's down here?" I'm like, okay, I'm going to go talk to them. I don't know why they're not here. Everybody wants Trader Joe's. There are so many possibilities, especially [for] Pine. There are so many vacancies right now. It would be great to get more restaurants and just continue that trend all down Pine.
LBBJ: Do you have a favorite pastime or hobby?
Ballantyne: Yeah, I love art. I'm an art enthusiast. I'm a glass blower and I also do stained glass when I find some time. I haven't touched it in awhile. I've been really busy with the campaign. But glass has been my passion for the last 12 years.
LBBJ: And you can do that at your home?
Ballantyne: I have a converted studio in Orange County. I was also taking classes at Santa Ana College for glass blowing. I actually blew a flock of birds that I'm waiting to incorporate into a mixed media art piece.
LBBJ: Since you're into art, do you think the city is doing enough to promote and help the arts?
Ballantyne: No, I do not. I think there is so much more that can be done. I really do feel we need some kind of arts council to focus on organizing a great art walk that would incorporate all the local artists in Long Beach. People tell me, "Oh my gosh, there are so many artists that live here and nobody knows who they are."
LBBJ: Isn't there an East Village art walk once a month?
Ballantyne: There is, but it is not to the tune of what it could be. There's just so much potential for someone who really loves and appreciates the arts. I think we could take that to a whole new level. There are a lot of people just waiting to get involved in that kind of thing.
LBBJ: Have you ever attended a city council meeting?
Ballantyne: I've watched the council meetings on TV. . . . I've been spending a lot of time working on this and I'm also the HOA [homeowners association] president, and that takes up a lot of time. So I have a full-time job in El Segundo, and then at night I do all my HOA duties. It's been pretty active lately because it's a new construction building and we've had a lot of issues . . .
LBBJ: Is the building filled?
Ballantyne: We do have some empty units. I think we're less than 10 percent vacant.
LBBJ: Did you decide to run for city council because this is something you've always wanted to do, or did somebody come to you and say, "We really want you to run."
Ballantyne: Well, a couple of things. I actually was thinking that I was going to run for city council over the last two years, but I was compelled to run now because of the interaction that we've had because of the PBID [Property Based Improvement District for downtown]. I felt really compelled that I wanted to get more involved and I wanted to step up to the plate. When I did, I was amazed at all the people that actually said, "Thank goodness, we'd love to see some change." It was a warm reception. I was in a senior home on Saturday and it was almost like celebrity status. No one has ever been in there from the city at all, any representative. They were so appreciative. I'm really trying to get a handle on what the senior issues for our city are because they haven't been addressed in any of the things that we've been discussing, especially the PBID that's going to assess the tax.
LBBJ: You mentioned senior issues as one thing you want to look into. What else are you hearing?
Ballantyne: People really want to feel like their voices are being heard. I hear that a lot. A lot of people are frustrated. They say they call the city about this and that and nobody ever calls them back. The question to me was, "Janet, are you going to set up a hotline so that we can call you with issues?" And you know what, I think that's a pretty good idea. You've got to be careful what you do because it could be overwhelming, but wouldn't you love to know what's going on in the city? You can't be everywhere and if people are having issues, I would really like to know what they are so that if we can help and we can address them, we can assist. I really think that's how it should be. People should feel like it's an open door policy, [like] they could approach you on the street [and] tell you things. That's the kind of person that I want to be in that office. That's what I really think that office is all about, accessibility.
LBBJ: The district goes all the way to 11th Street. Have you been up in that area at all?
Ballantyne: I haven't walked, I've driven.
LBBJ: But you haven't knocked on any doors?
Ballantyne: Not yet, but I am planning on it. The thing with the downtown area . . . I think it's lovely downtown and I appreciate how nice it looks, but I'm a little bit concerned that every time we implement something new, it's downtown. There are so many other areas that need some beautification and we don't seem to be spreading the love throughout the community. I am concerned about that. We really need to fix streets. In the senior center they were saying, "Janet, I roll down the street in my wheelchair and the streets aren't level and they're cracked and it's difficult." Why do we keep beautifying downtown when we can use some of those funds to improve other areas? We need to spread it out.
LBBJ: What funds are you talking about?
Ballantyne: Whatever the funds are. We put in the bike lanes and I think that's great…
LBBJ: That was through grant money.
Ballantyne: I understand. But maybe the striping of lanes would have been enough, and maybe we could have offset some other funds somewhere to fix and repair some streets that are just five and six blocks down the road because it's like a different neighborhood. So that is a little concerning to me, that we're not really spreading the funds throughout all the communities.
LBBJ: Based on your life experiences, what is the number one attribute you would bring to the office of 2nd District councilmember?
Ballantyne: I would say my ability to connect with people. I think people that meet me really genuinely feel that I care. I'm a very passionate person and I have a lot of tenacity, maybe to a fault. Once I get my sights on something, I really want to follow it through. It's really hard to have someone look you in the eye and say that there's something wrong, and that you can't do anything about it. You know what I'm saying? I really feel that I want to make it great for everybody, but we have to do it smartly. . . . I really feel that people are frustrated that no one is listening to what the needs are today. Nobody really understands what the people want and they're not taking any action to try to make it a better community for everyone, not just a select few.
LBBJ: How much money do you think you're going to need for the campaign?
Ballantyne: A lot. I think it's about $30,000.
LBBJ: And how much have you raised?
Ballantyne: My first fundraiser is tonight [February 29].
LBBJ: And the election is five weeks away?
Ballantyne: It is.
LBBJ: Are you taking time off from work?
Ballantyne: I am now, yes. I'll be taking a couple of weeks of vacation to work on the campaign.
LBBJ: So you're going to need $30,000, you figure. Are you planning on mailings?
Ballantyne: Yes. It's going to be full bore, but I need to rally the volunteers to do a lot of different things.
LBBJ: Do you have a lot of volunteers?
Ballantyne: I don't have a lot of volunteers. I would love to have a lot of volunteers.
LBBJ: Have you spoken with Suja Lowenthal one on one?
Ballantyne: Yes, I have. I've actually sat next to her at 555 [East restaurant]. We had a long discussion – this was before I knew I was going to be on the campaign – just about things in general about the city. She's very personable one on one.
LBBJ: Are you running because of the PBID issue or are there other issues?
Ballantyne: I think there are a lot of issues. We're not tapping into the resources that we have as a city. I'll just use the business owners as an example, because I have been talking to a lot of business owners. I'm finding that I thought they were happy campers and they're not. My goal is to really raise our net promoter score with the business owners. What I mean by that is, how likely are they to refer our city to their business owner friends? I know that they have them. I say to them point blank, "I know you have successful business owner friends. Would you recommend them to bring their businesses down to Long Beach?" I've not had one say yes.
LBBJ: And the reason?
Ballantyne: Because they don't feel they're supported. Some of these businesses are landmarks. They are successful because of their own business models, not because anything the city has done to help them be successful. They've done it themselves. They have generations of clients who come and they just have their built-in, regular base [of customers]. Every once in awhile, when we have an event, they get more traffic but they don't depend on that at all. They're just a successful business that has been with us a long time, but they would never recommend other businesses to come downtown.
LBBJ: So is this Suja Lowenthal's fault? Are you saying she's out of touch with the businesses downtown?
Ballantyne: Well, you know, the DLBA [Downtown Long Beach Associates] really is there to support the businesses but I think as a councilmember, you need to . . . These are all people that you know. It's all the restaurants I go to eat in every single day. If I can talk to them on a personal level just as a patron at the restaurant, I would think a councilmember could really forge positive, strong relationships and help raise that referability.
My business is all based on referrals. Even though I'm the client in a lot of situations, I don't treat my relationships that way. I treat those people like my clients because I want them to keep coming back. I need them for the success of my business. In order to provide resources and tools – and I do a capital raise every year of $1.2 million – I would never get that money if we weren't personable, if we weren't helping them, providing access, steering them in the right direction. I think we could tap into those business owners here and really make them feel some love. Right now, my whole goal is to keep the existing businesses that we have and to get them to refer their successful business owner friends no matter what it takes. You know, you build a friendship. You build alliances.
LBBJ: Do you hear complaints from downtown residents regarding crime?
Ballantyne: Yes. For the people that live in my immediate area and the residents in my building, what I'm hearing is that they don't feel as safe today as they did a few years ago. They definitely feel it's changed, and there aren't as many police on the street. I understand that we did install cameras around that area, but that isn't a substitute for police on the street. The elderly are telling me that there are a lot of crimes perpetrated against them.
. . . When I was in the Bellagio Manor, I think that's what it's called, one of the ladies told me that she witnessed a woman being pushed out of her wheelchair and her purse [was] snatched. . . . She was pretty upset about the whole ordeal and I didn't question her on the whole thing. She just said, "Janet, you know, we need police."
LBBJ: Are you fearful when you're walking downtown?
Ballantyne: It's a little bit of a mixed deal. When I was dropping off my nomination paperwork at City Hall, I had walked through Lincoln Park for the first time and I was afraid. I was born and raised in New York and I don't really scare that easily, but to me that was a frightening experience at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. That's two blocks from my house.
LBBJ: That may be a hangout for the homeless.
Ballantyne: There's a lot of weird activity going on there. I took a slow jog through there and I was hoping that it actually connected to the City Hall building. When I came around the corner, I finally realized that it did and I was like, thank goodness because I didn't want to go back the other way. That was unnerving to me. . . . . I think the lack of police on the street is on a slow, downhill slope because there are less police on the street. That's a fact.
LBBJ: Have you talked to the police chief?
Ballantyne: I haven't talked to the police chief.
LBBJ: Do you know who he is?
Ballantyne: Yes, I do, Jim McDonnell. I actually have his number to call for an appointment. . . . I'm just saying we really need to beef up our police where we live and our firefighters, too. And it's really all about pension reform because they, the city, can't afford to . . . You know, because it's such a large part of the budget, they can't afford it.
LBBJ: Do you understand the pension issue?
Ballantyne: I understand that they're retiring at the highest earnings that they've had in any given year. When they retire at age 50, it's going to impact whether or not they can sustain that.
LBBJ: Do you disagree with getting rid of plastic bags?
Ballantyne: I don't disagree with it, but I do disagree with the way we went about it. That's what I disagree with. . . . I've heard a lot of people say that they don't like it. They feel like using the recyclable bags are unsanitary because if you drop something in the bag, then you have to put it through the laundry. But do you know what I'm saying? You could have really actually met people half way and said, "You know what, we really want to do this and it really is for the betterment of the community and the earth." But let's incent people to use their recycled bags, and then we'll maybe attach a cost to the people that don't," rather than just putting a full-on ban. Honestly, the part that I had difficulty with is not even taking it to the community for input.
LBBJ: So you're more concerned about the process.
Ballantyne: The whole reason I even got involved in the race is because I feel that there isn't enough communication between the people and the city council office. I really feel there's not transparency when there should be; there's not enough disclosure, and we just really don't get to weigh in on things that we really should be able to weigh in on as a citizen. Every citizen has a voice. We should be proactively encouraging people to speak up and let us know what they feel that the priorities are.
LBBJ: Do you ever go to The Pike?
Ballantyne: I go to that theatre all the time. I do walk down there. When Border's left that was a big void for me, because that's a place that I really did visit on a regular basis. It's sad to see that whole area over there empty. But I still go to the theatre.
LBBJ: If you could wave a magic wand and get any wish you wanted for Long Beach, what would it be?
Ballantyne: I would really like to see the art and entertainment scene beefed up so that it was really an outstanding, great environment. I would really like to take that to the next level, and I know that it can go even well beyond that. But there's so much work to be done. I think we have an awesome city. I love where I live. We're not nearly tapping into what it really could be. They use the word "vibrant." It's going to be "vibrant." You know what I mean? There are so many other things that I think would actually bring a lot more people to the city and it would make it a really cool place for everybody to enjoy. I think there's a lot of work to be done.
I just really feel compelled to want to make a better connection between the citizens and the council office. There's such a huge disconnect today with people that I talk to. I really feel motivated that it won't be like that if I take office. I feel compelled to really be involved and I really want to make it a great place to live.
Back to Top
Q&A With Suja Lowenthal
Suja Lowenthal was elected to represent the city's 2nd Council District in 2006, running against 10 others in a winner-take-all race. Two years later, she ran unopposed and was reelected to a full, four-year term. In 2010, her city council colleagues chose her to serve a two-year term as vice mayor.
Lowenthal currently serves as the chair of both the city council's tidelands and harbor committee and the environmental committee. She is a member of the budget oversight committee, personnel and civil service committee and the charter amendment committee. Outside of City Hall, Lowenthal represents Long Beach as a director of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a boardmember of Heal the Bay and as an alternate on the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission Governing Board.
In this campaign, Lowenthal is running with a slogan, "Partnerships not politics," saying in her candidate statement that "Everything we have achieved to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods has been a product of partnerships and a focus on basic services . . . with neighborhood organizations, police, fire, city staff, merchants and residents."
Lowenthal earned a bachelor's degree in economics from UCLA, a master's degree in business administration from California State University, Los Angeles, and a doctorate in policy, planning and development from USC.
LBBJ: If you were to write a job description for the office of a district councilmember, what would it say?
Lowenthal: It would start out with the title being "city maker." It's not the person that fixes your sidewalks, necessarily. It's not the person that's going to go out and pick up a dead cat, although some people think so. It can be as small as that but, really, an effective councilperson . . . would be someone who engages in reassembling the various parts of the city. We're a built-out city and I think one of the drawbacks is a lot of individuals who run for office think that that's a limitation. It's not a limitation.
I'm an urban planner and I think some of the tenets of urban planning, whether you studied it or not, should come into your idea of running for city council. What does that job entail? It entails figuring out how, in a landlocked city, in a built-out city, you adaptively re-use some parts of it [and] reassemble other parts of it so that it's relevant for your population today and the population that's going to live for another 60 to maybe 70 years, we hope. So, that's the primary job description. And "stuff doer," in parenthesis, because I do "stuff."
LBBJ: We understand that you're not going to take a position on the PBID [Property Based Improvement District] until the process is completed. Can you tell us what you're looking for from the process?
Lowenthal: I'm looking for the proposal, and I think the proposal is where it's at. It's the final draft of the final proposal. When it comes to council, I'm looking for an engineer's report as well as constituency input to defend that proposal. The way the PBID operates [is] they have the ability to make a proposal for assessment increases [and] decreases. For the last several years they've been flat, which was very helpful considering the economy. They do have that ability to do that, but it's also our duty as the council to ensure that there is a defense of that. So I'm going to look for the engineer's report that either validates that assessment proposal or not, and then have a healthy dialogue at the council level. I think all councilmembers will be engaged in this even though it's limited to the downtown area. It can have impact throughout the city because we do have other improvement districts in the city.
LBBJ: Basically, you're gathering information from now until the ballot vote. You're not taking a position but you're going to be meeting with all sides and hearing all the opinions, right?
Lowenthal: Absolutely. I held a forum, and Councilman [Robert] Garcia first held a forum and I had staff at his forum just to see if there was a different constituency that showed up. Part of the challenge as a councilmember, [is that] you'll always hear from the vocal minority. My job is to fill in the gap for the rest of the population that didn't show up for whatever reason. They didn't show up because they trust you, they elected you, [or] they didn't show up because they work. Whatever it is, how do I figure that out? So what we're finding in some issues is you'll have the same crowds that travel from forum to forum. If we're paying attention, we realize it is the same crowd, so then it's really incumbent upon us to go further than that and figure it out. I have to fill in the gap for those people that don't come out. That's the silent majority.
LBBJ: But you can't read their minds.
Lowenthal: I can't read their minds so I actually have to reach out to them. That's why it's best that I do that without saying, "I've already made up my mind, tell me what you think."
LBBJ: Do you think the city council is doing enough to support local arts, and do you have any ideas for moving the arts forward?
Lowenthal: I think the city council is doing what it can do by way of resources. . . . Before Dr. [Robert] Gumbiner passed away, one of the things he shared with me was, "You know, I've been in cities where they've attached a 25-cent fee to the ticket of an opera or a 50-cent fee . . ."
LBBJ: Admissions fee.
Lowenthal: Admissions fee. Don't do it to movies, because movies are traditionally your residents. . . . So don't add a fee to the movies, but to something else where you're assured that a good percentage of those people are not really residents and they perhaps have the resources to pay an extra 50 cents when their ticket was $48. Then that gets separated to really directly funding the arts. So I brought that up, and at the time the council did not have the stamina to [to move on it].
LBBJ: Do you think your colleagues agree that the arts are an attraction for businesses to locate here? It's part of the package.
Lowenthal: So if I can honestly share with you – completely on the record, I have no qualms about sharing this – I think people believe that the arts are nice to have. I was born in India in really one of the poorest megacities in the universe. But there was verve to that city, because street art and public art and public theatre was accessible to everybody. The public square where the church that we attended was, was huge. That's where public theatre would take place. No one knew the difference between me and the person who could afford a ticket. So from my background, it's not a "nice to have," it's a "must have." I think a lot of people here think it's a luxury. . . . So we still have to bridge that cultural gap of, is it a "must have" or is it a "nice to have," and I think we're still at the "nice to have." Having said that, there are a few of us that are willing to keep preserving the funding for the arts from the city side, although it had been slashed before.
LBBJ: How are businesses responding to the latest downtown dining and entertainment regulations?
Lowenthal: Now that businesses have a better understanding of what it is, I think they are responding well. Initially, you had a few businesses that, without kind of reading it through, started describing their version of what the amendments were. So again, I had public meetings and answered all their questions.
LBBJ: Is adequate and affordable parking still a big issue for downtown or has that eased up?
Lowenthal: It's not a big issue. The issue is demand management [or] demand control, in a sense. There's plenty of parking in the downtown. It's more affordable. That's the downfall of cities, is [that] we undervalue parking especially in structures that we own. We've operated those in the red for quite awhile. So adequate and ample parking, or available parking, is not the issue. The issue is, what are people's expectations? If you expect to eat at a downtown restaurant and you want to park right across the street, the downtown is not the place for you. I have the backbone to say that to people. That is not downtown living. That is not a downtown experience. But I can tell you [that] you have two hours free [parking] at the CityPlace parking, and you can walk three short blocks – and our blocks are very short, our downtown blocks are not city blocks – or you can park behind George's Greek Cafe for $10. But the residents of Long Beach should not be subsidizing your dining experience when they can't afford to go out and eat themselves. . . . You charge the appropriate price for parking, but you make other options available at a lower cost.
LBBJ: What are your constituent issues? What are you hearing? What do they want?
Lowenthal: The issue out there – which I think we've done a really good job at responding to – is small business corridor development, which supports the neighborhoods.
LBBJ: You mean residents walking to their neighborhoods shops, like 4th Street's Retro Row.
Lowenthal: And they're biking. That's important to them. So while some people might think that doesn't serve anybody, you talk to people in those neighborhoods and that is how they get around. My district is, I believe – no, I know – 100 percent parking impacted. No other district has that traffic engineer's designation as 100 percent parking impacted.
LBBJ: Is there any answer to that?
Lowenthal: There is an answer to that. I've created 1,200 parking spaces without building a parking structure.
Lowenthal: Yes. Your dry cleaner, somebody's dry cleaner, any local business, they shut down at 5 or 6 p.m. [and] they have five or six parking spaces within their property. I identified as many as I could, went to them and said . . .
LBBJ: So you went up and down every street with a measuring tape?
Lowenthal: Not the street, parking lots. Little lots. Church lots. Business lots. Some are big. I've opened up the parking at the beach as well. It's amazing because when you ask somebody to be a good neighbor, more times than not they say yes. A couple of times we heard from businesses, "You know, I'm worried about the insurance liability. What if something happens to someone's car while they're parked here overnight?" So then we crafted sort of an insurance umbrella within what we were able to do and provided that.
LBBJ: Voter turnout over the past many, many years has been very low throughout the city. Do you think there is any particular reason?
Lowenthal: It's on a Tuesday.
LBBJ: Why is that a bad day?
Lowenthal: It's been on a Tuesday since 1800-something because it used to take us a day and a horse and buggy to get somewhere, and you couldn't travel on the Sabbath, and it would take us a day to get back. So our framers came up with Tuesday. Do we really need it to be on a Tuesday?
LBBJ: So we move it to Wednesday and the turnout goes up?
Lowenthal: Not Wednesday. I know we have vote by mail, but I think weekends. You encourage people to make it a family affair. I make it an event with my son. I wait until the end of the day so I can pick him up from school and do all his activities, and we go and we vote together and we talk about it. I think that's more possible on a weekend.
LBBJ: Tell us about your involvement with the TED conference.
Lowenthal: It was exciting. It's so appropriate that that conference is in this city because everything that goes on in the conference – whether it's on technology or entertainment or design or education or public policy or even politics – is in our DNA, but it looks forward to exactly what this city hopes to be. So there's that nice balance with it. It's home, because it's right in our DNA, but it's also very much about where we want to be in the future. It was very exciting.
LBBJ: What did you speak about?
Lowenthal: I got to speak on future cities; cities of the future.
LBBJ: The city maker.
Lowenthal: The city maker. I did. I pitched an idea to TED people…
LBBJ: These are people, visionaries from all over the country, right?
Lowenthal: All over the world. . . . I pitched an idea to talk about what a future city should incorporate, and really future cities should have the courage to go back to the things that worked well before and really have the courage to say, "I'm going to bring those things back" and prepare for the technologies that we know are around the corner. I wanted to do a TED talk on it and I'm working with some folks on master planning cities in other parts of the universe. So the curator called me back and said, "I think it can be bigger than a TED talk." I've had to keep this secret for the last six months [but] he goes, "I think for the first time in TED's history, you have inspired us to give the prize to a non-human being."
He said, "Based on your passion about what the future of cities could be, we're going to give the TED prize this year to 'City 2.0' – the future city. We want you to come to New York and sit around the table with us and help us figure out how the wish" – because every prize has a wish – "how will the $100,000 prize be spent to support 'City 2.0.'" . . . We'll spend the next couple of months developing that with people that are much smarter than I am.
LBBJ: Do you have your own list of priorities? What would you like the council focus on?
Lowenthal: I'd like the council to focus on fiscal prudence. We are very prudent, but the budget is the biggest thing that we do. . . . I'd like to see less agenda-driven approaches. I'm elected to the 2nd District but I consider myself a citywide officer. There is not a single square inch of this city that I don't feel I should be responsible for. Quality of life does not have geographical boundaries, so you may be elected to a district so you can focus on things, which is great . . . but in addition to that, I'm responsible for the rest of the city. I'd like to see more of that as a priority.
LBBJ: Let's talk about the Seaport Marina Hotel site. What would you like to see there?
Lowenthal: I think we need greater density in that area. Right now it's like a low-slung motel look [or] whatever. I do love height and density [but] I don't think that the height and density that we would allow in the downtown should be there.
LBBJ: Twelve stories is too high? Three stories is too short?
Lowenthal: Three stories is too short. I don't know that 12 stories . . . Well, let me tell you, 12 stories may not be that high because a lot of people don't understand that when they drive by the smokestacks at the power plant, that's an eight-story building. It's not a sightline that we're unaccustomed to. Would we rather see an eight-story smokestack, or an eight-story thriving building? A lot of the time residents don't ask themselves that question. So, in my opinion, it should be higher and denser. I'd like an update of that plan so it's not done under variance.
LBBJ: We assume David Malmuth met with you.
LBBJ: And we assume you shared with him that you don't like the 12 stories.
Lowenthal: No, I never shared with him that . . . I don't have an opposition to that project. My concern is continuing development in that area by way of variance.
LBBJ: So you want to see SEADIP [Southeast Area Development and Improvement Plan] updated.
Lowenthal: As quickly as possible. Then I'd like to see a project that addresses greater height and density, and better circulation. . . . I'm not against the project.
LBBJ: This is interesting because listening to what you just said [and] what Councilman Patrick O'Donnell told us, and having spoken about this with Councilman Gary DeLong, it seems like somewhere along the line the communication channels weren't right because there's no one among the council really against the project. They're against certain aspects of it or the way it was presented. This is an example of somehow there had to be somebody, maybe the mayor, who brought everybody together and said, "Okay, let's work this out." Something didn't happen there that should have happened.
Lowenthal: Someone should have shepherded it. . . . I'll give you a direct example. Just a couple of weeks after that vote, the Downtown Plan that I had shepherded – that I had practically hand-carried over the last six years – was coming to a vote. I have consistently asked folks to keep their eye on the target, which is to update the land-use plan so that every development in that zone is reflective of a land-use plan for today and going forward, as opposed to 30 years ago and going backward. So, I shepherded that. I didn't need a citywide officer. I knew more about the Downtown Plan than the mayor could ever know because I started the visioning . . .
LBBJ: But this is your background. It's not the background of all of the councilmembers.
Lowenthal: It is. That's why "city maker" should be . . .
LBBJ: Right. But it's different when you have that expertise.
Lowenthal: Right. . . . But the councilmember could do that. You don't have to have a planning background to know that this is going to get stopped at the coastal commission. We should probably take heed to their letter and update SEADIP. I know Gary [DeLong] tried. Gary tried to do it a couple of years ago, and the council didn't have the ability to find the $700,000.
LBBJ: It's interesting to hear all the various comments from councilmembers, and Malmuth's been in the office several times . . .
Lowenthal: But it's also one of those circumstances, and you described this earlier, people take for granted that just because it's in my area, everyone is just going to follow my lead. If I want everyone to follow my lead on an issue, then I had better lead. I had better go around and say, "Hey . . ."
LBBJ: And that leads us to another issue, which is communication amongst councilmembers. We've been told, not recently, but in the past, that councilmembers don't talk to each other.
Lowenthal: Several of us do. We don't do that with everybody because after a while, it's like any relationship, you're going to gravitate toward people that are social with you, that don't attack you personally. It's human nature. . . . I'm not necessarily going to work with someone who is vitriolic on the floor or goes after you personally and tries to trip you up because there's a political agenda there. I'm more likely to gravitate toward people who I can actually have healthy relationships with. Those are people who actually agree that, sometimes, good colleagues disagree. But we're good colleagues. Gary and I don't agree all the time. Patrick and I don't agree all the time. Robert and I don't agree all the time. But it doesn't mean that we aren't talking to each other. So, with nine people, you're going to have different personalities.
LBBJ: It's just too bad that there isn't more communication. . .
Lowenthal: I think it's called professionalism.
LBBJ: A couple of initiatives that the city has enacted that you have taken the lead on are the ban on plastic bags and the Fresh Air Dining initiative. What do you say to those who think these initiatives may impose on personal liberties?
Lowenthal: It is not someone's personal right or liberty to violate personal space or broader public space or the environment because there is a cost to that. I always come back to the cost. I did a TEDx talk on the cost of pollution as a municipal person. I didn't have to say anything on the environmental issue at all. They just asked me to describe the cost of pollution. . . . I just take that person back to this: in these resource-constrained times, do you want me to spend over $1 million a year on litter abatement or litter control, or do you want me to put that back into other priorities that you have? There is a cost to that. . . . I would do a better job as a city maker if I could spend those resources on other priorities other than picking up your trash.
LBBJ: What are you doing now? What's your job?
Lowenthal: I'm an urban planner. I used to work in water resources. I spent 12 years with the municipal water district. Then I worked at a civil engineering firm, focused on water and transportation. Then I decided that the council job is not a part-time job. It is really a full-time job paid at a very low rate. . . . So when I left the civil engineering firm, which was almost two years ago, I just took a leap of faith and started consulting. I did a transportation-consulting contract for six months, and now I'm working with a group of folks that is master planning a city in South Africa. I'm the sustainability, energy efficiency officer on that one. That's kind of how I got to talk at TED, because I was inspired by that. I'm not a huge risk-taker in that I like stability, but hanging my own shingle allows me to spend more time doing the job that doesn't pay my bills.
LBBJ: So what's in your future as far as political office? If Bob Foster does not run as a write-in candidate in two years . . .
Lowenthal: I would run for mayor.
LBBJ: You would. Okay. And if he does run as a write-in candidate, you would do what?
Lowenthal: I'd have two more years left on my council.
LBBJ: Would you look at a congressional seat, a state assembly seat, anything else? What about the county supervisor seat, because Knabe is only going to be in one more term, right?
Lowenthal: I am all about cities. I'll tell you something. You know this. I'm not denigrating anyone, state officer or federal officer, but our entire survival as a human existence depends on the rise and fall of cities. This is happening. This is where . . .
LBBJ: That sounds like a book . . .
Lowenthal: That's my next career. But it is. I feel this sort-of urgency and anxiety about it because when you go – you know I was born in Madras – but when you travel around and go to all of the cities and the slums and you see all of that, you realize where cities have failed, where cities have thrived, and it's sort of this contract between residents and city makers. That's where it's happening. So redevelopment is gone. They're stealing money from local offices. That's what the state is doing. And people now need to really just look at their local elected officials. We have the greatest ability to have impact. We always have. So maybe it's not as sexy as running for Congress . . . If you have impact addiction, this is where you're going to stay. I have impact addiction.
LBBJ: That's a great phrase.
Lowenthal: I want to stay here as long as I can.
Back to Top