To help finance massive infrastructure projects that benefit communities, Los Angeles needs to explore new ways of engaging private partners. With that goal in mind, the plan to modernize and redevelop the Los Angeles Convention Center was reimagined to become a mixed-use, community-centric project that relies heavily on private partners for financing and has become a model for how the city can approach many large infrastructure projects in the future. The initiative by the City Administrator’s Office has resulted in cultural shifts across various city agencies that are involved in infrastructure projects and now consider public/private partnership opportunities.

Los Angeles has tens of billions in known infrastructure projects that need to be completed over the coming years, as well as potentially billions more  in unknown and unplanned needs that are sure to emerge in a crisis. The need far outweighs the resources, so city leaders went looking for new approaches that involve public/private partnerships to help reimagine how infrastructure projects are developed and financed. Realizing they needed outside help to explore this new approach, the Los Angeles City Administrative Officer partnered with FUSE to hire Korin Crawford for a fellowship that would examine innovative public/private partnerships with the potential to help finance some of the city’s most pressing infrastructure needs.

Project-based learning and consensus building

With more than 14 years of experience in real estate, urban infrastructure, and property acquisition, Crawford applied his expertise to the high-profile and high-impact Los Angeles Convention Center expansion project as a real-time case study of his public/private infrastructure finance project goal. The project was already well underway in terms of planning and coordination involving many different city departments, but it was also swimming in debt and needed a fresh approach to involve private financers who could help reimagine the project as a convention district that was more fully integrated with its surrounding urban environment.

The approach was new to many city agencies and required careful maneuvering among his city agency peers as he made the case for this new approach. “You’re in charge of stopping a moving train. All the city departments were moving in a direction that was previously set and we needed to take a step back and re-strategize. My first meeting set the tone for my whole year because it went well. Not because I convinced everyone to go our way but because I showed up and was able to take the arrows and engage in the hard work of doing city business and pushing a new agenda.”

Crawford used the immediate need of the convention center intervention to develop a project-based strategy for how best to explore and engage in public/private partnerships as a way of generating new financing for an infrastructure project. That strategy – which involved extensive community engagement with a broad section of resident groups, business interests and convention center clients – would also need to serve as a roadmap for other infrastructure projects that could incorporate a public/private partnership approach.

As his work progressed, it became clear to both Crawford and his supervisors at the City Administrative Office that his work should extend beyond the one-year fellowship term for a second year as a FUSE executive advisor to continue leading the convention center project and produce a policy document that proposes better overall asset management of the city’s major infrastructure projects, instead of the traditional project-based approach. And while the overall convention center project will not be finished when Crawford concludes his assignment at the end of September 2017, he will have achieved something that goes beyond his project scope: culture change.

New ways of operating

What started out as a “business-as-usual” approach to the convention center project shifted to a first-of-its-kind public/private partnership concept for this facility type, and demonstrated to the various city stakeholders the value of exploring new ways of financing infrastructure projects. Crawford describes it as an evolution of thinking that is seen in practice at multiple agencies whose leaders see the potential for getting more projects completed thanks to partnerships with private organizations.

Two examples of this culture shift are seen in new major infrastructure projects at the Los Angeles International Airport and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s subway projects incorporating a public/private partnership approach.

Los Angeles is also seen as a model for other cities and regions around the world thanks to the forward-thinking projects  either underway at LAX or being explored like the convention center and a new civic center master development plan. Crawford and executive leadership have been invited to present at multiple domestic and international conferences on the public/private partnership model.

“There are policy conversations happening at many conferences about this,” Crawford said. “This is an issue that really needs to happen and it is very timely. L.A. got out in front of it.”