THE BLOG
01/27/2016 02:51 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2017

Pivoting and Disruption @ VerdeXChange 2016

With two kids in college and one on her way soon enough, I can't afford to go back to school. Besides, I never liked taking exams and sharing my room with someone who rarely showers. But that doesn't mean the learning ends. Which is what made attending my first VerdeXchange conference, VX 2016, so special. For the past two days I have been at a nonstop course on all things green and sustainability related taught by some of the best minds around. Now if someone would just explain to me the overuse of the terms "pivoting" and "disruption" in many of the sessions I attended and I'll be well on the way to the 4.0 I never earned as an undergrad.

I like to think that I am good with language but pivoting and disruption are two words that have not to date appeared frequently in my writing or conversation. Until now I guess.

"Equity" was probably the third most commonly used word I heard at the conference. While I agree it is a good word and an important principle to plan and live by, if I didn't know better I would have thought I was back in law school. But enough about a few overused words and on to the conference.

If anything, the challenge at VerdeXchange is picking which sessions to attend from the tasty smorgasbord of course offerings. It was a struggle but here are my hard choices, most of which panned out.

Monday:
  • MET Water, The Delta & Reuse
  • El Niño and Resiliency: When It Rains It Pours
  • Roundtable: Designing for Density - Developing Resilient Affordable, Transit-Centric, Digital Cities
  • 21st Century Transit Portals: Investment and Innovation
Tuesday:
  • "A River Runs Through It": Reimagining LA's Waterway
  • (ULI) The Sharing Economy's Promise and Challenges
  • The Future is Being Built Today: Inglewood's Investment in Livability and Mobility
  • Disruption on Wheels: New Mobility Models for Cities

There were also two luncheon sessions in there though I think lunch should be reserved for networking and comparing notes with fellow conference attendees about the best speakers and presentations.

The titles alone give you a sense of the range of wonky offerings at this graduate-level seminar worthy of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Though some panels were uneven, overall the conference offered an excellent primer to business leaders and policymakers on both the state of the State and state of art of sustainability.

In sum the conference helped me equitably pivot to a sustainable command of disruption.

As for disappointments: The Designing for Density session took first prize. Regrettably, the otherwise excellent moderator failed to rein in and challenge Jill Stewart, the disingenuous shill (AKA Campaign Director) for the so-called Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.

Stewart was allowed to use the roundtable as a platform from which to bloviate about the goals of the laughably named "Coalition to Preserve LA" which seeks to "Stop Manhattanwood" across our fair city. While Stewart is probably being paid handsomely to whine for her NIMBY puppet masters about traffic in Hollywood and the loss of the sacred surface parking lots around the Palladium on Sunset Blvd, a more careful look at the Coalition and this dumb initiative reveals that it has as little merit as the argument made by a handful of Beverly Hills residents over Metro putting a subway station in the center of the center in Century City.

Stewart, it seems, is being paid well enough to ignore the fact that there is no merit to the Coalition's Luddite-inspired ideas about density and development in Los Angeles. The good news is that Stewart who spent years smearing good and deserving projects while at the LA Weekly, the standard bearer of yellow journalism in Los Angeles, was less than poker faced about her messaging strategy for the NIMBY dog and pony show. Based on what we have seen from the Coalition to date, we can expect a full frontal ten month rant about traffic and density right up until the November election.

The best parts of the conference:

Mayor Eric Garcetti's history lesson about the LA River. I only wish the city's streets, sidewalks and empty lots were as clean as Garcetti seems to think the River's shoreline has become. I can't wait to see the street cleanliness scores for my area in KTown plus countless other filthy parts of Los Angeles.

Renata Simril chaired a strong panel with LAWA's Deborah Flint, Metro CEO Phil Washington and California High Speed Rail's Jeff Morales on transit.

The session on new mobility models for cities was the best of the conference. I particularly liked the insights offered by Emily Castor of Lyft about the natural partnership between transit and car share in taking private cars off the road; and LADOT's Seleta Reynolds' talk of making the definition of transit more elastic to include things like bike share.

At The Future is Being Built, Inglewood Mayor James Butts made us laugh saying "Cars and people with debit cards and credit cards trapped in your city, that's a good thing." But in all seriousness, as ULI-LA's Gail Goldberg pointed out, the Rams' stadium and the surrounding mixed use development really is very different from any other stadium deal in that Inglewood is not paying for it.

A comment in The Sharing Economy's Promise and Challenges session by Metro's Jacob Lieb about offering Airbnb visitors Metro TAP cards got me thinking that Metro should offer B-TAP transit passes to Cross Campus and other shared workspace users. With the nature of work changing, we need to be disruptive and recognize that new models of work in the share economy require new benefits like discounted TAP transit passes.

Other comments and concepts I loved over the past two days included Moderator Jon Healey's quip about Metro's coming bike share program. Healey riffed that he thought we already had bike share in LA since when he parked his bike at a Metro Gold Line station and returned to it later he found that he had shared his bike seat.

Scoot Founder and CEO Michael Keating demonstrated how electric scooter share, already a fixture in San Francisco, is a great first mile, last mile solution for transit riders and other in Los Angeles.

After LA Mayor Eric Garcetti offered a thoughtful history lesson and personal account of his experience with the LA River, Joe Edmiston of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy noted how there's no place in Beverly Hills from which you can see a Great Blue Heron but you can from the LA River. Edmiston's co-panelist Tensho Takemori of Gehry Partners which has been brought in to master plan the removal of the Army Corps concrete straight jacket on the River added that thirty percent of Metro's planned transit stations are within one mile of the River.

Regrettably, added Takemori, Metro to date hasn't coordinated too closely with the River's advocates, though maybe that is because as Metro CEO Phil Washington noted, "We've been on an infrastructure vacation for thirty years in this country."

I was impressed with LAWA's new CEO Deborah Flint who hails from Oakland International Airport. Flint candidly bemoaned the public perception of LAX as the seventh circle of hell. And, one couldn't help thinking how Mark Pestrella's (LA County DPW) apt comment that LA County is like the emergency room of engineering..." might also apply to SoCalGas still struggling to cap the well at Porter Ranch.

I also liked how the conference co-hosted some sessions with ULI-LA Future Build. The partnership between ULI-LA with VerdeXchange is seamless and saves those of us who love the Urban Land Institute Los Angeles' programming the trouble of blocking out another eight hours for a worthwhile day of learning about the best practices in planning, architecture and design and construction.

Finally, a big shout out to the moderator of the El Niño and Resiliency panel, former Vermont Secretary of Transportation Sue Minter.

Sue, a good friend since college, is running to be Vermont's next governor and if voters there want a proven leader of the highest intellect, energy and character they will elect her. Write Sue a check today if you can and if you live in Vermont, vote early and often.

For their own probably more linear takes on VerdeXchange I recommend coverage by Joe Linton, Jason Islas and Josh Stephens who also seemed to be in most of the sessions I attended.

Though I want to stay positive, I can't help but close with a note about the contrast between the inspiring best practices lessons of VerdeXchange/ULI-LA with the buzz kill offered by the Debbie Downer who crashed the Designing for Density roundtable. Regrettably, the misguided NIMBYism of Jill Stewart is an unpleasant reminder of the backward thinking and xenophobia that still exists in part of this great city.

My suggestion for future VX conferences, don't invite Jill Stewart and other nattering nabobs of negativism who would have Los Angeles return to the days before the subway, and all of the other improvements made possible by increased density and diversity. Unquestionably, these changes are making Los Angeles an even greater place to live, work and create.

In my book, anyone who thinks our city would benefit from a building moratorium under the Stop Manhattanwood banner, doesn't deserve to enjoy the myriad economic, cultural and quality of life benefits that transit oriented development and density around rail and bus lines has brought us.

Yours in transit,
Joel