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DOWNEY – “I’ve worked very hard, really hard, to get where I am,” Brian Saeki said at noon Monday as he sat at his desk at city hall’s first floor wearing a white shirt and a tie on a day when he was supposed to be off. He said he had a few things to take care of, so here he was.
“It’s part of the job,” he said. He had just emerged from what I sensed was a series of meetings on the third floor.
Saeki, a third generation Japanese-American, has been the city’s director of community development since January 2010, after experience-rich stints at four different, smaller cities.
His first full-time job, in 1997, was as a redevelopment tech in Cypress (2-1/2 years), followed by two years as an economic development planner in Chino Hills. He would then serve for seven years as economic development manager for Arcadia, before hiring on as assistant city manager and community development director in Rosemead.
While still in college, pursuing a degree in urban and regional planning at Cal Poly Pomona, Saeki held two internships at the same time: one, in planning, with the city of Claremont; the other, in redevelopment, with West Covina. This was during the early ’90s, and jobs were scarce even then, he said.
He would later earn his master’s in public administration from Cal State Northridge.
Thus when he was hired nearly two years ago by city manager Gerald Caton, Saeki’s breadth of experience in the administrative and community development areas, added to his knowledge and demonstrated expertise, seemed just what the doctor ordered as his predecessor, Gilbert Livas, was assuming the position of assistant city manager with the retirement of Lee Powell.
Honesty is a main pillar in his moral make-up, learned from his parents, both of whom retired 10 years ago: his dad, ticketing supervisor for TWA (Trans World Airlines) was with the company for 40 years-plus; his mom also worked the same number of years, clerking for the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Saeki is as addicted to golf as his dad, who taught him how to play the game when he was five. He has a 7-handicap. Sometimes he joins pick-up basketball games (he captained sports teams in high school) at the Y, or in the park. But, he says, “Probably my biggest athletic achievement [so far] is running in the 2008 Long Beach marathon.” He continues to run five miles four times a week.
It’s Brian’s work ethic, though, that truly resonates. He says, “Life’s not about asking for things. It’s about working hard. Let your work speak for itself.” He has never, for instance, asked for a raise, he added.
Saeki’s grandfather (on his dad’s side), was living in a town north of Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped; his dad, then a young boy, was a witness, too. His other grandfather (on his mother’s side), his grandma, his mom and uncle, were all interned in Arizona.
Saeki’s wife, Jennifer, is a planner for the city of Pasadena. They have a 7-year-old daughter and a two-year old son. They live in Monrovia. Saeki’s older sister runs her own interior design firm in Encino.
By any measure, with all the recent and foreseeable burst of activity in and around Downey’s downtown core (Porto’s, La Barca, the Downey Gateway, The View, even the makeover however minor of the controversial Avenue Theatre), the city community development department’s role couldn’t be more crucial than now as the city is finally being seen for what it really should be: the encourager of development in the city, even of culture.
For let’s be honest: at bottom community development, along with public works, is the department which is in the best position to lead in breathing life into an erstwhile moribund, now stirring, downtown.
Its functions are all-embracing and central in city administration. As the administrator of a “re-organized, cross-trained, tech-oriented” 31-member staff whose functions interface with all the city’s other departments (public works, police and fire, community services, finance, etc.), Saeki can only be aware of the magnitude of the tasks ahead. He appears cool, though, in facing up to whatever challenges the future may bring.
The classic description of his department he articulated for The Patriot in its June 2, 2011 issue. These are some of the things he pointed out:
The department, he wrote, is responsible for the orderly and organized development of all property in Downey. Its primary responsibilities include attracting and supporting Downey businesses, coordinating the review of the new development projects, ensuring new construction in Downey is safe and secure, and providing programs to improve and expand the supply of residential and commercial property.
An even more challenging mandate for the department is expanding the local economy and facilitating development that improves the quality of life for Downey residents and stakeholders. How serious is that?
Then he outlined the work of its main divisions, whose specific functions he carefully defined: the building and safety division, responsible for the safety and security of all buildings in Downey, including plan reviews of new construction and rehabilitation of property (from large commercial and manufacturing projects to small residential projects), inspection services and the coordination of the building permit process with other city departments to ensure all construction complies with current building codes.
Another major group is the economic development division, which oversees Downey’s efforts to expand the local economy, including supporting current businesses and attracting new ones.
The department gets directly involved in specific and strategic projects such as the redevelopment and reuse of the former NASA site. In addition to supporting Downey Chamber of Commerce activities, it spearheads expansion initiatives such as the recent well-attended Taste of Downey community event.
Immediacy of impact may not be realized by such initiatives as its city branding campaign or its participation at the recent All America City Award, but its cumulative effect over time should be felt in future.
The housing division is charged with administering Downey’s redevelopment housing funds and federal funds for both housing and community development. The department runs an array of programs that include paint and fix-up of seniors’ homes, granting of residential rehabilitation loans and construction of residential accessibility improvements. It also facilitates the development of affordable housing units in Downey by acquiring and clearing property, disposing of it, and providing loans to specific projects A most visible example of this is the upcoming construction of The View, a 50-unit project at the former site of Verizon, on Second Street. Housing also administers CDBG funds, which provide funding for parks, local public service agencies and other social services.
The department right now is recruiting a community development manager.
The planning division is charged with maintaining Downey’s general plan, implementing the Downey zoning ordinance, as well as coordinating with outside agencies on long-term regional planning issues, all environmental review processes for projects, and staff support for the Downey Planning Commission. In addition, the division reviews new businesses opening in Downey to ensure the compatibility of land uses throughout the city. Planning staff also provides design review for both new and rehabilitation projects in the city.
While operational efficiency is very important, Brian also stresses the department’s full commitment to delivering a high level of service through various means to the public despite budget constraints experienced over the last three or more years. Its motto: “Doing more with less.” The department meanwhile continues to survey its customers to ensure that service levels remain high and that changes are made to better serve Downey residents, businesses and the general public.
With all that said, Saeki says, in the case of The View, “We’re just waiting for the funding from the federal government [15 percent], the state [15 percent], and from local redevelopment money [70 percent], to get the project built.”
With regards to the much-anticipated Tierra Luna project (the 1.5 million sq. ft. commercial project at the former NASA site), he said everything is done, except for a new specific plan, mostly involving zoning considerations. Meanwhile, operations at IRG’s Downey Studios go on as usual.
A third major thrust is finding appropriate uses for such vacant properties/potential commercial sites as the intersection of the 5 and 605 Freeways, the corner of Firestone and Lakewood, and the Lakewood/Gallatin area where the Gallatin Medical Center used to stand.
“We’re also assisting L.A. County in their preparation of a master plan for the development of the large portion of the Rancho Los Amigos property south of Imperial Highway,” he said.
But the continued development of the downtown area remains the city’s top priority right now, he said, but overall, “Our common goal is to try to make Downey the best city around.”
“Personally, I think there’s no bigger accomplishment in life than being a good father and a good husband. My hope is to raise my kids to be upstanding citizens. This is my focus all the time,” he said. Saeki, let it be said, is only 37.
Published: August 18, 2011 – Volume 10 – Issue 18