On September 20, the Bedrosian Center welcomed USC alumna Jennifer Samson to campus for an engaging conversation as our first Lunch with a Leader event of the semester! Ms. Samson is the Director of Real Estate Development at River LA, a nonprofit that works to develop the 51-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River into an open space that brings the community and nature together. Ms. Samson handles all aspects of River LA’s real estate development and placemaking including deal sourcing, structuring financing, securing entitlements, and overseeing projects from construction through to completion.
“I was hooked. There was always something going on. There were communities, and the nature of the physical space forced people and communities to actually interact with each other. From that point on, I loved cities.”
A native of Orange County, Samson’s interest in city-making and revitalization began when her family took a trip to New York City when she was 9 years old. She loved the energy of the city: “I was hooked. There was always something going on. There were communities, and the nature of the physical space forced people and communities to actually interact with each other. From that point on, I loved cities.” She lived in New York while studying at NYU before returning to LA to work at Livable Places, a nonprofit that focused on affordable housing development. USC Professor Raphael Bostic was on the board of the organization and has had a strong influence on how she looks at development from the very start. Samson graduated from USC’s MBA and MRED programs in 2009 and got connected with River LA shortly thereafter, continuing to pursue her passion for city-making.
Samson envisions the LA River serving as an interactive space that connects people to place and supports a healthy, vibrant community. Samson explained her vision for River LA using a quote from Shaun Donovan, the
Director of the Office of Budget and Management: “It should be a strong but humble partner that brings resources to bear to address the how and the implementation and works with the community to have them have a seat at the table and be accountable for the vision, the what and the why.”
The river could become a 51 mile of single-purpose infrastructure that could be the turning point for not only LA but the entire region. Her goal is for the river to become a place for Angelenos to walk, gather, and participate in community building events while solving additional problems like flood control and water recirculation. Furthermore, it would develop over 1,000 acres of linear public open space, which has been shown to get a direct benefit in the reduction of healthcare costs of approximately $3 for every dollar invested in linear open space. The communities that are within half a mile of the river tend to be the most disadvantaged economic communities with the highest incidences of obesity, the least amount of access to open space and parks.
One of River LA’s most recent projects was the Rio Vistas initiative, which transformed 3 dead-end cul de sacs in the Elysian Valley into community access points to the LA River. Samson used a bottom-up approach to directly involve the community in the project. She worked with local high school students over the course of a couple of semesters to speak with community members to consider whether the lack of access points to the river and green space was a problem and to come up with solutions regarding what to do with those street ends. Using the students’ proposed solution, River LA marshalled the resources to make the project happen. Samson noted that community involvement was paramount to this project: “It is important to treat people as equal partners and not assume that we know any better because we are the policy-makers or planners or have advanced degrees in public policy.” Through getting local students involved, the Rio Vistas initiative gave the community ownership of the space and allowed the community to share its vision.
One main challenge that River LA faces is that there is not yet a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) in place to help figure out the different cities and stakeholders along the river can be guided by one particular document and set of rules. A JPA or some kind of governing authority is essential to help redistribute expenses, value capture, and offset the costs of this project between the many stakeholders. Without a JPA, the non-federal sponsor of the project is currently the City of LA, thanks to Mayor Garcetti’s support. Samson is hopeful that a mechanism will soon be in place to ensure that the other communities and political players become aligned for this important project.
Throughout her work, Samson remains an eternal optimist and displays ambition that keeps her focused on her goals. She describes that she and her colleagues in the development world “have to have short memories; one project might be painful, but we have to move on to the next. You have to be willing to fail fast and say okay, what do I learn and how do I correct it.”
We enjoyed our discussion with Ms. Samson and look forward to the exciting revitalization of the LA River!
Lunch with a Leader provides students, faculty, and members of the public the opportunity to hear ideas from local, state, and national leaders, share their own ideas, and gain inspiration for effective governance in a more intimate and informal setting. Check out our upcoming events here.