She didn’t say much, but Assistant City Administrator Nina Johnson was the star of last Thursday’s special City Council meeting on the State Street vacancy dilemma. After giving a brief presentation recapping the issues, Johnson was named nearly a dozen times by landlords, business owners, brokers, architects, and other downtown interests as by far the best candidate to assume the economic development position City Hall is now in the process of creating. The new position was strongly recommended by an outside consulting agency as a critical first step to digging State Street out of its retail ditch. The recommendation echoed a nearly identical piece of advice from a retail study commissioned by the council in 2017.
“We need someone leading economic vitality that is universally respected and trusted, and that person is Nina Johnson,” said Amy Cooper, owner of the popular Plum Goods store and member of the city’s Economic Vitality working group. Cooper suggested the city simply reclassify Johnon’s title and job description to avoid a lengthy and expensive hiring process.
The council, however, was in no hurry to knight Johnson. Councilmember Eric Friedmen urged a deliberate effort to find the right person. “We are looking at the next 20 to 25 years of downtown, and when you rush, you make mistakes,” he said. Councilmember Randy Rowse agreed, saying, “I am not ready to slap a label on just anyone.” Johnson, a 20-year city employee with a UCLA master’s degree in urban planning, has been behind recent State Street revitalization efforts, including pop-ups and April’s “Experiment Weekend” that brought art installations, live music, and basketball courts downtown.
The council ultimately gave City Administrator Paul Casey marching orders to develop a job description and conduct the recruitment and hiring process, which he estimated could take up to six months. Cooper and many of her cohorts were not happy. “After all this time, expensive consultants, committees, and community meetings, we are no further along,” said Cooper. “I am hopeful that the city will move quickly … and that we won’t have to wait another year.”