The Friendly City
Business View Magazine interviews Jim DellaLonga, Director of Economic Development of Bellflower, California, for our focus on Best Practices of American Cities.
Occupying 6.1 square miles in southeast Los Angeles County, the City of Bellflower, California lies in one of the most densely populated areas in the U.S. On September 3, 1957, Bellflower was officially awarded status as California’s 348th city; interestingly, at the time of its incorporation, it was already a 51-year old community, fully matured in all areas except city government. From its beginnings as a sparse and isolated settlement of farms at the turn of the 19th century, today, Bellflower is a bustling city of close to 78,000 residents that takes an innovative approach to enhancing services and generating revenues in this growing community.
Largely regarded as “The Friendly City,” the origin of the name Bellflower is somewhat of a mystery. For a short time, the community was called Firth, then, in 1909, residents of the area petitioned for a post office under the name of Somerset. The postal authorities granted the post office but rejected the name to avoid confusion with Somerset, Colorado. The need to come up with an alternative name led to controversy between residents of the rival subdivisions. Accounts vary as to how this conflict was resolved. The most common explanation links the city’s name today with the orchard of Bellefleur apples (meaning literally “beautiful flower” in French) grown by pioneer settler, William Gregory, in the north part of town.
The city is currently working on a key project involving revitalization of a small downtown corridor along Bellflower Boulevard. Jim DellaLonga, Bellflower’s Director of Economic Development, explains, “The Boulevard has been the major thoroughfare in Bellflower for decades. It went through a period of time where it was very dead and now it’s starting to come back. One of the projects we just finished in June is SteelCraft Bellflower – an outdoor food hall concept, made up of repurposed shipping containers that encourages entrepreneurship by having small businesses set up in these containers. The site is composed of nine vendors: craft beer, wine, ice cream, coffee, bagels, burgers, chicken, and Vietnamese cuisine – all in this small, outdoor food hall that promotes community. It’s really cool and a huge generator of visitors, downtown.”
Local residents and people from the surrounding area are now visiting the downtown core to enjoy the completed project. In conjunction with that, about a block away, construction is well underway on a 275-stall, three-story parking structure to augment parking in the downtown, which is now at a premium. The much anticipated building is due to open up in January 2020. Outside of the downtown, the city is working on a project that involves two Comfort Inn products: a WoodSpring Suites extended stay hotel and a Comfort Inn & Suites hotel, slated to break ground before the end of the year. These modern accommodation offerings will bring more people to Bellflower, as well as generate revenue for the city through the bed tax. It was actually a city-owned property sale that made it all happen – a win/win for everybody involved in the project.
Bellflower also has a major infrastructure project on the go. According to DellaLonga, “The City was recently awarded a grant to improve the streetscape of Bellflower Blvd., south of State Route 91 to the city boundary. That’s an area that’s been difficult to energize over the years because of the fragmented ownership and some of the challenges with the recession. So, it’s going to be nice to be able to do some improvements in that area. And we’ve also just finished up a street-widening project at the interchange of Bellflower Blvd. and the 91 freeway. That was a huge, grant-funded project that we recently completed that will significantly reduce traffic congestion at the interchange.”
A suburb of Los Angeles, Bellflower is predominately a bedroom community, in that it doesn’t have many industries. The major employer is Kaiser Permanente – a renowned healthcare HMO with a large campus in the city. But most of Bellflower’s revenue comes from property tax. DellaLonga reports, “We have a low property tax rate in the area, so we use our sales tax to augment that. Sales tax is a huge piece of our income puzzle, because all of our main corridors, like Bellflower Blvd. and some of the other large arterials, are retail oriented. It’s a struggle now, because as retail changes, with Amazon and all the online shopping, everything is in flux. We can’t count on it and we’re trying to figure out other ways to augment our revenue, which is why we looked at the hotel product.”
In the early 2000s, a number of parks and plazas were built in the downtown. In 2015, further work was done through a grant for pedestrian and streetscape improvements in the downtown core. That infrastructure project provided wider sidewalks and bulb-outs (curb extensions) in some areas and streetscape elements to make the area more pedestrian-friendly and safer for walking. A scrambled intersection was added in one location and other intersections were improved, as well. But what’s coming down the pipe is really exciting for the community – a light rail transit (LRT) project being built by the regional transportation authority – LA Metro.
“Through that, we’re going to get a downtown Bellflower Blvd. light rail station,” says DellaLonga, “and we expect it to be a big part of the continued rejuvenation of that corridor, because the younger generation tends to use alternate forms of transportation, especially in southern California where it’s very automotive-centric. We’re known as ‘the land of the car’ with all the freeways, but that’s slowly changing, and we’re hoping that this can be a part of that change and help draw those types of individuals into our downtown. Just south of that station is the parking structure we’re working on and, just south of that, we are working with a developer to create 80 to 90 one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartment units, along with an art house theater and some commercial – essentially, a mixed-use, transit-oriented development which we’re hoping will be entitled by the end of the year, and a start on construction in late 2020.”
One of the best attributes of business-friendly Bellflower is the city’s willingness to work with developers. It’s very innovative in that regard – one of the very few cities in the U.S. that does what’s called a Voluntary Building Self-Certification Program. In essence, when you come in to City Hall with a project, and you have your entitlements and are ready to pull building permits, instead of submitting your building plans to the building department for plan check (provided they are stamped and signed by a licensed professional architect or engineer), you have the option of turning those in for what is, essentially, a five-day turnaround; just to ensure that the plans are the same as what you were entitled for, and that all the Public Works Department requirements are included on those plans.
DellaLonga notes, “You can get those plans back, typically, in five working days without going through plan check, and you’ll have building permits in hand. It saves developers a lot of time and money, just with the time it takes to turn these around, sometimes two or three reviews, before the plans are correct. You’re putting confidence in your plans based on the work of your professionals who make sure that they’re done to code, and then you’re out building. If you’ve got competent professionals working behind you as your architects and engineers, you can save two to three months of plan check time by going through our voluntary self-certification program.”
As for encouraging new businesses, city staff are very hands-on with helping people through the process of starting up. DellaLonga shares the benefits of locating in Bellflower, “Although we have limited monetary incentives, from small businesses up to larger corporations, such as the franchisee that’s doing the hotels in our town, we’ll walk you through the city process to help you understand and get through the fees and details. We’re a small city with a relatively small staff, so there’s not a lot of bureaucracy or red tape. There are some processes that have to be done, but we’re all here to help developers and business owners get through those processes.”
Bellflower, a city evoking beauty by the mere mention of its name; so close in proximity to the LA highlife, yet replete with its own charming and innovative personality. Indeed, it’s a beautiful location for business and pleasure.
The City of Bellflower was recently named as a finalist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation’s Most Business Friendly City Award for cities over 50,000 in population. This is the third time the city has made finalist and they are hoping to take the title this year. Bellflower: You have our vote!
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AT A GLANCE
Who: Bellflower, California
What: Suburb of Los Angeles; population 78,000
Where: Southeast Los Angeles County