As co-founder of Los Angeles-based development and planning firm Civic Enterprise, Mott Smith MRED ’99 looks for creative ways to apply societal trends in real estate.
With the housing development market becoming extremely crowded and competitive, the company took a different direction with a large warehouse in the northeast LA neighborhood of Lincoln Heights.
Seeing the booming growth and popularity of the local artisanal food community, Civic Enterprise turned the warehouse into 54 commercial kitchen spaces to provide food makers opportunity for expansion.
We want to find an opportunity to help a city become more of what it wants to be.
“We are totally committed to urban infill projects, and we also like to do projects at the regulatory edge,” Smith said. “We want to find an opportunity to help a city become more of what it wants to be. We realized this is a place we can make a difference. It’s a real estate problem, a regulatory problem and an economic development issue.”
The $18 million challenge
L.A. Prep launched in early April with more than 50 percent of the kitchens pre-leased to companies ready to move out of the entrepreneur’s house, shared kitchen or food incubator with their specialty food products that might end up on the shelves of grocery stores and markets. The project was recently featured in the Los Angeles Times.
Completion of the $18 million, 56,000-square-foot food production center was a challenging undertaking. It was a complicated deal involving seven financial partners, tax credits, loans and equity investments. Smith noted that he wouldn’t have been able to complete the deal without the expertise in financial modeling he learned at the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Dollinger Master of Real Estate Development program.
“He recognized and addressed a need in an industry that couldn’t be filled without real estate development,” said Chris Redfearn, USC Price director of graduate programs in real estate. “He’s become a policy leader as a result of this project, navigating the rule changes and clarifications needed for it to work. He’s one of the real estate people helping change policy for the better.”
With L.A. Prep, the first project of its kind in the country, significant collaboration was needed with Los Angeles County, the Department of Public Health, the city of Los Angeles and the Southern California Gas Co. to update codes and standards in an evolving industry.
Each unit is a stand-alone kitchen designed to meet all health codes. A partnership with Food Centricity will provide tenants access to a suite of services for small food businesses.
“One of the core values of USC Price as I see it is that whether you’re a planner, a policy person, in real estate development or health administration, we’re all in the business of building our local communities,” Smith said. “Technically, this project is a real estate development, but in a bigger sense, it involved working the policy side to change regulations for food makers and the planning side to create a new kind of facility for which the city didn’t have codes.”
While most spaces are less than 500 square feet, 20,000 square feet has been dedicated to L.A. Kitchen, a nonprofit designed to tackle the problems of unemployment and food waste.
L.A. Kitchen will employ emancipated foster youth and older adults transitioning out of incarceration to transform unsalable produce into healthy meals and snacks.
Smith, 43, can often be seen riding his bicycle around his neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. He said he drives only when he has his two kids, Sophie, 6, and Van, 5, in the car. Prior to forming Civic Enterprise, he was the acting director of planning for the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he helped launch the district’s $1.6 billion Phase II school construction plan.
An active alumnus, Smith shares his expertise with USC Price students — helping prepare them to be future leaders in the field by teaching a class on “Urban Infill as an Economic Tool.” He figures it’s the least he can do for a program that continues to impact his career all these years after graduation.
“There are many USC Dollinger MREDs who have their fingerprints on this project, and I’m very grateful for it,” Smith said. “There are a bunch of times I needed help with something such as a disability consultant or elevator contractor, and I could put up a post on the MRED alumni Facebook group and within 10 minutes have contacts to reach out to for those services. The information sharing alone has been tremendous.”