Adel Hagekhalil on StreetsLA’s Mission: Enhancing Quality of Life For All & Making Our Streets Safe, Mobile, and Sustainable

VXNews interviews StreetsLA General Manager, Adel Hagekhalil, on how the Bureau of Street Services (StreetsLA) is prioritizing work to make streets safe, mobile and sustainable—to turn the streets of Los Angeles into world class public spaces. With roads empty of traffic due to Safer at Home orders, Adel Hagekhalil proudly shares how StreetsLA has adjusted the deployment of its maintenance team to accelerate paving & sweeping in high-traffic commercial corridors and fully integrated holistic solutions and green technology to ADAPT to the new challenges of COVID-19 and enhance quality of life for all.
Adel, you took the helm at StreetsLA close to two years ago, and when we spoke last year, StreetsLA had just adopted a 5-year Strategic Plan. How are you adapting that plan to the current realities of a global pandemic?

Adel Hagekhalil: StreetsLA’s mission is to enhance the quality of life for all and to make our streets safe, mobile, and sustainable. We set out a clear vision of what we wanted to do under the leadership of the Mayor and Council. We wanted to make our streets safe, mobile and world class by prioritizing various metrics, integrating holistic solutions and green technology, and building partnerships. I am glad to report that we have done amazing work and accomplished record work and services. Our Streets in good condition are now at record 61 % and our pavement condition index is now at a score of 70 out of 100, the highest score in several decades.  More streets are being paved, more sidewalks are being repaired and made safe, more trees are being trimmed and planted.

The COVID-19 global pandemic is testing who we are as a nation and how we can respond to emergencies at all levels.  I am very proud of our city. We have set up many programs to address and respond toCOVID-19.  Under the great leadership of the mayor and City council, we have flattened the curve with staying at home order, standing up testing, and adapting our operation and supporting the community and the businesses. In the middle of all of this pandemic, the men and women of StreetsLA continued to provide critical and essential services to all Angelenos. StreetsLA did not stop for one day. Our workers continued filling potholes, trimming and planting trees, sweeping our streets, fixing sidewalks and renewing our roads.

Could you also address how the daily public protests in support of Black Lives Matter have affected you and your team’s priorities at StreetsLA?

I want to say how we’re all touched and hurt by what happened in Minneapolis. As an immigrant, I know what discrimination means to people and how hard it is to really make it. What gives me comfort is that I know what this country’s and City’s fiber is. We are all about working together, listening to each other, supporting each other, and lending a hand to those that are less fortune.  Everyone, regardless of race, color, and origin should have the same opportunities and treated the same way.

I want to just say that what we need to do is literally in the mission of StreetsLA: “enhance the quality of life for all.”

Making people’s lives better is what we stand for. It is not just streets and sidewalks, it’s making people’s livelihood better and providing business and job opportunities. We all are looking forward to a future that’s better for all of us; it doesn't matter what you look like, who you are, or what language you speak.

Elaborate, Adel, on how you are now prioritizing the work of StreetsLA?

With COVID-19, people are staying at home, and the biggest challenge was that our crews could not sweep or pave residential streets. So, we decided to pivot and developed the ADAPT program, to improve the commercial streets in the city while they were empty. We shifted the work and started paving the major corridors in the city.

The first street we did was 7th Street, which was done in two days. Usually a project like that would’ve taken a long time and impacted a huge number of businesses and people. Since April 10, we have completed over 200 lane miles of commercial streets across the city from Downtown to the Valley, from Hollywood to San Pedro and from Eagle Rock to Westwood. We plan to get back to paving residential streets soon as people return to work.

One of the goals we had this year was to expand the sweeping program to cover more of our streets especially the commercial streets that collect large trash and debris. As we’re going through this program to re-optimize and deploy sweepers across the city, we took advantage of the safer at home period and pivoted away from residential streets without impacting people parked and started sweeping commercial corridors every day. Since April, we swept about 6,800 lane miles and removed close to 2,400 cubic yards of trash and debris. This was possible because our staff are nimble and able adapt.

It's good to be united behind a clear vision. We're working on our strategic plan update and our metrics for next year. This year has been a very successful year, and I'm proud of what we have accomplished. We've paved 110 alleys, fixed 110 concrete streets that a lot people said couldn't be fixed, and addressed nearly 60 miles of failed streets that cause most of our claims and payouts. This year, we implemented a program to quickly address uplifted sidewalks, with over 3,000 temporary sidewalk repairs and 110 permanent sidewalk repairs. We removed over 1,000 tree branch blockages, and we are going to have over 37,000 trees trimmed. By analyzing and integrating data of our claims, we prioritized the repairs to maximizes benefits and reduce liability. Our top 17 locations that were repaired had a payout value of $7.8 million.

We have evolved from talking about cool streets to urban community cooling projects: putting in trees, cool pavement, and benches. This year, we would complete 5 integrated urban cooling projects.  With the same sustainability and integration focus, we are working on a request for proposals for our street furniture across the city. We issued and RFI and analyzed 9 responses,  With the public input, we're ready to go into the request for proposals phase to provide all the services we need to make commuting and walking safe and enjoyable experience with shade, way finding, hydration stations and many more.

The air and the environment, which is near and dear to my heart, is cleaner because we are not driving as much. That showed me that there's hope in us recovering from climate change. Telecommuting and having meetings from our computers aren't strange things anymore. People can work from home, and they don't have to drive. People can have meetings across the city without having to come in person. You still want to shake hands or have a hug, but we can do business differently while protecting the environment. 

We just hired a FUSE fellow during this pandemic to help us evaluate our carbon footprint at StreetsLA, because one of our goals is to figure how to adjust my operations to reduce the impact on the environment.

I'm so proud that we're headed towards our vision in these conditions. We're nimble and able to adapt, and that's what makes this city a great city. We were able to adjust because we have one goal, to enhance the quality of life for everyone.

We do this interview shortly after City Council passed a 2020 budget that begins to address with the significant revenue shortfalls caused by COVID-19 and shelter-in-place. How does that budget impact StreetsLA, and what do you need going forward to accomplish your bold mission?

I recognize that our available resources in the budget depend on the revenue coming in. It's like a home, you can't spend more than what's coming in. Projections for revenue are down, and most of the revenue that fund StreetsLA is related to the gas tax, sales tax, Measure R, and Measure M, so it is going to have an impact. 

The good news is we're developing a plan to move forward. We sharing in the sacrifices and have a furlough imposed on our employees, so we are going to lose some staffing.  But there are three goals in my plan moving forward that I will use to prioritize our resources while making every effort to stretch our dollars and maximize return on our investments.

One is safety and reducing risk and liability. I believe strongly that instead of wasting money on claims and lawsuits, we can invest it back in the communities through safety ptojects. We are prioritizing where we are doing the work to leverage and provide the biggest benefit. Now, we’re integrating claims, public input, and the mobility plans, and this year alone, we’ve repaired about 190 lane miles of bike lanes because we were able to align work together.

We actually made a huge difference by fixing failed concrete streets that were a huge liability for the city, and I’m proud to say that we have moved forward in repairing streets that have caused huge impact on our residents and caused many of the claims. To give you an example, outside of the Willits settlement for accessibility—we took on a program to fix sidewalks that cause us huge liability in terms of pay out. Out of the 100-plus sidewalks fixed, for just 17 of them—we had paid $7.8 million in claims.

The second goal is to bring in money from outside sources like grants. I'm also in discussion, through the mayor, council, and others, with Water and Power on how we can partner with them, so that I have more off-budget money to address streets affected by water related projects. I'm working with Marty Adams, my friend and general manager at Water and Power, to find ways to collaborate and move forward. 

In my view, this is going to be short term. I think the economy will recover, but we need to stretch our dollars, continue providing the services, and keep the same focus. You may see less streets being paved, but we're going to pave the streets with the highest needs first. We're going to use technology to help us leverage resources and be focused and surgical in what we need to do, so that we can do more with less. The budget is going to be reviewed every month, and if the revenue goes up, things will be different. 

It is amazing the amount of work we have accomplished but more needs to be done.  We will be prioritizing work in a surgical and strategic way. We have data driving us because we want to do the right things in the right place. I am so proud of our staff who have been adaptive and nimble. They have been working smarter to adapt to the budget cuts and revenue downfalls. If revenue goes down, you have to figure out how you're going to work smart and efficiently. This is why we are the general managers of the city; we're going to manage the city through its ups and downs.

And how is StreetsLA’s addressing the economic interest of farmers’ markets, street venders and other like businesses impacted by COVID?

The mayor was concerned about the public health impacts of farmers markets, and he declared that farmers markets cannot be in operation unless they have a COVID-19 plan. Our staff stepped in, and overnight stood up guidelines, protocols, and a system for approvals. By the next day, every farmers market who was supposed to open—all 50-plus farmers market operators in the city—opened their markets. We were able to do that quickly and no one suffered.

For our street vendors, they were heavily impacted by the pandemic. We really need to work hard on supporting these vendors—the 50,000 families that are vending in the streets of LA—to get back to work. We went to the board yesterday to figure out how we can reduce fees and facilitate their ability to get permits from County Health. We stepped up our support for them in every single way. 

StreetsLA staff also worked as Disaster Service Workers to support testing, sheltering the homeless community, and distributing food to our seniors.  We also worked with our partners as ambassadors to support businesses and make sure that the Safer at Home orders are being complied with. As the city opened, we supported the process of curbside pickup. We worked with our partners at the Department of Transportation to help set up a system for curbside pickup. We are now working together on expanding dining on sidewalks and parking lots and streets as part of the LA Alfresco program.

Homelessness in Los Angeles is only growing – a societal failure. Clearly, the pandemic and resulting economic shock to the system has exasperated the shelter challenges. What contribution is StreetsLA making to this most difficult challenge for the city and its people?

It has been hard on everyone during the COVID19 pandemic, but our homeless population are the most vulnerable. The mayor and City council spared no effort to support our homeless population by expanding testing and shelters across the City. I'm so glad that we moved really fast to put a roof over the heads of the homeless community. I hope this continues as a permanent solution, not a temporary one.  

We are reimagining the city as a different city, by learning from the lessons of the Pandemic. We are working together, supporting each other to make many of the successful programs, such as housing the homeless population, permenant programs.

Adel, as a natural leader and manager of the city agency that has a history of collaboration with other agencies—public and private—address the collaborations that have been created to accomplish what you just described.

Partnerships are essential to everything we do. As you know, when we did the ADAPT program, we actually moved quickly on paving some commercial corridors. By us moving fast and paving, it created some concern among our mobility stakeholders. So, we stepped back and worked with our partners at the Department of Transportation—Seleta Reynolds and her staff—to look at how we can adjust the ADAPT schedule to allow for engineering and outreach so we can integrate mobility enhancements into these projects.

We also started coming up with concepts for putting storm water cisterns as part of projects, and we actually submitted some of these median projects with strong water systems for our partners in Sanitation as part of Measure W.  We're working with the Department of Water and Power—because of COVID-19 and the need for hand sanitizing stations, hand-washing stations, and hydration stations—to look at ways to amend and add to the toilets that we have. We brought in 350 hand sanitizers and put them at the transit shelters to protect people using our transit system. We have 14 toilets in high-traffic areas, and we are developing a plan to put hand-washing stations and hydration stations outside the restrooms.

Recently, we hosted the second Tree Summit, and we did it last year as a way to change our relationship with trees. Arbor Day this year was supposed to be the day we had our Tree Summit, but we couldn't because of COVID. So, we pivoted, and we had 200 people attend a virtual Tree Summit with experts from different parts of the country.  

What keeps me going every day—no matter how tired I get—is when I look in the eyes of people that we're serving, and they appreciate the work. When my guys were in the Fairfax district cleaning after the riots, people wanted to take pictures with them as if they were superstars. They are superstars in my book, but they were surprised that people wanted to take pictures with them. 

I'm proud of what we've done, and proud that I was downtown last Saturday with the Board of Public Works and Kevin James walking around and checking in on businesses after the protests. The smiles never went away from people, even when they were trying to clean up the glass and board up their windows. They felt that the city was there for them, and that's what it's all about. 

Hopelessness doesn't get us anywhere; we need to have hope. By us working during COVID and the protests, it gave people hope that tomorrow's a better day.

How, importantly, are you taking care of your staff—their needs?

Communication is first. Letting staff know the goal of what we're doing. If you have a higher goal and a clear mission, your presence gives hope and normalcy. That's what I told my staff. By us being on the streets, we are giving people hope. By continuing to fix streets and sidewalks, we are giving people hope. By planting and trimming trees, we're giving people hope—hope that tomorrow is going to be a better day, not the end of the world. 

The way we do that is by communicating with staff. It was hard in the beginning to get all the protective equipment to ensure their safety. We were all trying to understand how to operate while safely distancing, but we did it. We were able to communicate with all of our staff, and provide them with masks, hand sanitizer, and washing stations. 

We also had the safety ambassador program. We had ten volunteer supervisors who went around the city and visited every crew, every day, to make sure they are doing the right thing and reminding them of the safety. What they're doing is not just for the city, it's for themselves. The way we carry ourselves speaks about this culture and the vision that we all have embraced, which is an enhanced quality of life for all.

Our staff is so proud of what they do. Under that hard hat and vest, there's a soft heart. I was sending notices to them almost every day to share updates with them. I have to communicate—and I have to empower them—and they have to know that I'm here for them and that they're appreciated. I've gone and visited a lot of them, I was at work every day like everybody else on my team because I'm going to do the same thing, I expect my staff to do. 

We've done a great job in sharing information when we have a COVID positive, and we responded quickly. Luckily, we only had a total of 8 at the beginning of the program, but since then we haven't had any, and we've done a lot of testing ourselves. We actually brought in contactless thermometers, so the staff can take their temperature daily in the field and here at the office. We tell them to not come to work if they're sick. 

I'm looking forward to reimagining the future out of StreetsLA and our City. There are so many things we have learned from the COVID response, whether it's adjusting to sweep commercial corridors, the ability to integrate mobility with our paving, working with stakeholders, telecommuting, or safety. I'm going to continue the COVID safety program and expand it for any occupational safety needs. 

As a leader, you need to have your staff rally behind a mission and a vision and have a clear passion. Then, you have to care for them. You have to show the care, the support, and the appreciation, and provide the tools to succeed.

We have to tell the story. When you walk into our front office, there's a big screen TV playing hundreds of different pictures on rotation of our staff working every day. People stand up to watch it and see themselves. This is appreciation.

If staff goes home and their kids ask what they do at work, I tell them to say not that they fix sidewalks and streets or plant and trim trees—what they do is save lives. Our job is saving lives. And when we have a higher cause and higher calling, then our job will be better and more effective.

Lastly, COVID-19 and shelter-in-place have obviously had a profound impact on people's urban mobility and work environment; and, have increased interest in Slow Streets, Open Streets, and pedestrian mobility. How does the aforementioned impact your notion of what the streets of LA should be like in the future?

We work with Seleta and her team at LADOT, the Mayor’s Office and Councilmember Bonin and his team on Slow Streets. Seleta and I have a monthly meeting with our staff to talk about coordination and the things we do together. We talked about how we make Slow Streets permanent, and adding to the, cool streets with cool pavement.

Let's imagine streets in the city that have cool pavement, great tree canopy, and slow streets for people to walk and bike. Our mission is for people to be able to walk, bike, and go from place to place in a safe way. We have to have slow, green, cool streets—a street oasis. I see the future that way, and maybe we need to start thinking about closing some streets just for pedestrian use. There are some streets in the city that probably can be closed for restaurants and pedestrian use, but how about including a tree canopy, umbrella, or an architectural design over the street to make it beautiful and also provide shade. Throw in some stormwater cisterns and fix some sidewalks as well!

My goals are basic: make sure the streets are good and the sidewalks are good. But also, how can we make them better for us to meet the challenges we're facing?  So, I’m excited about the future. We need to reimagine all of the things we're doing and integrate that into our programs. For every challenge, there is an opportunity. And the last few months we’ve had a lot of challenges, but as a city—as a great community here— we have embraced these challenges and turned them in opportunities to enhance the quality of life for all.

“Making people’s lives better is what we stand for. It’s not just streets and sidewalks…. We all are looking forward to a future that’s better for all of us; it doesn't matter what you look like, who you are, where you live, where you come from, or what language you speak.” —Adel Hagekhalil