Streets LA GM Adel Hagekhalil's Holistic Approach to World-Class Streets

Adel Hagekhalil

From street sweeping and pothole repair to urban forestry and heat islands, the Bureau of Street Services (Streets LA), is the city agency charged with tackling the diverse challenges of maintaining the City of LA’s streets, curbs, and sidewalks. Almost one year into his appointment as General Manager and Director of Streets LA, VX News spoke with Adel Hagekhalil on his agency's recently released 5-year Strategic Plan. With an emphasis on sustainably providing Angelenos with safer streets, access, and mobility, Hagekhalil lays out his priorities and plans for transforming LA into a system of world-class streets.

Adel, appointed by Mayor Garcetti to be the General Manager and Director of the City of LA’s Bureau of Street Services—now StreetsLA— share what’s become your primary mission.

Adel Hagekhalil: I was very honored that the Mayor offered me the opportunity to transform our streets within our city to make them safe, mobile, and sustainable. My vision, and the Mayor’s vision, is for the streets to reflect that LA is a world class City. My history working on water issues over the last 30 years is anchored into three pillars: integration, innovation, and inclusion. I’m bringing this focus on collaboration to the job of building a street system that the City can be proud of, provides mobility, has shade, cools our streets, allows people to walk and use transit, and is sustainable and aligned with the Mayor’s Green New Deal initiatives. For me, it’s really how I can transform our streets to make them safe, mobile, and sustainable.

The Bureau recently released LA’s 5-Year Strategic Plan for transforming LA’s street network into a world-class system. Give us an overview of that plan, what it includes, and what, as General Manager, you have prioritized.

Without having a roadmap, you can’t get anywhere. I wanted to engage our staff—my 1,400 employees here—to really have a say in the future of StreetsLA and listen to our policymakers, mayor, residents, and neighborhood councils to bring everything together. Our strategic plan reflects this collaboration with our vision of “Enhancing the quality of life for all." We see ourselves as an agency that will make the life of Angelenos better by transforming our streets to world class, reducing risk and liability to make streets safe, and creating a climate-resilient street network with more trees and shade. All of these things are coming together, and the plan puts forth what we will be doing.

We are using new technologies like cool pavement and cool slurry, we’re planting and trimming more trees, and we’re working hard negotiating a state-of-the-art street furniture program to support the investment in transit across Los Angeles. Part of the Plan is to provide services with equity and quality across our communities, with the focus on providing environmental justice for the communities that have been disadvantaged for many years to help us better serve constituents that have often been overlooked. Prioritizing environmental justice in our services means improving the quality of life for all Angelenos.  Using data and information, essential elements in our planning and service delivery, this strategic plan really sets the path forward to delivering on the Mayor’s and the council’s initiatives, and at the end of the day, make the streets safe, mobile, and sustainable for everyone.

You were long recognized at LA City’s Department of Sanitation as a “One Water” leader - becoming chair of NACWA (National Association of Clean Water Agencies), and today you’re being asked to authoritatively speak nationally and globally about: streets and cool pavement. Share what the City of Los Angeles is testing— and what’s globally being pioneered —in terms of cool pavement.

It’s all about people for me. At LA Sanitation, I was really able to transform our relationship with water by having a One Water LA plan that brought everybody together, broke down the silos, and developed integrated planning with different departments—including LADWP. I’m taking these same ideas and skills and am bringing them to StreetsLA to look at how we can implement holistic projects. If we look at the mayor’s Green New Deal, the biggest challenge we have is that neighborhoods in LA over the next 40 years are expected to experience double or triple the number of days with 95 degree or higher temperatures. That means that we have to change our infrastructure—while renewing it—in a way that helps us deal with the realities of climate change. One of the biggest contributors of heat in neighborhoods is black asphalt, which stores heat during the day and releases it at night, increasing temperatures of streets, sidewalks, and homes. This is an area that we need to focus on in order to reduce energy consumption, and we’ve been leaders on this.

We’re probably one of the first cities in the country to start experimenting with white, cool pavement application over the streets. Initially, we were doing individual streets across the city in the 15 council districts, but recently in June, we did three new, larger neighborhood projects. For these projects, we went into a neighborhood and converted the entire area—30 blocks or more in one area—to cool pavement to reduce temperatures by up to 20 degrees. With these improvements, you’ll be able to safely walk from home to the grocery store, from the senior citizen center to your home, and from the park to the school. With the mayor’s goal of adding 90,000 trees by 2021, we’re working on ways to plant, preserve, and protect trees as well as using street furniture to provide more shelter and shade for people waiting for buses or walking. Bringing all of that together is what we’re trying to do here. We’re also trying to integrate stormwater capture to both address the issue of stormwater runoff and pollution as well as water trees to provide us with a complete, holistic street. We’re trying really hard to build on the Complete Street concepts that have been initiated by the mayor and council, but I want to make it part of an everyday practice for us.

One of the innovations we just led was—rather than just painting the street white—replacing the black slurry used to renew the streets with a white slurry that preserves and cools the streets. We’ve already done a test application in Atwater Village in LA, but we’re going to do one more, starting in South LA. Hopefully, this will prove successful and replicable. It’s this kind of place-based, integrated approach that can make the city more livable and more accessible.  I’m excited that we’re doing something that’s going to make our children’s and grandchildren’s lives better.

On LA City’s current climate change initiatives and rapid adoption of new technology,  elaborate please on where the bureau looks globally to learn about best practices, and where have you been invited to share such LA’s initiatives as cool streets.

My assistant General Manager Greg Spotts had an interview yesterday with BBC on the subject; it’s going global. Cities in Australia are is looking at our technologies. We’ve also had folks from Saudi Arabia last week reaching out to us to learn more about cool pavement. Tokyo is looking at it as they prepare for the Olympics. Everybody’s working to figure out how to cool their neighborhoods in the face of climate change, and we are leaders in this effort. On November 5, we will host a Global Streets Best Practices forum for professionals from across the country and the world to come to LA and learn from each other on how to provide the best quality of services and mitigate the challenges of climate change. I’m excited that we’re leaders in the effort, but we’re also learning from others.

Let’s pivot to one of the Bureau’s other initiatives: city trees. The City has appointed a new City Forest Officer, and Streets LA is working towards a policy of tree replacement to value-based replacement.  Address the current interface between that City Forest Officer and your department.

Rachel Malarich, the new City Forest Officer, is a great partner, and I’m very encouraged by her track record. When I came to StreetsLA, the first thing I was faced with was a conflict between trees and sidewalks. Sidewalks are being repaired to make them safe, and trees get in the way or cause the sidewalk to crack,buckle or uplift. I’m faced with the challenge that if the sidewalk has to be fixed, a tree may have to be removed. There’s a lot of tension about whether we’re doing enough to preserve trees. When I came in, I realized that we need change our relationship with trees, the community, and the advocates.

Repairing the sidewalks on Cherokee in Hollywood called for the removal of 14 trees, but the community really wanted this beautiful canopy to stay. I worked with Councilmember Ryu’s office and the chair of the Public Works Committee, Councilmember Blumenfield, on how sidewalks and trees can coexist. I took that on and worked with our partners at the Bureau of Engineering, and we came up with solutions that allow us to keep the trees while repairing the sidewalks by trimming the trees and the roots and in some places, meandering around the trees in order to preserve them. My staff and the team here at the Urban Forestry Division are proud of being tree advocates.

Now they’re empowered to protect trees and look for solutions. Commissioner Kevin James and Commissioner Cecilia Cabello of the Board of Public Works have been advocates for us and are pushing us to look for alternatives as we repair streets and sidewalks so that we can preserve more trees. That is a huge dialogue we are having between ourselves and the community.

On Arbor Day of last year, Streets LA hosted a Tree Summit—under the leadership of the Mayor—in LA for the first time. We brought together community members and advocates to talk about how we’re going to move forward in taking care of our urban forest. With support in the City budget, we’re doing amazing work on planting and watering,, as well as trimming, more trees. The great thing is that we have funding through the Mayor’s budget to do a comprehensive tree inventory, allowing us to more efficiently manage the urban forest and do so on a public-facing application. That’s something we’re working really hard to get in place. The City Forest Officer will ensure that the policies of the city, when it comes to trees, works across all departments. She will be ensuring the synergy, alliance, and alignment of policies and direction and will be an amazing asset to all of us. I’m very excited for where we are now and what we’re going. Trees are a part of our identity, we are here to protect, preserve, and plant more trees, because they are critical to our sustainability and resiliency.

Bus shelters and bus stops, another priority of the Bureau, are primarily funded by Metro but sited and planned by local jurisdictions. What are your plans for the City of LA with respect to prioritizing and improving bus shelters and seating on City sidewalks.

In LA, we have about 1,900 transit shelters and 6,000 benches across the city. We are going to add approximately 1,000 more transit shelters with focus around the transit-heavy areas most subjected to heat and sun and disadvantaged communities who often are more reliant on transit for their daily commutes. We have a plan to add 1,000 new transit shelters, and we’re looking for ideas to provide shade around the benches that sit by themselves around the city—like trees or umbrellas— in areas with higher transit use and that are exposed to the sun. We also want to integrate state-of-the-art technology that can really provide a tool for residents and visitors to access information through wayfinding on transit times, where to go, or where to eat. LA’s going to be seeing an amazing transformation over the next ten years with the Olympics in 2028. We need to prepare the city for big international events but also serve every Angeleno in their normal, daily lives. People have to be able to move around the city in a safe manner with access to information and in a way where they can stay in the shade while waiting for the transit connection.

Last January, you personally helped lead a VerdeXchange VX2019 charrette focused on the competition for curb space among all the interests traditionally engaged with the Bureau, plus buses, rideshare, EV charging stations, homeless populations, and retail advocates. Speak to the challenges of balancing competing interests jockeying for access to city curbs in 21st century LA.

We’ve been trying to bring technology and innovation into mobility, as curb space is increasingly valuable space. The key question is how can we maximize the availability of the curb and use state-of-the-art technology to provide information? One of the areas I’m working really hard on is how to optimize street sweeping in the city. During sweeping, cars can’t park in an area for a designated time, so what I’m looking for is the ability— and we’re starting the pilot—to be more specific about when parking is not allowed. Once we are coming close to you to sweep, you should be able to get a warning, find out we’re coming, and remove your car so we can sweep. When we leave, it sends that information back to the residents that the curb is available for parking. So, we’re not losing the valuable space, and residents and businesses don’t suffer. We’re trying really hard— partnering with DOT and the mayor’s office—to develop this.

That integration is all about bringing technology to help us enhance and expand services.

Lastly, the number of homeless deaths on the streets of LA is expected to reach 1,000 by year’s end. The Trump Administration recently sent a “fact-finding” team to LA assess what the federal government might “do”. How is the Bureau being asked by the Mayor and Council to deal with this serious and growing public challenge?

I’m very gratified to see services provided by the Bureau of Sanitation, and the launching the CARE (Cleaning and Rapid Engagement) program to not only clean but also serve the community. StreetsLA is a partner in improving the quality of life and ensuring public health and safety. We’re working hard on the rodent abatement program and to support the Bridge Home program that is building two dozen bridge housing facilities in the city this year. We are providing enhanced services around these zones including street sweeping and addressing the tree wells that may harbor rodents, etc. For all of these things, we are partnered with the mayor, the Unified Homelessness Response Center (UHRC), our partners in Sanitation, LAHSA and LAPD. It’s all about quality of life and public health, and one of the things I want to see is the expansion of available and safe public toilets. Expanding public toilets is an area we need to work on, and we need to have them across the city to meet our transit users’ needs, the needs of our homeless residents, and our everyday needs. We need to make sure they’re safe, they’re clean, and they’re sustainable.

That’s one of the many areas I’m focused on, because ultimately, StreetsLA is on a mission to improve the quality of life for all Angelenos. I am extremely excited about the work we are doing at StreetsLA.

Through integration, innovation and inclusion, we are enhancing and expanding our services to make our streets safe, mobile, and sustainable while enhancing the quality of life for all!

“I was very honored that the Mayor offered me the opportunity to transform our streets and our city, and make them safe, mobile, and sustainable. My vision is to make LA shine when it comes to its streets.”—Adel Hagekhalil