The Housing Chronicles Blog: What does L.A. want to be when it grows up?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

What does L.A. want to be when it grows up?

One of the most common complaints about Southern California is its infamous sprawl -- I once sat next to a young guy on a plane from Ohio embarking on his first visit to California, and as we were flying into LAX from the east he was amazed at how long we flew over built-out areas before landing.

But the primary reason we have sprawl is because those who live in the currently developed areas fight increased density, so new development is pushed further outward. With politicians fearing urban constituents and builder's associations unwilling to embrace one type of building over another, we remain stuck in a stalemate of short-term interests and, frankly, a type of cowardice that has in the past prevented long-term planning (which is also why we don't have better public transit or a more fully developed freeway system in Southern California).

And yet that may be changing: over the past ten years, recent decisions by the L.A. City Council have been in far greater support of increased density to house increasing population growth that will occur even if existing families simply stay put (i.e., new births). From an interesting overview in The Economist:

Los Angeles has long epitomised car-oriented sprawl. As early as 1946 the historian Carey McWilliams judged it “a collection of suburbs in search of a city”. So rare are neighbourhoods where basic needs can be met without hopping into a car or bus that estate agents tout the few where they can as “walkable”. Urban planners elsewhere routinely invoke the city as an example of what to avoid. Yet even as they struggle to avoid becoming like Los Angeles, cities such as Atlanta, Phoenix and San Jose are copying it by spreading out and, hydra-like, growing new centres.

The original metropolitan miscreant is now trying to reform itself so fundamentally that Joel Kotkin, an urbanist at Chapman University, compares it to rewriting a DNA code. Last summer the city council changed zoning rules to allow tiny apartments to be built in and around downtown Los Angeles. On March 19th it rejected a plan to put 5,600 homes on the city's northern frontier, signalling that the metropolis must now grow up, not out. From next month developers will be allowed to build blocks of flats up to 35% bigger than previously, so long as they include some cheap housing...

“You're beginning to see a neighbourhood revolution,” says Zev Yaroslavsky, one of Los Angeles' shrewdest and most powerful politicians. He gives warning that outraged citizens may add an initiative to the ballot next year that would block dense housing projects, “smart” or not. Mr Yaroslavsky knows about the power of ballot initiatives. He sponsored one in 1986 that cut the size of most new office buildings in half, and another in 1998 that virtually halted subway construction.

Planners retort that Los Angeles will continue to grow, and it is better to build new apartments on run-down commercial streets than plonk them next to bungalows or bulldoze virgin land. They are particularly keen to put people next to express bus lines or subway stops. At present few use Los Angeles' skeletal rail system—259,000 journeys are made each day, compared with 1.2m bus journeys—and the network is growing painfully slowly. If the subway cannot reach the people, the thinking goes, the people must be brought to the subway.

This theory is the bedrock on which the new North Hollywood is being built. Near the office construction site a 14-storey block of flats (it seems enormous in the San Fernando Valley) has already appeared, and others will follow. The hope is that residents will both live and work there, or walk a few hundred yards to the local subway stop. But Cary Adams, a local resident, notes the developers are hedging their bets: two giant car parks are also scheduled for construction. This is, indeed, the genetic flaw in Los Angeles' new DNA.

A big reason Angelenos drive everywhere is that they can park everywhere, generally free. Businesses must provide parking spaces according to a strict schedule. This raises the cost of doing business and hugely lowers the cost of driving. Free parking is, as Donald Shoup of UCLA put it in a recent book, “a fertility drug for cars”.

Consider the roughly 29,000 people who live in Los Angeles' historic downtown. In the past few years a mixture of childless professionals and students have moved into new lofts. They have access to southern California's best public-transport network, and are the sort of people you would expect to take advantage of it. Yet last year a consortium of local property owners revealed that just 11% normally did so, while another 17% generally walked. Almost everybody else drove.

The politicians and planners are gambling that, by arranging Angelenos in a more conventional pattern, they can change their behaviour. Perhaps it will work. But if they are wrong, an already crowded city will simply gum up.

And when it does, you might have Mr. Yaroslavsky to blame. But why should he care? Those who live in the suburbs and outside of either his district or the city limits can't vote him out -- and that, in a nutshell, is why transportation and land planning in Southern California is such a mess.

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