Thursday, January 15, 2009

Still Another Section of What's Smart About Smart Grwoth

Here is the continuing of the article by Mr. David Zanhiser:

The Hollywood Problem

The MTA’s 156 bus crawls up Highland Avenue on a Monday afternoon in April, fighting through evening rush-hour traffic as it passes streets known around the world — Melrose Avenue, Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard. An exhausted-looking jogger, running inexplicably in the right lane of traffic, easily passes the bus.

It’s not hard to do, since the bus has traveled four blocks in 10 minutes.

From Hollywood south to Sunset, 36 vehicles have stacked up single-file in the right-hand lane. In the one-block stretch from Sunset to De Longpre Avenue, another 25 cars stack up. From De Longpre to Fountain Avenue, there are 23 cars. On the next block, there are 19. After that, 16. The bus drops off a few passengers across from the Metro Red Line Station at the Hollywood & Highland shopping mall before heading up Cahuenga Pass into the San Fernando Valley.

Because it is a bus route, Highland Avenue is what the planning department calls a “transit corridor,” a place where smart-growth advocates want the greatest amount of housing built. And so far, they are doing a good job of it.

Last month, the planning commission approved the Jefferson at Hollywood, a 270-unit apartment building across from Hollywood & Highland. The project is classic smart growth: shopping on the sidewalk and housing above, across from a subway station. Not far away, construction workers are building the Hollywood, a complex of 54 condos on Franklin Avenue selling for $800,000 and up. And across from it is the future McCadden Place — 218 condos in two eight-story buildings.

If smart-growth theories work as envisioned, many of those new residents will get out of their cars and hop on public transit. Yet the developers of the Jefferson and McCadden Place are hedging their bets: Together, the two projects will offer 1,381 parking spaces — some for residents, some for tourists. Each new car will have to fight the traffic choking Highland Avenue, which is in turn making it impossible for buses to get anywhere.

Highland isn’t the only north-south route in Hollywood jammed with traffic. Other bus routes, like La Brea and Vine Street, are getting worse. On Vine, the Los Angeles City Council voted to lift the height limits to build a luxury W Hotel, along with 500 apartments and condos. Next door, an 11-story residential building is going in, with a Whole Foods Market on the ground floor.

Blumenfeld, the city planner, insists that many of the new Vine Street residents who move into these buildings will live differently, owning only one car or taking transit each day. “I don’t think people will have no cars. But the fewer the cars, the better the transit gets,” she says.

Hollywood is represented by Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti, the 36-year-old former Rhodes scholar who has aggressively pursued smart-growth policies, particularly multistory housing. He argues that 95 percent of the traffic in Hollywood is passing through to somewhere else. “Traffic gets 5 percent worse a year in all parts of Los Angeles,” Garcetti says. “And the places that get the worst are the places that have built the least housing. West L.A. is the worst.”

As he strolls down Western Avenue on a rainy afternoon in March, Garcetti points enthusiastically to a trio of smart-growth projects that brought affordable housing near the Hollywood and Western subway station. One project has a Mondrian design — dozens of squares in red, yellow, orange and blue. A second has 100 apartments for senior citizens and shops on the ground — Jamba Juice, Blockbuster Video, Ross Dress for Less. A third, Garcetti eagerly points out, was featured in the ultimate arbiter of eco-friendly design chic, Dwell magazine.

Smart growth, in theory, is supposed to promote the pedestrian. But the Jamba Juice apartment building has in its center a big parking lot, not a courtyard. A mixed-use Walgreens on Western Avenue has so much parking it looks like a mini-mall with four floors of housing on top.

Standing in the Walgreens parking lot, Garcetti promises that L.A. will get better at smart growth, by making good design a higher priority. And he says smart growth serves an important social need, by creating housing at all income levels. “If you have all the poor living in one place and all the rich people living in another place,” he warns, “you get the Westside.”

The Bus Problem

The Bonaventure Hotel on Flower Street is the last place you’d expect a gathering on smart growth. The place is a bunker, catering to the car like few places in Los Angeles. If you’re not paying attention, you can miss the hotel entirely and drive from Fifth Street onto the northbound 110 freeway. Even the walkways in and out of the hotel look like tiny freeway overpasses.

Needless to say, participants in the New Partners for Smart Growth annual conference aren’t happy. Chatting over the hiss of the Bonaventure’s indoor fountain, they are mortified by the location, long derided for its fortresslike urban design. Still, they have other worries. One panelist at an evening session warns that the public is failing to make the link between sprawl and global warming. Another earnestly declares that the movement has failed to show how pedestrian-oriented designs can address obesity. If the makers of Waiting for Guffman find out about this event, they are going to have a field day.

One session features an employee of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who tells the overeducated, extremely middle-class audience how to live here without owning a car. (He used a Global Positioning System to determine where he would have the most shops and services, then moved to congested West Hollywood.)

The session that most clearly signals the future of Los Angeles is led by Rex Gephart, a regional planning director for the MTA. He tells audience members the history of the red Metro Rapid bus, created seven years ago to address the city’s declining bus speeds. The Rapid bus is an elongated vehicle that stops infrequently, moves passengers in and out more quickly, and alters traffic signals by keeping green lights green.

The system was deemed a huge success and expanded from two routes in 2000 to 16 last year. It is cheaper to install than light rail, or heavy commuter rails like Metrolink, or even dedicated bus corridors like San Fernando Valley’s popular Metro Orange Line, built solely for buses.

But the so-called Rapid system is also slower than each of those other options, and getting slower every year.

In 2007, the average speed of a Rapid bus is 13.7 miles per hour. That makes the special, bright-red Rapid bus just 2 miles per hour faster than the citywide orange buses that stop constantly.

Among the most lethargic Rapid routes is the Metro Rapid on Western Avenue, which averages 10.9 miles per hour. That line slows as it heads toward the purported smart-growth village being created around the subway in Hollywood. Buses on Western and Vermont avenues — two key north-south routes that lead directly to subway stations — are so slow that they are dragging down the speed of the entire Metro Rapid system, Gephart says.

Eventually, the city will be forced to build special bus lanes on the big boulevards, says Gephart. And on that score, Gephart is thrilled with Villaraigosa’s leadership. “The mayor’s stepping up and saying, ‘I want a bus-only lane plan,’ ” Gephart declared during his talk.

To create a bus-only lane, Los Angeles has only two choices: either shave off 5 feet of sidewalk on each side of the street, a move that would infuriate smart-growth/pro-walking advocates, or gobble up one lane of traffic, almost certainly earning the wrath of angry motorists.

So far, the only street slated to have a bus-only lane is Wilshire Boulevard, the subject of two years of bickering between Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. Two other possibilities are Pico and Olympic boulevards. But for now, city and county officials disagree about how to reconfigure those streets.

Villaraigosa sent an envoy to the smart-growth conference — Mike Woo, a former mayoral candidate who served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1985 to 1993. Now a city planning commissioner, Woo founded the Smart Growth China Institute so that he could export the new urbanism to China, the largest developing nation on the globe.

Like many advocates of smart growth, Woo sounds like he is pinning most of his hopes on rail, not buses. Asked whether condos in Century City constitute smart growth, he voices doubts, saying that people with decent incomes, especially on the Westside, usually don’t take the bus. “Historically, it’s been harder for the MTA to win over a middle-class or upper-middle-class ridership — people who have the discretion to choose to take transit or drive a car,” Woo says.

Woo adds another wrinkle. Downtown Los Angeles, perhaps the one place in the city that accommodated density seamlessly over the last decade, has a lot of residents driving to work — frequently outside downtown. In other words, people changed their behavior, as smart-growth theorists had hoped, by moving into multistory buildings. Then they found jobs elsewhere, creating yet another traffic problem, Woo says.

“Finally, we’re getting the new [housing] units downtown, but it’s mostly going to people who don’t have jobs downtown,” Woo declared. “So if we have that problem downtown, I expect to have that problem even worse in Century City, Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles.”

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