Thursday, January 15, 2009

Final Section of What's Smart About Smart Growth

This is the final sections of the article titled; What's Smart About Smart Growth?, written by Mr. David Zanhiser in the May 30, 2007 edition of the L.A. Weekly:

Pasadena’s Answer

Watch the Metro Gold Line roll into Pasadena and you will see a sight unlike any other in Los Angeles County: a train that stops right in the middle of a six-story apartment courtyard. In a region where the freeway is king, the arrival of the 8:52 a.m. train at the Del Mar Boulevard station – a sprawling series of structures that combine 347 homes, several still-vacant stores and a historic train depot — is positively unsettling. It’s like a piece of Portland sprouted up a few miles from the Rose Bowl.

No city in Southern California has embraced smart growth as enthusiastically as Pasadena, better known for its rows of Arts and Crafts bungalows than its transit-oriented development. The smallish city of roughly 146,000 has added 42 higher-density housing developments to its bustling business district, some of which literally wrap around train stations.

“They clearly have done one thing very, very well – they’ve created a vibrant, mixed-use downtown,” says former Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole, who left in 1998 and is now city manager of Ventura.

Pasadena is years ahead of its neighbors in pushing the major tenets of smart growth, placing new homes near transit and making life more pleasant for those who walk. While Los Angeles weighs the possibility of turning Pico and Olympic boulevards into one-way miniature freeways, Pasadena published the 165-page booklet “Getting Around Without a Car.” While Pasadena requires condo and apartment builders on certain streets to put shops or offices on the ground floor, many new apartments in Los Angeles still get built with cavernous parking garages on the ground — leaving an entire block of dead space for the poor saps who walk by.

By concentrating development at its core, Pasadena found a way to save its tree-lined single-family neighborhoods on the outskirts — places with names like Bungalow Heaven, Historic Highlands and Garfield Heights, says Robert Montaño, business district coordinator for the city of Pasadena.

“It means we’ve been able to preserve the character of our neighborhoods,” he says. “We haven’t seen the demolition of large homes, or the conversion of those homes to apartments, or the people who buy two large lots, tear down the homes and combine them into one project.”

Walk with Montaño down Colorado Boulevard and it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm. In the Civic Center is Paseo Colorado, an open-air shopping mall that stretches for two blocks and is topped by 387 homes. Further east is Trio, a mammoth 304-unit apartment house just north of the Pasadena Playhouse. And on Lake Avenue, a shopping boulevard, is the Pasadena Collection — 14 condominiums that are all sharp angles and glass. “We’re striving to create a downtown where you can circulate without a vehicle,” he says.

Nearly a decade before the Metro Gold Line opened, Pasadena’s seven-member City Council chose to concentrate much of its new housing — as many as 5,095 units — in anticipation of the rail that opened in 2003. So in the chicken-and-egg game, Pasadena ordered up the residential first, then the transit.

Not everything is tranquil along the foothills, however. Pasadena was caught off guard by the increase in traffic, Cole says. And design purists have voiced dismay about the look of many new buildings. “In general, the execution and the design and overall quality is disappointing,” says Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, a historic-preservation group.

On a Thursday morning, Pasadena resident Barbara Hamilton waits on the platform next to the Del Mar station. One of nine commuters standing quietly just before 9 a.m., Hamilton has a look that screams elegance and precision: pink jacket, gray cocktail skirt, black leather gloves.

Hamilton makes transit part of her daily routine, driving her car four and a half miles to the station. And yet, she can’t imagine living in the apartments — at $2,030 for a one-bedroom — built above the railroad tracks. “They say the windows insulate them from the noise,” she declares. “But wouldn’t you want to open the windows now and then?”

If smart growth is about changing behavior, then Hamilton can be considered a partial success. She rides the light-rail line each day to Union Station, then transfers to the subway. But she isn’t ready, probably will never be ready, to put herself in a home near railroad tracks.

Hard by the I-5

To witness the struggle between smart growth and sprawl firsthand, talk to David Urrutia, a 28-year-old orthopedic technician trying to buy a home in Los Angeles County. Urrutia and his family spent an afternoon in April checking out Puerta del Sol, a 156-unit condo complex in Lincoln Heights built next to the Avenue 26 station of the Metro Gold Line.

Sitting behind the wheel of the family minivan, Urrutia says he likes what he’s seen inside Puerta del Sol, an enormous courtyard building with gated entrances. Urrutia, who lives in Historic Filipinotown, would prefer to stay in the city.

But his wife, sitting in the passenger seat next to a bag of Cheetos, makes it clear her preference is Palmdale, where a family of modest means can still afford five bedrooms and a huge kitchen.

“The homes are beautiful,” she coos of far-off Palmdale, as their twins fidget. You can almost see her imagining her dream home in the exurbs. Urrutia, on the other hand, hates the thought of driving two to three hours from the high desert to his job in Torrance. “It would kill me,” he declares.

What never enters the discussion is the light-rail station next to Puerta del Sol. Urrutia needs his car every day to reach patients scattered across Los Angeles County. He won’t be taking the light rail, even if he lives just 50 yards away from it. Instead, Urrutia is worried about the $400,000 price tag on a two-bedroom condo looming over a busy freeway. “I don’t want to trap myself into something I might regret later,” he says. “I’m the only one bringing in the income.”

Puerta del Sol sprouted up in just three short years, one of several multistory buildings to rise next to the Santa Ana (5) Freeway. It’s almost as if Wile E. Coyote got an eyedropper from his package of Acme Instant Urban Village, squirted a single droplet on Avenue 26 and — boom! — created a mini-city. Everything that surrounds it still looks like the old Lincoln Heights, an odd mix of stuccoed Victorian homes and wedged-in industrial businesses.

Inside Puerta del Sol, potential buyers walk through the model condo units, each of which looks like the “reveal” segment in an HGTV makeover show — granite countertops, tasteful earth tones, cookbooks with Nigella Lawson leering saucily on the cover.

But in real life, the A/C unit in the southernmost condo is on full blast, drowning out the roar of cars on the 5 freeway, literally a stone’s throw away from this new housing. Some of those cars are probably heading north to Palmdale, the place with the five-bedroom homes coveted by Urrutia’s wife.

In L.A. civic circles, Puerta del Sol is now a poster child for smart growth. Three Los Angeles public pension funds — two for retired city workers and a third for county employees — invested a combined $65 million into the group that financed Puerta del Sol.

One group of pension trustees even visited the Avenue 26 project, concluding that transit-based condos are a good financial bet for the city’s retirees. Villaraigosa also came to Puerta del Sol to thank the pension board members for their votes to invest in such housing.

Numerous investment funds have draped themselves in the concept of smart growth, attracting more than $200 million in L.A. government pension money. So by now, Los Angeles is facilitating smart growth from two directions — at the front end, by providing lucrative pension dollars to finance projects, and at the back end, by approving new smart-growth zoning that will allow such projects to get built.

Los Angeles is not just gambling that smart growth will solve its traffic and housing and livability problems. Though smart growth is still a tiny part of the city’s overall investment portfolio, the city is betting that such projects will bring big financial returns to retired employees.

Changing Behavior

The first place to take advantage of the city’s new smart-growth zoning was, oddly enough, in Westchester — a very suburban, very low-density neighborhood that gets soothing breezes from the ocean and jarring jet noise from LAX. Three years ago, the Furama Hotel obtained the first Los Angeles city permit for smart-growth zoning.

A big construction pit now surrounds the Furama, once a symbol of 1960s aviation glamour, where pilots, airline stewardesses and frequent business travelers once stayed. The 12-story Furuma will reopen as Playa del Oro, promising a mix of upscale shops, condos and a few dozen hotel rooms.

The No. 3 Big Blue Bus runs every few minutes past the Furama, carrying passengers from Santa Monica as far south as the Metro Green Line at Aviation Boulevard. On a hot afternoon in May, the bus is a standing-room-only experience, filled with weary rush-hour commuters, anxious moms trying to keep track of their children, and Saint Monica Catholic High School students listening to iPods and clutching skateboards.

Operated by the city of Santa Monica, the Big Blue Bus is painted with playful graphics, a marketing tool to lure middle-income commuters out of their cars. But on a Thursday afternoon, the No. 3 feels like any bus operated by the larger MTA: hot, crowded and slow.

Wearing a dark, pinstriped suit and a Sheraton Hotel lapel pin, hotel worker Ryan McGrath rides the No. 3, which is caught in the traffic jam that starts next to Playa Vista, where state construction workers are widening Lincoln Boulevard to accommodate traffic from and to thousands of new Playa Vista homes.

In 30 minutes, the bus has traveled less than six miles, or a deflating 12 miles per hour.

McGrath took buses and trains when he lived in France and Switzerland. But after riding the bus here for two months, the Playa del Rey resident is ready to buy a car. He is fed up with a six-mile ride that frequently takes an hour and 10 minutes, including two buses and walking. “I’m used to punctual, every-30-minute buses, punctual subways,” he explains. “I can’t deal with this.”

And so another L.A. resident is about to change his behavior. But instead of embracing transit, McGrath has decided to abandon it.

McGrath says the Rapid bus line offered by the Big Blue Bus is frequently as slow as buses with far more stops. And he is irritated that his neighborhood lacks the riders to support more frequent bus service. “Everybody in Playa del Rey is fucking rich,” he grouses.

The No. 3 bus rolls to a stop at Manchester Boulevard, right across from the construction pit that surrounds the Furama Hotel. McGrath can’t stay and talk. If he misses the No. 115, he says, he will have to wait an hour. McGrath runs across six lanes of traffic, dodging a Prius and avoiding the crosswalk entirely. Once he reaches the other side of the street, McGrath lights a cigarette and checks his cell phone. After a few minutes, he looks down the street and starts walking.

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