Thursday, January 15, 2009

Third Another Section on What's Smart About Smart Growth

This is a continuation of Mr. David Zanhiser's article published in the L.A. Weekly on May 30, 2007.

The Chicken and the Egg

Los Angeles is the birthplace of trends — the freeways of the 1950s, the anti-tax movement of the 1970s, the gourmet pizzas of the 1980s. But when it comes to smart growth, the city finds itself atypically at the tail end of a movement that originated in smaller, rural states as a way to protect open space.

Smart growth arose in the mid-1990s in Colorado, where then-Governor Roy Romer faced an outcry over new housing subdivisions gobbling up farmland around Denver, Boulder and other midsize cities. Romer warned during his 1994 re-election campaign that the Rocky Mountain State was looking more like Los Angeles, the nation’s poster child for traffic and bad planning.

In Los Angeles, planners and affordable-housing advocates pushed smart growth not so much to save open space but to address traffic and a lack of reasonably priced housing. Only a few years earlier, home buyers in San Bernardino and Riverside counties were delighted to find four-bedroom homes on cul-de-sacs for less than $300,000. Yet their commutes dragged on for as much as two hours.

“If we put people at the urban fringe, their only transit option is the car,” says Beth Stecker, policy director with the L.A.-based Livable Places, a nonprofit group that favors smart growth. “There’s no bus service there. . . . They find someplace they can afford to buy, but they have a long, hellish commute. So if we can give people a place where they can have a choice of taking the train or the bus, or biking or walking to work, then that’s better.”

Mayor Villaraigosa jumped on the smart-growth bandwagon soon after his election, telling business leaders that if the city wants to keep moving, then freeways and single-family homes will need to be things of the past.

“A lot of us grew up with the idea of a three-bedroom house with large backyards and front lots. We have to recognize that that’s not going to be possible,” Villaraigosa said in remarks covered by the Los Angeles Daily News.

Villaraigosa, who is driven around town in a GMC Yukon, has a hilltop home in Mount Washington and at least four years of free rent at the mayoral mansion in Windsor Square, a neighborhood lined with streets zoned for highly restrictive R-1, or single-family homes. Shortly after his election, Villaraigosa selected nine people to carry out his development vision at the Los Angeles City Planning Commission.

Seven of his nine planning commissioners also live in single-family homes, nearly all on streets that enjoy the most restrictive zoning in Los Angeles — prohibiting apartments or multifamily housing of any kind. Even as they try to change the behavior of the city’s residents, planning commissioners have been loath to alter their own.

Heading the commission is Jane Usher, a lawyer who is, like the mayor, a resident of leafy Windsor Square. With Usher at the helm, the commission unveiled a 14-point manifesto last month that demands a smart-growth approach: a walkable city, jobs near housing, and density near transit, to name a few.

A onetime aide to former Mayor Tom Bradley, Usher wants Los Angeles to become much more dense, arguing that more residents, grouped more closely, are needed in order to maximize the use of a transit system that will one day crisscross L.A. — including expanded Metro Rapid bus service and the Metro Gold Line to East Los Angeles, the Expo Line to Culver City, and the subway to the sea so often mentioned by Villaraigosa.

“It is a chicken-and-an-egg problem,” she says. “If those [rail lines] are just the nearest things on the horizon, and other projects follow, then there will be a point in time when L.A. has a real train system. And my belief is, buildings that are built today need to anticipate that real train system and need to support it.”

And in the interim?

“In the interim, there’s going to be traffic,” Usher adds.

The chicken-and-egg problem is, in fact, all over the city. Places that are getting rail frequently don’t have density, and the places with density frequently don’t have rail. Playa Vista, billed as smart-growth, is adding 5,846 homes along Jefferson Boulevard but is miles from a rail stop.

The Metro Gold Line extension to East Los Angeles, slated to open in 2009, ends at a McDonald’s, a Chevron and two huge mini-malls — places that house businesses like Manny’s El Loco and Los Pollos No. 2. Los Angeles County officials bought land on nearby Atlantic Boulevard to ensure that multistory housing gets built, but right now those lots lie fallow.

The prospect of a new rail line excites 22-year-old Michael Cowie, waiting on a Sunday afternoon for the arrival of the Metro Rapid bus on Atlantic Boulevard. But even so, he is one of those transit riders who doesn’t believe people will change their ways. Standing in the hot sun, he says it’s obvious that anyone who has a car will choose to drive it. “Everyone hates the bus,” he declares.

The chicken-and-egg problem makes it unclear when either commuters or bus riders will find relief under smart growth. It looks unlikely in 2009, when the Metro Gold Line reaches East Los Angeles. Or 2014, when the rail line along Exposition Boulevard finally reaches Santa Monica.

Perhaps it will be 2016, the earliest realistic date for the subway to the sea. “This is about an evolution, not a revolution,” says Ohland, the communications vp with Reconnecting America. “It’s taking a really long time to go from car-oriented to transit-oriented, and in between there’s a lot of uncomfortable places.”

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