Thursday, January 15, 2009

What' Smart About Smart Growth

Some individuals have asked me to post the entire article titled "What's Smart About Smarth Growth?" by Mr. David Zanihser, originally published in the May 30 edition of the L.A. Weekly.

The article is about 7,189 words and I have to divide it up into several posts. I tried for over an hour to get the whole thing onto one post. I am now posting the article based on major sections as laid out by Mr. Zanhiser, in his article.

Here is the first section:

What's Smart About Smart Growth?

City Hall's plan for the future expects you to give up the yard, the car - and learn to love density
Wednesday, May 30, 2007 - 3:00 pm

We are not moving. We, the passengers of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s No. 304 bus, are not moving. The traffic signal up ahead is green. But we are not moving because we sit behind a constellation of brake lights, a seemingly endless chain of cars lined up end to end as far as the passengers can see.

The No. 304 bus is heading east on Santa Monica Boulevard in rush-hour traffic, inching its way out of Century City and into Beverly Hills. Because traffic is terrible, as it so frequently is on the Westside, the bus is nowhere near to being on schedule. After all, it spent 27 minutes traveling in a straight line from Lincoln Boulevard to the 405 freeway — a pace of 7.5 miles per hour.

“It’s always like this,” declares passenger Sharon Tohline, who takes the No. 304 each day to her job at Koning Eisenberg, an architecture firm in Santa Monica. Because her firm specializes in environmentally friendly design, and because her 7-year-old Mazda has seen better days, Tohline decided to do her part and hop on the bus. Now, she has a commute that consumes three hours each day.

The bus on Santa Monica Boulevard isn’t just slow, by the way. It is also smelly. Wretchedly smelly. One passenger asks out loud whether someone vomited. In reality, the odor comes from the disheveled man with a ponytail in the third to last row, who grins incoherently as he sways to 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” playing on a nearby stereo. The stench is violating, so powerful that passengers have emptied out the seats on each side of the smelly, drugged-out man.

Tohline is philosophical about the situation, making jokes about indignities suffered on other commutes, like the day passengers swiftly concealed a mystery odor by spraying perfume. The 26-year-old native of Louisiana also makes sure her hours on the bus aren’t wasted time. She has an iPod, the preferred device of the bus passenger, and she has books. Many books. Tohline has read 30 of them since she started taking the bus in February — Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love and, most recently, Marisha Pessl’s 514-page Special Topics in Calamity Physics. “I polished it off in a week,” she says.

If the bus is moving slowly now, wait a few years.

Huge development projects are planned for Santa Monica Boulevard, in a district of Los Angeles known as Century City. The Related Companies recently demolished the St. Regis Hotel to build a 42-story condominium tower. Westfield, the shopping-mall giant, is planning a 42-story skyscraper that combines shopping with condos. And JMB Realty, based in Chicago, recently received the go-ahead to build two 47-story condo towers and a 12-story loft on nearby Constellation Boulevard.

The elites who control L.A. real estate have two words to describe the changes in store for Century City: smart growth. When planners talk about smart growth in Century City, they mean high-density housing in a job center. When lobbyists talk about smart growth in Century City, they mean luxury condos surrounded by walkable streets. Even Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, who does not hide his boredom with certain planning issues, rhapsodized in January that Century City will one day behave like a village, not an intimidating cluster of skyscrapers. In other words, smart growth.

Los Angeles leaders are pinning their hopes on smart growth, the utopian planning vision that seeks to halt the suburban sprawl that comes with endlessly expanding cities. Politicians, planners and policy types say smart growth, sometimes described as “new urbanism,” will relieve the region’s housing shortage, diminish its traffic woes and solve L.A.’s overall unlivability.

Real estate developers have caught on, using the phrase shamelessly to gain public support for enormous developments, from a hillside subdivision near Santa Clarita to the Westside’s Playa Vista, the massive, 5,800-home development near Marina del Rey. In a city where growth was once a dirty word, smart growth is the spoonful of sugar that suddenly makes bigness palatable.

Conceived a decade ago as a way to protect open space, smart growth relies on a few major precepts. One is that the car is bad. Another is that cities should be composed of villages, where residents walk to their amenities — shops, restaurants, a decent dry cleaner. To make those places walkable, housing and businesses are concentrated in the same multistory buildings, according to the smart-growth doctrine. And to discourage cars further, those “mixed use” buildings are placed on big streets with frequent public transit, like Santa Monica Boulevard.

With a real estate boom serving as the spark, smart-growth projects have spread like wildfire, rising near subway and light-rail stations. Hollywood is adding thousands of condos and apartments along the Metro Red Line. Koreatown is ground zero for hundreds of new multistory homes and offices near the subway. Little Tokyo is a magnet for four- and five-story condo projects, largely because of a Metro Gold Line station slated to open in 2009.

And Union Station, the 1939 train depot and Los Angeles icon, is now hidden by apartments on two sides — a situation viewed as a disaster by L.A. design purists.

Beyond this construction near the area’s few rail lines, the city's many bus corridors are also attracting apartments, lofts, town homes and condos — La Brea Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard, Vine Street and Ventura Boulevard, Western Avenue and Washington Boulevard. Higher-density housing is being recommended for any corner where a bus arrives every 15 minutes or less.

And that leads to one huge problem: For all the talk of a subway to the sea, Los Angeles is a bus town. For each mile of rail operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, there are 40 miles of bus routes. And in 2007, the average speed of the widely used orange bus is just 11.7 miles per hour. Buses, which will serve in many ways as the backbone for smart growth, are stuck in traffic along with everybody else.

If smart growth is about changing behavior — getting people to give up the car, the backyard, the five-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac — then planning gurus are taking a tremendous gamble in Los Angeles, the city that made sprawl the urban form of the 20th century.

Smart-growth enthusiasts believe motorists will become so fed up sitting in traffic that they will abandon their cars for a substandard transit system. The bus, in particular, provides a series of indignities: the lone screaming passenger who makes everyone else miserable; televisions that noisily broadcast commercials for gym equipment; the ban on beverages and food. (You can bring a travel mug on the bus; you just can’t drink from it.) And despite all that inconvenience, MTA daily passes are set to double in price — to $6 in 2009.

Advocates of smart growth are making a second risky bet, arguing that once someone makes a home in a condo or a multistory apartment building, he or she will work nearby — reducing the number of cars on traffic-choked streets. Or, as a newsletter published in 2005 by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce put it: “More [transit] funds and smart growth are key to correcting L.A.’s traffic woes.”

So here’s an unpleasant thought: Unless enough people can be persuaded to change their behavior, the L.A. traffic nightmare will be much, much worse under smart growth — miles and miles of high-density neighborhoods, with public transportation no one but the poorest residents will use, or tolerate.

Smart-growth advocates say they aren’t worried. The city will need density either way, they say, just to qualify for federal funding that pays for rail. If traffic gets worse in the short term, neighborhoods will finally rise up and demand the light-rail and subway lines that could transform Los Angeles into a functioning city, says Gloria Ohland, vice president for communications with Reconnecting America, an organization that promotes rail and transit-oriented development.

“Traffic, which is the problem, is also the solution,” Ohland says. “So I would argue, boost the density in Century City. Build it out to the max. And then, there will be the constituency to build a subway down Wilshire Boulevard.”

Ohland and many other smart-growth backers assume that at some unknown point, the number of commuters who abandon their cars will reach a critical mass and the city will become more livable. But no one knows precisely when — or if — that will happen. To make it work, they will need commuters like Tohline, the 26-year-old office worker who gave up her car.

With a three-hour daily commute, Tohline could easily succumb to the boredom and get back behind the wheel. After all, no subway will reach Century City for at least a decade. And even if it does, that subway will come from Koreatown, not from the Hollywood neighborhood where Tohline lives.

Asked how long she can last on the bus, Tohline pauses. “I don’t know yet,” she says, as her bus heads past the skyscrapers of Century City. Even the upbeat commuter on the No. 304 is no sure thing.


Nancy said...

This was an amazing story - very eye-opening. But it also points out how far away we are from having an efficient system of transportation in this city. The people who extol the virtues of taking buses obviously don't know what it's like to ride on them during rush hour. It's just God-awful. And the people buying those $800k+ condos are too wealthy to give up their cars and put up with that.

Anonymous said...

Take that Ponte Vista OUtreach Team!!