LA Weekly: “City Hall’s ‘Density Hawks’ Are Changing L.A.’s DNA

Los Angeles shows what can happen when developers perceive profits in density, public officials egg them on, newspapers are quiescent, and citizens are asleep at the switch. LA Weekly reports:

City Hall’s “Density Hawks” Are Changing L.A.’s DNA (2/27/08)

…Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy…has been staging a one-man campaign to slow City Hall’s feverish promotion of density — a quiet war on the large swaths of suburbia and few hunks of countryside remaining inside the city limits…

…the Villaraigosa administration has grown accustomed to only tepid
public interference and awareness. Through aide Gil Duran, the mayor
has for five months ducked L.A. Weekly‘s routine questions
about his agenda’s potential consequences citywide — much taller and
fatter residential buildings than zoning law allows, significantly less
green space, obliteration of residential parking in some complexes and
removal of older, less expensive housing…

The shift is pushing L.A. from its suburban model of single-family homes with gardens or pools — the reason many come here — toward an urban template of shrinking green patches and multistory buildings of mostly renters…

Of 16,874 housing units built the year after Villaraigosa was elected, 86 percent were multifamily — the vast majority of those rentals. Established homeowner neighborhoods — the glue that historian and former California State Librarian Kevin Starr once noted helped hold L.A. together, even in bad times — are an afterthought; the Brookings Institute reports that L.A. is suffering a middle-class decline more pronounced than in any other urban area in America…

…Angelenos don’t have a clue what’s been happening, or what’s coming. In the 32 months since Villaraigosa was elected, for example, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News have written only four stories about a plan to allow apartments without parking in order to squeeze in more units…

…the city’s “Parking Reduction
Ordinance”…lets developers of apartments and condos near train
stations and bus stops get a waiver from the city’s minimum
parking-space requirements. In a radical departure, the city could
allow big apartments to be constructed without parking spaces. The
developer need only prove he is providing a vaguely imagined
“alternative means” of transportation — potentially, anything from
carpool programs to bicycle racks to walking canes and foot balm — that
a local city-zoning administrator feels is a “viable alternative” to

“…The deal [says Yaroslavsky] is that there are a number of developers who see an opportunity here to make a killing.”

…density…breeds much more crime — something “density hawks” never mention. A report by the National Center for Policy Analysis says crime rates in dense cities outpace by up to 20 percent the crime in more sprawling, spacious cities. So-called “smart growth” Portland and Seattle lead the pack in property crime…

With a few pockets of 1980s-style activism developing at the feistier monthly neighborhood-council meetings in Los Angeles, City Hall has begun responding — by attacking the locals…

According to homeowner Peggy Burgess, the [North Hills West] Neighborhood Council was subjected to an official barrage of blistering, trumped-up charges — even including racism — that originated from a cadre of pro-growthers…

Click for the full story

See also:

LA Weekly: “What’s Smart About Smart Growth?” (5/30/07)
[Photo caption:] 11.7 m.p.h.: Average speed of L.A. buses. Yet City Hall pols hope buses will somehow handle the human crush once their plans for multistory living take hold…

[Sharon] Tohline decided to do her part and hop on the bus. Now, she has a commute that consumes three hours each day…

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…

Smart-growth enthusiasts believe motorists will become so fed up sitting in traffic that they will abandon their cars for a substandard transit system…

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…

…[Gloria] 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…

[Mayor] 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…

Woo [Mike Woo, a city planning commissioner] 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…

[Pasadena resident Barbara Hamilton] 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?”

…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…

Smart Growth Winners (Rich People) and Losers (Other People)
Smart growth is great if you are an upscale professional, preferably
without children, who can score a relatively large apartment fairly
close to work. It’s a lot less fun for the majority trying to cram your
family into four or five rooms… Smart growth is great if you can
afford to have everything you buy delivered, or are in excellent
physical condition with a physically undemanding job; it is not so
great if you have to come home from your shift at the nursing home to
lug groceries a quarter-mile down the street, and then up three flights
of stairs. Smart growth is great if you can afford to eat in the
plethora of restaurants; it is not so enjoyable if you have to scrape
up an extra 20% for the ingredients in tuna casserole. Smart growth is
great if you have a nanny to take the kids to the park during the day;
it is not so terrific if you have to choose between wasting several
precious hours standing around the playground, or letting your kids
languish inside. Smart growth is great if you can afford taxis when you
need them; it is not so good if you are forced to take three busses to
get somewhere you really need to be. Smart growth is great if your
family members are all affluent enough to take care of themselves; it
is not so fulfilling when you have to shove your ailing mother into the
kids room when her resources fail.

Vancouver Sun: “Call it EcoDensity or EcoCity –either way it’s a hard sell”
Despite Yaletown, almost 70 per cent of the city is single-family
housing. Vancouver, essentially, remains an urban suburb. And there is
a reason for this.

People love it.

They love the city’s
garden-like nature. They love the stability and social cohesion of a
single-family neighbourhood. They like having neighbours they know…

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
The anonymity induced by Brasilia is evident from the scale and
exterior of the apartments that typically make up each residential
superquadra… For superquadra residents, the two most frequent
complaints are the sameness of the apartment blocks and the isolation
of the residences (“In Brasilia, there is only house and work”). The
facade of each block is strictly geometric and egalitarian. Nothing
distinguishes the exterior of one apartment from another… Part of the
disorientation arises from the fact that apartment
dwelling–especially, perhaps, this form of apartment dwelling–fails
to accord with deeply embedded conceptions of home. Holston asked a
class of nine-year-old chidren, most of whom lived in superquadra, to
draw a picture of “home.” Not one drew an apartment building of any
kind. All drew, instead, a traditional freestanding house with windows,
a central door, and a pitched roof… the design of the residential
city militates against individuality… (p.126-127)

Cox: “METROPOLITAN DENVER AT RISK: How Densification Will Intensify
Traffic Congestion, Air Pollution and the Housing Affordability Crisis”

“Sprawl and Congestion—is Light Rail and Transit-Oriented Development
the Answer?”

The allure of the automobile is compelling, and crafting a sensible
transportation policy requires an acknowledgement of the wonderful
attributes of the car:

The motor vehicle has enriched our
lives in countless ways. It has provided the easy connectivity that
enables modern, highly interdependent, urban societies to thrive. It
has eliminated rural isolation. It has enabled workers to choose
employers rather than accept whatever employment opportunities are
within walking or transit distance of their homes. The personal truck
allowed craftspeople and artisans to carry their tools with them and
enter the middle class by becoming independent contractors. The motor
vehicle has enabled people to live outside urban centers and still
participate in mainstream society.

The car is an amazing piece
of technology that has greatly extended our range of choice as to where
to live, work, shop, and play. No other form of transport can compete
with the automobile in terms of door-to-door mobility, freedom to time
one’s arrivals and exits, protection from inclement weather, and
comfort, security, and privacy while in transit.[2]

NY Times Magazine: “The Autonomist Manifesto (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Road)”
…the average commute by public transportation takes twice as long as the average commute by car…

“Sprawl and Smart Growth” (PDF) by Jane S. Shaw
Senior Associate, Political Economy Research Center, Bozeman, MT
net result of adding roads is less congestion. Studies show that
metropolitan areas that have built more streets have seen less increase
in congestion than cities that haven’t added as many…

Metro Portland’s Long Experience with Smart Growth: A Cautionary Tale

New York Times: “Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children”
interviewing 300 parents who had left the city, researchers at Portland
State found that high housing costs and a desire for space were the top

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
1990, 60 percent of New Yorkers said they would live somewhere else if
they could, and in 2000, 70 percent of urbanites in Britain felt the
same way. Many suburbanites commute hours every day just to have “a
home, a bit of private space, and fresh air.”

Our Column in Today’s Gazette: The Hidden Risks of ‘Smart Growth’
Many homebuyers, especially those with children, began to avoid
Portland in their quest for affordable, conventional homes with yards.
This ironically fostered sprawl (PDF) and traffic as people migrated to cities outside the region’s authority, such as Vancouver, Wash…

Taking the long view, we are concerned that smart growth could
gradually transform Northampton into a community that’s inhospitable to
families with young children. It’s easy to see how they might pack up
for Easthampton, Hadley, or other surrounding towns…

Greening Smart Growth: The Sustainable Sites Initiative
The presence of natural elements has several implications for personal
and community security. Shared green spaces, particularly those with
trees, provide settings for people to interact and strengthen social
ties. Residential areas with green surroundings are associated with
greater social cohesion in neighborhoods, and neighbors with stronger
social ties are more likely to monitor local activity, intervene if
problem behaviors occur,[48] and defend their neighborhoods against
crime.[49] Residents of buildings with greater tree and grass cover
report fewer incidences of vandalism, graffiti, and litter than
counterparts in more barren buildings.[50] Likewise, a study comparing
police reports of crime and extent of tree and grass cover found that
the greener a building’s surroundings, the fewer total crimes were

Smart Growth and Crime