NYT Debate: Is Smart Growth Good, Great or Terrific?

As reported here two  weeks ago, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is hunkered in the ruins of the city he destroyed, poring over maps of phantom forces, ranting about impossible counterattacks, plotting ever more fanciful grand projects, dreaming of a return to glory that will never come. 

Villar[aigosa] has a dream of turning L.A. into New York West, and now the Times of New York is treating the failed mayor’s delusion with patient indulgence. In Villaraigosa’s smart growth scheme, the bankrupt city will spend non-existent dollars to turn Hollywood into a hip, walkable, transit-oriented, new-urbanist, polycentric hub. The Grey Lady subjects that plan to one of its "Room for Debate" debates in which, miraculously, there is only one side. 

Just look at the rich variety of voices on this issue with implications for L.A. and many other newer American towns: 

"Millennials are embracing the urban lifestyle by the tens of thousands," says Smart Growth America president Bill Fulton, "especially along the Red Line subway between downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood (two neighborhoods that are every bit as urban as most of Manhattan and, in fact, often stand in for Manhattan in the movies). Their poster child is the actor Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the despicable Pete Campbell on 'Mad Men.' Kartheiser doesn’t own a car and commutes on the Red Line from his home in Hollywood to the Mad Men set in downtown L.A."

If Pete Campbell is so despicable, why is Roger Sterling the pitchman for Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln line? More to the point, can there be any disagreement with the profound wisdom of Fulton’s judgment? 

Apparently not. "[W]hile Woody Allen's caricature of Los Angeles in 'Annie Hall' molders in the national imagination, New York and Los Angeles have proved that they have more in common than not, says UCLA professor of Chicano studies and urban planning Eric Avila. "Both are economic capitals, immigrant entrepots and media empires, and both have polyglot concentrations of extreme wealth and poverty. New York and L.A. reign as the nation's most global cities. So why should it surprise us that city leaders in Los Angeles are striving to accommodate new levels of density? The only surprise is that such efforts have not come sooner."

Faster than you can say "Done and done," Curbed LA senior editor Adrian Glick Kudler pipes in with another view: 

"What [Villaraigosa's Hollywood Community Plan] does is make sure that big buildings rise near transit stations, notes that historic buildings should be properly looked out for, and encourages pedestrian-friendly street improvements and new park development," encourages Kudler. "It treats Hollywood like the urban center it's been for a long, long time, and it tries to make it a nice-looking, working urban center, for all the Angelenos who might want to live in that kind of place."

You know, it’s really not hard to find experts who are skeptical of smart growth. Joel Kotkin's usually willing to talk and he’s conveniently located. So is Wendell Cox. When we did one of these Smart Growth debates at the L.A. Times a few years back, we got some interesting insights from Robert Bruegmann, a University of Illinois art history professor and author of Sprawl: A Compact History. The "Criticism" section of Wikipedia's Smart Growth entry is pretty clearly written by somebody looking to marginalize the criticism, but it too lists a few groups you could call up. 

Two of the participants in the NYT's debate do raise questions about the viability of the Hollywood-as-Greenwich Village model:

From writer and director Reggie Rock Bythewood comes this

[D]espite the major development around Staples, let’s be clear: It is not Madison Square Garden, and L.A. will never be New York. In much of downtown New York, it's congested and restaurants stay open all night. That’s not the culture of L.A., and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Mass transit efforts are nice, but L.A. is still a driving town. Angelenos would rather drive to the 7-Eleven down the block than walk. The development of downtown, be it L.A. Live, Staples or the Disney Concert Hall (a 2,000-seat theater that is home to the L.A. Philharmonic) have been positives. Let's keep the palm trees in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica and allow L.A. to evolve.

And from laimyours.com blogger Cori Clark Nelson

We’ve got diversity in spades. Know what else we have? Vacancies.

Skyscrapers won’t destroy the character of Hollywood — after all, Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound on his way to panhandling — but rows of dark, empty towers will. I see no demand for this kind of dense vertical housing. If you move to Hollywood today, rentals are here for the taking, spacious places with pools, balconies and even fruit trees. Commercial and residential spaces will be carpeted, however. How else will we keep the New Yorkers at bay?

If you want to live vertical, downtown L.A. already has a burgeoning scene of creative professionals, easy access to mass transit … and vacancies. In this city, it’s easier to find an apartment than a TAP card (our version of a Metrocard). I had to buy mine in a liquor store on Hollywood Boulevard, since it’s not sold in subway stations.

Overdeveloping Hollywood so that residents take public transport is truly putting the cart before the horse. Develop our mass transit system so that it goes where many Angelenos need to go, like the west side or the airport, for goodness’ sake. We need more dedicated bus and bike lanes. Otherwise, this new influx of residents will just bring more cars, Capitol Records will become a stylish parking garage, and we’ll all sit in gridlock as the costumed characters stroll by on the sidewalk with it all figured out.

Now we’re inching toward some relevant facts. Whatever Fulton believes "Millennials" are up to, two things are clear: They ain’t watching Mad Men; and they don’t appear to be riding the Red Line in any greater numbers than they were two years ago: Even with gas at $5 a gallon all over town, February boardings were just slightly above February 2010 boardings, and even with considerable number-cooking, demand for the train has barely grown over the last decade. 

As for the transit use and population growth claims made by the other debaters, allow myself to quote....myself

Adjusting for inflation and comparing BEA numbers from thebeginning of Antonio’s administration [pdf] with the most recent numbers [pdf], it looks like Los Angeles has experienced almost a 10 percent decline in real GDP by metropolitan area. 

L.A. County’s population has also flatlined over the same period, and I’m still seeing plenty of for-sale and for-rent signs in Hollywood itself. So where are all the happy pedestrians going to come from to fill up these tall buildings? It’s not like you have to travel far to find a counter-example: After spending billions of taxpayers dollars in an effort to turn Downtown L.A. into New York West, the city is now stuck with an overbuiltlargely vacant downtown and a rate of public transit usage that is actually declining

And finally, "Woody Allen's caricature of Los Angeles in Annie Hall" sticks in the national mind? Seriously? 

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  • Sevo||

    And Villy's policies have done so WELL:
    "Budget official sounds warning on LA finances"
    From the article:
    "In a sweeping report, Santana blamed the shortfall on stagnant revenues and rising employee costs such as payroll and pensions."
    Surprisingly, the government official suggests more taxes as the cure:
    "Los Angeles could go bankrupt if it doesn't overhaul its finances with new taxes, [and maybe "possible layoffs"]

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/.....632D17.DTL

  • juris imprudent||

    UCLA professor of Chicano studies and urban planning

    Another sign of the demise of a once proud institution.

  • Len Bias||

    What Tim fails to understand is that by calling it "smart" growth, it is undeniably better than any growth idea that Tim or other libertarians might have, because they have failed to name their ideas using words like "smart" or "green."

    For example, a "green" job is without question better than a job that is created by the market. If a market job were as good as a "green" job, it would be called a "smart" or "green" job. But, it's not, so it's not as good as a "green" job, which kills unsmart jobs and costs unspeakable amounts of money to create, but is still superior because it is called a "green" job.

    Same with "smart" growth, which is better than unzoned, unregulated growth determined by the free-market. The latter type doesn't have the words "smart" or "green" it its title, so is therefore inferior, even though it doesn't ultimately lead to urban decay the way "smart" growth does.

  • Len Bias||

    What Tim fails to understand is that by calling it "smart" growth, it is undeniably better than any growth idea that Tim or other libertarians might have, because they have failed to name their ideas using words like "smart" or "green."

    For example, a "green" job is without question better than a job that is created by the market. If a market job were as good as a "green" job, it would be called a "smart" or "green" job. But, it's not, so it's not as good as a "green" job, which kills unsmart jobs and costs unspeakable amounts of money to create, but is still superior because it is called a "green" job.

    Same with "smart" growth, which is better than unzoned, unregulated growth determined by the free-market. The latter type doesn't have the words "smart" or "green" it its title, so is therefore inferior, even though it doesn't ultimately lead to urban decay the way "smart" growth does.

  • Brutus||

    I'm almost certain there's a big dial in every executive politician's office that goes from "Stoopid" to "Smart," and it's a matter of electing the Right People who will resist the temptation to dial back the policy setting to Stoopid.

  • Sevo||

    "For example, a "green" job is without question better than a job that is created by the market. If a market job were as good as a "green" job, it would be called a "smart" or "green" job. But, it's not, so it's not as good as a "green" job, which kills unsmart jobs and costs unspeakable amounts of money to create, but is still superior because it is called a "green" job."

    Need a stickee on this; it's *good*!
    Intentions and labels are far superior to any real results!

  • A Serious Man||

    Double-plus good!

  • Mr. FIFY||

    "Smart" isn't a setting on those dials... "Not Stooopid", however, is.

    /damning with faint praise

  • Montani Semper Liberi||

    Millennials may be embracing urbanism by the thousands but the rest of America seems to be embracing suburbanization by the millions. What dense cities have seen the growth of Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Phoenix, Las Vegas and other sprawling sunbelt cities in the last 10 years? Even NYC, the model city for the smart growth movement, has negative domestic migration. The only reason the city is not losing population is because it's a major entry point for immigrants into the US. Living in a 500 square foot condo is not the American dream for most people no matter how much the new urbanists want to pretend otherwise, and as soon as the millennials have kids, they will move to the suburbs where the schools are good and the streets are safe just like their parents did.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Exactly, If they want people to move to the city at the very least they'll need good schools and safe neighborhoods, and since there is no chance of that happening in a major urban school district, suberia it is.

  • Anacreon||

    I don't have as much problem with transit-oriented development in big cities as I do with California's push to "urbanize" the suburbs -- but it should still be determined by market forces and local control, not the dystopian visions of the central planning crowds. Indeed, one of the cool things of the Hollywood area that attracts so many young and hip is those "Melrose Place"-style low-rise rental properties with pools and palm trees in the courtyard.

    Why do so many people cream in their pants about turning places into Manhattan? There's a reason people will live in that Manhattan type of housing, and that's to be in Manhattan, with all its action, power and big-time jobs. You could create an exact replica of Central Park, Central Park West and the Upper East Side in Kansas City and no one would fucking live there!

    Also, these rimjobs might look a bit harder for a celeb to emulate than Vincent Kartheiser. He plays an insufferable prick on Mad Men, and you can just tell that very little of it is acting, he is just that kind of person. The sniveling little shit will never play the lead in a romantic comedy, you can be sure. Just like you knew Dabney Coleman had to be an asshole in real life, because all he ever played were assholes.

  • PapayaSF||

    Why do so many people cream in their pants about turning places into Manhattan?

    It's the modern version of the old progressive/liberal idea of the '50s and '60s, that if we just tear down slums and build nice middle-classy apartment buildings, the poor people moved into them will become more middle class. We all know how that worked out. This time, it's to convince people to not own cars, to not live in Earth-destroying suburbs, and instead to live in more energy-efficient ways in "diverse" neighborhoods, which will also help to make them less racist.

  • Mickey Rat||

    "There's a reason people will live in that Manhattan type of housing, and that's to be in Manhattan,..."

    And there's only a certain sort of person to whom living in Manhatten really matters all that much.

  • Tman||

    SHRIEK IS VAN JONES.

    Sorry to interrupt this thread, but I was watching this discussion of Van Jones latest idiocy over at Hotair- Van Jones: These libertarians certainly are extreme and couldn't help but enjoy the video Allah added from those crazy kids over at Red Eye-
    Red Eye Panel Chews Out Van Jones For Labeling Libertarians Homophobic And Racist

    Especially Bill Schultz with this classic line -
    "“Who got him removed from office? Glenn Beck. What does Glenn claim to be? A libertarian. Is he? I don’t think so, but that’s what he perceives to be a libertarian he doesn’t know what it is,” Schultz surmised. “But he knows he’s angry at ‘em. They cost him his job.”

    HA HA! Shreik is Van Jones. That's hilarious.

  • Brutus||

    I don't think Van Jones is a pointedly obsequious as Shriek when it comes to Obama.

  • PapayaSF||

    OK, it's late, but what am I missing? If Van Jones = our shrike, where's the evidence?

    (Brutus, even though Van Jones has complaints about Obama, that doesn't mean he wouldn't want to sing Obama's praises in an enemy camp if he could do so anonymously.)

  • Mickey Rat||

    "Sorry to interrupt this thread, but..."

    Yes. Yes you are.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    shrike is a closet socialist, while Jones is a non-reformed communist.

    But they would get along swimmingly, especially if they were both hog-tied in a public pool, straining valiantly to reach the government-mandated wheelchair lift.

    /sigh.

  • Mike G||

    If your buildings are already spaced at a driving distance, they're not going to miraculously become a walking city. You walk in New York in 5 minutes, you pass 14 theaters, 161 restaurants, and 26 open holes in the sidewalk where stuff's being delivered. You walk in LA for five minutes, you get from one end of a Wells Fargo branch to the other, and possibly find a Kinko's. The people who moved there moved there for that.

  • ||

    I have a novel idea: Why not let the people that actually know what to do and how to design this stuff determine if the market wants it or not.

  • Anacreon||

    One reason these crazy projects so often go forward in CA is that if a developer will build transit-oriented, SB375-friendly buildings, the local government will fast-track you and will either fund the costs or back the loan. Silly enough to do it the right way and follow market forces? I'm sorry, you'll have to find your own money and spend many years getting permits and approvals.

  • PapayaSF||

    Indeed. In San Francisco that means (among other things) forcing developers to build fewer garage spaces than they would otherwise build.

  • Hogar the Mighty||

    Fresnans in particular should note the irony of having a guy named Fulton champion "smart growth."

  • SIV||

    The
    Typo
    Terrorist is pretty good!

  • hugo83||

  • ||

    You corporate shill, you.

  • Hugh Akston||

    The only reason that New Yorkers want to apply NYC urban planning to LA is that they want everyone to be as miserable as they are.

  • Mike E||

    We CAN get people out of their cars!

    I LOL'd. Though I have been drinking.

  • Mickey Rat||

    "Millennials are embracing the urban lifestyle by the tens of thousands,... Their poster child is the actor Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the despicable Pete Campbell on 'Mad Men.'"

    The Times is saying that Urban Millenials are despicable in a smug and insecure fashion? I can buy that.

  • General Butt Naked||

    Just because this didn't work in L.A. doesn't mean that it won't work elsewhere, Tim. Maybe they didn't spend enough money, or there were too many naysayers, like yourself, that impeded progress.

    I look forward to the passage of a new bill proposed by Obama to give more money to municipalities that are committed to smart, green growth and the creation of middle class jobs.

    When the "Urban Smart Energy-independent Green Mass transit Act" is passed I think we'll see major changes in America's urban landscape. Ur Smegma promises to transform L.A. from its sooty, smog choked present to a green, organic future!

  • Jerryskids||

    Just because this didn't work in L.A. doesn't mean that it won't work elsewhere.

    That is true - here in Atlanta, for example. The AJC is pushing a 1 cent local sales tax ("a measly 1% tax increase!" - from 3 cents to 4 cents) to encourage smart growth mass transit. Atlanta is the geographically fastest growing urban area in the country, so it only makes sense we need mass transit to encourage in-fill growth rather than promoting sprawl. At current density levels, Atlanta only needs about 180 million more people to move here and we can be just like Manhattan.

  • ||

    Newspapers love to push those "tiny" tax increases. In Texas, every few years, all the papers start preaching about how great an income tax would be for the state. And the citizens give a collective middle finger to the idea every time.

  • Jerryskids||

    It is much worse with the 1 cent SPLOST. It's not that hard to convince people that it is in fact only a 1% tax increase and - since the ballot initiative has to spell out specifically what the money is to be used for - they can easily see where their money is going and it is always for Good Things. The problem is that the SPLOST can only be used for capital projects, not for operating budgets. So the SPLOST gets passed to build pyramids and nobody stops to wonder how much it will cost to keep those things running. Or where the money is going to come from to keep them running.

  • ||

    Who is Woody Allen?

  • Jerryskids||

    Woody Allen is the Atlanta of human beings. On the surface, he appears to be neurotically insecure, self-loathing, and starving for approval - but if you poke him with a stick he turns out to be a vile, petty, self-obsessed sociopath.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Has he married his great-granddaughter yet?

  • Monty||

    +something cool Jerryskids

  • ChrisO||

    "UCLA professor of Chicano studies and urban planning Eric Avila."

    A good candidate for a reduction-in-force if there ever was one.

    I spent a poverty-soaked (but often very enjoyable) year in L.A. many moons ago, and I don't remember ever thinking "what this place needs is more skyscrapers and subways."

    The whole thing sounds like the plot of a very bad comedy.

  • دردشه عراقية||

    Thanks

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