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?