By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It might shock the players inside Los Angeles City Hall to hear from exurban cities and counties that no longer see the second biggest city in America as the center of the economic universe. As Steele points out, “When our dads went to work, it was worth the commute into Los Angeles for those high-paying jobs. Now, with all the cities in outlying areas — complete cities in themselves — you don’t need to drive downtown to do your business anymore.”
Adds Kotkin, “You’ve got an inbred, mediocre, downtown bureaucracy that really has no clue what the region needs. And it’s doing the very things it should not do if it wants to hang on to its middle class and avoid creating an even worse rich-end–poor-end schism.”
Some critics say that anybody hoping to address big regional problems should be looking out less for L.A. and more for the boom areas — Valencia, Rancho Cucamonga, Pasadena, Upland, even far-flung desert communities, including Palmdale and Victorville. According to Steele, too much power was handed to Los Angeles officials via regionwide agencies like the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Metropolitan Transportation Authority and others, but it’s much harder now for them to function effectively on such a large scale.
Cities are starting to address the dysfunction on their own. One local “subregion” that took matters into its own hands was made up of cities along the 210 Freeway that created a joint power to set up, design and construct the Gold Line, affecting Pasadena, Arcadia, Monrovia — all the way to Ontario and Montclair — rather than wait around for the MTA to extend the light-rail commuter line from Los Angeles.
Pisano sounds baffled that some areas are fed up, saying, “The local separate interests undermine the capacity for SCAG to make the region a better place . . . We have all the separate unique communities and this character — and most would say your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness . . . There are no silver bullets to traffic, environment and social issues. That’s why it’s important to face these issues together as a region.”
But Pisano has been repeating that for years. A nerdy bureaucrat, he has trouble talking candidly about hot-button topics that affect growth and planning. Appearing to tiptoe around illegal immigration, he says Los Angeles “has a lot of people that have moved in without a lot of income,” and that this, coupled with the disappearance of many higher-paying jobs, means “the number-one priority for L.A. is creating more, higher-paying jobs. That’s the biggest problem the city faces.”
And yet SCAG has failed on that count. Kotkin notes that the city of Los Angeles and its surrounding region continue to maintain “high tax rates that drive out the businesses who employ high-wage workers, and lots of regulations that drive out the high-paying blue-collar companies, and a California Legislature absolutely addicted to regulation, all hurting us against the other states.” Meanwhile, he says, the dozens of city councils in the region “don’t help things, because they are completely dependent for their city budgets on sales tax. So they aren’t interested in building anything in their cities but retail [businesses] that generate that sales tax,” which in turn creates more and more low-end retail and clerking jobs.
Most ominous to Kotkin is that “They are not building middle-class housing, which is what cities really need in order to attract higher-wage residents and the companies that employ them. And believe me, Los Angeles is the heart of darkness on this.”
The vicious cycle is this: L.A. has settled into its role as a region filled with lesser-paying jobs and influxes of low-end workers, but housing costs are skyrocketing. Pisano concedes, “You can’t find a condo for under $500,000. The problem is, we need to build an economic base so people can afford to live here. That’s our problem. I don’t disagree that condos and housing are expensive everywhere in the region, not just L.A. If you can’t afford it, you’re gonna be angry.”
Chang Ping, author of SCAG’s annual State of the Region report, used in handing out lumps of coal each winter to the cities and counties SCAG finds most uncooperative, explains, “Manufacturing has gone overseas to China. The world’s financial market is over in New York. Many of the high-quality service jobs are in New York — and those on the West Coast are in San Francisco rather than here — like banking, retail, legal services, engineers, consultants, ad agencies.”
Because Los Angeles allowed the high-end and blue-collar companies to slip away to other cities, its overly expensive housing is now “a barrier to luring in the high-paying jobs provided by such service industries,” Ping says. “Sure, housing costs are higher in San Francisco. But the higher-paying, high-end jobs that were already there — fueled in part by Silicon Valley — have offset the high cost of housing.”
Vasishth slams L.A. City Hall’s shortsighted planning, saying, “You just can’t have the rich living downtown in expensive lofts and the poor people living further and further out.” Cities are going on a “density” kick as some kind of solution — yet there are plenty of skeptics out there.