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.