The Crushing Defeat of Measure S Is a Defining Moment for L.A.

The election this week revolved, in so many ways, around development. There was Measure S, the controversial anti-development ballot measure, but also the mayor and City Council races, in which the incumbents were attacked, time and again, for allowing density in L.A. It's no exaggeration to say the election was a referendum on development, on density, on urbanization. And density won.

OK, the establishment won. But those incumbents were forced to oppose Measure S and defend density, and they were all elected to another term without a runoff (with the possible exception of City Councilman Gil Cedillo, who has slightly more than 50 percent of the vote but may not after the late absentee ballots are counted). Many of them won with 30-, 40- and 50-point margins of victory. Mayor Eric Garcetti was re-elected with 81 percent of the vote, 73 points ahead of his nearest challenger, Mitchell Schwartz.

And then there was Measure S itself. Many expected it to lose, but few imagined it would lose by so much. The initiative, which plastered the skyline with "Yes on S"  billboards and flooded mailboxes with mailers (some of them quite scandalous), was utterly eviscerated at the polls, losing by roughly 38 points. Measure N, the marijuana regulation initiative that had no campaign and was abandoned by its own sponsors, was more popular with voters than Measure S.

It was a stunning repudiation of slow-growth and anti-growth politics, currents of which had enjoyed widespread popularity in L.A. for nearly half a century.

"To me, the vote on Measure S represents a significant break with 50 years of resistance to growth in Los Angeles," says author D.J. Waldie.

Even Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association and a decades-long leader in slow-growth fights, was forced to concede the significance of the Measure S rout.

"It surprised me, the large margin of victory," Close says. "I think the takeaway is that the homeowners in Los Angeles no longer have the political clout they once had."

Along with the results of the November election – when Santa Monica voters rejected the slow-growth Measure LV and when L.A. County passed Measure M, which raised taxes to fund light-rail construction – the rejection of Measure S is a watershed moment in the history of Los Angeles, a confirmation that the city wants to become more urbanized, more dense, less reliant on the automobile, more inclusive and, perhaps, a more unified city.

To be sure, Measure S' defeat has many factors. Unlike a previous slow-growth ballot measure, Proposition U, which was passed by voters in 1986, Measure S had no support from elected officials. Its main backer, AIDS Healthcare Foundation president Michael Weinstein, is a divisive figure, to say the least.

"He’s not somebody that could get tens of thousands of people to charge after him," says Raphael  Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State University Los Angeles.

Sonenshein also wonders if Donald Trump and the growing resistance to his presidency effectively stole Measure S' limelight.

"There appeared to be a brewing revolt against City Hall and against growth," Sonenshein says. "I don’t know if Donald Trump sucked the air out of everything else. It's kind of hard to have a rebellion in those conditions. There’s already a rebellion going on."

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Even so, it's hard not to see Measure S' defeat as a sign of the times.

Twenty years ago, urban planner William Fulton published a book of essays about Los Angeles called The Reluctant Metropolis. It was a wonderfully apt phrase to describe L.A.'s odd hybrid of urbanism and suburbanism, its evenly dense sprawl.

"Up until the 1980s and into the 1990s, Los Angeles was a very large city whose residents didn’t identify with living in a metropolis. They believed in their small communities," Fulton says. "I think that's changed. Los Angeles is no longer a reluctant metropolis."

The price of buying or renting a home is becoming the defining challenge of the city, and there is a growing belief that the only way to stop the rise in home prices is to build taller and denser apartment buildings. That may not sound like a great deal for people who already own a home, but renters may see things differently.

"Los Angeles really has undergone an unbelievable shift," Fulton says. "It’s clear there’s a generational difference between older homeowners, who don’t see why growth is good for them, and younger folks, who can’t afford $800,000 for a starter home and therefore see more of an advantage."

These changes, of course, have been a long time coming and have been noted, over and over, by publications including The New York Times. But the margin of Measure S' defeat – in a low-turnout, off-year election dominated (at least historically) by older homeowners, no less – shows there's broad consensus around such ideas.

Which is not to say that L.A. has it all figured out. It still must come to terms with how best to plan growth, how to have "smart growth," in a way that encourages people to use public transportation and live sustainably – or else, what's the point? Perhaps more important, it must grapple with the unaffordability of its housing stock, and with the fact that so many of its low-income residents are being displaced.

"Defeating Measure S doesn’t solve anything," says Damien Newton, the former editor of Streetsblog L.A. and a safe-streets activist. "We still have some real problems with how we do development, especially with issues relating to gentrification and displacement.

"But now that the campaign is behind us, it’s incumbent upon the city leadership, including the neighborhood councils and the people who [supported] Yes on S, to come together and address those issues, and not say, 'Measure S was defeated, I guess the status quo is fine.'"


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