What's Smart About Smart Growth?
11.7 m.p.h.: Average speed of L.A. buses. Yet City Hall pols hope buses will somehow handle the human crush once their plans for multistory living take hold. (Photos by Gregory Bojorquez)
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.
And Union Station, the 1939 train depot and Los Angeles icon, is now hidden by apartments on two sides — a situation viewed as a disaster by L.A. design purists.
Beyond this construction near the area’s few rail lines, the city's many bus corridors are also attracting apartments, lofts, town homes and condos — La Brea Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard, Vine Street and Ventura Boulevard, Western Avenue and Washington Boulevard. Higher-density housing is being recommended for any corner where a bus arrives every 15 minutes or less.
And that leads to one huge problem: For all the talk of a subway to the sea, Los Angeles is a bus town. For each mile of rail operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, there are 40 miles of bus routes. And in 2007, the average speed of the widely used orange bus is just 11.7 miles per hour. Buses, which will serve in many ways as the backbone for smart growth, are stuck in traffic along with everybody else.
If smart growth is about changing behavior — getting people to give up the car, the backyard, the five-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac — then planning gurus are taking a tremendous gamble in Los Angeles, the city that made sprawl the urban form of the 20th century.
Smart-growth enthusiasts believe motorists will become so fed up sitting in traffic that they will abandon their cars for a substandard transit system. The bus, in particular, provides a series of indignities: the lone screaming passenger who makes everyone else miserable; televisions that noisily broadcast commercials for gym equipment; the ban on beverages and food. (You can bring a travel mug on the bus; you just can’t drink from it.) And despite all that inconvenience, MTA daily passes are set to double in price — to $6 in 2009.
Advocates of smart growth are making a second risky bet, arguing that once someone makes a home in a condo or a multistory apartment building, he or she will work nearby — reducing the number of cars on traffic-choked streets. Or, as a newsletter published in 2005 by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce put it: “More [transit] funds and smart growth are key to correcting L.A.’s traffic woes.”
So here’s an unpleasant thought: Unless enough people can be persuaded to change their behavior, the L.A. traffic nightmare will be much, much worse under smart growth — miles and miles of high-density neighborhoods, with public transportation no one but the poorest residents will use, or tolerate.
Smart-growth advocates say they aren’t worried. The city will need density either way, they say, just to qualify for federal funding that pays for rail. If traffic gets worse in the short term, neighborhoods will finally rise up and demand the light-rail and subway lines that could transform Los Angeles into a functioning city, says Gloria Ohland, vice president for communications with Reconnecting America, an organization that promotes rail and transit-oriented development.
“Traffic, which is the problem, is also the solution,” Ohland says. “So I would argue, boost the density in Century City. Build it out to the max. And then, there will be the constituency to build a subway down Wilshire Boulevard.”
Ohland and many other smart-growth backers assume that at some unknown point, the number of commuters who abandon their cars will reach a critical mass and the city will become more livable. But no one knows precisely when — or if — that will happen. To make it work, they will need commuters like Tohline, the 26-year-old office worker who gave up her car.
With a three-hour daily commute, Tohline could easily succumb to the boredom and get back behind the wheel. After all, no subway will reach Century City for at least a decade. And even if it does, that subway will come from Koreatown, not from the Hollywood neighborhood where Tohline lives.
Asked how long she can last on the bus, Tohline pauses. “I don’t know yet,” she says, as her bus heads past the skyscrapers of Century City. Even the upbeat commuter on the No. 304 is no sure thing.
The Unnerving New Map
Los Angeles has always had an uneasy relationship with growth. The archetypal boom-and-bust town, L.A. repeatedly sees its real estate market surge and recede, with each growth spurt followed by a period of financial pain. Transportation was the catalyst for one of the earliest booms, with newcomers flooding into the city after fares on the transcontinental railroad from the Midwest to L.A. dropped to $1 per ticket. Land values soared — until a bank crisis caused a collapse in 1888.
For much of the 20th century, growth was considered good in Los Angeles. The city accommodated its continual influx by creating the most extensive trolley network in the nation. It was dismantled after World War II, replaced by the “Motor Coach” — General Motors’ halfhearted marketing term for the bus — and by the sprawling freeway system.
With the freeways came discontent, as traffic choked the Westside and then much of the city. The symbol of anti-growth ire was Proposition U, which voters easily passed in 1988. Proposition U shifted L.A.’s planning equation from unbridled growth to “slow growth,” by limiting the height of buildings on major boulevards to 45 feet and cutting in half each commercial building’s “floor area ratio” — a formula used to determine the mass of a building. Then, in the wake of the 1992 riots, a crushing recession stopped development almost completely, and growth slowed on its own.
But at the start of this decade, and without much public notice, slow growth was replaced by the concept of “smart growth,” as Los Angeles city planners quietly urged elected officials to put “mixed use” projects on major boulevards, with retail on the ground floor and housing up above.
The first push for higher-density housing came in 2002, during the administration of Mayor James Hahn, when the Los Angeles City Council passed — with little scrutiny — a law allowing projects with affordable housing to exceed existing density limits by more than one-third if they were near a rail station or any of the city’s dozens of bus routes.
Months later in 2002, again with little public involvement, the council went further, voting unanimously to create a smart-growth zoning designation — “Residential Accessory Services” — that allows developers to build projects twice the size previously allowed if they combine housing and businesses in the same building.
On low-rise commercial avenues and boulevards like Ventura, La Brea and Pico, developers suddenly found that by adding housing, they could blow past the growth limits voters established under Proposition U. Prop. U, after all, only capped the size of commercial and industrial buildings.
The results can be seen all over the city, with construction pits and steel girders marking where the development rules have abruptly changed.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, elected in 2005, says smart-growth strategies will produce “elegant density,” multistory buildings that are embraced by neighborhoods. But County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who campaigned for Prop. U, has a more skeptical view, saying the Department of City Planning found a way to circumvent the electorate.
“There’s nothing elegant about busting the limits that have been in place on the Westside, that I got in place in my district,” Yaroslavsky says. “And it isn’t elegant to the people who thought they were protected by the restraints we put in place 20 years ago in those neighborhoods.”
Eight thousand housing units — accommodating thousands of new residents — have been approved in the past three years using the new smart-growth zoning, says Jane Blumenfeld, a 16-year veteran of the planning department. To help her employees understand where she believes that zoning makes sense, Blumenfeld created a map that shows every place in Los Angeles that sits within 1,500 feet of a major transit stop — that is, a transit stop at which a bus or train arrives every 15 minutes during afternoon rush hour.
The map is, to put it mildly, jarring. (See page 44.) On it, nearly every boulevard north of the Santa Monica Freeway and south of the Santa Monica Mountains and Hollywood Hills appears as though it could be converted to smart-growth zoning. A huge swath of South Los Angeles and several pockets of the San Fernando Valley are also prime candidates.
Why? Because nearly every boulevard has a bus. “We want to build housing near transit, as opposed to building it where there’s no ability to reach transit,” says Blumenfeld, who oversees citywide planning strategies. “South of the mountains, there’s pretty much transit everywhere.”
Blumenfeld cautions that the map is only a guide, and can’t be used to force density on the few remaining areas still designated R-1, or single-family, where no more than one house can be constructed on a residential lot.
The new higher density, she says, will go primarily in places permitted in each neighborhood’s community plan. Community plans are official documents now being updated, with varying levels of community input, all over Los Angeles. First up in the battle over adding new density to their community plans are West Los Angeles, Sunland-Tujunga, Westlake and parts of South Los Angeles.
Barring another Prop. U–style voter revolt against development, Los Angeles residents won’t be given a choice. For the past few years, the neighborhoods have been warned: If they don’t find places to allow density, the planning department — and the 15 City Council members — will find those places for them.
Hollywood resident Lucille Saunders is not quite ready to see her city remade on such a dramatic scale. A volunteer with the Melrose Neighborhood Association, she has been combating a proposal for an outsize 219-unit apartment building on La Brea Avenue. Minutes after she testified at City Hall, Saunders took one look at the map and gasped. “It’s a travesty,” she declares. “It just seems as though this is opening the entire city, the entire central city, to whatever the developers want.”
Saunders’ group was prepared to allow a three-story apartment complex on La Brea. But when the developer announced his desire for seven stories and an exemption from height limits, her group hired a lawyer — and a lobbyist. After spending thousands of dollars, the Melrose Neighborhood Association persuaded city officials to prepare a full environmental impact report on the project, a move that delays but does not stop the seven-story tower.
With so many bulked-up buildings springing up on major boulevards, some politicians are seeing a resurgence in restlessness over new construction. Councilman Weiss, whose district includes Century City and much of the Westside, has been targeted for recall by a handful of neighborhood groups. And Supervisor Yaroslavsky, who pushed for “slow growth” initiatives two decades ago as a city councilman, says traffic is so bad that he no longer travels to certain parts of his district in the late afternoon.
Yaroslavsky blames not only Los Angeles, but smaller cities like West Hollywood and Santa Monica, for allowing developers to go for projects that were “previously unacceptable.”
“There is a revolt that is now surfacing in various parts of Los Angeles, and rightly so,” Yaroslavsky says. “Communities [will] never be able to compete with the real estate lobby. All they have is their political power and their voice. And they need to be heard.”
The Chicken and the Egg
Los Angeles is the birthplace of trends — the freeways of the 1950s, the anti-tax movement of the 1970s, the gourmet pizzas of the 1980s. But when it comes to smart growth, the city finds itself atypically at the tail end of a movement that originated in smaller, rural states as a way to protect open space.
Smart growth arose in the mid-1990s in Colorado, where then-Governor Roy Romer faced an outcry over new housing subdivisions gobbling up farmland around Denver, Boulder and other midsize cities. Romer warned during his 1994 re-election campaign that the Rocky Mountain State was looking more like Los Angeles, the nation’s poster child for traffic and bad planning.
In Los Angeles, planners and affordable-housing advocates pushed smart growth not so much to save open space but to address traffic and a lack of reasonably priced housing. Only a few years earlier, home buyers in San Bernardino and Riverside counties were delighted to find four-bedroom homes on cul-de-sacs for less than $300,000. Yet their commutes dragged on for as much as two hours.
“If we put people at the urban fringe, their only transit option is the car,” says Beth Stecker, policy director with the L.A.-based Livable Places, a nonprofit group that favors smart growth. “There’s no bus service there. . . . They find someplace they can afford to buy, but they have a long, hellish commute. So if we can give people a place where they can have a choice of taking the train or the bus, or biking or walking to work, then that’s better.”
Mayor Villaraigosa jumped on the smart-growth bandwagon soon after his election, telling business leaders that if the city wants to keep moving, then freeways and single-family homes will need to be things of the past.
“A lot of us grew up with the idea of a three-bedroom house with large backyards and front lots. We have to recognize that that’s not going to be possible,” Villaraigosa said in remarks covered by the Los Angeles Daily News.
Villaraigosa, who is driven around town in a GMC Yukon, has a hilltop home in Mount Washington and at least four years of free rent at the mayoral mansion in Windsor Square, a neighborhood lined with streets zoned for highly restrictive R-1, or single-family homes. Shortly after his election, Villaraigosa selected nine people to carry out his development vision at the Los Angeles City Planning Commission.
Seven of his nine planning commissioners also live in single-family homes, nearly all on streets that enjoy the most restrictive zoning in Los Angeles — prohibiting apartments or multifamily housing of any kind. Even as they try to change the behavior of the city’s residents, planning commissioners have been loath to alter their own.
Heading the commission is Jane Usher, a lawyer who is, like the mayor, a resident of leafy Windsor Square. With Usher at the helm, the commission unveiled a 14-point manifesto last month that demands a smart-growth approach: a walkable city, jobs near housing, and density near transit, to name a few.
A onetime aide to former Mayor Tom Bradley, Usher wants Los Angeles to become much more dense, arguing that more residents, grouped more closely, are needed in order to maximize the use of a transit system that will one day crisscross L.A. — including expanded Metro Rapid bus service and the Metro Gold Line to East Los Angeles, the Expo Line to Culver City, and the subway to the sea so often mentioned by Villaraigosa.
“It is a chicken-and-an-egg problem,” she says. “If those [rail lines] are just the nearest things on the horizon, and other projects follow, then there will be a point in time when L.A. has a real train system. And my belief is, buildings that are built today need to anticipate that real train system and need to support it.”
And in the interim?
“In the interim, there’s going to be traffic,” Usher adds.
The chicken-and-egg problem is, in fact, all over the city. Places that are getting rail frequently don’t have density, and the places with density frequently don’t have rail. Playa Vista, billed as smart-growth, is adding 5,846 homes along Jefferson Boulevard but is miles from a rail stop.
The Metro Gold Line extension to East Los Angeles, slated to open in 2009, ends at a McDonald’s, a Chevron and two huge mini-malls — places that house businesses like Manny’s El Loco and Los Pollos No. 2. Los Angeles County officials bought land on nearby Atlantic Boulevard to ensure that multistory housing gets built, but right now those lots lie fallow.
The prospect of a new rail line excites 22-year-old Michael Cowie, waiting on a Sunday afternoon for the arrival of the Metro Rapid bus on Atlantic Boulevard. But even so, he is one of those transit riders who doesn’t believe people will change their ways. Standing in the hot sun, he says it’s obvious that anyone who has a car will choose to drive it. “Everyone hates the bus,” he declares.
The chicken-and-egg problem makes it unclear when either commuters or bus riders will find relief under smart growth. It looks unlikely in 2009, when the Metro Gold Line reaches East Los Angeles. Or 2014, when the rail line along Exposition Boulevard finally reaches Santa Monica.
Perhaps it will be 2016, the earliest realistic date for the subway to the sea. “This is about an evolution, not a revolution,” says Ohland, the communications vp with Reconnecting America. “It’s taking a really long time to go from car-oriented to transit-oriented, and in between there’s a lot of uncomfortable places.”
The Hollywood Problem
The MTA’s 156 bus crawls up Highland Avenue on a Monday afternoon in April, fighting through evening rush-hour traffic as it passes streets known around the world — Melrose Avenue, Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard. An exhausted-looking jogger, running inexplicably in the right lane of traffic, easily passes the bus.
It’s not hard to do, since the bus has traveled four blocks in 10 minutes.
From Hollywood south to Sunset, 36 vehicles have stacked up single-file in the right-hand lane. In the one-block stretch from Sunset to De Longpre Avenue, another 25 cars stack up. From De Longpre to Fountain Avenue, there are 23 cars. On the next block, there are 19. After that, 16. The bus drops off a few passengers across from the Metro Red Line Station at the Hollywood & Highland shopping mall before heading up Cahuenga Pass into the San Fernando Valley.
Because it is a bus route, Highland Avenue is what the planning department calls a “transit corridor,” a place where smart-growth advocates want the greatest amount of housing built. And so far, they are doing a good job of it.
Last month, the planning commission approved the Jefferson at Hollywood, a 270-unit apartment building across from Hollywood & Highland. The project is classic smart growth: shopping on the sidewalk and housing above, across from a subway station. Not far away, construction workers are building the Hollywood, a complex of 54 condos on Franklin Avenue selling for $800,000 and up. And across from it is the future McCadden Place — 218 condos in two eight-story buildings.
If smart-growth theories work as envisioned, many of those new residents will get out of their cars and hop on public transit. Yet the developers of the Jefferson and McCadden Place are hedging their bets: Together, the two projects will offer 1,381 parking spaces — some for residents, some for tourists. Each new car will have to fight the traffic choking Highland Avenue, which is in turn making it impossible for buses to get anywhere.
Highland isn’t the only north-south route in Hollywood jammed with traffic. Other bus routes, like La Brea and Vine Street, are getting worse. On Vine, the Los Angeles City Council voted to lift the height limits to build a luxury W Hotel, along with 500 apartments and condos. Next door, an 11-story residential building is going in, with a Whole Foods Market on the ground floor.
Blumenfeld, the city planner, insists that many of the new Vine Street residents who move into these buildings will live differently, owning only one car or taking transit each day. “I don’t think people will have no cars. But the fewer the cars, the better the transit gets,” she says.
Hollywood is represented by Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti, the 36-year-old former Rhodes scholar who has aggressively pursued smart-growth policies, particularly multistory housing. He argues that 95 percent of the traffic in Hollywood is passing through to somewhere else. “Traffic gets 5 percent worse a year in all parts of Los Angeles,” Garcetti says. “And the places that get the worst are the places that have built the least housing. West L.A. is the worst.”
As he strolls down Western Avenue on a rainy afternoon in March, Garcetti points enthusiastically to a trio of smart-growth projects that brought affordable housing near the Hollywood and Western subway station. One project has a Mondrian design — dozens of squares in red, yellow, orange and blue. A second has 100 apartments for senior citizens and shops on the ground — Jamba Juice, Blockbuster Video, Ross Dress for Less. A third, Garcetti eagerly points out, was featured in the ultimate arbiter of eco-friendly design chic, Dwell magazine.
Smart growth, in theory, is supposed to promote the pedestrian. But the Jamba Juice apartment building has in its center a big parking lot, not a courtyard. A mixed-use Walgreens on Western Avenue has so much parking it looks like a mini-mall with four floors of housing on top.
Standing in the Walgreens parking lot, Garcetti promises that L.A. will get better at smart growth, by making good design a higher priority. And he says smart growth serves an important social need, by creating housing at all income levels. “If you have all the poor living in one place and all the rich people living in another place,” he warns, “you get the Westside.”
The Bus Problem
The Bonaventure Hotel on Flower Street is the last place you’d expect a gathering on smart growth. The place is a bunker, catering to the car like few places in Los Angeles. If you’re not paying attention, you can miss the hotel entirely and drive from Fifth Street onto the northbound 110 freeway. Even the walkways in and out of the hotel look like tiny freeway overpasses.
Needless to say, participants in the New Partners for Smart Growth annual conference aren’t happy. Chatting over the hiss of the Bonaventure’s indoor fountain, they are mortified by the location, long derided for its fortresslike urban design. Still, they have other worries. One panelist at an evening session warns that the public is failing to make the link between sprawl and global warming. Another earnestly declares that the movement has failed to show how pedestrian-oriented designs can address obesity. If the makers of Waiting for Guffman find out about this event, they are going to have a field day.
One session features an employee of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who tells the overeducated, extremely middle-class audience how to live here without owning a car. (He used a Global Positioning System to determine where he would have the most shops and services, then moved to congested West Hollywood.)
The session that most clearly signals the future of Los Angeles is led by Rex Gephart, a regional planning director for the MTA. He tells audience members the history of the red Metro Rapid bus, created seven years ago to address the city’s declining bus speeds. The Rapid bus is an elongated vehicle that stops infrequently, moves passengers in and out more quickly, and alters traffic signals by keeping green lights green.
The system was deemed a huge success and expanded from two routes in 2000 to 16 last year. It is cheaper to install than light rail, or heavy commuter rails like Metrolink, or even dedicated bus corridors like San Fernando Valley’s popular Metro Orange Line, built solely for buses.
But the so-called Rapid system is also slower than each of those other options, and getting slower every year.
In 2007, the average speed of a Rapid bus is 13.7 miles per hour. That makes the special, bright-red Rapid bus just 2 miles per hour faster than the citywide orange buses that stop constantly.
Among the most lethargic Rapid routes is the Metro Rapid on Western Avenue, which averages 10.9 miles per hour. That line slows as it heads toward the purported smart-growth village being created around the subway in Hollywood. Buses on Western and Vermont avenues — two key north-south routes that lead directly to subway stations — are so slow that they are dragging down the speed of the entire Metro Rapid system, Gephart says.
Eventually, the city will be forced to build special bus lanes on the big boulevards, says Gephart. And on that score, Gephart is thrilled with Villaraigosa’s leadership. “The mayor’s stepping up and saying, ‘I want a bus-only lane plan,’ ” Gephart declared during his talk.
To create a bus-only lane, Los Angeles has only two choices: either shave off 5 feet of sidewalk on each side of the street, a move that would infuriate smart-growth/pro-walking advocates, or gobble up one lane of traffic, almost certainly earning the wrath of angry motorists.
So far, the only street slated to have a bus-only lane is Wilshire Boulevard, the subject of two years of bickering between Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. Two other possibilities are Pico and Olympic boulevards. But for now, city and county officials disagree about how to reconfigure those streets.
Villaraigosa sent an envoy to the smart-growth conference — Mike Woo, a former mayoral candidate who served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1985 to 1993. Now a city planning commissioner, Woo founded the Smart Growth China Institute so that he could export the new urbanism to China, the largest developing nation on the globe.
Like many advocates of smart growth, Woo sounds like he is pinning most of his hopes on rail, not buses. Asked whether condos in Century City constitute smart growth, he voices doubts, saying that people with decent incomes, especially on the Westside, usually don’t take the bus. “Historically, it’s been harder for the MTA to win over a middle-class or upper-middle-class ridership — people who have the discretion to choose to take transit or drive a car,” Woo says.
Woo adds another wrinkle. Downtown Los Angeles, perhaps the one place in the city that accommodated density seamlessly over the last decade, has a lot of residents driving to work — frequently outside downtown. In other words, people changed their behavior, as smart-growth theorists had hoped, by moving into multistory buildings. Then they found jobs elsewhere, creating yet another traffic problem, Woo says.
“Finally, we’re getting the new [housing] units downtown, but it’s mostly going to people who don’t have jobs downtown,” Woo declared. “So if we have that problem downtown, I expect to have that problem even worse in Century City, Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles.”
Watch the Metro Gold Line roll into Pasadena and you will see a sight unlike any other in Los Angeles County: a train that stops right in the middle of a six-story apartment courtyard. In a region where the freeway is king, the arrival of the 8:52 a.m. train at the Del Mar Boulevard station – a sprawling series of structures that combine 347 homes, several still-vacant stores and a historic train depot — is positively unsettling. It’s like a piece of Portland sprouted up a few miles from the Rose Bowl.
No city in Southern California has embraced smart growth as enthusiastically as Pasadena, better known for its rows of Arts and Crafts bungalows than its transit-oriented development. The smallish city of roughly 146,000 has added 42 higher-density housing developments to its bustling business district, some of which literally wrap around train stations.
“They clearly have done one thing very, very well – they’ve created a vibrant, mixed-use downtown,” says former Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole, who left in 1998 and is now city manager of Ventura.
Pasadena is years ahead of its neighbors in pushing the major tenets of smart growth, placing new homes near transit and making life more pleasant for those who walk. While Los Angeles weighs the possibility of turning Pico and Olympic boulevards into one-way miniature freeways, Pasadena published the 165-page booklet “Getting Around Without a Car.” While Pasadena requires condo and apartment builders on certain streets to put shops or offices on the ground floor, many new apartments in Los Angeles still get built with cavernous parking garages on the ground — leaving an entire block of dead space for the poor saps who walk by.
By concentrating development at its core, Pasadena found a way to save its tree-lined single-family neighborhoods on the outskirts — places with names like Bungalow Heaven, Historic Highlands and Garfield Heights, says Robert Montaño, business district coordinator for the city of Pasadena.
“It means we’ve been able to preserve the character of our neighborhoods,” he says. “We haven’t seen the demolition of large homes, or the conversion of those homes to apartments, or the people who buy two large lots, tear down the homes and combine them into one project.”
Walk with Montaño down Colorado Boulevard and it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm. In the Civic Center is Paseo Colorado, an open-air shopping mall that stretches for two blocks and is topped by 387 homes. Further east is Trio, a mammoth 304-unit apartment house just north of the Pasadena Playhouse. And on Lake Avenue, a shopping boulevard, is the Pasadena Collection — 14 condominiums that are all sharp angles and glass. “We’re striving to create a downtown where you can circulate without a vehicle,” he says.
Nearly a decade before the Metro Gold Line opened, Pasadena’s seven-member City Council chose to concentrate much of its new housing — as many as 5,095 units — in anticipation of the rail that opened in 2003. So in the chicken-and-egg game, Pasadena ordered up the residential first, then the transit.
Not everything is tranquil along the foothills, however. Pasadena was caught off guard by the increase in traffic, Cole says. And design purists have voiced dismay about the look of many new buildings. “In general, the execution and the design and overall quality is disappointing,” says Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, a historic-preservation group.
On a Thursday morning, Pasadena resident Barbara Hamilton waits on the platform next to the Del Mar station. One of nine commuters standing quietly just before ?9 a.m., Hamilton has a look that screams elegance and precision: pink jacket, gray cocktail skirt, black leather gloves.
Hamilton makes transit part of her daily routine, driving her car four and a half miles to the station. And yet, she can’t imagine living in the apartments — at $2,030 for a one-bedroom — built above the railroad tracks. “They say the windows insulate them from the noise,” she declares. “But wouldn’t you want to open the windows now and then?”
If smart growth is about changing behavior, then Hamilton can be considered a partial success. She rides the light-rail line each day to Union Station, then transfers to the subway. But she isn’t ready, probably will never be ready, to put herself in a home near railroad tracks.
Hard by the I-5
To witness the struggle between smart growth and sprawl firsthand, talk to David Urrutia, a 28-year-old orthopedic technician trying to buy a home in Los Angeles County. Urrutia and his family spent an afternoon in April checking out Puerta del Sol, a 156-unit condo complex in Lincoln Heights built next to the Avenue 26 station of the Metro Gold Line.
Sitting behind the wheel of the family minivan, Urrutia says he likes what he’s seen inside Puerta del Sol, an enormous courtyard building with gated entrances. Urrutia, who lives in Historic Filipinotown, would prefer to stay in the city.
But his wife, sitting in the passenger seat next to a bag of Cheetos, makes it clear her preference is Palmdale, where a family of modest means can still afford five bedrooms and a huge kitchen.
“The homes are beautiful,” she coos of far-off Palmdale, as their twins fidget. You can almost see her imagining her dream home in the exurbs. Urrutia, on the other hand, hates the thought of driving two to three hours from the high desert to his job in Torrance. “It would kill me,” he declares.
What never enters the discussion is the light-rail station next to Puerta del Sol. Urrutia needs his car every day to reach patients scattered across Los Angeles County. He won’t be taking the light rail, even if he lives just 50 yards away from it. Instead, Urrutia is worried about the $400,000 price tag on a two-bedroom condo looming over a busy freeway. “I don’t want to trap myself into something I might regret later,” he says. “I’m the only one bringing in the income.”
Puerta del Sol sprouted up in just three short years, one of several multistory buildings to rise next to the Santa Ana (5) Freeway. It’s almost as if Wile E. Coyote got an eyedropper from his package of Acme Instant Urban Village, squirted a single droplet on Avenue 26 and — boom! — created a mini-city. Everything that surrounds it still looks like the old Lincoln Heights, an odd mix of stuccoed Victorian homes and wedged-in industrial businesses.
Inside Puerta del Sol, potential buyers walk through the model condo units, each of which looks like the “reveal” segment in an HGTV makeover show — granite countertops, tasteful earth tones, cookbooks with Nigella Lawson leering saucily on the cover.
But in real life, the A/C unit in the southernmost condo is on full blast, drowning out the roar of cars on the 5 freeway, literally a stone’s throw away from this new housing. Some of those cars are probably heading north to Palmdale, the place with the five-bedroom homes coveted by Urrutia’s wife.
In L.A. civic circles, Puerta del Sol is now a poster child for smart growth. Three Los Angeles public pension funds — two for retired city workers and a third for county employees — invested a combined $65 million into the group that financed Puerta del Sol.
One group of pension trustees even visited the Avenue 26 project, concluding that transit-based condos are a good financial bet for the city’s retirees. Villaraigosa also came to Puerta del Sol to thank the pension board members for their votes to invest in such housing.
Numerous investment funds have draped themselves in the concept of smart growth, attracting more than $200 million in L.A. government pension money. So by now, Los Angeles is facilitating smart growth from two directions — at the front end, by providing lucrative pension dollars to finance projects, and at the back end, by approving new smart-growth zoning that will allow such projects to get built.
Los Angeles is not just gambling that smart growth will solve its traffic and housing and livability problems. Though smart growth is still a tiny part of the city’s overall investment portfolio, the city is betting that such projects will bring big financial returns to retired employees.
The first place to take advantage of the city’s new smart-growth zoning was, oddly enough, in Westchester — a very suburban, very low-density neighborhood that gets soothing breezes from the ocean and jarring jet noise from LAX. Three years ago, the Furama Hotel obtained the first Los Angeles city permit for smart-growth zoning.
A big construction pit now surrounds the Furama, once a symbol of 1960s aviation glamour, where pilots, airline stewardesses and frequent business travelers once stayed. The 12-story Furuma will reopen as Playa del Oro, promising a mix of upscale shops, condos and a few dozen hotel rooms.
The No. 3 Big Blue Bus runs every few minutes past the Furama, carrying passengers from Santa Monica as far south as the Metro Green Line at Aviation Boulevard. On a hot afternoon in May, the bus is a standing-room-only experience, filled with weary rush-hour commuters, anxious moms trying to keep track of their children, and Saint Monica Catholic High School students listening to iPods and clutching skateboards.
Operated by the city of Santa Monica, the Big Blue Bus is painted with playful graphics, a marketing tool to lure middle-income commuters out of their cars. But on a Thursday afternoon, the No. 3 feels like any bus operated by the larger MTA: hot, crowded and slow.
Wearing a dark, pinstriped suit and a Sheraton Hotel lapel pin, hotel worker Ryan McGrath rides the No. 3, which is caught in the traffic jam that starts next to Playa Vista, where state construction workers are widening Lincoln Boulevard to accommodate traffic from and to thousands of new Playa Vista homes.
In 30 minutes, the bus has traveled less than six miles, or a deflating 12 miles per hour.
McGrath took buses and trains when he lived in France and Switzerland. But after riding the bus here for two months, the Playa del Rey resident is ready to buy a car. He is fed up with a six-mile ride that frequently takes an hour and 10 minutes, including two buses and walking. “I’m used to punctual, every-30-minute buses, punctual subways,” he explains. “I can’t deal with this.”
And so another L.A. resident is about to change his behavior. But instead of embracing transit, McGrath has decided to abandon it.
McGrath says the Rapid bus line offered by the Big Blue Bus is frequently as slow as buses with far more stops. And he is irritated that his neighborhood lacks the riders to support more frequent bus service. “Everybody in Playa del Rey is fucking rich,” he grouses.
The No. 3 bus rolls to a stop at Manchester Boulevard, right across from the construction pit that surrounds the Furama Hotel. McGrath can’t stay and talk. If he misses the No. 115, he says, he will have to wait an hour. McGrath runs across six lanes of traffic, dodging a Prius and avoiding the crosswalk entirely. Once he reaches the other side of the street, McGrath lights a cigarette and checks his cell phone. After a few minutes, he looks down the street and starts walking.
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