WITH WIDELY PUBLICIZED REPORTS on smog, congestion, gangs and housing making Southern California sound more haphazardly unplanned than ever, a recent ceremony in which the region’s über–planning group awarded lumps of coal to cities and counties for their own poor planning fell particularly flat.
Last year, six counties, 187 cities and the federal government poured $23 million into the obscure Southern California Association of Governments, mandated by state and federal law to make sure Southern California doesn’t devolve into an unplanned and unlivable mess. But these days, even the think tank’s nickname — SCAG, as it is known to scores of mayors, council members and other political insiders — sounds like something clinging to you that you might be tempted to brush off.
A stream of recent bad news — of a regional economy that churns out crappy retail jobs while biotech and great blue-collar jobs boom elsewhere in California and the United States, of permanent damage to the lungs of thousands of children living in homes that the area’s city councils permitted to be too close to freeways, of an exodus of people with college degrees — increasingly calls into question why SCAG can’t deliver.
SCAG and its longtime executive director, Mark Pisano, still talk in grand terms, glowingly telling the Weekly that SCAG is “the place where one can get ahold of the big picture, the place where business, government and nonprofits can come together. We’re the place that can speak to Southern California.”
Not many who live inside that big picture would agree. Although the group has its supporters in officialdom — Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine says that without SCAG, “We would have a planning disaster” — critics point to hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent by SCAG in part to produce housing, transportation, commerce and other reports tossed onto municipal planning shelves.
Craig Steele, city attorney for upscale Agoura Hills, west of the San Fernando Valley, says, “No one from Lawndale cares about what’s happening in Temecula . . . The local communities feel SCAG is so focused on their pet projects, like their fantasy high-speed rail, that communities are going ‘subregional’ to get things done for themselves.”
Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles–based consultant who studies ways in which U.S. cities attract good jobs and build better neighborhoods, says, “These days I just make fun of SCAG. Their [economic and growth] projections are waaay off.” In the 1990s recession, SCAG warned that the unemployment rate would remain stuck at or above double-digits until decade’s end. Instead, by 1998 joblessness had tumbled. “SCAG was waaaay off” — by close to 100 percent. Adds Kotkin, “They go hysterical; they push doomsday scenarios. They figure if they make it sound so terrible, then something will be done. They’re ineffective.”
Pisano says, “We’re trying to make our voice heard in Washington and Sacramento.” But not many power players are listening. Part of that, critics say, is because his team’s ideas often sound like a riff from a Cheech and Chong stoner session: Hey, what if we build a high-speed super-railway, and then pull the 18-wheelers off the 710 and give them their own separate freeway?
A SCAG-envisioned 300-mph train that lets Southern Californians travel across the region à la George Jetson is hampered by only a few things: “Billions and billions of dollars — and somebody to plan and build it,” says Ashwani Vasishth, a former SCAG employee who scoffs at its proposals that remain unbuilt and unachievable.
“We’re never gonna fix the traffic problem,” Vasishth says. “You can only manage it. You can build double-decker highways, and expand infrastructure, but all that will do is allow for more traffic, which will create more traffic” — something he says SCAG refuses to recognize.
Part of the problem is Pisano, executive director of the planning think tank since 1976, a jargon-addicted bureaucrat who actually says things such as “We designed our structure so we have capacity through our subregions to listen to our members, and we have the capacity to pull our subregions and regions together through our council and decision-making process.”
Another problem is the disconnect between the outlying and the urban, cities and counties, especially given the attitudes of Los Angeles–centric elected officials. When asked by the Weekly to describe key problems affecting people in Southern California that could be alleviated by a dose of intelligent planning, powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors member Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who also sits on the SCAG board, remarked, “The individual cities that make up the SCAG region should unite to do everything possible to boost the volume of goods the two huge ports can accommodate, and fix the battered and aging infrastructure that is stopping up that faucet.”
While Kotkin says yes, movement of port goods is an important economic issue, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Southern Californian who sees it as key to improving life here. Steele, who says he is speaking not as Agoura Hills’ city attorney but as a concerned citizen with 25 years in government, says SCAG has been slow to grasp the changing landscape. When SCAG was first organized in 1976, “They had a function. SCAG was — and some say still is — very L.A.-centric. L.A. had a lot of power and was the focus of SCAG’s attention.”
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.
High-density housing is not a desirable goal for space-loving Southern Californians, Vasishth says, arguing that room to breathe is one of the few pluses still on offer here: “All this new infrastructure, whether it comes from state bonds or from SCAG’s dreamy projections, would simply create more density.” Kotkin is even more dismissive, saying, “Density is a push by big developers to create very expensive housing with some pieces included for the poor — and nothing at all included for the middle class.”
On L.A.’s crowded Eastside, community activist Jose Aguilar, who served for two years on the Adelante Project Committee, an advisory group to the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, criticizes local planners as seeing “everything in the inner city as ‘underutilized.’ If there is a one- or two-story apartment complex, it ‘should be’ a 10-story complex.”
Alvin Parra, a former Eastside field deputy for City Councilman Jose Huizar, now running for office against his former boss, complains, “SCAG says that we need to get ready for 40 million people moving to the area, so they make all the recommendations to build more housing, based on these predictions. Well, are we building the housing to prepare for the predicted influx of people? Or are we allowing for the influx by building these high-density units?”
Asks Parra: “How will all these new high-density buildings affect the roads, traffic, parking, schools, police, water and all the additional demand these people will place on the already overcrowded infrastructure?”
One former SCAG employee says the planners who dominate SCAG “are terrible people persons” who don’t seem to connect with what average people would like to see. He thinks Pisano has been in the job too long: “Since one guy is making all the decisions, you only have one idea on the table . . . He’s a stone wall. One guy calling all the shots, and not calling good shots.”
Pisano responds to the Weekly, “I’ve never been accused of that before. Just the opposite, if anything.”
But the bottom line is that Southern California is in position to get its butt kicked in the global economy, and the beast is this: 187 cities in six counties, with different needs and agendas, being asked to unite in the planning and execution of long-term projects that go against their residents’ very grain. On the other side is a group of planning nerds trying — and failing — to devise answers that work.
Zuma Dogg blogs at https://mayorsam.blogspot.com and https://zumadogg.blogspot.com.