The Next Los Angeles
L.A. has more people per square mile than any urban area in the country, and over the next two decades it’s going to add millions of new residents. Can smart growth stave off impending citywide gridlock?
~ By MINDY FARABEE ~eighborhood activist Anne Schermerhorn is not the kind of woman who cries over city ordinances. But there she is, tearing up during the public comment period at a meeting of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission on the 10th floor at City Hall. The frustration, she explains, has been so intense.
For a moment there, she can’t go on.
Schermerhorn is attempting for the third time to lobby the powers that be for an Interim Control Ordinance, or ICO, a little bit of jargon that would grant Glassell Park and other Northeast L.A. neighborhoods some control over how big, how high, and how environmentally damaging new developments can be in the hillsides ringing downtown. Like Echo Park, Mount Washington, and Atwater Village that surround it, Glassell Park is the latest working-class neighborhood to be targeted by home-buyers and developers looking to capitalize on lower-priced properties. But the intentions of these new property owners has become an issue. Groups like North East Trees, Occidental College, the Latino Urban Forum, and the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association have sent word that they support more regulated development, and José Carlos Romero, the city’s own head planner for the area, dims the lights and offers up a Power Point presentation graphically testifying to the “urgency” of the problem.
“You’ve provoked us to a better place,” Commission President Jane Usher says, and an hour later, the ICO is approved. But it’s destined to be a short honeymoon between Schermerhorn and the Department of Planning.
Two weeks later, Schermerhorn informs me she and her group HESC – the Hillside Environmental and Safety Coalition – are suing the city over an eight-house development they believe is being constructed in defiance of city codes but has somehow garnered city approval. The way she sees it, “We were stabbed in the back by city council.”
In the past 12 months, land use conflicts have triggered charges of anti-Semitism in Valley Village, dragged Montecito Heights residents into arbitration over the right to walk across one man’s lawn, and prompted Venice’s neighborhood council to question whether its neighborhood could just stop growing altogether, putting a temporary halt to all commercial development along its major thoroughfares.
All over the city, this clash is repeated, in neighborhood after neighborhood. Why have things gotten so heated? Numbers tell the story: in 2000, the city issued 106,000 building permits. In 2006, it handed out 153,000. Developers have indeed reacted to a booming real estate market, but they are also finally accommodating a mushrooming population. In the last 20 years, some five million additional Angelenos took up residence here, while only one new housing unit was built for every two families. As of the 2000 Census, the Los Angeles area officially became the densest urban region in the U.S., besting New York City and its suburbs by nearly 2,000 people per square mile.
And we’re growing. Experts are now predicting that we’ve got to make space for another two-to-five million neighbors before 2030. (If you’re of a mind that 700 miles of fencing could prevent this, you can put down your trowel right now. Anywhere between 40 to 80 percent of L.A.’s projected growth will come from the birth rate of its current residents alone.) At this point, it’s hard to argue with a straight face that L.A. will live out its days as a gently sprawling haven for single-family homes and limitless automobiles. One way or another, our fair city is about to become incredibly dense, and rapidly. The question is – are the city’s leaders up to the task of managing that density in a smart way? It won’t work, of course, to simply deny growth. It’s going to happen, no matter what.
“We get that we have to house this population, and there is a lot of support in my community for mixed-use apartment buildings nearer transit corridors,” says Helene Schpak, who is working with Schermerhorn to mitigate Glassell Park’s growing pains.
Instead, some residents say, the city is flouting its own codes as it offers a glut of more of the same – projects either in the worn-out suburban model or high-end luxury line, both of which may be out of touch with Angelenos’ needs, and both of which can’t help but overburden an already overtaxed infrastructure. As Barbara Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners Association puts it, “We know we have a housing shortage, but if we have a shortage of $1.2 million condos, I don’t know.”
“Glassell Park is ground zero for these conflicts, and the problem is not the developers and it’s not the community. The problem is the city,” says Schpak. “Developers do what they do. It’s for the city to bracket what they do with guidelines.”
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