Urban Land

Hello Urbanism: Southern California Sprawl Grows Up


Goodbye Sprawl: Southern California Plan is a Long-Term (Unfunded) Model for Sustainability

Southern California’s new Sustainable Communities Strategy plan posits that as a region, we have to grow up, not out. That doesn’t mean Hong Kong skyscrapers, but more apartments near light-rail stations and vibrant mixed-use areas like the ones in downtown Pasadena.

A new vision for el monte
The El Monte Gateway envisions transit-oriented development but has experienced significant problems in the recent economy.

Coming on the heels of an important long-range regional vision approved in San Diego County last year, you may have heard the important move toward sustainability in the rest of SoCal. Rick Cole, City Manager for Ventura, announced in the Los Angeles Times:

“Ranked first among the densest metropolitan areas in the United States …nothing symbolizes the emerging shift, however, like the unanimous vote this month by the Southern California Assn. of Governments, or SCAG, to adopt the landmark 2012-2035 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy. With a price tag of $524 billion, it aims to guide growth around public transit and walkable communities. Suddenly, our region is being hailed throughout California as the new model for a sustainable future. The SCAG blueprint exceeds even tough new state standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) is required by the game-changing Senate Bill 375, which ties land use and greenhouse gas levels to future transportation planning and funding. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who spoke at a recent gathering in downtown LA of the American Planning Association, called for extending the half-cent sales tax Measure R and borrowing against future revenues to expand the county’s transit system. Furthermore, Mr. Villaraigosa has pushed for the federal government to lend Los Angeles billions of dollars in order to complete 30 years of transportation projects in ten years, creating thousands of jobs. In particular, he is championing subway construction to the Westside and Santa Monica.

Mr. Cole served as Mayor of Pasadena during the period of intense planning and revitalization of the Metro Gold Line. He also publicly advocates for the New Urbanist rethinking of city centers with form-based codes instead of zoning that favors single family homes separated from other housing types and commercial-office areas. He continues:

the revival of old town pasadena with a subway
The Gold Line connecting to Old Town Pasadena has sparked a significant revitalization of an againg urban core with the proliferation of higher-density residential developments close to transit and walking distance to shopping and employment.

“…. SCAG’s new plan is born of the realization that as a region, we have to grow up, not out. That doesn’t mean Hong Kong skyscrapers in Whittier and Redlands. It does mean more apartments near light-rail stations and more vibrant mixed-use areas like the ones in downtown Pasadena, Ventura and Brea. It doesn’t mean wresting the car keys from suburban commuters. It does mean making jobs and housing accessible via foot, bike, bus and rail.”

A recent study by the Urban Land Institute found that by locating housing closer to employment and shopping in California and providing varied housing types, densities, and affordability close to alternative transportation, can help the housing market rebound and stimulate the economy. Amanda Eaken from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) weighed in on the SCAG strategy plan with enthusiasm:

Metro is moving people and shaping neighborhoods away from their auto-dependence
The Metropolitan Transit Authority plans 12 new transit projects in the next ten years and seeks to extend the half-cent sales tax Measure R to pay for it.

“While Washington politicians continue to point fingers about high gas prices, local leaders in Los Angeles have actually done something about long commutes,” said Eaken. “SCAG has approved a plan that will save people money, shorten their commutes and create a cleaner environment. Investing in transit will put millions of people back to work on local projects that benefit anyone who chooses to trade gas prices for a metro card.”

She added that it would save more than “400 square miles of open space — more than a third the size of Yosemite — from development by shifting to a more walkable land use pattern.”

ClimatePlan formed in 2007 from 11 environmental and planning non-profit groups to champion AB 32’s greenhouse gas reduction targets. It now focuses on implementing SB 375. Autumn Bernstein, ClimatePlan Director, intoned a measured bit of realism to the SCAG strategy plan:

“While the land use element of the plan is very strong, we have not seen the changes on the transportation investment side of the equation.  The plan still invests in wasteful and unnecessary road and highway expansions, particularly in outlying Riverside County.  In addition, the analysis of the plan’s impacts to environmental justice communities is inadequate; in particular, those living close to transit that are vulnerable to displacement, and those living adjacent to heavily congested freeways will be disproportionately affected.  SCAG should do more to pinpoint communities that are most vulnerable and identify strategies to protect them. And lastly, when it comes to implementing the plan, there is a massive shortfall in funding.”

War on…Suburbia? Really?

Wendell Cox, libertarian author of studies for the conservative think tanks such as the Cato and Heartland Institutes, Reason and Heritage Foundations as well as for the American Highway Users Alliance, takes aim at the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, in the Wall Street Journal. He writes:

“California has declared war on the most popular housing choice, the single family, detached home—all in the name of saving the planet.

“Metropolitan area governments are adopting plans that would require most new housing to be built at 20 or more to the acre, which is at least five times the traditional quarter acre per house. State and regional planners also seek to radically restructure urban areas, forcing much of the new hyperdensity development into narrowly confined corridors.”

Well, actually, SCAG has created an aspirational plan with no police power nor actual requirements. They oversee some funding and can levy penalties, but the plan approved will only reinforce existing land use trends already approved by each of the municipalities involved. Hence, urbanized areas would become more dense and walkable with alternative transportation and a mix of shopping and dining. Housing would be built closer to employment centers, but suburban neighborhoods would remain so, with possibly bike lanes and light rail offered. The plan would prohibit proliferation of suburban sprawl into the foothills and protect open spaces on the edges and in between.

Josh Stephens from the California Planning and Development Report, among a number of refutations of Mr. Cox’s diatribe, countered:

“Sure, people like big houses.  They also like living close to their jobs. Some of them even like living close to other people.

“Cox ignores the inherent attributes of places — charm, vibrancy, attractiveness, convenience, accessibility (see London, Paris, Santa Monica, San Francisco… you get the point) — that would make a resident perfectly happy to live in close quarters and assumes that residents base their preferences purely on housing types. In other words, don’t hire Cox as your economist, and please don’t hire him as your real estate agent.”

Time will tell if we can overcome the naysayers and re-imagine Southern California with a multi-modal transportation network and an efficient, walkable urban framework with protected wild spaces, over the fossil-fuel-addicted, polluted-auto-manic, sprawling metropolis we sometimes admit is home.

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