Beverly Hills: State of the City -- When Mindless Densification is Not the Solution

Beverly Hills: State of the City -- When Mindless Densification is Not the Solution
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The following article is adapted from my "State of the City" address which I gave to the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce in October of 2016.

In Martin Buber's collection, the "Tales of the Hasidim," he relates the tale of Rabbi Zusya.

Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, "In the coming world, if they shall ask me 'Why were you not Moses,' I shall have an answer. But if they ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?' I will be left with no reply."

We have heard from our Supreme Court and from some politicians that "Corporations are people, my friend." I couldn't disagree with this more. It's a ridiculous proposition, just as ridiculous as the notion that "money is speech." And until we get rid of two of the worst Supreme Court rulings since the Dred Scott decision, money will continue to pollute and corrupt our political system in every manner imaginable.

In the New Testament, Timothy 6:10, we hear that "For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil." Sadly, these words also perfectly describe our own flawed political system.

In a democracy, in a true marketplace of ideas, it is those with the best ideas who should win the day, not those with the biggest megaphones. Not those with the most megaphones. While the Supreme Court seems to feel our system was not designed to create a level playing field, without a level playing field we can never truly fulfill our potential as a nation.

If corporations are not people, if they are not living, breathing organisms, it is a very different situation with cities and communities. It would be far more appropriate to compare a community, a city like our own, with a human being. While a corporation has one goal and one goal only, namely, to turn a profit, cities are where we make our lives, cities are our home. Cities encompass the entire spectrum of human endeavor and so we are connected with cities, in this case Beverly Hills, our home, in a very different way.

We are all Rabbi Zusya. And so is our beloved home town, Beverly Hills. The question "Why is Beverly Hills not New York, or Dubai, or Coral Gables, or Hong Kong?" is a question we can probably answer if we want to, though it isn't necessarily a question we need to ask. The real question we should be asking ourselves, like Rabbi Zusya, is: "Why are we not being Beverly Hills?"

And so we need to work to remember what the potential of this special place is and always to ask ourselves what we can do to be a better first-rate Beverly Hills and not a second-rate Manhattan or London or Milan. When we look at the development and growth of cities and urban areas, we can very well continue to use the metaphor that a City is like a human being. It's a very fitting metaphor. Each one of us has a G-d given potential and each of our potentials is in some way very unique to us. One size really rarely fits all. And as we grow into adulthood and try to reach our ideal sizes and weights, we should exercise, eat nutritiously and live a healthy lifestyle to achieve our peak potential.

But if, after we have finally grown into our ideal size and weight, we continue to try to force ourselves to grow by continuing to eat indiscriminately, by continuing to stuff our throats because we somehow think that growth per se is good, we will eventually become bloated and our arteries will become clogged. So it is with cities when they misuse land use planning principles and allow unbridled development. As we see in so many places, the arteries of our cities are quite literally becoming clogged.

While I don't know if Rabbi Zusya was interested in the wonky politics of his day, when it comes to local land use planning and the future of cities, many of our politicians seem to want to take a top-down approach. Recently President Obama weighed in, making statements which seemed to suggest that it should be easier for developers to densify across the board, with less local control for communities to try to determine what works for them to ensure their quality of life. We have heard similar rhetoric from Governor Brown and Assemblymember Bloom.

While we absolutely need to look at solutions to the housing crisis, in my opinion, we need less Big Brother and more local control. Local government, if done correctly, is the best form of democracy. It is closest to home, and home is an almost sacred concept. Communities should be able to decide for themselves what kind of development they feel is appropriate for their residents, for their own vision of the future and they should not be forced into models which don't allow them to fulfill their unique, individual potential.

Once again, the Good Book, gives good advice. In Ecclesiastes 3, we read:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

And if I may add myself, "A time -- and a place -- to densify and a time and a place to let it be."

In an article in the LA Daily News early this week, Chapman university urban fellow Joel Kotkin writes about "how to make post-suburbanism work."

It's an insightful and courageous article, from which I am now going to quote at length because it is so relevant to what I have been saying and was planning to say. Writes Kotkin:

Our cognitive elites dislike the very idea that Los Angeles, as Dorothy Parker once supposedly described, has long been "72 suburbs in search of a city." Yet, Southern California, as I discuss in a new Chapman University report, has from its early emergence grown around a "post-suburban" model of dynamic, smaller clusters. This urban form has become common in many major metropolitan areas as automobiles have replaced transit as the primary means of getting around.

This model worked here brilliantly for most of the last half century -- until planners, real estate speculators and California bureaucrats decided that we needed to emulate New York City and other older monocentric core cities. Like the provincials they consistently prove themselves to be, our leaders have generally complied.

So, after nearly 15 years spent in pushing this direction, what have we accomplished? A transit system that barely serves as many people as it did before we started building trains, housing prices among the highest in the nation, super-high poverty rates and a population that continues to seek to go somewhere else, including some 1.6 million net domestic migrants who have left the L.A. and Orange County area since 2000.

Some see densification as necessary to meet the demands of an expanding population. Yet, both L.A. and O.C.'s populations are growing slower than both the state and national average. Nor has the pro-density regime relieved any of the pressure on housing and rent...

The advocates of the "new" dense Los Angeles have stirred opposition throughout the region. True, some of those objecting to new growth may be too concerned with preserving the past, but many others, including some in Los Angeles, have rightly concluded that the region's once splendid quality of life is being consciously undermined by planners, politicians and their real estate paymasters.


Bingo. Kotkin hits the nail on the head in this article. We might well ask ourselves - perhaps mixing holiday metaphors - "Why is Southern California different from other regions?" Kotkin correctly recognizes that our urban model is in many ways organically unique compared to other cities. The fact that "planners, politicians and their real estate paymasters" are focusing on the density chimera as an urban planning silver bullet proves they really don't understand Southern California and they most certainly don't understand Martin Buber's Rabbi Zusya parable or the Ecclesiastes quote about "a time (and place, my embellishment) for everything."

Not surprisingly, the "density mirage," as Kotkin calls it, has created a backlash and the proponents of LA's "Neighborhood Integrity Initiative," which will appear on the ballot in Los Angeles next March, have quite rightly seized upon ordinary residents' frustration with a planning process which is stacked against residents and quality of life in favor of corporatized profits and all the political influence they afford. Ah, yes, we come back to Citizens United and Buckley vs. Valeo and the polluting influence of money throughout our political system, including urban planning. I certainly personally support the idea of putting the brakes upon development-run-amok in our neighboring city because we ourselves suffer from bad planning decisions made in a city in which the planning process is notoriously "pay to play" and "forget it, Jake: it's Chinatown." Just look at the monstrosity next to the High School. Just look at our traffic, 70% of which is pass through.

Interestingly enough, in all of these discussions in which indiscriminate densification is seen as a solution to all our housing problems, there is one critical question which nobody ever asks. Not President Obama. Not Governor Brown. Not Assemblymember Bloom. And yet it is perhaps most important question we can ask. And we need to ask it.

What is the end game? Yes, what is the end game? OK, let's say we densify according to these half-baked patchwork plans. What then?

Indeed, the proposed densification model almost assumes an endless spiral of growth. But why are we not instead talking about sustainability? We talk about it almost every other context: energy policy, water usage, agriculture, you name it. Why not in urban planning? Isn't an endless spiral of densification the very definition of unsustainability?

The densification efforts supported by President Obama, Governor Brown, Assemblymember Bloom, and of course all the diverse members of what I'll call the "Developer/Construction Industrial Complex" have presented a "solution" (and yes I am putting the word in quotation marks), which is essentially a trickle-down theory of housing, because almost all of the new dense housing being constructed is luxury, high-end housing. I will note not a little bit of irony in the warm embrace of what was a central tenet of Reaganomics by just these politicians. By the way, and here's an interesting fact, Kotkin points out that all high-density housing -- not just the luxury variety -- is more expensive to construct.
But the big problem with the "trickle-down theory of housing and densification" is not the ideological irony; it's that it doesn't really work. Vacancy rates in LA County of luxury housing remain at 15-20% while regular housing vacancy rates are much lower.

In transportation, there is a theory of "induced demand." Essentially, the theory says if we add lanes to a freeway, traffic will not improve because the additional capacity will attract more vehicles. It's water seeking its own level.

One could make a similar case about the construction of more housing, especially affordable housing. Let's face it. Southern California can be a great place to live. Think about it. We have wonderful weather, something none of us who have ever lived in colder climes will ever take for granted. There isn't a wall around Southern California, it is not a closed ecosystem. So if a glut of affordable housing becomes available, we would quite naturally attract people from around the country and around the world who would love to live here. And then we're back to square one with an increased demand on our collective infrastructure, transportation, water and everything else. Yes, that's also a logical example of inducing demand, though urban planners with their blinders on have been ignoring it.

It all goes back to the question of the end game, which no urban planners seem to want to talk about. What will the region look like in 50 years, 100 years? What should it look like? We're great at a lot of things in this country; but long-term thinking often doesn't seem to be one of them, whether it's corporate America or American politics.

While some growth within the region may be inevitable, whether we like it or not, not everyone in the entire world can move to Southern California. So in dealing with our housing crisis, we need to look at a combination of old and new solutions. A combination of housing subsidies and rent control might be able to ensure a continued diverse mix of residents within the county, while the "let's build it" densification espoused by these politicians who incorrectly feel we can build our way out of housing shortages actually leads to displacement and gentrification.

Instead of looking at tired old models which may work elsewhere, instead of urging Zusya to try to be Moses, we need to look at solutions which work for our own unique region and our own unique City.

Last month the Chamber voted narrowly to support the MTA's Forever Tax, Measure M. This was not only misguided from a fiscal perspective - I mean, come on, a Chamber of Commerce supporting a pro-tax measure which would bring our sales tax rate up to a gobsmacking 9.5%, among the highest in the nation - but this was also stunningly short-sighted from an urban planning perspective.

The Forever Tax is planning on sucking up well over a hundred billion dollars of taxpayer dollars in the next few decades. If the money were actually well spent on actually increasing mobility, we might feel we are getting good value for our taxpayer dollars. But as Joel Kotkin mentioned, we would be continuing to fund "A transit system that barely serves as many people as it did before we started building trains."

In fact, the MTA has already increased sales taxes three times in the past and yet ridership is actually down. The notion that another half-cent sales tax increase will somehow magically provide "traffic relief" is the very kind of myth and fairy tale which allowed the likes of PT Barnum to create a sucker every minute. Fool me once, shame on you; but fool me four times?

In fact, the MTA's obsession with trains and tunneling would pump taxpayer dollars into a planned system which one regional transportation expert called, "a great plan for the turn of the century. And I don't mean the turn of the 21st century. I mean the turn of the 20th century." We are looking at an investment which a fellow LA County mayor called, "planned obsolescence."

Indeed, if we are building a transportation system for the next 100 years, as MTA's CEO Phil Washington has said, then we need to look to the next hundred years, not just to the past.

It should be so obvious. If we heeded Martin Buber and the sage wisdom of Rabbi Zusya, we would realize that disruptive, new transportation technologies which we in Beverly Hills as a City have embraced and which the MTA is studiously ignoring, will help not only revolutionize public transportation itself, but also the way we plan and develop cities and our region.

Beverly Hills has taken a lead in working towards developing a public transportation system based on emerging autonomous vehicle technology. As envisioned, our Municipal Autonomous Shuttle System will provide on demand, point to point mobility. It will solve the so-called first and last mile challenge - something the MTA bizarrely has ignored - and it will achieve nothing short of the democratization of public transportation. The potential outside of our City for the entire region is enormous. It is a system which is particularly well suited to what Kotkin calls the "post suburban model of smaller, dynamic clusters."

So, for example, instead of spending $10 billion on a tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass, as the MTA is proposing with Forever Tax revenue, imagine if we dedicated one or two lanes on the 405 to autonomous vehicles. Our technology committee, in which AJ Willmer and Grayson Brulte are spearheading our AV efforts, has suggested that autonomous vehicles could exponentially expand the capacity of the 405 so that the Sepulveda Pass Tunnel would not be necessary. Just imagine what we could do with those $10 billion. Yes, $10 billion.

Autonomous vehicles, both as a form of public transportation and replacing the current paradigm of car ownership for individual rides, not only has the potential to democratize public transportation by making public transportation a first choice for mobility, it also has the potential to revolutionize land use planning. We need to start thinking ahead about that potential now and we need to start asking the questions about how autonomous vehicles can and should change urban planning.

Density advocates today like to talk about the questionable theory of TOD or "transit oriented development," which suggests there should be automatically more density around fixed rail stations. Yet in many if not most cases, the transportation system is used as an alibi for densification which may not be neighborhood appropriate. In fact it often is not neighborhood-appropriate. The totally out-of-place Cumulus project, a 30 story skyscraper, near Jefferson and La Cienega is a perfect example why a build-out of our transportation system must not be used as a bogus justification to ruin the integrity of neighborhoods. It is a case in point of why LA's Neighborhood Integrity Initiative needs to be taken seriously and why cities must have a General Plan and a standard, fair development process which they adhere to. And, yes, process does matter and, yes, we need to collectively resist all efforts to circumvent a process which was designed to protect the residents and our Community. Here too, we need a level playing field.

While TOD (which spells "Tod" and incidentally means "death" in German) has largely been discredited for our region, we should in fact be looking at the more dynamic AOD or "Autonomous Oriented Development," a new model based on the potential of autonomous vehicles, which would provide us with the opportunity to address housing needs without destroying communities, because development would not be limited to fixed-line rail stations. AOD and autonomous vehicles will open up new horizons in urban planning with the significant potential to leverage our existing road infrastructure and allow better access to jobs throughout the region - a solution which would be critical in combatting income inequality. And, yes, in contrast with the MTA's Forever Tax plans, a fully integrated mobility plan which features autonomous vehicles will also achieve what the MTA has long promised us without ever in reality delivering. In addition to increasing safety, providing better mobility for all of us, including seniors, the disabled and children, integration of AV's within public transportation will actually provide real traffic relief.

And what's more. It will allow Beverly Hills and the entire region to develop in a way which truly allows all of us to fulfill our unique potential. As Joel Kotkin writes: "Southern California can only enjoy a greater future if it embraces our bold history of urban innovation."

A forward-thinking mobility system integrating autonomous vehicle technology would not only embrace our bold history of urban innovation, it would also allow us to continue to focus on our quality of life, it would provide for continued local control and it would allow Beverly Hills, our home, to emulate Rabbi Zusya - or the incomparable Vin Scully for that matter -- and to be the very best version of ourselves possible.

This is the way forward not only for Beverly Hills, but for our entire region. I think Rabbi Zusya would approve...

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