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The Case for Crowded Neighborhoods Is Strong

The Case for Crowded Neighborhoods Is Strong
Erin Alexis Randolph | Dreamstime.com

By    |   Friday, 26 January 2018 02:41 PM

California Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, has introduced a bill that could significantly ease the state’s urban housing crisis.

Wiener’s bill would essentially prohibit cities from acting like suburbs, forcing them to allow builders to line their wide boulevards with medium-rise apartment buildings. SB 827 would forbid cities from imposing controls such as density and parking requirements on new residential construction within a half mile of a major transit station or a quarter mile from a frequent bus stop. It would override municipalities’ low-rise mandates with medium-rise minimums. On major streets, qualified housing could rise up to 85 feet, about eight stories, and on smaller ones to 45 or 55 feet, four or five stories. (These are legal minimums; cities could choose to allow taller buildings and developers could decide to build shorter ones.)

It also represents an emerging left-right coalition that sees easing regulation to permit much more housing construction, rather than focusing only on targeted low-income projects, as the way to keep the nation’s most productive cities affordable. Adding more market-rate housing gives newcomers, including young people, places to live and, contrary to widespread belief, reduces the pressures that drive low-income people out of their neighborhoods. Markets work for cities too.

As an Angeleno living well within the quarter mile bus-stop radius and just over a mile from a transit stop, I was thrilled with the idea. My city council representative was not.

When a Los Angeles Times reporter asked him about Wiener’s proposal, Paul Koretz went ballistic. Calling it “the worst idea I’ve ever heard” and -- in case that wasn’t clear enough -- “insanity” and “devastating,” he painted a nightmare scenario: “I would have a neighborhood with little 1920s, ’30s and ’40s single-family homes look like Dubai 10 years later.”

Yes, you read that correctly. My city councilman can’t tell the difference between the skyscrapers of Dubai and the most beloved streets of Paris, Amsterdam, and London -- or even some of L..A.’s cherished studio-era apartment buildings. These buildings are all taller than two stories and therefore bad.

If Koretz wants to see a more realistic scenario, he doesn’t actually need to fly to Europe. All he has to do is walk across the border of his district to Sawtelle Blvd. just west of the 405 freeway. There, five-story residential buildings have been replacing low-rise retail buildings and single-family homes.

The neighborhood hasn’t lost its character. Sawtelle itself is still full of Japanese nurseries, noodle shops and pop culture emporiums. Its businesses just have a lot more customers. The sidewalks surge with cheerful crowds waiting to get into restaurants, eating decadent desserts and browsing racks of clothes set up to draw customers into boutiques.

That’s what Koretz and his backers actually have to fear -- interesting neighborhoods and the people they attract. Youth! New businesses! Street life!

Unlike the councilman, I’d like young Angelenos to feel the same sense of possibility I enjoyed when I moved to the city at 26. Affordable rent was a big part of that. Although I lived in a vintage 1960 dingbat apartment, the new apartments and condos going up around me declared that Los Angeles was a city on the move, a dynamic place that welcomed newcomers and looked forward to an exciting future. In the late 1980s and 1990s, however, new density restrictions and parking requirements made building new housing much more difficult.

Escalating prices have been the predictable result. The little bungalows Koretz talks about sell for well over a million dollars each, most of which is accounted for by the land plus the right to build on it. High prices exclude most Los Angeles residents, including the very kinds of people who bought those houses decades ago. (Certainly I couldn’t afford to live in the neighborhood if we hadn’t bought our condo in 1992.) “Not building housing, and thus escalating housing costs, also changes the character and feel of a neighborhood by changing who can live there,” notes Wiener in defense of his bill.

By allowing density to increase in response to market demands, Wiener’s bill promises not only to make housing more affordable but to make street life more interesting. The three-story Westside Pavilion, a dying mall at the corner of Westwood and Pico Blvds., would almost certainly become an eight-story mixed use complex just a couple blocks from a light-rail station and surrounded by bus stops. Owner Macerich Co. has said it is talking to potential buyers. The real estate is valuable -- just not as a shopping center. With ample underground parking already built, it would be an ideal spot for a major residential complex.

Up and down Pico and Westwood from the mall are one- and two-story retail spaces, with mostly low-value uses, many of them struggling to attract a clientele. Allow these buildings to rise higher and these boulevards will fill up with condos and apartments. Although many single-family homes will remain, Koretz’s district will change. It will attract more young people and more true urbanites -- people who care more about interesting amenities than peace and quiet.

And that, aside from empathy for budget-conscious newcomers, is why I was so happy to read of Wiener’s clever idea. I would like to live in a neighborhood that isn’t boring. With all due respect to Westwood Blvd.’s many nail salons, coffee houses, and Chinese massage places, whose services I enjoy, and to the numerous Persian and sushi restaurants I rarely if ever frequent, we could use more variety, including places catering to those under 40. Even a few sandwich shops and pizza joints would welcome additions. More important than the specific services, however, is life on the street.

Angelenos live in one of the world’s great cities. Let’s admit it and enjoy the benefits.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”

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This Angeleno is thrilled with a plan to ease California’s urban housing crisis.
case, crowded, neighborhoods, strong
Friday, 26 January 2018 02:41 PM
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