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Are We Witnessing Another Real Estate Bubble in Los Angeles?

Originally published on 24 Dec 2015 Written by Dick Platkin for CityWatch

If you are following debates over growth and density in Los Angeles, I strongly recommend you watch the new film, The Big Short. Without giving away too much of the plot, it is about several financial analysts who saw through the bombast that lead to the mortgage-based real estate bubble that nearly devastated the global economy in 2008-09. The only thing that stopped that Great Recession from turning into another Great Depression was the United States government bail out of the banks. According to Bloomberg News, it took $13 trillion dollars of public dollars to stem the red ink that flowed from sub-prime mortgages into the entire financial system.

Now, less than a decade later, the cheerleaders of another real estate bubble are ushering in Act II. As recently presented in City Watch (“If you want LA to continue Living in the Past, then the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative is for You”), we are once more being treated to the preposterous argument that unrestrained real estate speculation is an urban miracle cure. It represents the present rather than the past. It eliminates the cause of high priced housing: planning and zoning regulations. It allows for vertical growth rather than horizontal sprawl. It creates jobs. It promotes transit ridership. And on and on.

So, let us actually look at Los Angeles to evaluate several of these often repeated claims for their “truthiness.”

Dishing out planning and zoning exceptions to super-sized projects allows us to be modern, to no longer be stuck in the past. Really? If we have learned anything from the recently concluded Paris climate summit, it is that modernity means dealing with climate change, not thumbing our nose at it through zoning approvals that allow mega-project after mega-project to proceed despite their unmitigatable levels of Green House Gases.

Yes, the claims that high rise, mixed use projects in Hollywood and elsewhere are “green” (i.e., low carbon footprints) is belied by their Environmental Impact Reports. Like the Hollywood Community Plan — overturned by Superior Court Judge Alan Goodman — all of the mega-projects’ Draft Environmental Impact Reports reveal that these projects will generate unmitigatable levels of Green House Gases. Why? Because they are automobile-oriented. These buildings are only transit-adjacent, which does not, in any way, make them transit-oriented.

They all have large parking structures to serve the needs of their well-heeled, car-loving tenants and condo-owners. These tenants are, in fact, the least likely demographic group to use transit, even though many of these proposed and/or approve projects are close to METRO Red Line stations. If these projects contained significant numbers of affordable units, they could eventually become transit-oriented developments because those tenants are more likely to use transit. But, in LA this is not happening because the City Council long ago rejected inclusionary zoning provisions that would have mandated approximately 20 percent affordable units in all new apartment projects.

In addition, the Hollywood area and other potential transit-oriented areas, such as Koreatown and the Miracle Mile, suffer from two more deficits never mentioned by the groupies of real estate speculation. Enthralled at appearing “modern,” these hucksters overlook the obvious. Los Angeles does NOT have a dense mass transit system, nor does it have dense local services.

Dense housing needs a dense transit system for local residents to regularly take transit. This is why cities like New York, with its transit-oriented built environment, generate such high levels of transit ridership. That city’s subway system, augmented by busses, has an astounding number of alternative origins and destinations. In contrast, Hollywood residents only have a few Red and Purple Line destinations: NoHo, Universal Studios, Koreatown, and some parts of downtown Los Angeles. Many busy Los Angeles destinations will not be mass transit accessible for many decades – if ever — such as the Sunset Strip, downtown Beverly Hills, Westwood, Veterans Administration, UCLA, USC, Century City, Venice, and much of Santa Monica, to cite just a few popular destinations.

Dense housing also needs dense public infrastructure and public services to effectively dislodge those who can afford to drive cars out of their vehicles. As again demonstrated by New York City, a city needs wide, well maintained, ADA-compliant, sidewalks covered by trees and free of overhead wires and billboards, for residential density to achieve its intended low carbon goal.

In the same vein, transit-oriented communities also need well-serviced local parks, schools, community gardens, and libraries. Finally, these communities also need a full array of nearby private services, including restaurants and bars, dry cleaners, medical offices, grocery stores, drug stores, hardware stores, and clothing stores.

When the Los Angeles neighborhoods targeted by investors for high density, such as Hollywood and Koreatown, provide these amenities, then the anticipated benefits of large, tall, mixed-use buildings could eventually appear. Until then, however, to approve and then build these enormous structures is an invitation to failure. The reason that the boosters overlook this is not quite a mystery though. Like the commercial enterprises they shill for, their focus is short-term. Once the City Council dishes out the zoning and planning entitlements they need, and the buildings they ballyhoo are built, they are on to their next commercial project. Their approach is antithetical to long-term planning, which is why real estate speculators and their supporters view planning as a barrier, not a manual for crafting a much-improved Los Angeles.

Mega-projects help solve L.A.’s housing crisis by channeling billions of private investment into local real estate projects. If this claim were true, Los Angeles would already be far better off, but it isn’t. Building expensive homes and apartments does not increase the supply of affordable housing. There is no linkage between these two real estate markets. An analogy told to me by one correspondent explains this simply and straightforwardly: building lots of Ferraris does reduce the cost of Hondas.

Furthermore, the actual situation is much worse because new luxury housing often replaces affordable houses that are quickly bulldozed out of way – often illegally — to assemble building sites. For example, the Department of Building and Safety issues at least 2000 demolition permits per year for single-family houses. They are almost all smaller, older “starter houses.” When the wreckers leave, these new building pads quickly sprout over-sized houses that cost three times as much as the ones they replaced.

The job creation myth. Nearly every Statement of Overriding Considerations issued by the City Planning Commission and City Council cites job creation as the rational for ignoring the generation of unmitigatable levels of Green House Gases. In these cases, though, talk is cheap because these decision makers never require a monitoring program to determine if the perpetually promised jobs actually appear. Similarly, they never revoke zoning and planning approvals when the promised jobs do not materialize.

While it is theoretically possible that some of the mega-projects will generate significant numbers of jobs, it is highly unlikely. The free market approach to job creation has already failed miserably in Los Angeles. While the Los Angeles area has had moderate population growth since 1990, job creation has been stagnant. In fact, according to KPCC, there has been no change in the number of local jobs in over 25 years.

Other City Watch writers will undoubtedly debunk the alleged benefits of large commercial projects in Los Angeles requiring special zoning and planning exemptions. I trust, though, that presenting the facts regarding the myths of modernity, construction of affordable housing, and employment is enough to take the wind out of the boosters’ sails and encourage wide support for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.

By Dick Platkin

Dick Platkin is a retired LA City planner who reports on planning issues for CityWatch. He welcomes comments, corrections, and question at [email protected]

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