The Mayor’s Kill Shot on Suburban LA

MAILANDER MUSINGS - "It is better to raise children with backyards than on condominium balconies," urbanist Wendell Cox said in a Wall Street Journal article entitled "California Declares War on Suburbia" this past week.

But even as Cox pronounced the problem with Los Angeles’s urban development over the past decade, lame duck Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is moving in for the kill shot on the concept of a suburban Los Angeles.

The Mayor is aiming for “a wholesale revision of the regulations that guide [LA’s] build form,” the Mayor's planning chief, Michael LoGrande, told key city administrators on March 27.

Although the citizens of Southern California endure the consequences of shifting planning regulations daily, few realize that even Eli Broad could not have become a maniacal billionaire working with the kind of zoning regulations within the city and most other Southern California counties today.

Indeed, the State as well as the city of Los Angeles has all but abandoned the idea of promoting the development of stand-alone single-family housing, of yards front and back.  Opting instead for “smart growth” developments that make for higher concentrations of people all throughout the State and especially here in Los Angeles throughout the past decade, State and civic leaders have demonstrated a preference for transit hub development and densely-packed mixed-use corridors, even in edge cities and collar counties.

And after ten years of contra-indicated results—with traffic congestion, for instance, worse than ever, even though population has barely climbed at all—Los Angeles’s political power brokers—including Mayor Villaraigosa, Eric Garcetti, and Controller Wendy Greuel—have never second-guessed themselves on their smart growth love affair, even as Los Angeles passed New York City in density earlier in the past decade and brought the Westside of Los Angeles to complete gridlock.

Although they endure the consequences daily, few Southern Californians realize that Eli Broad could not have become the monument-erecting, self-aggrandizing billionaire he is today had some of the zoning laws we have today had been in place when Kaufman & Broad was slamming families into suburban lots in Orange County and elsewhere—as no less than six Southern California counties have laws on the books specifying that at prime locations throughout their counties a whopping 20 homes be developed per acre of vacant land—availing a mere 2,178 square feet per unit, including yard space!

Not only is this inconsistent with the demands of first-time homeowners, it’s also inconsistent with overall American expectations—which is why California is losing so many aspiring homeowners to states such as Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina.

Los Angeles over the past decade "grew" at a quarter of a rate that the state did.  It added 97,801 new citizens --or 9,780 souls a year.

Or--about 00.25% a year.  The State’s population grew by 10%, but LA’s by less than 2.5%.

Four years ago, I asked then city planning chief Gail Goldberg why she was continuing to plan as though the city were growing in population.

Her answer was a bald-faced lie: a lie taught to her by the Mayor’s office and ordained by then Council President Eric Garcetti.  She said the city was growing three ways: by “immigration, copulation, and relocation"—that is, by immigration, natural increase, and by American relocation to Los Angeles.

In truth, no statistics were insisting that LA was growing. The San Diegan city planner Goldberg, who took up planning as a dabbler in midlife, only had it on the authority of the Mayor, who appointed her at a salary $202,000 a year, that LA was growing.

When he knew that LA wasn't growing to any appreciable degree at all.

All through the transit hub projects that have hopelessly skewed the city's renter ratio, and all through the densifications, the City of Los Angeles has been growing at a rate of about 00.25% percent a year. Not even a third of one percent.

Worst of all, when you look at what's been built in Los Angeles over the past decade, you find few places suitable for raising children in the eyes of many middle-class citizens.

All of this modest growth could have easily been controlled in a positive way by legislative fiat.  All it would have taken to make the City of Los Angeles golden was a willingness to say no to out-of-town developers hell-bent on building 40 unit complexes, and a willingness to keep the ratio of homeowners to renters in line with cities like Seattle and Portland.  But our opportunistic, overpaid Council and Mayor chose another path—the path of perdition.  They sold out Los Angeles to absentee landlords, and made the city a town that would ever err on the side of renters.

Their action has only assured a future for Los Angeles of increasingly pricey single family homes and increasingly pricey rentals.  The City’s legislators of the past decade have collectively taken a city that was once poised to set an example for the world, and turned it into a place that cannot even set an example for the County in which it resides.  That is the consequence of the collective political willingness to allow a catastrophic imbalance between owner-occupied homes and rentals.  

The city’s elected officials are all at fault—they are the enablers of the Mayor's kill shot on what's left of suburban Los Angeles.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at



Vol 10 Issue 30
Pub: Apr 13, 2012