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Thu, Jun

WIMBY’s are the New Alchemists

POLITICS

iAUDIT - Anyone who’s seen the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence in Disney’s 1940 masterpiece Fantasia knows what an alchemist is.  During the Middle Ages, the “science” of alchemy studied ways of turning virtually worthless materials like lead, into gold.  Alchemists searched for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, a substance (not necessarily a stone) that could be mixed with base metals to transform them to gold.  Of course, there was no such thing as the Philosopher’s Stone, and alchemy soon faded into fable.  Until Los Angeles in the 21st century.

There is a new coven of alchemists in town, called WIMBY’s or “Wall Street in My Backyard” supporters, a coalition of corporate real estate investors and willing advocates.  City Watch’s Dick Platkin describes them here. WIMBY’s have finally discovered the Philosopher’s Stone, but it’s not a substance.  They have invented the ability to create massive wealth, not by turning lead into gold, but by turning housing into profit-making machines. WIMBY’s occupy a morally murky netherworld between anti-development NIMBY’s and wild-eyed YIMBY’s who think building hundreds of thousands of apartments will magically decrease housing costs.  Harking back to Fantasia, in the WIMBY universe, the true sorcerers are corporate real estate and development firms, and the Mickey Mouse lackeys are dozens of advocacy groups doing their bidding.

Much like their 14th century predecessors, modern alchemists are creating solutions to problems that don’t exist, but with a twist.  Medieval kings didn’t have much trouble collecting as much gold as they wanted.  In fact, creating gold from base metals would have made gold so plentiful, it would have been worthless. Modern real estate alchemists have no intention of reducing the worth of their commodity, so they identify only the most expensive projects possible—new construction. Just as the alchemists of old wrapped themselves in a cloak of mysterious powers, the new alchemists use the smokescreen of “affordable housing” to justify their cash cow projects. 

A good example of how the new alchemists’ conjuring something from nothing is the proposal called the Marina Central Park.  The proposal would convert the Marina freeway, which runs from Marina del Rey into Culver City, into a three-mile linear park lined with apartments. Proponents, with no empirical evidence to support them, arbitrarily declared the freeway “underutilized” and said it would be much better used for housing.  The freeway may be short, but it’s hardly underutilized, experiencing more than 100,000 daily vehicle trips. It also relieves congested arterials like Lincoln, Sepulveda and Centinela of even heavier traffic.  Nonsensically, the proposal to close the freeway comes at the same time housing advocates are proposing adding tens of thousands of housing units in the surrounding community.  Only in the madhouse world of L.A.’s housing mania would one group propose adding thousands of homes while another wants to deny residents access to a highway that connects the area to the rest of metropolitan L.A.

Yet, as madcap as demolishing one of the newest freeways in L.A. is, the proposal seems to be gathering support among local leaders.  Mayor Bass wrote a letter supporting the project to the US Department of Transportation. State-level officials representing the area support it. Surely, such support must be based on serious statistical research by transportation and land use experts.  Wrong.  The project is the latest proposal from a small new organization called Street for All Los Angeles.  Before Streets for All came on the scene, converting the freeway to a park wasn’t on anyone’s radar.  According to its website, the Marina Park project would bring a host of benefits, from “recreating” walkable streets to providing 4,000 affordable housing units. There is no mention of where 100,000 vehicles would go when they’re denied rapid access in and out of the Marina del Rey area.

So, what Is Streets for All L.A. and how did it rise to prominence influencing how hundreds of thousands of people live and move in the L.A.? Based on filings with the Secretary of State, Streets for All incorporated less than a year ago. It is quite diverse, being a 501(c)3 nonprofit, a 501(c)4 social welfare organization and a registered political action committee (PAC).  This allows it to provide “educational” services such as environmental programs, while also promoting specific policy initiatives; the PAC allows it to support specific candidates.

According to its website, Streets for All is quite active, promoting several projects, including the closure of San Vincente Boulevard for another streets-to-park project, and has a goal to “return 25 percent of LA’s streets to the people by 2025”, (apparently by denying them the right to drive on their own streets). It has an impressive list of projects to transform L.A. into a biking and walking paradise.  “Reimagining”, a Progressive buzzword devoid of meaning, is used throughout its project descriptions. How did such a new and small organization push its agendas to the forefront of transportation and housing initiatives in the City?

As with many homeless and housing issues, money is the motivating factor behind several “social welfare” initiatives. Streets for All lists California YIMBY as a financial partner.  California YIMBY is another ‘grassroots” organization advocating aggressive expansion of housing throughout the state.  It has also been criticized by other housing advocacy groups like Housing is a Human Right for being a conduit for large corporate developers to insinuate themselves in the affordable housing market. The 4,000 “affordable” units for the Marina project are imaginary, given that only 10% of the units in most projects must be affordable, and the same corporate property owners who back the project have the deep pockets to buy out affordable renters at the earliest opportunity.  

Even if the Marina project had the community’s support, it is highly unlikely it will ever become reality. It would require approval of CALTRANS and the US Department of Transportation, which funded its construction.  The environmental mitigation costs of demolishing a freeway next to Ballona Creek would be enormous. Some kind of traffic mitigation plan, other than a bike path, would be needed to handle the thousands of vehicles diverted onto neighborhood streets. And there would have to be a way to move millions of tons of concrete and steel, some of it contaminated by oil, gas, and diesel, from the middle of a densely populated community.

But perhaps the construction of a park isn’t the advocates endgame.  At a recent Culver City Council meeting, Streets for All asked for the City to be the lead agency for a “feasibility study” for the project, along with applying for a $2 million federal grant for the study. Although the City Council, facing significant public opposition, did not approve the request to become lead agency, Council members agreed to send a letter of support to the US Department of Transportation for Streets for All  to receive the grant for the feasibility study. Multiply that by the number of proposed projects the organization has shotgunned all over the city, and you may see a pattern. Just being in the affordable housing business is a money maker.

Community organizations like Fix the City are trying to restore sanity to the affordable housing effort by taking legal action to force the city to abide by ethical contracting practices, and to balance the need for more housing while maintaining the integrity of residential neighborhoods and dealing with the reality of L.A.’s geographic diversity and traffic patterns.  Affordable housing can be created without massive overbuilding and exacerbating an already strained traffic grid. United Neighbors California supports affordable housing and neighborhood preservation; it knows housing doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. We need to plan new housing in a rational, comprehensive and holistic way.

One thousand years ago, kings and emperors paid alchemists vast sums to turn lead to gold.  Now, state and local governments pay organizations to perform studies that may have no use, other than to perpetuate the money train that has become affordable housing in California.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process. Tim is a regular contributor to CityWatchLA.)