Transit Density: The Problem, Not the Solution

PLANNING LA-For decades crony capitalists have been selling Angelenos on how Transit Oriented Districts [TODs] were our salvation.  TODs would fix the traffic congestion, they would make business more robust, they would clean the air, they would heal the lame and raise the dead.  No matter what problem Los Angeles faced, another mixed-use project near a subway station was the answer. 

THE MYTHS 

(1)  If roads are crumbling, don’t worry.  Everyone will be using the subway. 

(2)  If traffic congestion is unbearable, there won’t be any trouble once we have a subway or two with high-rise Projects perched on top.  Of course, the subtext of this sales job about subways was that “The Other,” e.g. the poor, the minorities, the other undesirables, would be using the subways, leaving the surface streets clean, clear and safe for the good folks.  That’s how people were duped to vote for subways.  No one told the voters the truth, “we’ll spend billions of tax dollars and when we finish, traffic congestion will be worse.” 

(3)  If the city is short on revenue, don’t worry. The sales taxes from these TOD's retail establishments will fill the city coffers. 

(4)  If you need a park in your neighborhood, don’t worry we’ll build a park over the top of the Hollywood Freeway. So, don’t ask for any more parks in your neighborhoods. 

THE REALITY 

TODs are a Trojan Horse that breaches the walls of the city treasury, leaving behind a wasted city.  Here’s how TODs function. 

(1)  The crony capitalists buy up strips of land where a subway will be build. 

(2)  Next their political henchmen in city council pass a law that future growth has to be confined to the TOD land which the billionaires own.  “The methodology reflects the Framework Element Long-Range Land Use Diagram and an adjustment of historic growth trends and land values in each plan area to account for the attraction of development to transit stations and corridors and the districts, centers, and boulevards defined by the Framework Element.” 

By concentrating these super-high density mixed-use projects on the developers’ small plots of land, developers get the absolute maximum (theoretical) profit per square inch of land.  The flip-side is that regular property owners have growth directed away from their land. 

The politicos declare that the TODs are so vital, that the city has to give the developers millions of tax dollars to construct them.  In other words, the government centrally plans and finances massive projects which private parties found economically unrealistic.  Over its lifetime, CRA/LA took in over $3.5 Billion of incremental property tax dollars– that’s money which otherwise would have gone to pension funds, to roads, to parks, to school, to firefighters and paramedics. 

However, the General Framework, which was predicting 4,306,500 Angelenos by 2010 (General Framework Table 2-1), did prohibit community plans would cause population growth. “The Framework Element policies will not directly prevent nor cause population growth to occur.” 

As the US 2000 Census showed, Hollywood had experienced a loss of population from 1990 to 2000.  The decline was about 1.4% (3,034 people).  This decrease was significant in light of the rapid growth of the 1970's and 1980's.  Between 1970 and 1980, Hollywood gained 24,667 people and between 1980 and 1990, it gained 32,856, making the subsequent decline all the more significant. 

Because the General Framework prohibited growth inducing projects when the population was declining, there was no legal basis for the massive CRA construction during the 2000's. 

In order to conceal that these Projects were contrary to City law, the City simply lied about the population loss – without growth, there was no basis in City law for Hollywood’s TODs.  Constructing mixed-use project while population was plummeting was an attempt to induce growth where market forces had determined that there would be a population decline. 

After the 2010 US Census, it became clear that the TODs were a significant factor in the population decline and in Hollywood’s new deterioration. 

Although the City claimed that the TODs had revitalized the City, in 2012 when making its bid for the Promise Zone money, the City admitted that Hollywood had become crime infested and unemployment had reached levels last seen in the 1930's.  “Behind the facade of the famed Hollywood Boulevard lies a community riddled with crime, poverty, homelessness and meager educational support for youth. Unemployment rate is 18.6% (year 2010).  Los Angeles Promise Neighborhood page 10. 

The Hollywood Subway, which is the kissin’ cusin to the Bridge to Nowhere, was finished in 2000.  The public learned that the movie maxim, ‘if you build it, they will come” was not true for subways.  The city had predicted 300,000 passengers per day in year 2000, but 12 years later in 2012, the subway had only 170,000 riders per day. 

The City claimed great business successes at the subway stations, calling it “revitalization.”  Another grand falsehood.  The Hollywood-Highland Complex was the largest real estate write down in US history taking a $424 Million loss.  Then, $30 Million was invested so that Cirque du Soleil would be the anchor tenant.  Cirque du Soleil moved out after two years.  Then the Oscars renegotiated a huge drop in rent – or so goes the rumor over the hush-hush negotiations. 

As one looks at each TOD project in Hollywood, one finds disaster after disaster.  When the 2010 US Census data was released in 2011, people saw that Hollywood’s CD #13, which had been the focus of the TODs, had lost so many residents, that it ceased to constitute a legal council district.  

Overall, Hollywood had a net loss of 12,556 people in the prior ten years and all the loss came from the CD #13 section of Hollywood, except a few census tracks of CD #4 which were contiguous to CD #13's TODs. There is a direct correlation between proximity to a TOD and the population flight. 

The TOD at the Hollywood-Western subway station was never able to rent more than 50% of its retail space, and presently, it is 80% vacant.  It was public money that went into both the subway and into the grossly ugly apartment complex on top. 

When the City constructed its mixed-use Projects with a declining population in an effort to attract growth to Hollywood, more people moved away.  Americans hate density and if they have a choice, they move away from high density to low density. 

Analysis shows that families moved out of Hollywood’s CD #13, while young, unmarried transients moved in.  The rate of car ownership per household zoomed up, leaving Hollywood with fewer people and worse traffic. 

The reason TODs add cars and make traffic congestion worse is well known.  The subways cover about 5% of Los Angeles.  Thus, people who live in the TODs must have a car or settled for low standard of living.  Because subways can never reach a significant portion of 5,000 sq. mile area, non-car owners have to use the bus – which is very slow, requires transfers.   

Time is money.  Therefore, people who live in TODs are very motivated to obtain a car.  As a result, traffic congestion near TODs becomes much worse.  CalTrans made this point in opposing the Millennium Tower TOD in Hollywood, saying that the additional congestion would even bottleneck the Hollywood Freeway. 

The problems with TODs have been known by LA city planners for 100 years. 

(1)   No subway or other fixed railed system can function in an urban area of 5,000 sq. miles.  This city knew this mathematical fact back in 1915 and on page 38, the 1915 Traffic Study warned that TODs were a scam by a few landowners to make themselves wealthy to the harm of everyone else. 

(2)   The factors which brought hordes of people to Los Angeles in general and to Hollywood in particular in the 1970's and 1980's no longer exist.  

(3)   People do not like density, but instead move away from density.  

Let’s not delude ourselves. The crony capitalists have no intention of letting go of the billions of dollars in the City’s treasury.  As their spokesperson, Michael LoGrande, Director of Planning, said on December 20, 2013 in the wake of the Superior Court’s rejecting the Hollywood Community Plan as fatally flawed, “The Department remains committed to the important principles of the Hollywood Community Plan, developed through an inclusive community-based process … (and) directs new growth around transit, away from Hollywood's hillsides and low-density neighborhoods.”  

In other words, the degradation of Hollywood will continue because it is profitable to the developers who always get bailed out by the government.  That’s why Mayor Garcetti goes to Washington – to get federal tax dollars for his developer buddies.

 

(Richard Lee Abrams is a Hollywood activist and an attorney. He can be reached at: [email protected] ) –cw

 

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 12 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 17, 2014