A Tale of Two Cities: LA is Not New York …Yet

DEEGAN ON LA--Our city may have more billionaires than Manhattan, the fabled, silk-stockinged borough in New York City, but we don’t yet have what that Eastern city has:  a “billionaire’s row” where there is competition to see who can build the tallest building to house the richest owners. 

Aren’t we lucky? But for some, don’t we wish! (Photo above: NY Skyscrapers) 

“Tower Envy” has arrived -- along with the desire by some in powerful positions to make us look like Manhattan. 

Laid back Los Angeles has its share of high net worth individuals and entrepreneurs -- a big collection of family foundations and scores of “paper millionaires” who may have been serving you dinner last night and are still dreaming that their script will be the next big box office hit.

But we don’t have that many towers … for now. New York City has, by recent count, ten times as many towers as we have here in LA. And many say, “let’s keep it that way.”  But others say, “game on.”

It used to be that New York’s 1,250-foot tall Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world. Now, there are two dozen 1,000 foot plus towers in construction or the planning stages in New York, several of them on Billionaire’s Row between the southern edge of Central Park and 56th Street.

Nowhere, in our own City of Gold, epicenter of the Golden State, do we have what our eastern cousins have on “billionaires row” (although we do have a “billionaires beach.”) And we don’t have a building boom breaking the 1,000 foot barrier. That would be equivalent to 100 floors! There’s lots happening on “billionaire’s row” in New York and it is causing some anguish.  We should learn from their pain.

Pro-growth supporters here in LA, those being accused of trying to turn our city into another New York, can take heart that the average height of our tall buildings is only 41 stories; theirs is 39 stories, but those are dubious bragging rights -- they have many more tall buildings than we have, ten times as many, as reported in tracking by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

A city of steel canyons shading it most of the day, New York City presents a stark contrast to sun-kissed Southern California. The direct sunlight, all day and all year, is one of our region’s true natural attributes, along with our mountains and valleys and the stretch of Pacific Ocean coastline communities from the South Bay to Malibu. Add in the surf and sunscreen and you have the complete opposite of “The Big City.” 

This is one of the things that attracts people here in the first place…a climate unmatched by most cities on Earth, a population that “lives and lets live,” and a pride that we don’t have to be anything more than what we are: a City of Gold. Why would we want to be a “City of Shade” like Manhattan? 

As the civic leaders and those in the third floor executive suite at City Hall, the politicos, developers and NIMBY’s all know: there’s a huge conversation going on about being LA -- laid back or New York “Manhattanized.” Low slung or vertical? Increased density or missed opportunities for growth? Or is it mix?

Two of the newest, and let’s hope freshest leading voices in this conversation will be recently appointed (subject to confirmation) Vince Bertoni as Director of City Planning, who is currently Pasadena’s Planning Director. He is replacing the longtime incumbent Michael LoGrande, who has has resigned. The other new voice is Jill Stewart, executive director of the Coalition to Preserve LA, who is leaving her longtime post as editor of the LA Weekly to take up her new advocacy position.

The Mayor has had a “tear-down” in LoGrande, and now he’s bringing in a “fixer-upper”in Bertoni, as well as the vocal opposition now under the leadership of Stewart. She is putting in place a “shadow” planning department that may have its framework created by the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative ballot measure. 

So meet the new land use and development troika: Garcetti, Bertoni and Stewart.

What a great start to 2016. Everyone’s on notice: it’s not likely that we will experience the city planning chaos of 2015 that was marked by multiple lawsuits and equivocations. Politicos have to think twice about using their near-dictatorial powers over zoning in their council districts, making spot decisions and granting favors that go against the interests of the communities, and the community groups that must regroup to help to create a citywide strategy by aligning with the new leadership at the city planning department instead of automatically calling their lawyers.  (Photo right: Los Angeles skyscrapers.

The phrase, “I’ll sue you”, roared by community groups, should be tabled until the dust settles. We’ll have to see how the new planning director, the mayor, and the backers of the ballot measure arrive at a compromise. 

The new organization, CPLA (Coalition to Preserve LA) led by Jill Stewart, is influenced by the advocacy-experienced Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF.) It recently polled a group of concerned citizens and voters and learned that 72% of those surveyed expressed support for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative that would create boundaries within which developers and politicos will need to operate. Poll info can be seen here.  

There could be little doubt that the slew of successful lawsuits filed by community groups against the city and developers may have triggered the ballot measure. Emboldened by these successes, it’s becoming SOP for litigation to be as common as an EIR for new mega projects. As the city rapidly densifies, the litigation element is a huge red flag. Another could the growing concern that we are not experiencing unparalleled growth and soon we may become victims of a housing bubble, followed by a crash

Both Bertoni and Stewart bring considerable talents to the face-off involving continuing the low slung, horizontal profile of our city or spiking it upward to the stars complete with towers in the vertical profile typical of growing cities everywhere. 

Stewart’s remit is more interesting than Bertoni’s. The organization she fronts has newer energy and a smarter approach – to go over the heads of lawmakers, supporting the rights of the public by letting them vote on land use and development policy in November. The clock is ticking as the qualifying signatures accumulate. That should make the politicos sit down for some serious talks.

Vince Bertoni inherits a city planning department seen by many as a co-conspirator in turning our beautiful city into an eyesore. Mansionization and towers have signaled the decline of the city’s Mediterranean identity and the concurrent diminishment of our quality of life.

Towers may be inevitable as our city expands and continues to densify. But, they should be planned in areas zoned for them. Thesezones need to be part of an integrated master plan rather than the “Wild West” approach that satisfies the politicos and developers but not the needs of the greater city.

We should be thinking about the future generations that will settle in zones that are yet to be determined. 

“Planning” is the operative word and it must be returned to the vocabulary of “growth.”

(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the MidCity West Community Council, and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at [email protected].) Edited by Linda Abrams.





Vol 14 Issue 4

Pub: Jan 12, 2016