Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Few New Posts On Los Angeles Housing Supply

Tokyo has kept housing prices under control by building much faster than population growth; LA is more in line with slow-growth, high-cost cities like London and New York.
I've written a few posts at my employer's blog in the past few weeks, focusing on the 2014 Casden Multifamily report for the Southern California region, and Mayor Garcetti's proposal to build 100,000 new homes by 2021. Click the links below to read the full stories:

Los Angeles Housing Supply Must Grow, Quickly, to Keep Prices Under Control


Despite a recent "boom" in housing construction, the Los Angeles housing supply must grow much faster in order to stay affordable to future residents.

Read more here.

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How Los Angeles Can Build 100,000 New Homes by 2021

LA must take a multi-pronged approach to tackling the affordable housing crisis, increasing funding while easing the path for more private development.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Beyond Green Belts: Connecting Rather Than Containing Our Cities

In city planning there's a popular phrase: "Stop sprawl, preserve existing neighborhoods, maintain affordability. Pick two." It's a poignant observation of the relationship between these three goals and the tension between them — how in a place like Houston, homes remain affordable and neighborhoods maintain their character as long as sprawl can continue unabated; or how London can enforce an urban growth boundary to prevent sprawl, but without significant new construction in older neighborhoods its housing prices have reached astronomical heights.

The London green belt, one of the world's most famous.
Image from cobhamgreenbelt.org.uk.
For the uninitiated, green belts — sometimes known as urban growth boundaries — are undeveloped regions that surround many cities and limit sprawl while preserving green space. And as the Guardian notes, "[a]lmost anyone you talk to on the subject agrees that the green belt is one of the great successes of planning, anywhere in the world." They encourage more efficient use of developed land, keep nature close to home for city residents, and prevent the interminable sprawl of low-density development that characterizes many U.S. metro areas, especially in the Southwest.

But green belts have a dark side. London, home to perhaps the best-known green belt in the world, also has the dubious distinction of being the most expensive rental market in the world, recently overtaking Hong Kong as the city with the highest residential and commercial rents. As with any other artificial limits on the supply of new housing in an ever-growing city, green belts are at least partially to blame for London's affordability crisis. Some have also claimed that Portland's rapid increase in housing prices is partly a result of their urban growth boundary. The question is, then, how can we maintain access to green space and limit sprawl, while still allowing cities to grow naturally, in sync with demand?

One potential answer is to discard the idea of green "belts" and to replace them with "webs" — green space spread throughout the city that connects rather than contains it.

The problem with green belts, aside from the supply restrictions they impose on new housing, is that they're not particularly accessible to a large number of residents. Using London as an example once more, it's clear that residents of Central London are too distant from the green belt to consider it valuable as an open space resource, and ideally they would have other parkland at a more accessible distance. Green belts are undoubtedly wonderful resources for those that live within a mile or two of them — those that can afford to, that is — but inner city residents don't typically get to enjoy them, and for those that live beyond the green belt they simply add more time to each day's commute. It may be prettier than the average commute, but there's very little "green" about it. It would be much better to have them living nearer their work, in denser, more energy-efficient housing.

For a great example of what a green web could look like, Amigos de los Rios have a proposal for us in, of all places, Los Angeles County. The project is called the Emerald Necklace Vision Plan, named in honor of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who designed New York's Central Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace park system, and his son Frederick Jr., who helped create a vision for LA parks in 1930 that was, unfortunately, never realized. The Emerald Necklace Vision Plan is pictured in part below:

In the Emerald Necklace Vision Plan, green space connects residents throughout Los Angeles. Image from Amigos de los Rios.
Taking advantage of several existing LA initiatives, including the Army Corps of Engineers' billion-dollar LA River revitalization program, the Greenway 2020 Plan, and plans for a 38-acre park on top of the 101 freeway, the project would create a network of green space throughout the region and put parks within easy reach of millions of LA County residents. Just as importantly, it would provide safe, convenient routes for walking and bicycling throughout the city, and create value to promote the development of more homes and businesses near the trails, rather than in the suburban/exurban Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties.

LA is surrounded by water, mountains, and other cities, so it lacks a green belt, but the appeal of a "green web" is that it could have value in nearly any context. For Los Angeles, the number of properties that would need to be destroyed could be replaced 20 times over with new (re)development near green space — including affordable housing, which could be funded by (e.g.) a partial tax-increment on park-adjacent land. We'd have thousands of new, energy-efficient units near world-class active transportation corridors, and if there's one thing LA needs right now, it's more housing.

Rough example of a London green web, in which much of
the outside green space could be opened up for development.
Cities like London and Portland have it easier, because they can build out their network by expanding development beyond their growth boundaries and leaving stretches of undeveloped space to create "strands" within the green web. The growth of the web into the existing urban fabric could then be funded by proceeds from selling off land and development rights in the green belt. The large majority of the green belt could be maintained while bringing much more accessible green space to residents nearer the core of their cities.

In cities with or without green belts, there are opportunities to use green webs to create value throughout a region, and unlike isolated park and infrastructure projects, they can cast a wide enough net to limit the impact of gentrification in individual neighborhoods. They can add desperately-needed housing in some of the least affordable regions, increasing density in some locations and spurring new investment in historically disinvested neighborhoods. They can provide residents with a wealth of green space that doubles as a transportation resource, and is, most importantly, actually accessible. Best of all, they can build off of existing plans, the Hollywood cap park being an excellent example.

[Feel free to comment if you can spot any weaknesses or opportunities for improvement, because this is very much an idea in progress. For example, how would this be funded in lieu of a tax-increment type funding source? Since full expansion would require condemnation of many homes and businesses, how do you go through that process in a fair, equitable manner (or is contrary to the whole idea of eminent domain)? If this sounds totally politically or physically impossible, can you suggest what might make it more plausible? Any ideas for names that are better than "green web"? Thanks!]

Related link: http://seattletimes.com/html/opinion/2024979208_markwinstonopedbeesxml.html

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How to Be Prepared For the Inevitable Takeover of Autonomous Vehicles: A Letter to Jeff Brandes

"I sure hope no one else gets in here." Photo from Car and Driver.

In Florida, Republican state senator Jeff Brandes is making the case that Pinellas County – home of the last metro area in the U.S. to develop a regional transit network – shouldn't invest in light rail because autonomous vehicles will make mass transit pointless. Self-driving cars will eliminate congestion, increase safety, and cut down on travel times, and we need to be prepared for that eventuality and ensure that we don't waste any money in the mean time.

In that spirit, I've put together a list of recommendations that Mr. Brandes can use in developing policy to prepare for this brave new world of robotic transportation. It's one thing not to waste money on a boondoggle technology like light rail that's faithfully served people for barely even 100 years –if we're serious about autonomous vehicles and their guaranteed ability to solve all of our problems, we need to be more proactive:

  • First, driverless cars can drive much closer together than human-operated vehicles. This will significantly increase roadway capacity and throughput, so we should start eliminating roads and replacing them with bike lanes, sidewalks, parks, and housing. Since self-driving cars are so efficient, we can repurpose all that road space for more productive uses. At the very least we should impose an immediate moratorium on all new road construction, because fiscal conservatism.
  • Second, driverless cars don't need to be stored near our destinations because they can just operate as inexpensive taxis all day long, so we should immediately eliminate all parking minimums, requirements for garage construction, and probably disallow curb cuts as well. All that parking we build today is going to be wasted in just a few short years! (What isn't already being wasted, that is.)
  • With driverless cars available at our beck and call there will no longer be a need to own your own car, so we should prepare our citizens for this new transportation regime by aggressively promoting car-share services like Zipcar and Car2Go. To make sure they catch on, we may want to ban the use of curbside parking for everyone except car-share users, and give them priority on our highway carpool/toll lanes.
  • If someone buys a car a decade from now it might have to be junked five years later, once driverless cars take over and become mandatory. We don't want people to waste their money on such a poor investment, so we should probably just ban cars entirely until scientists get the autonomous vehicle technology locked down. Everyone will have saved so much money that they'll be able to buy new cars as fast as the factories can churn them out.

As you can see, there's so much more to do than prevent people from having an inexpensive, sustainable, efficient mode of travel for the next 15-20 years. As Senator Brandes will no doubt agree, these are policies that complement a pro-driverless vehicle agenda perfectly, and will even serve people well if his predictions don't come to fruition, which they most certainly will.

Listen Jeff: I know that some Republicans have a reputation for being shills for the highway industry, but I can tell that you take the future of transportation seriously and that you won't let anyone stand in the way of progress and good financial stewardship. I look forward to your upcoming bills, Senator.

Friday, October 17, 2014

"Vehicle Drives Into Apartment Building"

Is avoiding the fact that human beings actually operate vehicles a part of the LA Times style manual now?

Here's one from today:
At least two people hurt when car strikes Winnetka apartment 
At least two people were injured Thursday night in Winnetka after a car plowed into an apartment building, authorities said. 
The car struck the building, in the 20000 block of Saticoy Street, about 9:15 p.m., said Erik Scott, a spokesman with the Los Angeles Fire Department. 
The extent of the two people's injuries was not immediately known, nor whether they were in the car or the building. 
The L.A. Department of Building and Safety was at the scene to assess the structural integrity of the building, Scott said.
Cars, man. They're on a rampage! At least we know, per the third paragraph, that there may have been at least one person in the car.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Bicyclist killed by vehicle" ...must be one-a them autonomous ma-jiggers

Here's the full text of an LA Times article from last night:
Bicyclist in Antelope Valley killed by vehicle 
A bicyclist was struck and killed by a vehicle Saturday night in Pearblossom, an unincorporated area of the Antelope Valley southeast of Palmdale. 
The collision occurred at 7:42 p.m. at Longview Road and Le Page Ranch Road, according to a California Highway Patrol incident report. 
City News Service reported that the victim was a woman, and she was pronounced dead at the scene. 
No other details were immediately available.
Notice anything missing?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

It's Cheaper to Fix LA's Roads Than to Keep Fixing the Damage They Cause Our Cars. A Lot Cheaper.


According to a new study by TRIP (via Curbed LA), the poor quality of LA's roads costs drivers an average of $955 each year – more than any of the other California metro areas studied. For reference, that's more expensive than a year's worth of 30-day Metro passes, which would currently run you $900. Measure R, which is helping us build high-capacity transit, new road capacity, and funding bus operations throughout the county, costs each resident about $25 a year.

TRIP estimates that the additional costs associated with poor roads (i.e., additional wear and tear, increased maintenance and replacement costs, etc.) cost California drivers roughly $17 billion each year. That's in addition to the normal wear and tear that occurs even on pristine roads. LA County probably accounts for roughly $5 billion of that, given its size and the worse road condition here. (Sixty-five percent of our roads are rated "poor." Only 11 percent are rated "fair" or better.) The City of LA's share is probably roughly $2 billion per year, based on population.

The City has estimated that fixing all of its major roads would cost us about $3.9 billion – a terrifying number, until you consider that we're already spending that every two years as our crumbling roads shake, rattle, and jolt our cars to pieces. The obvious response should be to charge drivers a fraction of that amount each year – $100 or $200 at most, or $10-15 per month – to get our roads back up to speed, with a bit thrown in from all residents, since we all benefit from good roads (just some much more than others).

Unfortunately, that's probably not very likely. Drivers generally seem more interested in blaming the city's politicians and "moochers" like transit riders and cyclists, rather than taking responsibility for the roads they use every day. The ultimate question is, how much do drivers value the right to continue blaming everyone but themselves? If it's more than $1,000 a year, we can expect LA's poor road conditions to persist for a long, long time.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Since 1999, Downtown LA Has Built a Fifth of All Housing In Los Angeles

In a city of 470 square miles, Downtown LA is a speck: five square miles, barely one percent of the total area. And yet, since 1999, approximately one-fifth of all residential construction in the city has occurred in this relatively tiny space. And there's a lot more coming.

Downtown makes up one percent of the land area in Los Angeles, but it's accounted for twenty percent of new residential construction since the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance in 1999. Chart by Shane Phillips.

According to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District's 2014 Market Report, nearly 20,000 units have been built Downtown since the approval of the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance in 1999. Another 20,000 are in the development pipeline, likely to be built in the next 5-10 years. In contrast, data from the California Department of Finance (12) show that the city has added approximately 98,000 new units in the last 15 years.

This focused growth has paid off in a big way, as most locals can attest to, and it's a testament to what good policy can accomplish. Downtown LA is now a Walker's Paradise, a Top-Five World Destination, or America's Next Great City – take your pick. In less than 15 years it's gone from a place to sweep under the rug to a symbol of the city's evolving embrace of urbanism and multi-modalism. 

At the same time, this doesn't bode well for affordability across the metro area. Part of the reason that so much growth has gone Downtown is because most of the city is essentially off-limits to new development. While other neighborhoods fight to limit the construction of new housing, increasing pressure on the price of existing homes, Downtown has taken a very different tack, attempting to discourage under-utilization of valuable land in the urban core. 

But one neighborhood can only do so much. Without concentrated, transit-oriented growth across more of the city we won't make a dent in the demand for housing. And with 500,000 people already spending too much on their homes, the problem is only going to get worse.