LOS ANGELES—When developers unveiled the Solair, a 22-story luxury condominium designed for the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, even the mayor showed up for the ribbon cutting. Located above a subway stop at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, the Solair was supposed to embody the future of Los Angeles as a city focused on walking and mass transit. “Solair Wilshire is the perfect example of my vision for creating a transit-oriented city that brings business and housing to Los Angeles,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said.
That was in May 2009. Nearly two years later, few windows in the Solair are lit up at night. The national real-estate crash had long since caused speculators to flee the housing market, leaving behind only serious buyers who actually intend to live in their properties—except, apparently, in the Solair. While the median price for home sales in Los Angeles County has inched up since the Solair opened—from $247,000 in April 2009 to $270,000 in January 2011—the building has lowered its asking prices by more than a third, and they’re still falling. Many other condominiums in downtown Los Angeles are having just as much trouble finding purchasers.
Did potential buyers of the Solair’s apartments flee to distant, sprawling suburbs instead? Hardly. Those suburbs are in equally bad shape. On the outer rim of Corona, a city of about 125,000 southeast of L.A. in Riverside County, declines in prices have been among the steepest in the state. Corona’s newest housing developments, built among outlying cow pastures, are made up of luxurious four-bedroom and five-bedroom stucco houses with swimming pools, hot tubs, and expansive lawns. But the residents talk about neighborhood deterioration and increases in crime. In Lancaster, a city in northern Los Angeles County, scores of homes that were built six years ago and purchased by middle-class commuters are now occupied by low-income renters using federal subsidies, while other houses stand empty. Gunfire often erupts after sunset.
So what do Southern California homebuyers want? To judge by the places where price declines are least severe, upper-middle-class buyers have flocked to established neighborhoods or cities with modest, but attractive, older houses, typically with three bedrooms and two baths. Much of Beverly Hills has housing like this. So does the Miracle Mile, a neighborhood a few miles west of the Solair. Given more choices, buyers want single-family homes that are not in sprawling suburbs. They want to live close to town centers but not in dense high-rises. In short, they want to live in the year 1925.
The trouble is, we’re approaching 2025. By then, California is expected to add 7 million to 11 million people, about a quarter of its current population. (By 2050, the U.S. population is projected to reach 400 million, a 30 percent increase.) These new people will need homes, which can’t all be three-bedroom bungalows close to downtown. They’ll also need transportation. Automobile traffic and air pollution—already bad—stand to get worse.
The environmental costs of a sprawling population explain why the Democratic-run California Legislature passed Senate Bill 375 in 2008 with the goal of encouraging county governments to grow up rather than out. The legislation, signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, empowers the state’s Air Resources Board to set targets for emissions of pollutants, requires local governments to look for ways to handle a growing population without taking up more space, and gives first dibs on state transportation funds to locales devoted to mass transit.
Given the choices that California faced—permissive neglect or controlled development—legislators argued that the anti-sprawl law was the most sensible approach to managing air pollution, traffic congestion, and the loss of open spaces. Tall buildings such as the Solair usually put people within easy walking distance of stores and restaurants, without any need for new roads. The more they ride mass transit, the less they’ll drive cars.
Environmentalists and planning experts around the world are paying attention to California’s experiment in shaping housing patterns and urban growth. They see in the state’s big cities the same problems that other metropolises face: clogged roads; strained water supplies; and, above all, excessive carbon emissions. If a state famed for its urban sprawl can change its ways, other places can, too. And if the problems can be solved without reducing the overall quality of life—that is, without making everyone miserable—then California could become an inspiring model.
Will the experiment succeed? Nobody knows yet. In theory, the California law will bring big changes. But all urban planning rests on assumptions or guesses about people’s preferences, and those are often wrong.
Any serious attempt to judge the anti-sprawl law’s success must wait at least a decade, possibly much longer. Still, some urban planners see promising indications of an improved approach to planning throughout the state.
“I don’t want to be a Pollyanna about this, but so far I’m very impressed,” said Marlon Boarnet, a University of California (Irvine) professor of planning, design, and economics who, for the Air Resources Board, has pored over two years of data in assessing the law’s impact. Notably, he said, county governments have stepped back and—for a change—thought seriously about planning. Even city governments, often resistant to regional planning, have acted in good faith.
One thing the law has in its favor is that, despite the customary fear that regulation stifles economic growth, it might prove a boon for business. A study by University of California (Berkeley) urban planners Karen Chapple and Carrie Makarewicz found that most business growth in California during the past 15 years has been in locations with major infrastructure—roads, sewers, and such—already in place. Construction on cities’ peripheries has been far less common. That’s because typical business owners, like other people, enjoy working near residences, stores, and restaurants. A modicum of density allows a worker to walk to a Starbucks during lunch or stop at a CVS for mint-flavored floss. “By encouraging infill development”—building on land that’s already developed—the anti-sprawl law “could very well help, not hinder, California’s economic growth,” Chapple and Makarewicz concluded.
There are reasons aplenty, however, for skepticism about visions of a denser—and happier—future for the state that pioneered urban sprawl. For one thing, implementation is everything. In many cities, especially in Los Angeles, the ideal of “walkability” and mass transit has been invoked to justify intrusive and ugly projects that real-estate developers and other urban power brokers champion.
Cary Brazeman, the owner of a marketing agency, became an unlikely crusader for urban livability in 2009, when developers tried to build a hulking condominium in his neighborhood on the west side of Los Angeles. “It was going to displace more tenants living under rent control than it was going to add affordable units,” he said in an interview. “It didn’t make sense in our neighborhood, and the rules of the game were being changed without due process.” Since then, Brazeman has fought similarly high-handed planning all over the city.
Even when density is pursued for the most high-minded of reasons, after a while it offers diminishing returns, especially in reducing the use of cars. Kaid Benfield, a director at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, has pointed to studies showing that an increase in density per acre from one household to 10 will reduce the use of automobiles by half. But doubling the density again, to 20 households per acre, will bring an additional auto cutback of only a fifth, with even scantier reductions from there. This is important because many of the world’s biggest cities, including U.S. ones, already have a higher density than 10 households per acre.
Further complicating the prospect for density in housing to supplant—or complement—urban sprawl is that many cities in the American West are fairly new and poorly laid out for rail transit. By comparison, New York and Boston, with elaborate subway networks, were developed before the automobile was invented. But in other cities, especially in California, nearly all of the population growth and construction occurred while cars were already king. “We’re having to figure out how to go in and retrofit those cities to accommodate higher density levels,” UC professor Boarnet said.
Contrast that with the geography of growth experienced in Northern Virginia, which has seen extensive development along the subway lines that lead into Washington. Because the subway preceded the density, the town houses and condominiums along its route were built to take advantage of the Washington Metrorail system.
WHAT AMERICANS WANT
There’s another obstacle to encouraging denser development: Americans’ love affair with their cars. Even if auto-dependent cities successfully bring mass transit within reach of more inhabitants, Americans don’t necessarily want what they’re supposed to want. In a 2002 opinion poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, only 31 percent of Californians said they’d like to live in a neighborhood with dense development and mass transit. Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the living is dense and public transportation is extensive, 57 percent of respondents said they preferred a low-density, car-dependent lifestyle.
California’s new density measure also leaves municipal parking policies untouched. When your rent includes a parking spot or two, as is customary in Los Angeles, then you’re far more likely to fill that spot with a car, as University of California (Los Angeles) urban planner Donald C. Shoup notes in his book The High Cost of Free Parking. In fact, the zoning laws in many U.S. cities mandate that any new construction of office or residential space includes a minimum number of parking spaces—“like a fertility drug for cars,” Shoup writes.
Around the world, people love their cars. As University of Southern California economist Peter Gordon pointed out, suburbanization is an international phenomenon. “People everywhere want autos, and when they get them, they enjoy vastly improved range and mobility,” he said. “Trying to pin all this on U.S. policies, as many do, is silly. Have you been abroad lately?”
In fact, some Californians are so committed to holding on to their lifestyle that they’ve tried to sidestep the sprawl-or-density debate by simply freezing their communities in time. This is why a few cities have enacted slow-growth—or almost no-growth—policies. During the 1970s, for instance, the voters of Santa Barbara, a wealthy coastal town in Southern California, decided that the city population should cap out at 85,000. (It has crept up to 92,000.) For those who can afford to live there—increasingly, millionaires—Santa Barbara is still a dream of low-density, car-dependent living. A homeowner atop the hills of the Riviera neighborhood can hop in a car and be downtown on State Street, the main drag, in just a few minutes.
But slow-growth policies along with rapid population gains are bound to jack up the cost of living, as more and more people covet a limited supply of housing. Not surprisingly, Santa Barbara’s inhabitants have increasingly become rich and elderly, and people who work there must often commute great distances from more-affordable places with less-restrictive growth policies. If all of California adopted slow-growth measures such as Santa Barbara’s, the city’s traffic might improve, but the children of today’s Californians would wind up priced out of their native state and forced to move away. California has always been the place that people moved to.
Ultimately, however, the question of whether Americans would rather sprawl or bunch up may prove to be a distraction. Many buyers care less about a lawn versus an apartment balcony than about safety and schools. Neighborhoods with low crime rates and outstanding schools command high home prices, regardless of their density. Suburbs have mushroomed because of middle-class residents fleeing bad schools and rising crime. A neighborhood that offers safety and quality schools could well succeed in luring families into high-rises that lack parking.
Fixing urban schools is no simple matter, of course. But the crime problem is improving. In Los Angeles, the homicide rate has fallen to levels not seen since 1967, thanks mainly to a revamped police department. This in itself has attracted more middle-class homebuyers to the city, much as New York City experienced in the 1990s. Higher incomes, in turn, usually help to improve schools. All of which would bode well for California’s experiment in fighting urban sprawl—and for the Solair.
The author is a writer in Los Angeles and an editor at the Washington Monthly.
This article appears in the March 17, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.