November 19, 2003 - From the November, 2003 issue

Antonio Villaraigosa Offers An Agenda: The Emerging Latino New Urbanism

Speaking at a recent Transportation and Land Use Collaborative of Southern California Conference: Latino New Urbanism, LA City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa presented a thoughtful analysis of the emerging patterns, trends and needs driven by the growing Latino community. TPR is pleased to provide this excerpt from his keynote address, in which he explains what it will take for new urbanism to thrive thrive Los Angeles' Latino communities.


Antonio Villaraigosa

We're here to talk about how New Urbanism and the growing Latino population can affect the future of Southern California communities. It's an intriguing subject to be sure, but I'm not sure why it took Michael Anthony Mendez all of 112 pages to explain why contemporary Latino communities don't take well to cholos doing oil changes on their front lawns. Get with the program here, Michael! In the truly modern Latino community, it's okay to do oil changes anywhere you want as long as you dispose of the old oil properly. Don't dump it in the rose bushes or the storm drains and everything's cool, mijo!

So far, the Environmental Protection Agency likes New Urbanism and Smart Growth. We don't want to give them any reason to change their minds. I'd like to talk for a few minutes about the challenge facing New Urbanism here in Southern California.

In his paper, Mr. Mendez makes a compelling case that American communities can learn a lot from the urban form as it has evolved in Latin America and elsewhere. And with the Latino population growing, it makes some sense to look at how we can build neighborhoods that will appeal to its comfort level. That's just common sense marketing. But it's not always that simple. Just the other day, I was talking with my staff about some of the problems we have in inner city neighborhoods, like those in my district. No matter what their demographic or income level, my constituents are concerned about crime. Many of them feel-I think with good reason-that the more stable a neighborhood is, the less crime there will be. That means more home ownership and less transience. And the hard reality is that more home ownership tends to mean more single-family homes and fewer apartments.

Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that more apartments mean more low-income tenants and potentially more crime. Maybe it's the concentration of poverty that leads to that perception. I'm not real happy with that notion, but there it is. I used to be a tenant, and most apartment residents are solid members of their communities. But any of you who have been involved with creating new multi-family housing in inner city neighborhoods, especially if it's near a single-family enclave, knows how strong the negative perception is. And any movement, such as New Urbanism, that advocates for compact development with more multi-family buildings is going to have to come to grips with that issue.

Whether the negative perception about public safety is valid or not, people fear higher density development. And some of us don't know from sophisticated planning theories about Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented Development. We just know what we think we know. Planners, theorists and decision-makers have to deal with it if New Urbanism is going to have a chance in places like Los Angeles' east side.

Another thing I talk to my staff about is home ownership. I'm for it. I tell them they should try to buy their own "piece of the rock." Then they turn around and tell me I don't pay them enough to buy anything in this inflated housing market. I guess that's just one more argument for that "workforce housing" we've been hearing so much about ever since "affordable housing" became stigmatized. But seriously, I really am for home ownership. Our increasing inability to make it possible for more people to own homes is truly a part of our problem in Southern California. It spills over into everything from overcrowding and public safety to education and financing public services.

I think we also need to look at another reality of the Latino community in Southern California. Like any other American population group, Latinos are not monolithic in their achievements, their economic status, their lifestyles or their thinking. Some are newcomers for whom Mr. Mendez' vision of a Latino New Urbanism probably makes a lot of sense. Others are families, like mine, that have been here for generations, have assimilated into the broader culture, and value a detached single-family home in a quiet neighborhood as much as anyone else. That means the same forces that have driven middle-class families of every other ethnic group to move to the San Gabriel Valley, the Antelope Valley, Moreno Valley, and points even further out, are working on Latinos. And, even as we claim to love our homes, cars and lifestyles, that means that Latinos suffer from the same negative impacts of suburban sprawl that everyone else does.

That brings us back around to why we're here today. Mr. Mendez' study argues that Latino culture is especially compatible with compact, mixed-use development. I agree. There also are reasons why New Urbanism makes sense in the face of practical barriers that exist when we pursue what are considered more conventional lifestyle and housing choices. Latino families, on average, are larger and less wealthy than what we typically find in suburbia. Unfortunately, too many of our children also have lower educational achievement levels. I would argue that at least some of this is due to the inadequate housing conditions too many of these families are forced to live in because of the shortage that has grown up in urban neighborhoods in the last 15 to 20 years.

In an over-crowded home, kids have no quiet place to study. In an over-priced home, parents who are working multiple jobs to make ends meet are not around to make sure their children are doing their homework and staying out of trouble. Too many of these families are living on top of one another in run-down units, or bootleg units, and too often the only solution seems to be to close down those units because a slumlord refuses to maintain them properly. This all sounds pretty grim, and rightfully so.

Up to six million more people expected to be living in Southern California by 2025, with as much as two-thirds being the result of births, not immigration. So the prospects for Latino families or anyone else to be buying homes closer in than Ontario are dim unless we find a way to rejuvenate the multi-family market. As an aside, let me note that I mention Ontario because that's the closest place my oldest daughter Marisela was able to afford to buy a home in the last couple of years. She complains that I never go out to visit her there, which is also partly because I'm a little old fashioned that way-I think my kids should come visit me.

But this points up another aspect of our housing crisis: it separates families, often in ways they don't want to be separated. In any case, here in the metropolitan area, where predictions are that up to half of that projected population increase will locate, the only way out of this mess is to produce more multi-family housing. But it has to include a focus on home ownership if it is going to successfully meld New Urbanism with the dreams of upwardly mobile Latinos.

Building multi-family housing in the built-up urban communities in and around Los Angeles presents unique challenges. One is getting past the long-standing notion that this is a low density area and shall remain so forever. Believe it or not, because of smaller lot sizes and that proliferation of apartment buildings built a couple of decades ago that I mentioned earlier, Los Angeles has a higher population per acre than New York City. Yet we live in the world capital of sprawl because people think we shouldn't make Los Angeles a dense place. And because of that, we live in the world capital of gridlock too, especially when the buses and trains aren't running.

Some would say that, because of these factors, we also live in the world capital of NIMBY as well. But anyone who's tried to build in other locations knows we don't have a lock on that syndrome. Nonetheless, I recall an incident that says a lot about why this area seems so dysfunctional when it comes to planning for growth in a constructive manner.

Several years ago, I was part of a panel discussion with two other prominent local officials and some others when we were asked how to address the housing shortage. I joined a couple of them in suggesting we needed to promote higher density along transit corridors and begin the process of providing more units and improving jobs/housing balance. The two elected officials jumped down my throat and said, "the homeowner groups will never let it happen, so don't waste your time." Maybe they're right, but I would suggest that if we continue to let that tail wag our housing dog, we'll never work our way out of either the housing problem or the sprawl problem. At some point someone has to show some leadership. That means making sure developers of all stripes work with the communities they want to build in to address the legitimate issues and concerns that are raised.

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Certainly some officials can lead by force of personality and good will, but usually it's more complicated than that. There has to be a genuine effort to bring the community on board before asking elected officials to "walk the plank" on behalf of new or unfamiliar concepts and projects. That means taking some time to educate communities about the very real housing shortage. It means making sure they understand that being overly restrictive toward new units may indeed increase their property values but that it also means their own children can't afford to live near them. It means making sure that people understand and see how good design can mitigate the perception that denser projects are bad projects. And it means acknowledging very real concerns about traffic, the environment, and quality of life by working to improve transit, air and water quality, parks and open space, and schools. And I include developers of affordable housing projects in that category. No matter how good, or how desirable, your project might be, you have to work with the neighbors or they're likely not going to support it.

All of this requires a commitment and an investment that we, as a society, do not always seem willing to make. That has to change too. I would add a word of caution to those of you in the audience who make your living building housing. I have heard recently from some of you how you need to remain free from affordable housing mandates in order to want to build affordable housing. You've said you'll build affordable units anyway. The problem is that, for all these years when you haven't been burdened with the mandates, you haven't done it in quantities anywhere near sufficient enough to meet the crushing need we have.

I share your desire for mixed income communities with a substantial majority of middle class residents. I fervently believe these are the kinds of communities that are safer, more pleasant and more productive for everyone. But we also have to recognize and accept the fact that a disproportionate amount of the housing needs we have are for people with sub-middle class incomes.

In Los Angeles, we would have to make 50% of all units built over the next ten years affordable units in order to approach meeting the need. And many of those units need to be in neighborhoods that right now probably wouldn't sit still for it. So there will need to be a debate about mandates and how they can be implemented effectively, and you can expect such a debate in the City of Los Angeles in the coming months. I don't think we have a choice but to engage on that issue.

The housing market we've had for the last twenty years has been too dysfunctional for us to continue hiding our collective head in the sand. Getting back to the issue before us today, I think the bottom line is if New Urbanism can provide housing affordability for Latino families while helping the environment, preserving open space and making more efficient use of existing infrastructure, well, it sounds like a winner to me. Making it happen in already developed communities such as the ones I represent is not easy.

I'll sum it up for you: Northeast Los Angeles and the East Side don't have enough land, the remaining un-built land is very expensive, people who already live there don't like the idea of more people living there, and all of these things add up to a difficult environment for producing new housing no matter what form it takes.

But the challenge facing New Urbanism in urban Latino neighborhoods involves other factors above and beyond the law of supply and demand colliding with the wrath of NIMBYs. One thing I've already come face to face with is how do you do New Urbanist development in built neighborhoods and have it actually function as advertised. The biggest development site in my district is an old Sears catalogue warehouse and store down on Olympic Boulevard at Soto. The main building at the site is historic and probably shouldn't be torn down. A developer keeps making noises about converting that hulk of a structure to housing units. He's talking about numbers that scare the surrounding community. And with a functioning Sears department store on the site, it means that the housing may end up being surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking spaces. Somehow, I don't think this is what New Urbanism, Latino or otherwise, had in mind.

I hope to make sure that's what happens at the Boyle Heights Sears site is more than just another sea of asphalt. But there it is, the biggest development site in on the east side.

Fortunately, there are a few sites in Boyle Heights that appear ideal for mixed-use projects that could be designed to include New Urbanist design concepts. For example, the corner of Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Soto Street was going to be a subway stop. Now it's a set of vacant lots owned by the MTA that are a nuisance. We used them last weekend as the staging area for a community service day involving a thousand people. A big part of the community service was cleaning up those vacant lots themselves! At some point in the relatively near future, we're going to look at what might be built there.

But we already know the community wants a mix of uses that could play right into the New Urbanist concept, including housing, restaurants, shops, and movie theaters. It won't be the same as a quaint paseo in Mexico City, but it just might be what you're talking about here today. The same goes for the light rail station areas along First Street, where the Gold Line East Side extension is scheduled to be built beginning next year. One local architect and urban visionary wants to call it "Avenida Primera."

In Boyle Heights alone we'll have four prime station areas where New Urbanists can have a field day. And there'll be several more in East L.A. In about a decade I hope that places called? "Utah Street," "First and Boyle," "First and Soto" and "Indiana Street" will be successful case studies for the 10th annual Latino New Urbanist conference. More importantly, I want them to be great urban spaces, where the cultural influences of the Latino heritage bring a unique flavor to compact, mixed-use development.

With a light rail station, two schools, the beautiful reconfiguration and revitalization of two old federal housing projects, two parks, thousands of jobs within walking distance of the station, and tons of unexploited commercial potential, a site like Utah Street could prove to be a revelation. Some of the most beautiful new housing in the entire city recently opened near Utah Street. It's called Pueblo del Sol, where townhouses have replaced a former Housing Authority project that had become a hotbed of problems. People who don't qualify for low income housing look at Pueblo del Sol and want to live there.

So, the crucial time for New Urbanism on L.A.'s Latino east side is coming soon. We either do the right things at these locations or we lose the opportunity to show that it can work in the heart of the city for a long, long time. I ask those of you who believe in this new approach to revitalizing cities to pay attention to these opportunities and stand up for your beliefs. Speak up for them. Help us plan these sites and help us sell them to a skeptical community. If you know in your heart that New Urbanism with a distinctive Latino touch is right for Southern California, you know it's doubly right for L.A.'s oldest urban neighborhoods.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.