December 20, 2007 - From the Nov./Dec., 2007 issue

Pat Brown Institute's Livable Cities Conference: ‘Establishing a Framework for Equitable Growth'

The following excerpts are from the "Building A Framework for Equitable Urban Growth" panel at the Pat Brown Institute's recent California Policy Issues Conference. The panel, hosted by TPR Publisher David Abel, included Dan Walters, columnist for the Sacramento Bee, Greg McWilliams, president of Newhall Land and Farming Company, Robert Balgenorth, president of the California Building and Construction Trades Council, and Michael Woo, L.A. planning commissioner.

David Abel: I am the publisher of The Planning Report, which for 20 years has been looking at the issues that we address today. In 1959, I moved to a California led by Pat Brown. California's population was 12 million; in my eighth grade class, 3 out of 30 students were born in California. Today, Southern California has projected growth of 37 million, which will easily grow to 44 million people within a decade. Dan Walters, set the stage for our discussion of livable cities and equitable growth.

Dan Walters: The only constant in California is constant change, evolution, and growth. California's population has indeed grown to about 37 million. We'll be knocking on the door of 40 million by the end of this decade. And it'll be 50 million in about 20 years and 60 million by the mid-point of the century. That's one of those facts that is intangible; this is not a static situation. Whatever policy decisions we make-and in Sacramento you have to say whatever policy decisions they don't make, which is the more common occurrence-they are only good for the moment, because the circumstances are going to change dramatically...

...Immigration changes the cultural milieu of the state constantly. If we had a fixed problem, if we could say, "This is the problem we need to solve," and we could attack it, that's one thing. But we have a constantly changing set of circumstances, and that means we have to make policy not only for this moment, but also for the changing circumstances of next year, the next decade, and perhaps the next century.

So you're looking at constant population growth on a massive scale-we're talking 500,000-600,000 new people in California every year. That's 5-6 million per decade. Our population growth in one decade would be about the 14th most populous state in the United States, all by itself. We're adding Indiana to our state every ten years....

...More of everything comes with population growth-a constantly evolving society is caused by having an immigration driven population. We are the most complicated society in the history of humankind. Think about that. The court system maintains interpreters in over 150 languages, and school districts have over 100 languages in their confines, which then complicate the civic and politic milieu...

...But this is the final irony of all: the very factors that are driving our future are also impeding decisions about our future, because as a society that is ever more complex and more diverse, the holy grail of civic consensus is ever more elusive. In the absence of that civic consensus, the political system stagnates; it's incapable of making a decision. The process of making policy is utterly dependent on a level of consensus within the larger society, because of the structure of government that we adopted from the federal government 157 years ago. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to make policy? Why? Because we have all these checks and balances. There is a whole series of hurdles. We in California added two more hurdles with the issue referendum and the 2/3 vote, which means you have to have even more of a consensus to get through all the hurdles.

Lately at the state level, and I think this is true of the local level as well, we've had only two possible outcomes due to issues that stem from arcane economic and social circumstances: either nothing happens-think water, for example-or you're able to satisfy all of the constituent groups sufficiently, clear all the political hurdles, and approve a policy, but in the process of satisfying all of those constituent groups, the product becomes distorted, like Frankenstein's monster, collapsing under its own weight, like the energy deregulation that passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously.

So when we talk about any of these issues, we need to take into account that the structure under which we make those decisions, the governmental structure itself, is in crisis-chronically incapable of reaching any decision whatsoever, even a bad decision. We have a society that is growing and changing very rapidly, therefore, and a political system that is stuck, gridlocked, unable to move in any direction. That's going to create more public frustration and give rise to even more ballot measures to circumvent the system. So on top of all the other crises in California, whether its water, transportation, housing, environment, we have a crisis of governance-a chronic inability to come to a decision on any issue. Before we can talk about solving any of these issues, we should be addressing our crisis of governance.

DA: If you're taking notes out there, there appears to be a governing crisis driven by constant population growth, and a political system that appears unable to meet the challenges. Next is Greg McWilliams, who represents Lennar, one of the largest homebuilders in the United States. Greg is charged with trying to approve and build a new 25,000 home community in North County. As the lead character in Field of Dreams said, "If you build it, they will come." Greg: How do you create a framework for equitable growth?

Greg McWilliams: In the real world today, despite a massive economic downturn, we're dealing on the regulatory arena with things that are frantic, that weren't thought out, that have no logic in comprehensive public and planning policy. There was a bill signed last year called AB 32...The idea was to sign AB 32, then take the next year, sit down with a blue ribbon committee, plan it out, and then take a comprehensive approach on how to solve global warming before any legislation is put into the hopper again. I thought, "That's a pretty good idea. Maybe AB 32 has some merit." Within one minute, 60 bills hit the hopper on global warming without any research. And for the next year, all the interest groups in Sacramento, have been trying to figure out what rational thought links them together, and at the end of the day, there is no comprehensive policy yet.

We have another bill, which is called SB 375, by Steinberg. This is a bill that, in a nutshell, will take land use control away from cities and counties, which is something that has existed since the constitutional incorporation of this state, and basically sets up many Coastal Commissions, regional commissions to decide land use. It's supposed to comprehensively solve our issues in land use on reducing the carbon footprint and mitigating global warming...

...Cities are moving on policy in climate change, and the state has started moving on it, but there is no comprehensive dialogue. There is no comprehensive public policy. Along with the downturn in the building industry, these battlefields are very confusing.

We want to level the playing field so our industry can move forward and comprehensively solve this problem, but we can't move forward and we can't make capital investment and we can't put a comprehensive program together without knowing the rules. And the rules are completely siloed. Not a single agency, not a single city, not a single member of a regulatory agency, is talking. There is no communication. The mayor recently suggested inclusionary zoning-inclusionary zoning isn't anything new. We do that in many places, but in order to do it, we need density bonuses; we need the ability to provide it...

DA: Robert, from your leadership position with labor, representing the employees that have been building the homes that we need, how should we build a framework for equitable growth in California?

Robert Balgenorth: We have a huge problem right now with global warming, and we're trying to reduce our carbon footprint. We are going to have a large number of people that are going to be living in cities. We're going to have to be smarter with our investment in infrastructure. We are going to have to be smarter with how we use our resources. We're going to have to be smarter with green buildings. But also, we're going to have to think about how that impacts the people who are going to live there. Are they going to make a decent wage? Can they afford to live in their communities? Can they afford to have health care and take care of their families? Those are things that need to be a part of the solution.

As we look at the policies that were developed throughout the state and country, as we look at how we are going to deal with global warming, as we look at density bonuses, and as we look at planning, we're going to have to also look at the impact on people that live in the community...

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...How do we ensure that jobs are paid a decent wage? One way is through legislation. If you're going to invest with public wages, you're going to pay competitive wages. Some cities, like Los Angeles and many other cities, have reached out even further. They recognize that there is an opportunity for young people to come into labor industries, but they are going to have to live in the city. So project labor agreements is something that the city of Los Angeles has done to ensure that the young people that live in the city have a chance to go into immersion programs that provide the skills for the next generation of workers. But even with those things in place, they can't afford a house; they can't afford health care.

Perhaps we should offer density bonuses for people who are going to pay a decent wage, who are willing to provide shelter for their workers, or who are going to lower our carbon footprint. I think we need to look at issues like that, because if we don't, there will be a downward spiral of people dropping out instead of building a constructive society.

DA: Upbeat would not be the way to describe the presentations so far. So, it is appropriate that we turn to Michael Woo, whose experience helps him match the principles of planning to the politics of the way things they get done. How, Michael Woo, would you build a framework for equitable growth in California?

Michael Woo: As most of the people in this room probably know, the rules of growth that govern development in Southern California were drawn in a world that was very different than the world we're in today...I think it is becoming increasingly clear that in Southern California, we cannot afford to grow the way we've grown before. Our current projection is not sustainable. There just isn't the type of vacant land available. As the population grows, we are facing the inevitability of lack of sustainable direction.

I've been fortunate to one of the mayor's appointees to the city Planning Commission for the last two years. In our city, we are trying to chart some new directions. You may have heard about the 14 Principles, announced earlier this year by the City Planning Commission under the banner of "Doing Real Planning." This was a reflection of Gail Goldberg taking her job and discovering that we don't do real planning here. There was a planning department; there were a lot of planners. But there wasn't the kind of political context or political support for real planning that addressed real issues. So we're trying to redirect this battleship and trying to change the way in which the rules are drawn for future development.

The ideas of the 14 Principles are not really that new, but what is new is a level of seriousness about actually implementing these things. The 14 Principles include some of the obvious tangibles that we've been talking about in L.A., around the country, and in other parts of the world, but we've done a poor job of doing them here in L.A. in recent years. This includes trying to put housing and jobs closer together. It includes promoting density around transit so that people don't have to drive cars as much. It includes promoting energy-efficient buildings.

Parking: parking is the intersection of land use and transportation, and yet now it makes no sense that Los Angeles has the most excessive off-street parking requirements of any city in Southern California, forcing developers to spend $25-30,000 or $60,000 per parking space. Where does that money come from? What does that take money away from?

So, now the question is: how do we put real planning into practice? How do we make it more than just words? How do we really do it? If you're familiar with the structure of local government, you probably know that the City Planning Commission is a bonding of volunteer citizens who meet once or twice a month and vote yes or no on specific projects. We have a direct influence on the projects that are thorny enough to come before us. But what about the many other projects that aren't big enough or aren't asking for some kind of discretionary decision from government. How do we influence the sustainability of those projects?

The way we do it is both by using the bully pulpit, which the city Planning Commission has started to do in the last year, trying to figure out what we can do to write these principles into policies, into plans, and, most important, into the daily practice of the staff who work on behalf of the commission. When you, the applicant, come up to the counter for the first time, and you want to know what the rules are, then we make it very clear that those rules are very stable and predictable, but also that the rules are based on an expectation of sustainability for each project before the city.

The City Planning Department has, for the first time, created an urban design unit, which is going to create citywide standards for urban design. This morning, the commission will receive a briefing on the city's green building requirements, which will also eventually come before our commission and before the City Council.

I predict that the city Planning Commission is going to become tougher on a number of specific issues while examining projects, one of which is parking. To paraphrase my friend Donald Shoup, a professor at UCLA who wrote a book called The High Cost of Free Parking, when city governments force developers to subsidize parking, that basically makes it easy for people to drive cars; that sends the wrong message at a time when we're increasingly trying to get people to take transit, ride bicycles, or walk a short distance from their home to work.

We have to do a better job of sending a message to tenants, property owners, and business owners that we want them to think about putting housing closer to the places where people work. We have to change the parking requirements so that we give incentives for transit.

We need to find other ways to make the public more aware of the planning impact of the kind of properties that are going up. Maybe we borrow from the FDA, which is going to require new products to carry labeling that identifies the carbon impact of new projects being built. Or maybe when somebody signs a lease for an apartment, they should become aware of the impact of choosing to be in that unit.

We also, for the first time, approved two projects in which we are requiring the developer to provide a parking differential. In other words, the cost of the unit will be less if you choose a unit without parking. That will send a clear message to the prospective renter or the prospective condo-owner, "You can have a car if you want, it will just you cost more." That will help make it easier for consumers to make more sustainable decisions...

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