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Solimar Research

Gimmie a T! Gimmie an O! Gimmie a D!...

Jun 7, 2010

HOLLYWOOD, June 4 -- What's that spell?!? If you're a policy wonk, public official, or real estate developer and you were within earshot of Hollywood Boulevard yesterday, then you'd darn well better know.

The Urban Land Institute's LA chapter hosted its first-ever (and surely first of many) Transit Oriented Development Summit, and it was a pep rally worthy of Sue Sylvester's squad from "Glee." The event was a study in contradictions: on the one hand, everyone in real estate in L.A. County is chomping at the bit to capitalize on the county's $40 billion of infrastructure investment that is expected to be realized in the next decade or two (or three). On the other hand, no one is quite sure where the money for all of the envisioned mixed-use, high-density is going to come from. 

The enthusiasm for a new vision of urbanism was palpable -- this from a group that has been known to promote the odd mall or subdivision. No one complained about dashing the American dream by promoting infill instead over McMansions and one-acre lots. I didn't hear anyone whine about how complicated it is to design unique buildings for unique sites rather than just crank out the same designs over and over again. Instead, we got doses of unabashed praise for for economic, environmental, and quality-of-life benefits of place-based development that gets residents out of their cars and onto trains, bikes, and their own two feet. 

It seems, in fact, that the suburban dream -- of aerospace workers, orange farmers, and the Brady Bunch -- is over in Southern California, and some say it's about time. It had a great run for, oh, the past seven or eight decades. But the financial crisis, the traffic crisis, cultural shifts, and political changes of heart mean that while the foreclosures mount in the hinterlands, dense, urban, mixed use -- and, yes, transit oriented -- development may be the only game in town. 

I don't use "only" lightly. The dark side of this enthusiasm is that it masks a sense of desperation. How do you get 450 real estate professionals to a day-long event on a gorgeous Southern California Friday? It's easy when they -- regrettably -- don't have anything better to do. (The lunch line was rife with unfortunate conversations between erstwhile workaholics who are "taking time off" this year.) With the real estate market in the tank, the public sector incentives -- among them laws like SB 375 and infrastructure investments like the Subway to the Sea -- offer developers one of their few glimmers of hope. 

SB 375 stood front-and-center in the day's sessions (see CP&DR's SB 375 Resources Page). If transportation funding such as L.A. County's $40 billion Measure R provides the bones of smart growth in the state, SB 375 provides the muscle: the guidance and incentives for filling out development along the lines and around the station nodes. ULI took a canny approach to SB 375 by publishing an "Impact Analysis Report" touting profound economic benefits and making recommendations for its implementation. The report is clearly meant to combat the movement to suspend or curtail its implementation over the contention that it will be too expensive for local governments. 

At the same time, public sector officials who are pushing smart growth and TOD are striking while once-hesitant developers are vulnerable (in reality, I think those who took a liking to smart growth long ago are in fact going to maintain their market leadership in this sector). And yet, it's not like cities have a bunch of redevelopment money or grants to toss around. The federal government has announced plans to fund sustainable planning (more on that in the next post), but, at the state level, vicious funding cuts and desperate cost-cutting strategies abound. Despite some scholarly rhetoric that was tossed around at the conference, the report is not a scholarly study, with nary a regression in sight; it's more like a collection of impressions, written in speculative language. 

According to the report, SB 375 is all about efficiency, alignment, harmony, regionalization, and the whole buffet of lifestyle and economic benefits that smart growth purportedly brings. The report likens SB 375 with Title 24, the 1978 building code legislation that was originally met with dread but has helped the state develop a energy-efficient building stock. The report makes three major recommendations: 1) transit certainty; 2) funding for implementation efforts; 3) streamlining of CEQA. None of these statements is particularly revelatory. However, it's important to consider ULI's clout: if ULI supports SB 375 and, through events such as the TOD Summit, tells its members that SB 375 is worth supporting, then the benefits that it foresees may become self-fulfilling prophecies -- at least that's what a great many people in California are banking on. 

And that's where the enthusiasm comes in: no matter how great an idea TOD is, if the well runs any drier enthusiasm is all we're going to have left. Who knows. In an industry built partially on speculation, enthusiasm might just be enough. 

Up next: A recap of funding federal funding opportunities as described by Shelley R. Poticha, Director of the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities.

 

 

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