It's Time To De-Kotkinize The Planning Debate

 

So I’ve finally had it with Joel Kotkin.

Joel Kotkin is, of course, the Los Angeles pundit who loves to be hated by planners. Last week in the Los Angeles Times Sunday opinion section. Kotkin flung around a lot of very selective facts and kinda-truths in order to make the argument that Los Angeles is rushing thoughtlessly and without public debate into “Manhattanization”. This article is the latest piece of evidence suggesting that Kotkin’s arguments are getting old and tired.

Increasingly, it seems that the only thing we can count on him for – in newspaper op-eds, anyway – is to disagree with the conventional wisdom, no matter what it is. In fact, as time goes on, Kotkin – ever the contrarian – seems to spend more and more time disagreeing with planners and commentators who mostly agree with him.

Which is too bad, because there was a time when Joel Kotkin really was a fresh voice who brought great insight to the debate over how cities should be shaped. As a longtime business journalist, Kotkin has a rare understanding of the role business and commerce plays in the life of cities. He’s especially good at explaining small business, immigrant businesses, and the hidden sources of capital in the immigrant community – important stuff in L.A. that nobody much wrote about before Kotkin began to highlight it. He deserves a great deal of credit for pounding on this theme endlessly in front of planning and development audiences.

But in the last few years, he’s fallen deeper and deeper into the trap of being a contrarian for its own sake.

The Times article was prompted by a variety of recent actions by the City of Los Angeles to promote development downtown, including a new housing density bonus ordinance (which is simply an expansion of the current state-required ordinance), subsidies for commercial development around the convention center (nothing new), and new rules on mini-condos of 250-350 square feet (which are already permitted but have gotten some publicity lately).

Mostly, however, the piece was little more than a variation on the current Kotkin stump speech, in which he basically argues that Los Angeles is suburban by nature and anybody who wants to create more density in L.A. is trying to turn it into Manhattan. This, of course, is a classic “straw man" argument. It allows him to characterize advocates of higher density – especially planners subscribing to the New Urbanism – as Neanderthals tethered to the outmoded idea that all cities should be overly dense and mononuclear, as New York was in the industrial age.

It’s hard to believe that a few thousand condos in downtown L.A. could kick up such a ruckus in Kotkin’s soul. After all, it’s only a small part – though an important part – of a much more wide-ranging evolution of Los Angeles as an urban place.  What’s emerging in L.A. is a series of downtowns and activity centers of various densities strung across the landscape. And it seems odd for Kotkin to get so exercised about it, because this seems to be pretty much exactly what Joel himself has been calling for in speech after speech and article after article over the past several years. In fact, this is exactly what the Los Angeles General Plan of the 1970s – the famous “centers concept” plan – called for. L.A. is not so much Manhattanizing as Pasadena-izing.

A few years ago, partly as a marketing ploy for a respected planning firm he was working with at the time, Kotkin tried to stake out some ground in the whole New Urbanism/smart growth debate by coining the term “New Suburbanism”.  When pressed about what he meant, Kotkin wrote in an article on Planetizen that he envisioned a future involving “a heavily wired ‘archipelago of villages,’ with relatively compact and economically self-sufficient communities spread across our landscape,” and warned against a return to “the dense, centralized, transit-dependent past”.

There’s nothing here for even the most passionate New Urbanist to disagree with. In describing New Suburbanism, Kotkin was just setting himself up up as a 21st Century Ebenezer Howard. Long a fan of smaller cities anyway, he essentially staked a claim to the Garden City. This is no different than most New Urbanists and smart growthers, who understand that most cities are polycentric and that development must be concentrated into a series of villages. Hardly anybody is arguing that an extremely dense mononuclear city – New York, circa 1930 – is the solution. In fact, when New Urbanists have been criticized (by everybody except Kotkin), the argument has usually been that they aren’t really urbanists at all but simply architects who want to build better-designed suburbs. In other words, the rap on New Urbanists is that they are nothing more than New Suburbanists.

Yet Kotkin keeps setting up these folks as his straw-man opponents – obsessed with overcentralized overdevelopment in downtown areas and therefore in bed with big-time developers. He can’t seem to fathom the possibility that – especially in a metro area that already has close to 20 million people – his archipelago will inevitably contain a few extremely dense, transit-oriented downtowns along with dozens and dozens of less dense and less transit-oriented village settings.

Last week’s Times article does contain one interesting new twist on the old contrarianism. In reviewing recent development plans for downtown L.A., Kotkin claims to be shocked – shocked! – that powerful developers have undue influence over the planning process these days. His comments on this topic embody a breathtaking naiveté for somebody who has always set himself up as being a street-smart pundit on cities. Instead of sounding like Joel Kotkin, in this new incarnation he sounds a lot like the newly elected president of some San Fernando Valley homeowner association.

In the Times article, Kotkin argues that in the good old days, like the 1980s, L.A. city councilmembers like Zev Yaroslavsky and Ernie Bernardi bravely held the line against too much developer influence, and that little guy developers had more of a chance. He lays the blame at the doorstep of term limits, which he claims have forced local politicians deep into the pockets of big developers.

It’s true that Bernardi – who represented the East Valley on the L.A. City Council for more than 30 years – was always a thorn in the side of the redevelopment establishment. And it’s probably true that, 20 years ago, the deck was stacked a little less strongly in favor of deep-pockets developers. But to say that developer influence is stronger than ever because of term limits is ridiculous.

Even during Kotkin’s good old days of the 1980s, developers had an enormous amount of influence. More than now, downtown developers appropriated large amounts of public money for their projects; and, Bernardi aside, they did so with far less public scrutiny than today. (Bernardi never had many friends on the City Council, and his leveraged derived mostly from maverick lawsuits, not council action.) Up until the late 1980s, it was possible to get approval for a 20-story skyscraper in the City of Los Angeles over the counter. And while Yaroslavsky was vigilant in opposing big development when it backed up to his constituents’neighborhoods, he was shameless – as I pointed out in my book The Reluctant Metropolis – in facilitating such projects when they backed up to a neighborhood represented by some other politician.

In other words, Joel seems to have developed a pretty selective memory about this kind of stuff. And the culprit isn’t really term limits. The culprit is that L.A. system of enormous council districts – each councilmember represents close to 300,000 constituents – that requires candidate to raise big money in order to run a campaign.

If there’s one logical theme in Kotkin’s recent op-ed ranting, it’s a Bernardi-like resentment toward the power of big downtown developers who use political influence to get public subsidies. This is a fair enough complaint, but it’s not new. In fact, it’s about 60 years old, as historian Robert Fogelson pointed out in his recent book, Downtown: Its Rise and Fall.

So Joel can cast himself as the cranky reincarnation of Ernie Bernardi if he wants to. But it’s not exactly cutting-edge urban commentary. And it’s disingenuous to make the Bernardi argument in the guise of attacking New Urbanists and smart growthers for wanting to recreate Manhattan all over Los Angeles.

But when you’ve based your whole career on being a contrarian pundit, it must be tough to wake up in the morning and face the brutal fact that everybody agrees with you.

- Bill Fulton

First of three blogs. Read Part 2 here.