On the day after Tom Hayden died in Santa Monica, I went on the California APA’s tour of station-area development along the Expo Line on Los Angeles’s Westside. It was a bit of a homecoming for me, because my life in Southern California began and ended within spitting distance of that line and despite all the years in Ventura so much of what went on in between was all tangled up with the Westside.
The tour made me realize how much has changed on the Westside – even in the last few years, but certainly since I first met Tom Hayden 35 years ago. Two things struck me.
The first – especially at our first stop at the Culver City station -- is the weird and ever-changing relationship between the Westside and the car. Yes the Westside is rich and hip, and yes ridership on the Expo Line is exploding. (Monday was the first day the line ran on six-minute headways.) Nevertheless, automotive carcasses are littered everywhere on the Westside, and folks there are obsessed beyond all reason with moving them and storing them.
The second – especially at our last stop at Bergamot Station – is how thoroughly the Tom Hayden-era model of urban development, if you want to call it that, is now being rejected by the people of Santa Monica. Hayden, of course, was the godfather of the left-wing faction that took over Santa Monica on a rent control platform in 1981 and he represented the Westside in Sacramento for almost 20 years. For decades, the deal for developers in Santa Monica was simple: We’ll give you what you want if we can extract enough community benefits from you. (In fact, this was the topic of my master’s thesis in urban planning at UCLA, which formed the basis of Chapter 1 of The Reluctant Metropolis.) But the recent debacle at Bergamot – including the city council’s decision to un-approve the big Hines mixed-use project and the subsequent slow-growth measure on the ballot this fall – has made it clear that this deal won’t work any more on the Westside.
If you add these two things together, it paints a pretty interesting picture of how the Westside has evolved, how much it struggles these days with being a victim of its own success – and how much the Westside slides back into 20th Century thinking when the going gets tough.
The minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour surface street gridlock on the Westside is awesome to behold, almost as if it were one of the seven wonders of the world. Which is, of course, why the Expo Line is so successful. And yet …
Our first stop was at the Culver City station, near Helms Bakery. Culver City is doing a great job of station-area planning and the resulting district is going to be an excellent walkable neighborhood with strong connections to downtown Culver City. (For example, Lowe Enterprises’ plans for Ivy Station look really good.) But the most amusing part of our visit there was the automated parking garage at the old Helms Bakery, which owner Wally Marks and his family have lovingly transformed into modern office and retail space.
The parking garage is, indeed, impressive. Once automatically parked using a lift, the cars are moved around the garage based on the established patterns of the drivers. If you don’t use your car during the day, it gets shuffled to the back; if you are in and out, it stays in the front. Your car will be gradually moved closer to the exit as the clock the time you typically leave work. And retrieving a car, even from an upper floor, takes a matter of seconds.
But as I watched and listened – and Wally and his staff and consultants couldn’t stop talking about how great the garage was – I kept thinking that this must have been how IBM talked about how great the Selectric typewriter was right before the personal computer was invented. Yes, the Helms garage is all about efficiency – but it’s about storing and retrieving cars efficiently. Whereas the buzz in urban circles worldwide is about Uber, car-sharing and autonomous cars – that is, using cars more efficiently, so that you don’t need to store or retrieve them in the first place.
In New York and San Francisco these days, you are how you ride or where you go. On the Westside, you are still what you drive. So 20th Century.
And that was part of the reason it was pretty refreshing to move on to the next stop – the Bundy station – and hear Dan Martin, a third-generation car dealer, bitch about parking requirements and talk about creating a walkable environment.
When I first moved to L.A. in the early ‘80s, I lived walking distance from the Martin Cadillac dealership at Olympic and Bundy – not that you would have wanted to actually walk to Martin Cadillac in those days. (Take my word for it: Then, as now, I didn't own a car.) After almost 50 years on this 5-acre site, Martin Cadillac will soon give way to Martin Expo Town Center, a 10-story project with 500 residential units, 200,000 square feet of creative office space, and 100,000 square feet of retail, which will probably include a high-end grocery store.
The visit was a good reminder that car dealers are often sitting on the best properties in transit-rich neighborhoods, and the best ones are smart enough to realize that as they become retail dinosaurs that real estate is their biggest asset. The Bundy stop is still pretty much an amenity desert, but between the Expo Line and big office buildings that pre-date it, the pedestrian traffic is already pretty good. At lunchtime today I saw maybe 30 people walking around at Olympic and Bundy, an intersection that features not only Martin Cadillac but a bunch of gas stations and convenience stores.
One stop to the west is Bergamot Station, which features a combination of hip galleries and other arts businesses, high-end creative office businesses located in old industrial buildings, and traffic-spewing office towers from the 1980s. My life in L.A. may have begun down the street near Martin Cadillac, but it ended here 32 years later, when I was one of the principals in charge of the Bergamot Area Plan for the firm now known as Placeworks.
And I do mean ended, because that plan – and some of the development projects that might have been built near the station – suffered the most ignominious fate of any planning effort in Southern California in recent memory. With it died the Tom Hayden-era idea of soaking the developers to get social goods, which has apparently been replaced by the pretty retro planning idea that doing nothing is usually better than doing something.
The plan was supposed to build on Santa Monica’s vaunted 2010 LUCE (Land Use and Circulation Element). The LUCE, which supposedly had broad public support, was built on the concept of “tiers” – the idea that developers could get higher “tiers” of density in exchange for providing more community benefits. The LUCE was the ultimate manifestation of the Hayden-era development-for-goodies formula that was developed by the first progressive leaders in Santa Monica back in the ‘80s: Sure, we’ll give you the density for whatever the market is demanding (office, housing, retail) so long as you give us lots of social benefits in return. This was pretty radical stuff back in the '80s, when most people's idea of urban planning activism was to just shut down new development. And despite the fact that Hayden and his buddies had a reputation for being socialists, it requires a pretty deft understanding of capitalism to make this idea work. You have to know just how hard to squeeze the developers, so you still get the goodies and the developers don't go away.
Over time, as capitalism has taken over the Westside, the argument for a bigger squeeze has only increased. Today in Santa Monica, the market is so strong that developers will pay almost literally any price for entitlements.
Except that this isn’t what happened when Hines proposed a major mixed-use project on Olympic Boulevard right across the street from Bergamot Station. The project was arguably not the best designed project ever, though it dramatically improved pedestrian connectivity and publicly available open space in the area. Nor, apparently, did Hines do an especially good job selling it to the neighbors. The bottom line was that just before the 2014 local election, the city councilmembers up for re-election rescinded approval of the development agreement to save their own skin. And then, subsequently, they also backed off a lot of the good stuff contained in the LUCE.
Save their own skin they did, at least for now, but at a cost. Hines sold the land and the existing Papermate factory is now being retrofitted – meaning there is still a 1,200-foot wall along Olympic Boulevard and no sidewalk. Yes, the latest biggest project on Olympic Boulevard went away. But so did all the goodies. And so, by the way, did a lot developers who could have been squeezed.
Meanwhile, the defeat of the Hines project infected the entire Bergamot plan, and many of the other things that would have created better connectivity and a mixture of activities went out of the plan. The status quo, however imperfect, was judged to be better than anything new.
In a certain way, you can’t blame Santa Monica’s residents for taking such an anti-growth attitude; after all, they’ve been hammered with job-related traffic for 30 years. But in rejecting dense 21st Century mixed-use growth, they are stuck with 20th Century problems, like no sidewalks, no connectivity, and even no restaurants. They also, by the way, have no affordable housing and none of the other things that the Hayden-era activists in Santa Monica wanted, because they are stuck with the 20th Century solution of simply retaining the status quo.
So even as Hayden – perhaps the prototypical 20th Century lefty intellectual – slipped away in a hospital a short distance away, the section of Los Angeles that he loved remains mired in 20th-Century thinking. Unfortunately, it’s not the 20th Century anymore.
A personal postscript about Hayden: He always took an interest in my work and often quoted me, which on occasion could be pretty embarrassing. For example, one night I was walking down the street in Sacramento with a bunch of Central Valley Republicans when Tom, then a state legislator, hailed me as he was getting out of his car and yelled that he had quoted me in a hearing that day when he was railing against increasing cross-Delta water transfers. We talked briefly, and I pivoted back to discussing farmland with the Republicans as fast as I could.
Still, I couldn’t help but like the guy. To me, he was generous to a fault. I well remember the time he hosted a small event at his house when The Reluctant Metropolis came out. Afterward, I tried to give him a copy, but he pulled a twenty and a five out of his wallet and thrusting the cash into my hand. “I know what it’s like to have to buy books from a publisher and then give them away,” he said. Maybe the guy appreciated capitalism more than he let on -- and more than Santa Monica's current community activists.