The Los Angeles City Council recently voted to keep the city on a pro-growth track with its approval of the massive Porter Ranch project in the San Fernando Valley. Despite voter preferences to slow Los Angeles' spiraling growth, city officials again caved in to developer demands over neighborhood interests.
Proposed by politically influential developer Nathan Shapell, the 1,300-acre development calls for 6 million square feet of commercial, residential, hotel and retail development in Chatsworth.
The story of Porter Ranch is similar to tales of other developments approved by local legislatures throughout Southern California. All involve wealthy, politically connected developers and their highly paid lobbyists, supported by large corporations, building trades and public utilities.
Together they form a "growth machine" that exercises political control over local land use policy. Scenarios like the Porter Ranch development that destroy Los Angeles' varied and colorful neighborhoods are being played out in the Farmers Market development in the Fairfax area, the Watts neighborhood redevelopment, Hollywood redevelopment and Venice-Lincoln Boulevard development.
Development proponents insist that such growth is good for the city. The growth machine argues that building development creates more tax revenue, jobs and housing. These claims often win the hearts and minds of city officials.
But a closer look at these claims show them to be self-serving and untrue.
Take the issue of tax revenue. Growth advocates argue that development will create new business- and property-tax revenues. What growth proponents don't explain is that development requires tremendous increases in public service and infrastructure costs that far outweigh increases in tax revenues. Harvey Molotch, a UC Santa Barbara sociology professor and growth expert who coined the concept of the growth machine, concluded this in his studies of development patterns in Santa Barbara. Molotch found that city expenditures needed to accommodate growth exceeded revenue created by growth.
These growth-created expenses are a primary reason why Los Angeles faces a budget crisis. Despite a decade of unprecedented building growth in which the city's population increased by some 500,000 people, the city budget faced a $100-million deficit this year, forcing serious cutbacks in police, fire, sanitation, library, school programs and other essential city services. New building development such as Porter Ranch requires billions of dollars worth of city infrastructure and services such as sewers, street lighting, schools and roads.
The city's environmental impact report disclosed that the Porter Ranch development will require an additional 28 police officers, a new fire station and 11 more classrooms. New infrastructure is required by the development to handle an additional 2.15 million gallons per day of sewage, 34.3 tons per day of solid waste and 2.07 million gallons of water per day during a period of drought. Most of these public services will have to be financed by tax and fee increases to city taxpayers.
Jobs and housing, the other battle cry of the growth machine, also does not stand up to scrutiny. Studying the relationship between growth rates and unemployment in 100 U.S. cities, Molotch found that rapid building growth and population increases had little effect on reducing local unemployment rates. In fact, Molotch found that cities promoting rapid building growth had unemployment rates which grew faster and above the national average.
Molotch discovered that new building development did not create new jobs, it merely rearranged job sites from one region to another. Like the infrastructure costs created by new development, new job sites create new population migration to fill the jobs. Any job gain to the local economy is canceled out by the massive population shifts that rush to fill them. People are not relocating to Los Angeles because of hospitable climate alone but rather to follow jobs relocating in ways that benefit growth and development interests.
The argument that growth creates needed housing was disputed by housing expert and University of Louisville Prof. John Gilderbloom, an associate of Molotch. Gilderbloom's studies compared housing prices in 150 slow- and fast-growing cities. The research found that price levels for rent and housing increased in high-growth areas, exacerbating affordable housing shortages. Gilderbloom showed that new development has a price-leading effect on existing housing stock that usually prices low- and moderate-income residents out of the area completely.