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Valley Perspective | SECOND OPINION

Development Framework Makes Faulty Growth Presumptions

Building a transit system does not ensure greater demand. Limiting growth to certain areas could drive businesses away.

September 15, 1996|MIKE HUFF | Mike Huff is a senior majoring in economics at Cal State Northridge. He studied the framework for a project in an economics class on the San Fernando Valley economy

The Los Angeles Citywide General Plan Framework, adopted 9 to 4 by the City Council on July 17, is a response to federal and state mandates to create a comprehensive plan for future development. The framework, approved by the City Planning Commission a year earlier, sets forth policies, goals and objectives to deal with growth throughout Los Angeles. If it works as intended, the framework will greatly affect the way the San Fernando Valley grows for years to come.

Much of the recent debate surrounding the framework has centered on the prudence of channeling growth into what are called "mixed-use boulevards." Aimed at areas such as the stretch of Chatsworth Street between White Oak Avenue and Balboa Boulevard, and Van Nuys Boulevard between Saticoy Street and the Ventura Freeway, the plan envisions people walking to shop and using mass transit for virtually everything else. It calls for the development of an extensive mass transit system along these mixed-use boulevards that would shuttle people from high-density neighborhoods to a flourishing regional center.

The framework proposes to concentrate commercial developments in areas already designated as commercial and in areas in close proximity to rail transit corridors. It would also compress multifamily residential developments into high-density neighborhoods while leaving single-family residential neighborhoods unaffected.

Basically, the framework is flawed because it is a farfetched fantasy that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can create a worthwhile transit system and entice people to use it. Creating a complex and extensive (expensive) transit system does not always create the demand for it. It is not the case that "if you build it, they will come." People like their cars and, until it becomes too expensive to drive, they will not forsake their prized possessions for mass transit.

Creating a demand for mass transit is essential to pulling people out of their cars. A primary way of doing this is to substantially increase the price of driving. And one way to drive a good number of autos off the road is to raise taxes on gas and parking. Another is to implement a toll system.

The framework also calls for the concentration of commerce and office developments in areas already accommodating this need. It calls for the intensification of the more than 20 community and regional centers in the Valley, including Warner Center and the Van Nuys Civic Center. This idea is not feasible because limiting growth to areas that are already overcrowded or in high demand can only increase the cost of doing business. The cost of doing business is already high in the Valley; increasing it further will give companies an incentive to locate elsewhere.

In addition, the framework plans to identify emerging industries and then to lure them to the Los Angeles area. It plans to initiate dialogue with representatives (read lobbyists) of these industries to assess and assist with facility, infrastructure and labor force requirements. For example, one goal calls for provision of city-funded job training for workers in these emerging industries.

There are two problems with this scenario. First, city-run job training programs are about as successful as the city's efforts at mass transit. The second problem arises because there is no way to know which industries will "emerge," which ones will grow the most, or which ones will persist over time. During the 1980s it was a common prediction that the motion picture industry would leave the Los Angeles area. However, from 1987 to 1992, that industry boomed, creating more than 15,000 jobs in the San Fernando Valley alone.

The framework is unrealistic in its presumptions. It presumes that it can predict the future and that it can channel growth into neat little centers and regions and boulevards. It presumes that it can correct overpopulation by stuffing more people into high-density neighborhoods while extending the luxury of mass transit to them. And it presumes that businesses will tolerate increased costs and somehow fail to recognize that operating in another city is more cost effective.

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