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CUTTING EDGE SPECIAL: HIGH TECH IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
| INNOVATION / JONATHAN WEBER

Electronic Village Hasn't Replaced Our Need for the Real Thing

March 17, 1997|JONATHAN WEBER

One of the great promises of the Information Age is that people might finally be freed from the tyranny of geography. No longer would it be necessary to live near the office. No longer, even, would if be necessary to have an office.

Cities might begin to wither away as the advantages of living cheek-by-jowl were eroded by the power of PCs and modems. Social activities from dating to game playing would migrate to the sprawling, ethereal and inexpensive piece of real estate known as cyberspace.

Paradoxically, though, what's happening is exactly the opposite. Just as we begin to exploit the opportunities of cyberspace, we're also rediscovering the value of appealing urban space--and that's opening enormous new economic and social horizons for Los Angeles and other Southern California cities.

The eager twentysomethings who are creating the Internet might spend a lot of their days and nights doing e-mail, but they like to run into like-minded souls at the corner cafe. Hence the boom times in San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch, Manhattan's Silicon Alley--and pockets of Southern California ranging from Old Town Pasadena and Glendale to West Hollywood and Santa Monica.

Many of the most interesting new forms of entertainment might involve sitting in front of a cathode-ray tube, but the hottest opportunity in New York these days involves renovating historic theaters and creating fun, real-life spaces around Times Square. That bodes well for the proposed redevelopment of Hollywood Boulevard into a retail and entertainment destination.

Even the companies that are at the forefront of the digital revolution are placing a premium on human contact.

At Microsoft Corp., everyone is fully wired--and everyone is expected to show up, every day, in person, at the company campus if they're not traveling. New recruits have to move to Redmond, period, even though many of the creative artists the company is now hiring for its media ventures would just as soon not.

Pity those poor souls who have for years been promoting videoconferencing as an alternative to corporate travel. More people are using video communications, sure, but the airline industry is booming. Corporate travel isn't declining; the convention and trade show business, in fact, is a major growth sector, especially in the technology industry.

Granted, we're only at the beginning of the Digital Age, and the importance of geographic place may someday start to fade. For now, though, the alienating effects of too much technology are creating an appetite for human contact and breathing new life into crowded cities.

But appealing, economically vibrant urban spaces don't usually happen by themselves. Political and business leaders will have to do some things right if Southern California is to fully exploit the trend and burnish its allure for high-tech entrepreneurs and other industries.

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First off, governments have to find the right balance in luring and retaining businesses. Certainly, efforts to cut red tape and streamline permitting processes are beneficial. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's special business team--as well as local officials in small cities such as Pasadena and Culver City--appear to be doing a good job in that area.

Tax breaks and other direct financial incentives, however, are usually a bad idea. The literature on urban planning demonstrates that tax breaks mostly subsidize development that would have happened anyway, or else create short-term activity that isn't sustainable.

It makes no sense for municipalities to get into a beggar-thy-neighbor incentive game to persuade firms to locate on one side of a street rather than the other.

The local tax cut that Los Angeles recently granted to multimedia companies won't cost it a lot of cash in the short run, and it is probably justified on balance, since the previous tax rate was way out of line with neighboring cities.

But the same can't be said for the tax breaks associated with the proposed Playa Vista/DreamWorks development; DreamWorks would have built a headquarters somewhere nearby, and a real estate project at Playa Vista would eventually have gone ahead even without city incentives of $50 million to $85 million.

Government plays an indispensable role in creating the basic conditions for urban renaissance. It's hard to overestimate the importance of clean, safe streets--just ask New Yorkers, who have seen the city bloom as the crime rate has plummeted. Governments that bleed themselves dry with tax cuts simply won't be able to do the job.

Business improvement districts, which impose levies on local businesses and/or landlords to improve security, street cleaning and the like, can help fill some gaps, but in the long run, public safety and sanitation shouldn't be privatized.

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