Should the Valley build up or out? Should we ride the train or sit in traffic or is it possible to somehow, miraculously, coast smoothly and quickly along the freeway like we used to? And maybe most important: Who gets to decide these questions and many others that will shape the future growth and development of one of the nation's busiest and most crowded urban areas?
These are the issues that faced the Valley in 1998, and are likely to face the area again in 1999 and beyond. But to understand how they're likely to roll forward in the years ahead, it's useful to take a look back and see where this year's biggest growth and development stories came from and what they mean. But no matter what the issue, one thing is clear: In growth and development, politics rules.
First, the "up or out" question. It's no secret that the Valley has been busting at the seams for a decade or more. This, of course, puts pressure on city officials to approve more and bigger buildings--a fact that brings the city into conflict with many neighborhood associations. But just as important, it motivates landowners in outlying areas to pursue new development as well. And that brings with it a whole separate set of political problems.
The most obvious example of this phenomenon in 1998 was the political battle over Newhall Ranch--a 21,000-home development east of Magic Mountain proposed by Newhall Land & Farming Co. and approved in November by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. In the process of being approved, the project was pared down, Newhall agreed to fund schools and many environmental concessions were made. But because it's so big, the project never escaped the notion that it's somehow tainted by political juice because of Newhall's campaign contributions to Supervisor Mike Antonovich and other county supervisors. And it still faces a stiff challenge from neighboring Ventura County.
Aside from the political aspects, Newhall Ranch raises a whole host of important issues about future growth in the Valley and its surrounding areas. If slow-growthers prevail in protecting existing neighborhoods in the Valley itself, it's likely that more new growth will be pushed into outlying areas like Newhall Ranch. But this is likely to create longer-distance commuting, at least in the short run, and strain natural resources. (Where Newhall Ranch will get its permanent water supply is a big question--especially since the area lies outside the boundaries of the Metropolitan Water District.)
How these Newhall Ranchites--and everybody else--will get around remains one of the most vexing questions the Valley faces. A generation ago, Mayor Tom Bradley and other city leaders hoped that a then-unbuilt rail transit system would help increase the Valley's transportation capacity without plowing more cars through existing neighborhoods. Today, in light of scandal, corruption and inefficiency at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Valley residents view things somewhat differently. With the subway to Universal City nearing completion, Valley residents joined other county residents in nixing future subway construction, including a possible cross-Valley line. City Councilman Hal Bernson and others immediately proposed a souped-up busway system, but it's pretty clear that Valley residents prefer their cars.
Even so, there may not be much help on the way in that department either. In October, the federal government announced a half-million-dollar grant to examine how to improve the perpetually snarled 101 / 405 freeway interchange--a location so familiar to every Valley driver that it is perhaps the closest thing to a "town commons" that the Valley has. Actually fixing the interchange will, of course, require more like half a billion dollars.
But ultimately, who will decide how the Valley and surrounding areas grow and change? That's not strictly speaking a "land-use" issue, but in the long run, it will be the most important factor shaping growth decisions. Right now, it appears that either the Valley will secede and become a separate city or Los Angeles will dramatically reshape the way it makes decisions by creating a new city charter. Either way, there will be more power in the Valley--either with the new city, mayor and council, or with neighborhood planning commissions that would have real power.
It's not clear how such changes would truly affect the Valley. Would they permit Valley residents to think in a visionary fashion and chart an inspiring course for the future? Or would they simply give free reign to parochial interests? Either way, one thing is sure: Politics will play a leading role.