“Smart Growth,” the Backlash

The concept of “smart growth” that encourages developments which combine opportunities to live, work, shop and obtain services like education in a compact area, with environmental sustainability designed in, gets applause when discussed in the abstract.

Clearly, such a land use pattern is better than the endless sprawl we have now. Why should everyone have to start their car engine to buy a bottle of milk? Why can’t more of our kids walk to school like in the good old days? Why can’t we bring back the basic family value of eating dinner together by putting job opportunities near homes and condos, perhaps close enough where clean-fueled public transit or even bicycling makes sense for more commuters?

Why, it’s obvious, we need more “smart growth” … until a developer proposes it. Then it becomes a fiendish plot, a trick, a con game. At least that’s what Ellen Brennan of the South Beach Neighborhood Association said in this week’s Santa Monica Mirror:

Whenever you hear the term “smart growth,” you’d do well to suspect you’re being scammed. The term was coined by people who intended to create reasonable, partial solutions to air pollution by bringing people and resident-serving businesses together, eliminating the need for car trips. The concept has been hi-jacked by the development community who now preach it for reasons far from its original intent.

The religious fervor the development community brings to their pumping for “smart growth,” is the result of its becoming a politically correct synonym for “big profits.”

(snip)

Those preaching smart growth have solved no problems. They’ve made parking, traffic and congestion worse instead of better, and they’ve received financial benefits for doing so. They’ll likely hype “smart growth” through the entire land use process and it will serve us well if we begin to understand exactly what it means. It means higher profits for developers, larger development fees for the planning department. and greater tax revenues for’ the Redevelopment Agency. It means taller buildings completely out of harmony with this beach community. It means density, congestion, height, and ugliness and devotees purposefully making traffic worse. Unless you value profit or dogma over quality of life, today’s brand of smart growth is no longer a solution to anything. You’d do well to be very suspicious when you hear it used.

Brennan goes onto say that “smart growth” concepts are “yesterday’s partial solution,” no longer necessary because of alternative fuel vehicles that run on batteries, ethanol and and, “believe it or not, on fuel made from vegetables.” Following her logic, the widespread adoption of alternative fuel vehicles means sprawl is okay again.

“Smart growth” ideas have tremendous merit and should be the standard for new development. But developers who thought smart growth was a good political solution to NIMBYism, it’s time to sober up. The homeowner groups used environmental rhetoric to make new developments go away. Now that developers use the same environmental talking points to promote their projects, the homeowners want none of it.

It’s all about the money. Current homeowners in areas that have experienced the biggest housing price gains don’t want more of any kind of growth that might in some hypothetical way reduce the value of their property. They’re going to retire on the wealth they’ve accumulated and intend to accumulate in the future, by just sitting on their property.

These are the 21st Century’s landed gentry. Housing shortages don’t concern these people. In fact, it’s Econ 101 — scarcity is good news for “them that got.”

To take a cynical view: The long-term solution to Southern California’s crisis of housing affordability and the environmental damage wreaked by sprawl will ultimately come down to paying off existing property owners to make way for new neighbors — offensive as that Robin-Hood-in-reverse concept might sound. I don’t know how to make it fair, and I don’t know who pays or how, but money is the real issue.

2 thoughts on ““Smart Growth,” the Backlash

  1. What’s funny is that Santa Monica was completely transformed in the early 1960’s with the building of the 10 Freeway. Thousands of homes, many bungalows, were destroyed to make way for cheap dumbell apartments. Historic neighborhoods were ruined forever. The downtown area took 30 years to come back to life after the freeway bulldozed its way through Santa Monica.

    Now that “smart growth” has come to the beach, Ellen Brennan makes a valid point that developers are using mixed projects for profit. But what other choice is there? If Santa Monica doesn’t mix housing with retail and offices–there simply will not be a way for private builders to make money.

  2. Right. We’re not about to make real estate development purely the domain of government or non-profits, although I’m sure there are many in the LA region who’d like to try. The attenuated approval process already soaks up so much capital, only the most committed or deep-pocketed developers can participate anymore.

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