Slow News Weeks for the President and Me

The New York Times reported on Sunday that the number and intensity of national and international crises over the holidays was low enough that President Obama could, for the first time since becoming president, enjoy a relaxing family vacation in Hawaii.

I felt the same way about news in Santa Monica. Sure there was news, notably the reversal by city staff on the City’s obligation to preserve the Chain Reaction sculpture, but not too much. Like the president I took a vacation (in his case, from preserving national and world order, in my case, from blogging about Santa Monica). I’ve never been to Hawaii, but it can’t be better than Santa Monica in winter.

As for what news there was, I am more than curious about what response the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will make to the City’s airport lawsuit. The deadline is this Friday, Jan. 10; as reported in The Lookout, Federal District Judge John F. Walter denied the FAA’s request for a longer extension of time to respond to the complaint. Notably Judge Walter accepted the City’s contention that time was of the essence, given that the City wants to know what its rights are before July 1, 2015, the date its 1984 agreement with the FAA expires.

I’m not reading any tea leaves based on that, but if the FAA moves to dismiss the lawsuit (which is what, according to the Lookout article, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie expects), there may soon be a hearing on the merits, as the City will have to prove to the judge that it has a cause of action suitable for “declaratory relief” (which means asking the court to make a decision before there is an actual conflict between the parties). How the judge would rule on that would, needless to say, be an indication about the strength of the City’s case.

One analytical thing I did do over the holidays was to try to catch up with outside reading. While Santa Monica has many unique or at least unusual circumstances, sometimes we consider ourselves more in control of what happens here than we are, and forget the context in which the city exists. I like to read about the context.

To that end, there’s a newsletter that I subscribe to called Better! Cities & Towns (BCT), which covers urban planning and development. I like BCT because while it focuses on real-world projects it also publishes articles with relevant data about what’s going on in America. The December issue was a particularly good one.

Take, for instance, the issue of making developers build more family-friendly housing instead of the singles and one-bedroom apartments they want to build. There’s a sense that this problem arises from a self-willed decision by the developers not to build bigger units — based, according to some, on greed. But what if developers (motivated, it goes without saying, by profit) were merely responding to a market for smaller units that is the result of demographic change?

According to an article in the December BCT, “Demographic Wave Transforming the Market,” that is exactly what is happening. The article presents forecasts from a new book, Reshaping Metropolitan America, by Arthur C. Nelson, a planning professor at the University of Utah who has been studying cities for 30 years. According to the forecasts, which are consistent with other studies, between 2010 and 2030 the U.S. will add about 26.3 million households, but the net number of households with children will increase by only about 3.5 million, meaning that the number of households without children will increase, on a net basis, by almost 23 million. Of that increase, nearly 14 million will be single-person households. There is also data showing that the average number of children in households with children is declining.

While these households with no or few children will be located everywhere — in cities, in suburbs, and in rural areas — due to the boom in housing in far-flung suburbs before the 2008 crash, and due to empty nest Baby Boomers vacating their homes, there is and will be a large existing inventory of family-friendly homes, located mostly in the suburbs. While some new single-family homes will be built, they can’t be built in already-developed urban areas, like Santa Monica, where all lots in R-1 zones already have houses.

This doesn’t mean that Santa Monica should not seek to get larger, family-friendly apartments and condos built, with amenities that will attract families who don’t want to move to the exurbs and can’t afford to buy existing single-family homes here from downsizing Baby Boomers. We need to make sure that Santa Monica continues to have a full-range of housing types and a community that is diverse by every standard – that diversity is part of our history and part of what makes us a great place to live. But we won’t get that unless we understand the demographic changes that make America a different place from what it was 50 years ago, and why it is that developers today can rent or sell all the small units they can build.

On another subject, some of those opposed to development in Santa Monica are so skeptical of any benefits coming from development that they assume that any politician who votes for even the most regulated developments must be on the take or otherwise beholden to developers. Many also believe that development creates costs that taxpayers have to bear. But two articles in the December BCT show how in-fill developments economically benefit cities.

One article, “Smart Growth Costs Less, Yields more Revenue for Cities and Towns,” reported on a study summarizing 17 separate studies around the country showing that infill urban development results in lower capital costs for cities, lower costs of providing services, and higher tax revenues. One study found, for instance, using data from Raleigh, North Carolina, that a six-story downtown building produced 50 times the property tax as a Walmart, and that even a three-story residential building produced more property tax than a major shopping mall.

Another article, “Per-acre Tax Advantage is Persuasive Across the Political Spectrum” shows how compact, walkable places generate higher land values and taxes per acre, and lower per acre infrastructure costs; for instance, one study showed that “mixed-use downtown development takes three years to pay back infrastructure costs, while a suburban counterpart takes 42 years.” The title of the article refers to the fact that for the first time both liberal (from the organization Smart Growth America) and conservative (from the Cato Institute) analysts are coming to the same conclusion, that the costs of both capital infrastructure and the delivery of governmental services are lower, and tax revenues are higher, in infill urban developments as opposed to suburban developments.

This doesn’t mean that development, like all economic activity in the complex world we live in, doesn’t need to be regulated, but in an era when cities are going bankrupt and even those cities that are solvent are struggling to provide services (and, yes, fulfill their real obligations to fund pensions), do you think that those responsible for a city’s budget – both politicians and staff – need to be bribed to take a look at proposals to bring more investment into their towns? Or do you think that maybe they’re doing their jobs?

Thanks for reading.

Infill development in downtown Santa Monica

Infill development in downtown Santa Monica

2 thoughts on “Slow News Weeks for the President and Me

  1. Development and land use issues is not only about new buildings. The illegal conversion of Embassy Apartments into a Hotel was approved and/or advocated by Santa Monica City staff and elected officials. And then the owner sold the building for $18,000,000. Hello $18,000,000! A profit that would not have been possible without the illegal conversion of RENT CONTROLLED APARTMENTS. Someone and probably many on staff and/or elected positions at City Hall either took a bribe or simple FAILED to do their jobs. An illegal conversion does not happen unless those trusted to protect and follow our city laws look the other way. And then dishonestly claim it was always a Hotel with food service…. Ask the man who has lived there 35 years, or the 98 year old lady and her son who have lived there 25 years (and will be forced from their home) if the Embassy was a Hotel with Food service. City Staff flat out fabricated information about the Embassy Apartments. Is the Sovereign Apartments / Hotel at 2nd and Washington is next?1

  2. 1. You would discover that dispite the plentiful beaches and ocean, Hawaiians respect the land and plan ahead for greenspace and parks before going ahead with A development. There is no development without codified greenspace and parks first.

    2. Trends may come and go. Studies may or may not all have the same results. But we can bank on the fact that a healthy city is a city that incentivizes 2 and 3 bedroom units not less. A community that puts its resources into planning for companionship and familys eventually has the capacity to more diverse and healthy. Planning for less restricts our potential. Let developers do what they want but, for sure, without incentivising restrictions.

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