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

When art becomes history, save the history

If all politics are local, as Tip O’Neill said, that only means that politics that appear to be local, at times are not.

Take the controversy over what to do with Paul Conrad’s Chain Reaction, a sculpture that has stood in a triangle of grass in Santa Monica’s Civic Center, wedged between a parking lot and a drive-by stretch of Main Street, for more than 20 years.

Chain Reaction before the fence went up.

Chain Reaction before the fence went up.

About two years ago a City staffer saw children playing on the sculpture, became alarmed, and all of a sudden — even though an engineer’s report later determined that the sculpture was in no imminent danger of falling down — City staff was saying that Chain Reaction had to go unless hundreds of thousands of dollars could be raised — privately — to restore it.

In the aftermath, the Landmarks Commission declared the sculpture to be a historic landmark, while the Arts Commission voted not to spend public money saving it. The City Council told pro-sculpture partisans to raise the money. About $40,000 has been raised — a good showing for a campaign like this when no one knows just how much is truly needed, but not what the City has required.

City Council will take up the future of Chain Reaction in February.

The face-off between the Arts and Landmarks Commissions is the key to understanding why it’s important to preserve Chain Reaction, and why this dispute over a local monument implicates broader issues, and what the historic meaning of it includes.

From the start, namely 22 years ago when Conrad offered the sculpture to the City, Chain Reaction was controversial because it pitted political activists, who loved how the chains metaphor communicated visually the tyranny of nuclear weapons, against some members of the arts community who variously thought that the metaphor was too obvious to be good art, or that the sculpture was plain ugly.

While appreciation of a given work of art, or even how one defines art, has subjective, “eye-of-the-beholder,” aspects, the history of art is more objective, and the dispute between political people and arts people reflects certain aspects of the history of art in the 20th century.

Up until the emergence a century ago of modernism in general and abstraction in art in particular, it was taken for granted that art would, could or might reflect social, political, religious or other cultural contexts, ideas, and mores, as much as the artist’s inner, and art’s formal, dialogues. But even in the context of modernism, at least through the ’30s and ’40s, many artists (think Mexican muralists) worked in an explicitly political manner.

In the ’50s, however, abstraction triumphed — not only was political art out, but representational art of any sort. Critics declared that this was the necessary progress of art, but I always thought that abstraction, at least in the American context, regardless of the quality of work of any given artist, was a convenient response to the Blacklist. Left-wing artists could declare their radical politics by insisting that the formal radicalism of their work was a challenge to the society as a whole, while avoiding persecution as leftists. (Meanwhile big business could embrace abstract art and modernist architecture, as evidence of “forward thinking,” without undercutting their interests. Nelson Rockefeller famously said that modern art was “free enterprise painting,” and the CIA in promoted modern art abroad.)

Where did that leave political activists looking for support from the arts? Often, out-of-luck, and that’s why, post-abstraction, a political graphics movement arose outside of the mainstream art world. (And if you visit MOCA or the Broad collection at LACMA, you’ll see that the worlds of art and politics are still for the most part conveniently separate even as art has moved on from pure abstraction and become big business itself.)

Chain Reaction, and the disputes about its creation (and now preservation), arose from the sundering of mainstream art from social engagement, and the existence of Chain Reaction is important tangible evidence of this historic moment. Paul Conrad was a Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist, but he was an outsider artist. When critics of the sculpture criticize its message as being simplistic one might ask them what they think about the recent unearthing and conservation of Siqueiros’ América Tropical. Was depictinga Mexican Indian, crucified on a double cross beneath an American eagle, with two sharpshooters taking aim at the eagle from a nearby rooftop” (as the Getty describes the work) too obvious?

The Landmarks Commission has done an exceptional job in documenting its reasons for declaring Chain Reaction a Santa Monica landmark, and I support all the commission’s reasons and reasoning. I want only to add that to me the importance of the sculpture transcends local history and heritage. It’s a case of local politics being not all local.

(There’s been a lot written about Chain Reaction, most of which is accessible from the Save Chain Reaction website. I particularly recommend Christopher Knight’s article for the Los Angeles Times and Paul Von Blum’s article for Truthdig (the latter placing Chain Reaction in the context of political art). While pressure is building on the City not to let the sculpture go, and the City has ultimate responsibility for saving it, there are good reasons for the City to solicit private funding to help do so (think Annenberg Beach House). A fun way to support the preservation effort is to attend Jerry Rubin’s 70th birthday party/benefit at Rusty’s on the Pier December 11. Tickets, benefiting the Chain Reaction fund, are $70. For ticket information, go here.)

Thanks for reading.