Making California Possible: The New Colonist Outlines Urban Issues for Aspiring Governors
California is headed toward terminal gridlock in all major metropolitan areas and their suburbs, and the upcoming recall election is an opportunity to correct the problems of today and direct development in a way that will ensure a sustainable future for the state.
Now is the time for us to begin the long task of reconfiguring our cities in ways that are independent of the automobile for mobility and access. It's also an opportunity to nurture community and personal tranquility and creativity without condemning residents to long hours of driving just for getting to work, buying the necessities of life, or finding company and entertainment.
High Speed Rail from San Diego and Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento will reduce our dependence on fuel-wasting, ozone-wrecking, highly-subsidized air service and reduce the need to dedicate yet vaster tracts of land to airports and their associated feeder roads and parking lots; property tax reform and enlightened zoning guidelines can go a long way to improving California's business and urban environment; and watershed management can forestall water shortages while bettering the quality of life in our cities and suburbs. These are the most important issues facing California and her cities.
The issues are as follows:
Effective Public Transit
The new BART extension to the San Francisco International Airport is a long overdue necessity other California communities should emulate, and the addition of the stunning new Gold Line to the rail matrix in Los Angeles shows that even in the world capital of car culture, rail is popular, convenient, and effective. Further investment in mass transit should be a priority for a new administration.
Adding fixed ground transportation in mid-sized and larger California cities and enhancing regional systems like BART throughout the state (including a BART link to San Jose) will simultaneously reduce our dependence on uncertain and diminishing oil supplies, reduce the demand for wasteful road building and expansion, drive private development around rail lines, naturally restrain sprawl without the need for intricate regulation, and improve residents' health and productivity by reducing stress.
In the Greater Los Angeles area in particular--the state's (and the nation's) biggest and most traffic-harried urban agglomeration--we must support the building of the three Red Line branches out to Santa Monica, Warner Center, and East Los Angeles respectively, the construction of light rail feeder lines such as the Exposition Corridor and Silver lines, improvement in bus routing and scheduling, and the conceptualization of future lines, such as the "Tan Line" from the West Valley to the beach (starting at CSUN, then following the Sepulveda Corridor to UCLA, LAX, the Beach Cities, the Harbor, and finally the Long Beach Transit Mall, where it would join the present Blue Line). Other cities, towns, and regions, from San Diego to the Inland Empire to the Ventura/Santa Barbara axis, and more, will benefit from judicious construction of light rail lines and Metrolink connections, as well as bus service augmentations
For too many years California has looked to highways and airlines for transportation solutions.
This has not worked. Building more highways into cities is like running a faucet into a drain. The faster the water comes out, the more the sink fills up. In addition, highly-subsidized private airline transportation has become financially burdensome, is environmentally dirty (with no cure in sight), and requires long and wasteful commutes from population centers to airports usually on the outskirts of town. High-speed rail has shown itself to be able to compete against airlines and win--even Lufthansa, the German airline, now invests in rail.
With China and Pennsylvania preparing high-speed rail projects, California has been behind the wave for too long. There have been enough studies. We know it works. It's time to build.
Aquifers are vanishing throughout the state--in fact, throughout the west. Meanwhile, global warming is preparing us for years of dry weather that may make the Great Seven Years' Drought of two decades ago seem like a lark. Los Angeles already imports up to 80 percent of its water from Northern California and the Colorado River--and river agencies have sold rights to more of the river's water than flows in any typical year. The typical years are now over for a long time to come; Phoenix and Tucson are running out of groundwater and preparing to invoke their contractual privileges, while more and more people move into Southern California every week--and in three days of heavy February rain, enough water to supply all of Los Angeles proper with water for a year runs down a maze of concrete ditches and out to the sea.
We have paved our way to disaster. We must begin a judicious depaving of our cities--a process that that transit-oriented development (such as is already taking place around Los Angeles's Metro stations) and the provision of other effective means of public transit can make possible. We must establish water control parks everywhere in our cities, even far upstream from the Los Angeles River and other flow collectors; the Sepulveda Basin and Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles provide models we can use. Urban farms, no-development zones interspersed with higher-density neighborhoods, and multi-use flood control basins that serve as recreation, picnic, or community garden tracts during most of the year, and become temporary lakes during rainy times, would make the city more livable (and thus more attractive to businesses), at the same time recharging groundwater supplies with precious water that is now gathered into vast and ugly open drains and blasted out to sea.
Zoning for Mixed-Use and Higher Densities
Critics of higher-density development always bring up tired and hollow images of tenements and Pruitt-Igoe to support their opposition to anything but sprawl, but ponder this: Paris, France, has twice the population density of New York City, yet is a rich, tranquil, nurturing, and humane environment as well as a bustling capital and the economic engine of the country. Californians spend thousands of dollars to go over there and experience the pleasures of life in a densely-populated, transit-rich, pedestrian-oriented city with a wealth of amenities on nearly every corner.
Encouraging mixed-use development--apartments over retail, corner stores, and so forth--makes a city more convenient as well as more exhilarating, and since small businesses provide over half the jobs in our country, simply allowing neighborhood businesses to exist will increase employment, competition, and economic activity in general. Also, businesses that are rooted in a neighborhood will provide better service and greater retail choice, and will be more likely to participate in neighborhood life and contribute in cash and in kind to solving neighborhood problems, than any "big box" store, run by a distant corporation, ever can.
Simple things such as permitting the construction of "granny flats" in or over garages of single-family homes will alleviate housing shortages without bankrupting the state by requiring that it provide roads and services to new developments, and would also help ease the transition into old age for those of us--and that will eventually be all of us--who are entering the latter halves of our lives. Likewise, requiring the provision of lower-income housing in all developments--smaller houses and apartments mixed with larger--will again ease housing shortages, will put a human face on poverty (one doesn't ignore a problem that besets a beloved neighbor), and will show the poor what they can aspire to achieve through labor and diligence.
Higher-density development is the opposite of sprawl, and much cheaper for the state to maintain, as there is less public infrastructure--roads, sewers, schools, libraries, etc.--and less need for policing and maintenance for any given population; also, a development that needs less pavement, and has in place of that pavement homes and businesses, pays more taxes per square mile, while requiring less output in cash and labor from the state, than does sprawl.
Property Tax Reform
Present property tax practices penalize the use of land. Land itself is lightly taxed, while use of the land--"improvements"--is heavily taxed. Yet the value of a plot of land depends less on what is on it than on what is around it--the aggregate value of the community in which it lies. This is the source of the realtor's famous dictum: "Location, location, location." The sellers of property well know that a dump in a good location is more valuable than a mansion in a bad one.
Under the present property tax system, many property owners refuse to build on or improve their properties, because the tax will then increase. Instead, they let land lie vacant and buildings deteriorate, creating a "Bronx Effect," while hoping that other landlords will improve their properties, and that the rising tide will lift their boat along with those of more conscientious owners. They then can sell out at a profit to someone who wants to build, perhaps to take advantage of population pressures.
Landlords and realtors, by their behavior, are telling us what we should be doing: the state should tax properties according to the value of the land and community, not according the value of what is built on it. This is called a "Land Value Tax," and the result of employing this practice is that taxes are relatively high on a property whether it is built on or not--and that therefore, rather than holding decrepit or vacant properties in order to reap a one-time windfall profit, the landlord will either develop the land, in order to collect rent on it, or sell it immediately to someone else who wants to build. Land value tax automatically increases the density and attractiveness of a city, because one can command higher rents for a well-built, well-designed property in a well-kept neighborhood--be it commercial or residential (or both)--than for a decrepit or indifferent one. And of course higher tenant densities mean more income for the landlord. This system restrains the tendency of good neighborhoods to deteriorate, and creates a follow-the-leader effect in lower-value neighborhoods when one or two improvements begin to raise the value of the community.
Land value tax will result in better housing, richer retail development, more density, less paving, and more commitment to community values--since an attractive community rich in services and amenities will have a higher commercial value than a decrepit and socially-fragmented one. And it will return more to the state.
Oil and water supplies are diminishing, population is increasing, jobs are scarce, the land itself is rapidly vanishing under endless waves of asphalt, and imagination and courage are in short supply. Our communities are largely fragmented, and life even for the well-off consists primarily of alternating among the workstation, the windshield, and the TV screen. Meanwhile, the very old and very young, who do not drive, depend on the willingness of relatives to serve as unpaid taxi drivers, and life becomes an endless round of staring at the back bumper of the car ahead on the freeway.
We can aspire to more than this. Our leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, have for too long been preparing to meet the challenges of the 1950s. Times are different now. We need a governor who can see beyond the white picket fence and discern the path to a happier and healthier future. We need a governor who can nurture projects and principles that will forestall the disasters that loom on the horizon, and that will make a better life for all. We need a governor who can make California possible again.