TOD? Really?

A few words about “transit oriented development” [TOD]. This is a phrase I hear a lot these days, especially from developers and city officials who want to build massive projects in congested urban areas. The other mantra they love to chant is “new urbanism”. They use these phrases like magic incantations, hoping to ward off opposition to their plans. If you question their sweeping vision for a new LA, you’re living in the past, you’re thinking small, you’re afraid to embrace the future. In reality they show little interest in the kind of careful, nuanced planning that would actually make the city a better place to live.

First, I should tell you that I don’t own a car, and I’m a great believer in public transit. Second, I can totally get behind TOD strategies when they are based on real data and a careful analysis of the local context. Often, though, developers don’t really give a damn about the facts. Often they’re only thinking about the massive amounts of money to be made if they can push their project through. And often the politicians, rather than protecting the interests of the people who elected them, are happy to fall in line because they know they’ll be richly rewarded for doing so.

The new Hollywood Community Plan is based on the premise that Los Angeles will continue to grow rapidly and that Transit Oriented Development is the only way to effectively manage the expected growth. But the truth is that this plan is based on fantasy rather than hard facts. US Census data shows that the population in the Hollywood area has not increased but has actually decreased over the last ten years. The Central Hollywood and East Hollywood areas have lost over 12,000 residents since 2000. The City Council argues that the population will rebound, but they have no data to support their assertion, and in fact they are ignoring the following facts:

Population Growth in LA Is Slowing

Population growth in Los Angeles has slowed dramatically. While the city grew by leaps and bounds during the 20th century, census data shows that LA’s population has only increased by 2.65% percent since 2000. This is part of larger trend throughout California, which is expected to grow by only 1% annually in the foreseeable future. Current data seems to indicate that after a century of huge gains, California’s population growth is now levelling out.

Dwindling Migration from Mexico

Immigrants are no longer coming to Los Angeles in the numbers they used to. The Mexican economy has been growing steadily for the past three years, which means many people who used to come to LA looking for work are now able to find jobs in their own country. It is a fact that immigration from Mexico to the US has slowed to almost nothing, and there is no reason to believe that this trend will be reversed in the near future. We can no longer expect a steady stream of immigrants coming from Mexico to Los Angeles.

Rising Housing Costs

Higher prices for housing are driving out lower income residents. It used to be that low rents in Hollywood attracted families without a lot of money to spend. In recent years, as developers, property owners and real estate agents have pushed for gentrification, rents have skyrocketed and these families can no longer afford to live in the area. The units they used to occupy are increasingly taken over by singles and couples who make higher wages. The new Hollywood Community Plan in general, and the Millennium Hollywood project in particular, will accelerate this trend toward gentrification, ultimately causing lower population density in the Hollywood area.

Fewer People, But More Traffic

The City Council has been arguing that TOD is necessary to reduce traffic, but higher density development in Hollywood hasn’t helped so far. In the past several years we’ve seen the construction of Sunset + Vine, the Redbury, the W Hotel and the Jefferson, all within easy walking distance of subway stations. But while the number of people living in Hollywood has dropped substantially, traffic has continued to get worse. I think this is because all these developments offer only high-end housing. The people who can afford to live in these buildings are also the people most likely to own cars. The people at the lower end of the economic spectrum who can’t afford cars and have to rely on public transportation are being squeezed out. Politicians and developers talk about TOD, but really their plans are causing more traffic and longer commutes.

Like I said before, I believe in TOD. I’d like to see more of it in LA. But what we’re getting now is not transit oriented development. What we’re really getting is a lot of empty hype designed to put money in developers’ pockets. The new Hollywood Community Plan and the Millennium Hollywood project were not designed to make our lives better. They were designed to make developers rich.