Reducing 'Big L.A.' to Size

Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a research fellow at the Reason Public Policy Institute

As Southern California has grown accustomed to a strong economy, there has been a resurgence of the antigrowth, antidevelopment sentiment that characterized the late 1980s. Across the region, numerous, and often vital projects--from LAX and other airports' expansion to the Alameda Corridor--are under fire from a combination of environmental, neighborhood and labor groups. If unchecked, the antigrowth sentiment, coupled with instability in global markets, could derail the region's recovery.

"There's less fright about the economy, so the NIMBYs ("not in my back yard") have returned in force," says Richard Slawson, executive secretary of the Los Angeles-Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council. "If there's a project near a residential area, it will be stopped. Creating new business and new places to work seems anathema to a lot of people."

Today's antidevelopment trend is not without antecedents. Under Mayor Tom Bradley, the city was ruled by a pro-growth coalition composed of big-time development interests and organized labor, especially the building trades. In common with the city's business-oriented founding fathers, this "big L.A." coalition translated its visionary belief in the region's economic manifest destiny into massive infrastructure projects. But a consequence of this growth mania was a mounting concern about "quality of life" issues. Nowhere was this sentiment more powerfully expressed than on the affluent and politically potent Westside, where residents feared their village-like neighborhoods were being transformed into impersonal, high-rise districts.

By the late 1980s, neighborhood activists had gone to war with developers, culminating in passage of the growth-limiting Proposition U in the city of Los Angeles. The "little L.A." movement spread to other communities, including Ventura and Orange counties, where antigrowth advocates raised the specter of L.A.-like development in their own backyards.

The deep recession in the early 1990s restored the emphasis on growth--any growth. Especially dramatic was the attitude shift toward the entertainment industry, which often had been treated by neighborhood groups as little more than a nuisance. In alliance with the craft unions, the motion-picture industry successfully pushed for regulatory reforms that largely reversed the flight of production to other regions and countries.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the pro-growth revival was the approval, in 1993, of the huge Playa Vista development near Marina Del Rey. For the first time since the mid-1980s, an alliance of organized labor, business leaders, mainstream environmental groups, along with some traditionally antigrowth politicians, embraced an ambitious project, even throwing in a bunch of incentives to entice the proposed DreamWorks studio to build on the site. "Playa Vista passed because at the time we seemed to need it," recalls Cody Cluff, president of the Entertainment Industry Development Corp. "Now," he says, "that window has closed." The Playa Vista project remains bogged down in financial, environmental and political controversy.

But the most revealing conflict between the growth and antigrowth forces is over Universal City expansion. The studio's plans to expand its CityWalk, theme park and sound-stage space were widely welcomed when first announced in the early 1990s. Since then, the studio appears to have alienated not only its surrounding neighborhoods, but also its natural allies among organized labor.

Universal's travails reveal precisely how the "big L.A." crowd has gotten itself into such trouble. First, it incurred the displeasure of community groups by unveiling its $1-billion project without having much consulted with them. Second, it created a festering conflict with organized labor by condoning a largely nonunion CityWalk work force and managing to raise suspicions in some craft unions that Universal management really wants to use nonunion crews on the studio's new sound stages.

One former top Universal executive traces the problem to Seagram heir Edgar M. Bronfman Jr. Seagram bought Universal in 1995. Bronfman, unlike Lew Wasserman, the former head of Universal, lacks the necessary street smarts when it comes to contemporary development politics in Los Angeles, particularly with regard to organized labor. "The unions will do anything to create jobs but they don't like being insulted," says the former executive, who remains an advisor to the new team. "You don't get the skills of being a Hollywood insider just because you are a third-generation billionaire." Bronfman, it should be noted, is a relative newcomer to L.A., as well.

It is precisely such political "skills" that often make the difference in selling big projects to "little L.A." groups. This should not mean that major development is impossible, says Tony Lucente, president of the 2,000-household Studio City Residents Assn., the group spearheading opposition to Universal's plan. As an example, he points to the more consultative approach adopted by the management of CBS Studio Center when undertaking expansion.

An even better example of successful cooperation between developer and neighborhood groups can be found in Hollywood, the site of the city's most important redevelopment project. Developer TrizecHahn has managed to accommodate NIMBYite sentiments in surrounding neighborhoods. Equally important, it has established good relations with organized labor and its most fervent City Council ally, Jackie Goldberg, by embracing the "living wage" component for full-time workers and opening the Holiday Inn it acquired north of Hollywood Boulevard to union organizers.

TrizecHahn's gesture to the hotel workers reflects some new realities of dealing with labor. In the past, it was often enough to recruit the relatively high-wage building-trade and craft unions into a pro-growth coalition to get something built. Today, under the leadership of County Federation of Labor Executive Secretary Miguel Contreras, the price of a union alliance is better wages and access to unionization for traditionally low-wage workers in service fields.

Building a new growth coalition with organized labor may prove business' best bet of countering resurgent neo-NIMBYism. Dan Garcia, former president of the city Planning Commission and, until last May, head of the Airport Commission, says that corporate chieftains no longer are powerful enough to push major projects through themselves. Among other things, he adds, the relatively low level of development activity--the value of L.A. County office construction last year was one-fifth the 1988 level--has undermined the development community's political girth and lobbying power.

Garcia says growth alliances have their best shot in areas where the need for jobs and neighborhood improvements are most compelling, like the Eastside. New coalitions, he advises, "should be built with those with an inherent interest in the future of the city, such as a Hispanic family or a Korean businessman." Garcia's criteria point to downtown, which has relatively few full-time residents, and other areas close to working-class neighborhoods as the best candidates to host large projects.

Yet, developers in the inner city must be mindful of their projects' potential to harm the environment. No community wants to be a dumping ground. But if abandoned factories and boarded-up buildings can be brought to life with job-producing new industry or fill, the retail needs of neglected areas, developers and residents can both benefit.

Developers, of course, may prefer choicer sites, but they must recognize that the price may be strong, persistent opposition from middle- and upper-class residents, particularly if the projects are large. In the end, they may not be able to build at all.

One thing is certain: The kind of no-holds-barred development that prevailed before the 1980s is L.A. history. Developers can still work to make things happen in Southern California. But they must now evince sharper political skills, a greater willingness to accommodate labor and a keener sensitivity to the people who live adjacent to their projects.

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