Harlan: Convenience shouldn't overshadow deeper value

Throughout Costa Mesa there have been signs of new economic investment along our major corridors.

Harbor Boulevard is dotted with construction crews busy building new projects, 17th Street is home to a few new restaurants, and the Triangle is under scaffolding for its impending reinvention.

But if you take a closer look, you'll notice that the kind of development we're attracting is not the type you'd eagerly anticipate. I'm not referring to a new sit-down restaurant or the re-use of a large, abandoned car dealership or a much-needed senior housing development. It's the small, seemingly benign projects — the fast food joints, the drive-through coffee shops — that can have a cumulatively, adverse impact on our community.

The vast majority of these new commercial projects have one common characteristic: They are designed solely to deliver convenience. Get your daily caffeine fix, your cheeseburger combo and your drug prescription without leaving the safety and sanctity of your car.

I certainly appreciate and enjoy some of our modern-day conveniences. Smartphones are remarkably efficient tools, online banking saves me many headaches, and the DVR helps keep the peace in my family.

But convenience is not the same thing as value. Value is something we share, a benefit that accrues for all of us. It's not calculated by a simple cost-benefit analysis.

Value is about worth over the long term. We see value in our properties, our parks, our schools, as well as in our location within the region, and in our businesses and available labor force.

Although there's no prescribed formula for determining value in a community, there are a few basic considerations.

For example, when evaluating a project, no matter how small, we should ask: Is it a new attraction that will help distinguish Costa Mesa in a positive way? Does it notably add to the design quality of our built environment? Does it generate new jobs and sales taxes, and spur other local investment? Does it significantly impair an adjacent neighborhood's quality of life? Does it bring the community together?

So when the City Council on May 15 voted 3 to 1 — after a hearing lasting more than three hours and ending at midnight — to approve a drive-thru Starbucks on East 17th Street, I couldn't help but think that, once again, convenience prevailed over value.

Replacing an abandoned bank and its drive-up ATM (which served about 80 cars per week) with a drive-thru Starbucks (serving upward of 50 cars per hour!) and an accompanying 2,185-square-foot food establishment is not an even swap. The neighbors nearest the site pointed out plainly that the noise, traffic, air quality and public safety impacts went far beyond that of a financial institution open five days a week with regular business hours.

No one, including the impacted neighbors, objected to the introduction of yet another Starbucks (there are two others within a half-mile radius). Traditionally, coffeehouses are important gathering places for neighbors to talk, debate and relax. But this intensely used drive-thru — the epitome of convenience — is more than the neighbors should bear.

Unfortunately, the community's reasonable pleas fell on the council's deaf ears.

So, what is the real cost of convenience? As individuals we pay for it with our pocketbooks (a latte, please). We pay for it with our expanding waistlines and increased health-care costs (just one more latte). We pay for it with more time cloistered in our cars and less time for our families, friends and neighbors.

As a community, we pay for convenience with more tax dollars spent on infrastructure improvements. We pay for it with poorer air quality caused by more cars traveling on our local streets. And we pay for it with uninspiring architecture and poor urban design that makes Costa Mesa look just like every other suburb.

And while we enjoy our daily conveniences, we should be more mindful of how they impact our environment and community. Just because something is convenient does not make it an amenity.

Raise your next venti latte as a toast to Costa Mesa — may we aspire to be an authentic community of lasting value, not one of generic, short-term convenience.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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