Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What is smart growth?

In today's LA Times, there is an article about the transformation of office buildings into mixed use developments. This is largely an anecdotal collection of many new developments, some that are adaptive reuse and some that are new construction. In the story, Jim O'Sullivan, the president of the Miracle Mile HOA, is quoted as saying these projects do not amount to smart growth because they do not focus on reducing commute trips:

"All of these projects have what they call ground-floor commercial. What you get is Jamba Juice or Subway or Starbucks. That flies in the face of what the city calls smart growth," O'Sullivan said. "Smart growth is supposed to combine living and office spaces [to cut down on commutes]. No one who is moving into these new apartments is going to go down and work in Jamba Juice or Starbucks."

He and others said the city should encourage more office development on the sites, because those would bring in jobs where new area residents might work.

O'Sullivan should be commended for having such a clear definition of smart growth, but he is the only person to see it so plainly. In any event, he is badly underestimating the share of traffic caused by non-work trips. Commuting accounts for about 20% of all travel in U.S. cities, and there is ample evidence that jobs have decentralized along with population. This leaves 80% of trips as "discretionary", and it is these trips that clog the roads as people are driving to Starbucks, Jamba Juice or to the mall. It is also not as clear if these land uses have decentralized along with jobs and population. While work locational decisions still are important in residential locational decisions, most households choose where to live based on a bundle of factors and where they work is not the dominant factor. Households typically have more than one worker, and due to employment mobility housing tenure often exceeds employment tenure. Put together, these concerns point to discretionary amenities as a better focus of "smart growth" or any evaluations of how effective development is at reducing travel.

Another thing is this article worth mentioning is that all of the adaptive reuse projects are possible only because the office buildings were built with minimum parking requirements. This is not to defend parking requirements, rather it needs to be pointed out that many buildings along Wilshire are not viable for redevelopment because they do not have adequate parking. By waiving parking requirements for adaptive reuse around transit stations, the city could go very far towards breaking the car dependency that LA is famous for. I think that all else equal, LA is not as adverse to transit as people think, it's just that the transit system is poorly designed and does not deliver people to where they want to go. Lastly, transit oriented development is undersupplied, so those who want to live somewhere without a car still have to pay for their parking spaces. The new developments along Wilshire will certainly deliver more choices to residents. Who knows if there will be any behavioral changes because of it or if people who want to live without cars will simply relocate to those locations. In either case it seems we are better off.

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