Over the past three decades, urban professionals from various disciplines within and outside academia have pointed fingers at suburban sprawl as the key culprit for the continued decay of L.A.'s inner cities. Businesses that decamped Watts, Boyle Heights and Compton for the suburbs, the argument goes, also saddled these communities with empty storefronts and polluted lots requiring expensive cleanup. Massive redevelopment efforts unveiled to stem urban decay in these neighborhoods failed to reverse the urban exodus.
Fast-forward to 2008. Today, the very communities left for dead are suddenly enjoying an unprecedented comeback. Like the phoenix rising from its ashes, Compton last year unveiled an unprecedented $80 million shopping center at its southern fringes and a $40 million residential development to boot in the heart of downtown. Boyle Heights is putting finishing touches on a proposal for a $2 billion upscale commercial and residential development in an area that has been blighted for decades. Watts, a community that has struggled for decades with grinding poverty and crime, has become the venue for market-rate residential developments. And the list goes on.
Why this sudden back-to-the-city frenzy? What happened to sprawl? Undoubtedly, a confluence of several factors might have something to do with it. Yet, truth be told, compact growth is trouncing suburban sprawl not because the destructive environmental consequences of the latter have made it unacceptable. It is simply because high commuting costs pain at the pump have been demagnetizing the draw of the suburbs and suddenly catapulted compact development to the forefront.
Sprawl, the antithesis of compact growth, gained prominence in the L.A. metropolis and other regions during the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s simply because powerful developers and the apostles of the unfettered free-market model deemed sprawl as the consequences of market choices and hence the epitome of economic efficiency, freedom and property rights. Ironically, during the same period, others took an opposite view of sprawl by arguing that Los Angeles and its haphazard land-use policy had transformed the metropolis through its unplanned, unchecked, profit-driven growth machinery.
For example, during the early years of this decade, the Southern California Studies Center at USC and the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy in a classic paper demonstrated the environmental inequities of sprawl by showing graphic evidence of unequal concentration of air pollution and health hazards in L.A.'s inner cities. Yet such warnings were not enough to dethrone the politically entrenched proponents of sprawl because sprawl was deemed economically, scientifically and politically good, so long as gasoline prices ranged from $1 to $1.20 per gallon.
But today's pain at the pump, occasioned by record gasoline prices at more than $4 a gallon, is affecting behavior and the thinking process of commuters. According to the Federal Highway Administration, travel on public roads fell in March for the first time since 1979, and public transit ridership is up. Smart growth developments that enable people to live within walking distance of work, shops, schools, parks and transit stops have become desirable today.
Suddenly, the once "market" poor communities have become strategic locations for compact mixed-use developments that are not auto dependent. The inner-city communities, which had historically been dumping grounds for the region's NIMBY transportation projects (highways, freeways and transit routes), have ironically become diamonds in the rough. Metrolink Blue Line transit systems that were once considered symbols of inner-city blues have now become symbols of inner-city boom and are enjoying the envy of suburbanites. Along the major corridors of these communities is the proliferation of mixed-use, transit-oriented developments (retail, residential and entertainment centers).
Ironically, as affluent neighborhoods of Westside Los Angeles shudder and resist the intrusion of dense, so-called Manhattan-style mixed-use developments in their fortresslike neighborhoods, distressed urban communities on the Eastside are having the last laugh. If affluent L.A. is giving "Manhattanization" a lukewarm reception, smart growth is earning a front-row seat in the theater of inner-city revitalization a paradigm shift in L.A. land-use policy, indeed!
Kofi Sefa-Boakye is director of the Community Redevelopment Agency in Compton.
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