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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"I'd be safe and warm if I was in LA" (but the ocean would be cold and dirty)

Being outside of Miami for a moment is like going back to the real world. Don’t get me wrong, I love our soft humid breezes, clear water and white sand beaches. What brought this to mind is a quick trip out to Los Angeles I have coming up. Los Angeles, a city of 7 million is what we can imagine Miami will be in 20-50 years. (That’s without Hollywood, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.) L.A. also has the educational institutions, research institutions and industrial base that we can only dream of now. On the other hand it some of its challenges are eerily familiar.

Examples of poor planning over the years in Los Angeles should serve as a model to Miami. Part of the reason that the city does not learn from the experience of other urban areas is the pervarding insularity and boosterism that abounds. Miamians many of whom have only a passing familiarity with other parts of the country, are not even aware that the building boom is nationwide, not just here in Miami.

Miami is susceptible to hucksters as well as good intentioned folk that step into the void and deliver seemingly great ideas, (sometimes backed with capital) to city leaders and citizenry. Duany and Plater-Zyberk come selling rehashed if perfectly valid Jane Jacobs ideas; Rouse Company came in and sold the Festival Marketplace idea for Bayside. (Am I the only one that wants to bomb the Hard Rock café guitar and that horrible 500 feet wide water fountain that is suppose to remind us of Claude Pepper's pork barrel mastery?) Then there are the folks behind Imagine Miami who sold the “food stamps, Medicaid and tax refunds as a solution to poverty idea”. Developers Diversified came in with the “give me free money and open zoning and I’ll kickstart retail” idea and Dan Pfeffer and the Cayre family brought in the “give me free land and I will develop it” idea.

The public debates that should arise do not in Miami whenever these hucksters get an official’s ear. Mayor Diaz is the sort of “looking past this place” politician who loves a big, simple answer to small complicated questions. It doesn’t help when city manager Joe “You fuckin’ talkin’ to me” Arriola (aka he of no qualifications and even less sense) threatens his semi qualified department heads that unless they follow whatever he and his boss want without question, they will get the axe.

Los Angeles (as well as Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc.) went through downtown building booms two decades ago in excess of the amount of building that is occurring in Miami. In the short run they increased their skylines dramatically (LA prohibited skyscrapers until 1970's) and early speculators cashed in big. In the medium term it turned out that behind the sparkle there was a lot of failure.

Historic buildings were lost, office and residential space went empty. In Los Angeles, in order to clear up the homeless problem and encourage business to abandon some of the older sections of downtown, the city made the area around 5th Street the center for social services and housing for the indigent, drug addled and mentally ill.

Eventually Los Angeles was forced into a redo of sorts with Century City in the affluent Westside of the city becoming the new functional version of downtown for Los Angeles while the actual downtown floundered. Century City offered the right mix of housing, industry, retail and amenities and was grafted into the existing urban fabric and structure. The area around Los Angeles’ Century City area had a huge stock of midrise (two to six story) buildings in mid-Wishire, West Hollywood and other neighborhoods and a mix of multi-family and single family homes in adjacent Westside neighborhoods that benefited from Century City’s development.

The uneven development in downtown Los Angeles has now been redressed by a massive performing arts center, one of the nation’s largest convention centers, a beautiful city library, a top flight museum, a new sports arena, new park space, public transportation system, mixed income housing, a technology corridor, a design college/studios/wholesale complex and medical centers. Unlike Miami, the museums and sports arena were built with private funding and park space and the projects are funded through bonds that were paid for through CRA levied taxes and impact fees. Downtown Los Angeles had a CRA since 1948 so obviously they are well ahead of the curve vis a vis Miami.

That was not all that apparent during the boom of the late 1980’s and early ‘90’s when every doubt about the need for so much housing and office space was answered with “Los Angeles is the Gateway of the Pacific Rim” (a much more promising vision than "Gateway to Latin America", granted). It took a decade of failure until Los Angeles found that the best way to be a gateway to another area was by focusing on building its own competitive infrastructure and institutions.

Two California real estate booms later and only now has downtown Los Angeles become what it was projected to be. None of the fanfare that came with the initial efforts is apparent. Los Angeles has moved beyond the stage of boosterism to honest debate and critical analysis of its circumstances. It is finally getting over being burned by transportation projects, tangled with insider dealings that went way over budget. Expansion of the train system has finally restarted.

Downtown's development has been overshadowed by Santa Monica, Pasadena, Long Beach, Beverly Hills, etc. Quietly however, downtown Los Angeles, covering roughly the same area as downtown Miami brings in $2 billion in taxes a year, an exponentially larger sum than all of Miami.

The city has aggressively defended historic buildings, mixed income housing, park space and design integrity in the area during this new phase. This has resulted in tremendous long term growth in property values, tax base and a top bond rating for future projects. One of the largest projects underway is something very reminiscent of Midtown Miami in design and scope. The Grand Avenue Project is being built by The Related Companies- as in the parent company of Jorge Perez’s Related Company.

For those interested I recommend this and this article and
http://www.joelkotkin.com/ (One of the better minds in urban affairs.)

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