Temporary McMansion control in 20 LA neighborhoods

The Los Angeles City Council recently passed an ordinance limiting the construction of large homes in a number of Los Angeles neighborhoods:

The City Council unanimously passed the Neighborhood Conservation Interim Control Ordinance, which put a two-year ban on the size of new, single-family dwellings in some neighborhoods.

The ordinance temporarily limits the size of single-family dwellings in 15 neighborhoods: Valley Village, South Hollywood, La Brea Hancock Neighborhood, The Oaks of Los Feliz, Miracle Mile, Larchmont Heights, Lower Council District Five, Beverlywood, Inner Council District Five, Fairfax Area, Bel Air, Faircrest Heights Neighborhood, Kentwood, Mar Vista/East Venice and Old Granada Hills.

The law also puts a temporary moratorium on the issuance of building and demolition permits in five proposed Historic Preservation Overlay Zones: Sunset Square, Carthay Square, Holmby-Westwood, Oxford Square and El Sereno-Berkshire Craftsman District…

Los Angeles city planners are crafting new zoning codes for development in the city. Updated regulations are expected to be released in about 18 months.

The key in this ongoing battle is what the updated regulations look like. At the moment, this ordinance slows down large teardown houses in certain neighborhoods. Yet, it will still be difficult to balance property rights versus the wishes of the neighborhood groups in a few years.

Two other possible side effects:

1. I wonder if this will lead to teardowns and McMansions in neighborhoods outside these boundaries. While these neighborhoods are off-limits to some degree, the demand for housing doesn’t disappear.

2. What will happen to both the population and character of these protected neighborhoods in the next few years? Will there be population increases or decreases? Will builders and developers take their projects elsewhere? Will these places be held up as paragons of citizens rallying together to save something?

If you want a few visuals of the homes that cannot be built in the next few years, check out these five recently constructed homes at Curbed LA.

Some band had to eventually take the name “Mcmansions”

If you can play lead guitar, you can join the band with the great name “Mcmansions.”

Mcmansions seek lead guitarist (Marietta Ga.)

We are primarily an original band based out of Marietta,Ga. We sing about Love, Loss, sadness, insanity and yes redemption. all of us are over the age of 40 and prefer the same.We are acoustic guitarists/lead singer,bass/backup vocals, and drums. We enjoy live performance and recording,mostly on weekends.We are actively seeking you electric guitarist to make our music even better. We all have obligations but nonetheless we live to write sing and play and will quit when we are dead. Our arrangements are not difficult we just need an energetic new friend to fill in all the blanks with stylistic embellishments to whip the band up into a frenzy of rock n roll bliss.

And the style or ethos of the band?

We are proudly playing a distinct original blend of lightly salted alternative Rock/Americana self styled tunage The music speaks for itself We have a 60s garage sound in our music that draws from the Rock, soul, pop ,punk,country and gospel that we have all come to love Actually we have a lost Identity covered with kudzu, rust and condemned asbestos habitations with chipped lead paint…

Given the criticism the McMansion has taken in the last 15 years, there is a lot of sadness and insanity to explore here with this particular band name. However, I’m not sure audiences would be ready for love and redemption stories regarding McMansions…

Two other thoughts:

1. Even with their many problems of the suburbs according to critics (including a lack of community and poor design), there are a good number of music artists who have emerged from this social space in last half century. Perhaps it provides teenagers lots of time, space, and social connections for putting together a group? Perhaps it is because people in the suburbs get some decent music training as kids or have access to instruments and time? Perhaps suburban ills push people toward music as a way to escape?

2. McMansions may not be appealing to some but they offer a lot of space for music equipment and practice space. Imagine how much sound it takes to fill that two-story great room. Or the way that the loud noise of a rock band might just rattle the poorly constructed abode.

Dilemma: replace older housing with “cheesy apartment complexes” or McMansions?

If older housing is going to be torn down, would you prefer it be replaced with apartment buildings or McMansions?

McMansions are going up one after another in my neighborhood on the Burbank hillside. Unattractive boxy additions are being built, leaving little yard space, and houses are being torn down to make way for bigger two-story barns. The reason for this may be because of the need for more room to accommodate today’s lifestyle — computers, media rooms, etc. It does spoil the whole appearance of the neighborhood. However, what’s worse it that ever since the ’60s,charming old cottages have been razed to make way for cheesy apartment complexes. Older apartment buildings with space and courtyards have been replaced by bigger apartment blocks with no outdoor areas. Maybe McMansions are the lesser of two evils.

Of course, these aren’t the only options available in many places. Yet, if land is expensive, McMansions and apartments could be appealing to builders and developers: the first can maximize square footage and have a higher selling price while the second increases the number of housing units (which could also help provide more housing in places that struggle with higher housing values).

If I had to guess, more Americans would choose to live next to a McMansion than an apartment complex. McMansions receive a lot of criticism, particularly in older neighborhoods where the new homes don’t fit the character or architecture. Yet, apartment complexes may be disliked even more by many suburbanites, even in the abstract, let alone next door or down the block. Apartments are perceived to attract different kinds of residents – lower class, different racial and ethnic groups, more prone to crime, more transient, less invested in their housing unit and the community – compared to suburban single-family homeowners.

Thinking more broadly, what housing options might be disliked more than apartments? Maybe trailer parks. Or group homes. Or public housing, whether in larger concentrations or scattered-site.

Scatter-site public housing also won’t work in providing affordable housing?

Megan McArdle argues neither concentrated public housing or scatter-site public housing can effectively address the issues of affordable housing:

And so here we are: The government simply has relatively little power to create more affordable housing in the face of massively increasing demand for homes in desirable cities like Washington, New York and San Francisco. It can create some units that will benefit a few people. It can slow the process of gentrification a bit. But the dream of adding all those new, affordable-housing-advocating, affluent young people to the city, while allowing the former residents to stay in place, seems to me to be just that: a dream. A nice dream. But still a dream, which like all dreams will eventually evaporate as reality overtakes it.

McArdle suggests the economic and political realities are too tough for affordable housing to do well and to limit gentrification. I would also suggest that this hints at the ongoing influence of race and class. While this could be spun as the result of economic laws (supply and demand) and politics (certain urban residents have more of a political voice and ability to influence decision-making), race and class underlie much of this. Who are the people who live in affordable or subsidized housing? Who are the people who tend to live in more exclusive communities or who are doing the gentrifying? These patterns of race and class are much broader than just the hot neighborhoods in major cities; they influence many of the settlement patterns across the United States.

Despite the pessimism here, this also means there is a big opportunity to figure this out. Are there contexts where affordable housing on a big enough scale works? Places where race and class matter less? Methods where both protecting property rights and providing for those with resources can coexist?

Mayors leading the charge for tackling infrastructure issues

Who is tackling big infrastructure projects these days?

Governors have long been among the nation’s loudest advocates for pouring concrete. Interstate highways? New bridges? Major development projects? They love it. When a huge pot of federal money opened up as part of the 2009 stimulus package, states were eager to get their share of the cash and push it toward pet projects, shovel-ready or not.

And that’s what makes it interesting to see mayors taking the lead on transportation spending. At an event Monday in Boston, the U.S. Conference of Mayors launched what it says will be the largest coordinated campaign by mayors in some time, pushing Congress to reauthorize the surface-transportation bill and to increase funding for local and state infrastructure projects…

All of that combines to create a situation in which mayors, rather than governors, can take over the dominant role in pushing for transportation spending. Of course, mayors have plenty of concerns of their own, especially in big cities. Major bridges like the one that collapsed in Minnesota in 2007 worry them, as do crumbling urban highway interchanges and failing subway systems. Here in D.C., a major parkway was snarled for much of Tuesday after crumbling masonry fell off a bridge into the roadway. Some of the mayors who are most involved in pushing for more infrastructure money are Democratic mayors in Republican-led states—like Kasim Reed of Atlanta.

The article suggests this is primarily a political Republican vs. Democrat question with Democratic mayors pushing for things that Republicans at the national level don’t support. But, I think this ignores another factor: these mayors are at the level of government that is closest to some of these issues. For them, infrastructure is not an abstract concept but rather more often about specific projects that can enhance life in their city. It is the difference between saying “America’s bridges are in trouble” versus “Boston needs an underground highway in order to free up land, improve traffic, and reduce pollution.” And Americans tend to like local government as they see it as more responsive to immediate needs. Governors can lobby for particular projects but they also have to keep in mind the concerns of multiple actors, which might even up pitting cities against each other for limited funds (i.e., is LA or San Francisco more worthy of a major transportation project). Mayors like the applicable projects that they can point to as real change. (An odd thought to throw in here: dictators often like to memorialize themselves with large-scale planning efforts that will outlive them. When municipal power is concentrated in the hands of a single figure, such as a powerful mayor, is a similar process at work?)

While the mayors may be closer to the infrastructure issues, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can get things done. What kind of clout do mayors have when there are other layers (like governors) to contend with?

Suburban sunbelt population soars again

Was the economic crisis just a blip in the ongoing growth of the suburban Sunbelt?

The unavoidable takeaway from the Census report is that Americans have resumed the westward suburban ho of the early 21st century, before the Great Recession came crashing down. None of the 20 fastest-growing metros are in the northeast. Rather, they’re in the sunny crescent that swoops from the Carolinas down through Texas and up into the west toward the Dakotas. Americans are back to sun-worshipping…

The story of immigration is slightly different. The list of cities with the greatest foreign-born influxes since 2010 includes some of these warm metros, like Houston and Dallas, but also filling out the top-ten metros for immigrants are areas where more native-born Americans are leaving, like New York (#1), Los Angeles (#2), Boston (#7), and Chicago (#9).

But the upshot seems to be that even as the recession sparked interest in an urban revival, the metros that seem to be winning the population lottery are suburbs of warm metros—including many of the very Sun Belt areas that seemed devastated by the recession.

Suburban sprawl continues…

And who are the people moving to big cities?

This is a tight feedback loop. The densest cities tend to be the most educated cities, which are also the richest cities, and often the biggest cities. They’re gobbling up a disproportionate share of college grads. And, as a result, they are becoming richer, denser, and more educated.

Both patterns can be going on at the same time: large numbers of Americans continuing to move to the Sunbelt suburbs while a good portion of educated young adults moving to hot neighborhoods in the biggest cities.

“We don’t lie to our search engine. We’re more intimate with it than with our friends, lovers, or family members.”

Wired has an interesting excerpt from a new book Data and Goliath:

One experiment from Stanford University examined the phone metadata of about 500 volunteers over several months. The personal nature of what the researchers could deduce from the metadata surprised even them, and the report is worth quoting:

Participant A communicated with multiple local neurology groups, a specialty pharmacy, a rare condition management service, and a hotline for a pharmaceutical used solely to treat relapsing multiple sclerosis…

That’s a multiple sclerosis sufferer, a heart attack victim, a semiautomatic weapons owner, a home marijuana grower, and someone who had an abortion, all from a single stream of metadata.

Web search data is another source of intimate information that can be used for surveillance. (You can argue whether this is data or metadata. The NSA claims it’s metadata because your search terms are embedded in the URLs.) We don’t lie to our search engine. We’re more intimate with it than with our friends, lovers, or family members. We always tell it exactly what we’re thinking about, in as clear words as possible.

The gist of the excerpt is that while people might be worried about the NSA, corporations know a lot about us: from who we have talked to, where we have been, who have interacted with through metadata and more personal information through search data. And perhaps the trick to all of this is that (1) we generally give up this data voluntarily online (2) because we perceive some benefits and (3) we can’t imagine life without all of this stuff (even though many important sites and social media barely existed a decade or two ago).

The reason I pulled the particular quote out for the headline is that it has some interesting implications: have we traded close social relationships for the intimacy of the Internet? We may not have to deal with so much ignorance – just Google everything now – but we don’t need to interact with people in the same ways.

Also, this highlights the need for tech companies to put a positive spin on all of their products and actions. “Trust us – we have your best interests at heart.” Yet, like most corporations, their best interests deal with money rather than solely helping people live better lives.

Denver addressing common big-city problem: where are the public restrooms?

In big cities like Denver, public bathrooms can be hard to find:

Downtown Denver is a busy area and a great place to visit. But it lacks one thing everyone needs – bathrooms.

“There hasn’t been a big need for it in the past but we’re looking into it now because we’ve heard from the community that there is a big need for it,” said Heather Burke of Denver Public Works.

You’re options now are to use the facilities at the business you’re patronizing, or you could do your business at your local, not so friendly, neighborhood dumpster…

In 2014 Denver Police issued 550 misdemeanor citations for urinating in public…

“It’s definitely on the city’s radar; we have a working group that’s looking at different options for public restrooms,” said Burke.

Infrastructure may not get the attention it deserves overall but shouldn’t public bathrooms also be on the radar screen?

This reminds me of the chapter in Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalks regarding how the street vendors he is studying are treated in regards to bathrooms. The short answer is not well as they are often homeless black men and local businesses are not always inclined to view them favorably. For example, the story cited above says the Hard Rock Cafe tries to be accommodating to visitors but how would they view people like street vendors as opposed to tourists or people who appear to be more middle or upper-class?

Sociologist on the three social pillars of science

Science has its own social context and goals:

Fuller has also written a lot about science and technology studies, or STS. Flipping through his 2006 book The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies, I came upon a passage–adapted from a 1998 essay—that defends the critical stance that STS scholars often take toward science. The passage reads like a comment on my recent column:

“There appears to be nothing uniquely ‘rational,’ objective,’ or ‘truth-oriented’ about the activities that our society calls ‘scientific.’ Make no mistake: it is not that scientists are less rational than the rest of humanity; rather, they are not more rational. STS researchers generally credit ordinary people with a good deal of intelligence.

“The power of science seems to rest on three pillars. One is science’s distinctive social organization, which enables concentrated periods of both teamwork and criticism, nowadays done on a global scale with considerable material resources. Another is concerted political effort to apply the results of scientific research to all aspects of society. Finally is the control that scientists continue to exert over how their history is told. Past diversions and failures remain largely hidden, resulting in an airbrushed picture of ‘progress’ otherwise absent from human affairs.

Especially in today’s world, we could use more sociology of science. Without some questioning, science tends to get a free ride in American society as one of the key promoters or carriers of progress. Yet, science is still a social enterprise and works with its own set of assumptions.

One question: where can you have reasonable discussions about science (natural and social) and its assumptions and findings?

Convenient to see the end of Pradel’s career as a new era for Naperville

The Naperville Sun/Chicago Tribune ran a long story about Naperville mayor George Pradel stepping down and what this means for Naperville:

Longtime residents and colleagues say Pradel’s style — which he, himself describes as Naperville’s No. 1 cheerleader — suited the suburb well as about 42,000 new residents brought the need for new schools, fire stations and grocery stores during historic growth.

Naperville faces a new era now, as Pradel, 77, prepares to step down after five terms in office in May. His departure leaves one of four mayoral candidates with a new task of leading the nearly built-out city through its next set of challenges, from filling empty storefronts to countering an unwanted reputation as a party town after several high-profile, alcohol-fueled incidents downtown…

Since 1969, Naperville has operated with a council-manager form of government, which uses a full-time city manager to run the community’s day-to-day operations, while the mayor serves as the city’s public face, available to grand marshal parades and have dinner with girl scouts.

It’s an arrangement that Pradel said he’s been grateful for since he won his first election in 1995, a victory that caught him by such surprise that he didn’t even have an acceptance speech ready.

This is the sort of story that can feed the “big leader” narratives of history. But does it really fit here? Pradel was an outgoing character and a cheerleader. He was very visible. He had a long history in Naperville as a police officer. Yet, the story even reminds us that the mayor was a figurehead with the day-to-day work falling to the city manager. Naperville, like many cities its size, has a large professional staff. The city has a number of business and civic leaders who contribute.

This is not intended to downplay the role that figurehead leaders can play. Perceptions matter a lot within and among communities. At the same time, larger-than-life or long-serving leaders can often get the blame or credit for things that they didn’t do. Pradel was mayor over a particular period of time that saw Naperville peak in population (at least at this point without serious efforts to grow up), continue to grow a vibrant downtown, and encounter a few issues including traffic, some crime, and thinking about how to connect disparate parts of the city. Was he responsible for all of this?

This is where a more complex picture of Naperville or other communities can help. Some people indeed have more power and influence. But, communities have more going on than just one person.