California’s biggest cities without blackouts, suburbs have them

A journalist looks into why California’s power blackouts have hit some suburbs but not the biggest cities:

The municipal utility that serves Los Angeles doesn’t shut off power during high winds. As the utility explained in a recent press release, the city’s miles of pavement, numerous fire stations and relatively limited open spaces help protect it from runaway fires. There’s also the chaos that could ensue from knocking out traffic lights in the capital of car culture.

L.A.’s approach, however, isn’t foolproof. The Getty fire that’s chased celebrities from their hillside homes started when a broken eucalyptus branch sailing on the wind hit a live power line owned by the city’s utility. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power did not return a call Wednesday asking if it would reconsider its no-blackout policy as a result…

San Francisco, meanwhile, benefits from its famously odd climate. While the rest of California heats up and dries out during the summer, San Francisco shivers in a fog bank so much a part of city life that residents have given it a name (Karl). The fog typically vanishes by October, but even then, the city never gets as dry as most of its suburbs. And the dangerous Diablo winds striking this month rarely hit the city as hard as its hilly suburbs.

As a result, San Francisco isn’t included on the state’s official map of high fire threat areas. So PG&E Corp. doesn’t cut its power when winds rise, said utility spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen. That’s not to say the city couldn’t someday lose electricity if PG&E takes down a transmission line that feeds it.

These reasons make some sense. Denser urban areas are less likely to have large areas of foliage and nature in addition to exposed power lines through which fires can easily spread.

At the same time, it might be difficult to make a case when many people in the state are affected by the blackouts and others are not “sharing the burden.” Do such choices provide economic benefits to certain areas while others are hurt?

The case of Los Angeles could get pretty interesting in this regard in that there are some more natural areas surrounding the city and separating communities. The Getty fire above is a good example; the museum and the surrounding homes sit on less dense land on hillsides overlooking the city. Could a fire break out there and then end up on either side of the hills/mountains and spread to urban and suburban land?

Declining populations in the New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago regions

The biggest metropolitan areas in the United States are losing residents:

Source: William H. Frey

And what is behind this?

Each of these Chicago phenomena—declining immigration, revitalized downtowns coinciding with a middle-class exodus, and the specific decline of the black population—has spread from the heartland to America’s largest coastal metros…

First, immigration to both New York and Los Angeles has declined by 30 percent in the last five years. This could be for a variety of reasons, including the fear, and reality, of more restrictive immigration policies; richer and safer home countries; and a less affordable housing stock in these metros.

Second, higher-income residents bidding up the price of housing in both cities has accelerated the middle-class exodus. Earlier this decade, Los Angeles was the fastest growing county in all of southern California. But in 2018, it was the only major county in the region to shrink, even as its median home price set a new record. As more middle-class families leave the Los Angeles area for cheaper markets in the West and Southwest—their preferred destinations: Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Dallas—California’s population growth has slowed to its lowest rate in state history. This might have something to do with the recent tax law, which, in capping the state and local deductions, effectively raised the cost of living in these places for the upper-middle class. (The next few years will tell us more about whether high earners are fleeing high-tax metros for the South, as well.)

Third, the black population of both New York and Los Angeles peaked in the early 2000s and has since been in steady, and perhaps accelerating, decline. The political implications of the first Great Migration were immense, as blacks moving into northern cities forged an alliance with urban liberals and pushed the Democratic Party to prioritize civil rights in the middle of the 20th century. The political implications of the Reverse Great Migration could be equally ground-shaking, if blacks moving south redraw the political map for the second time in 100 years. The slow decline of America’s largest metros may also mark the beginning of a new political movement in the suburbs of the South and Southwest.

When it was just Chicago losing residents, it was easier to write it off as inevitable Rust Belt decline combined with particular issues that have dogged the city and region for decades. But, if New York and Los Angeles are also losing people, then this becomes more interesting as even the glitzy coastal cities are losing people to other parts of the United States and there are fewer new residents via immigration.

Is there evidence then that cities are losing steam compared to suburban areas? Not necessarily; Sun Belt cities are growing in population. At the same time the three biggest cities draw outsized attention in the United States (consider the relative anonymity of Houston which is approaching Chicago for third in population). Americans generally do not like what declining populations connote and particularly not in their largest locales.

Ultimately, the actual population figures which could fluctuate slightly from year to year might matter less than the perception that the biggest cities are floundering. Would they then put into place big plans to try to attract residents? Would second tier cities step up their efforts to toot their own (growing) horns?

Final note: Chicago’s long-standing quest to put itself in the same company as New York City might be looking up if both cities are losing residents.

New Bel Air homes of over 17,500 square feet cannot be called McMansions

In recent years, a number of extra large houses have been constructed in Bel Air. But, these are not just regular McMansions:

Rosen rallied his neighbors in a mini-revolt against City Hall. The result was 2017’s Bel Air mansion ordinance, a more rigid version of the ordinance imposed on the rest of Los Angeles. While many of the hauling trucks are now gone, the wealthy enclave is still grappling with the legacy of its McMansion years. Between 2014 and early 2017, the city issued 28 permits for mansions in Bel Air of 17,500 square feet or larger, most of which are still under construction, according to an analysis by The Real Deal. The projects are exacerbating a spec-home building spree that rattled longtime Bel Air residents and is dramatically altering the landscape of the area, not to mention its real-estate market.

As of Wednesday there were 12 homes in Bel Air of 15,000 square feet or larger currently sitting empty and unsold in, according to MLS data cited by Steve Lewis, President of CORE Real Estate Group in Beverly Hills.

These are not regular McMansions in suburban neighborhoods: these are megahomes going for megaprices and constructed by and for the ultra-wealthy.

Meanwhile, on Chalon Road, Thomas Barrack Jr., the Colony Capital CEO and pal of President Donald Trump, is nearly done building out an eight-acre compound with a 77,000-square-foot mansion being designed by Peter Marino. Barrack is building it on behalf of the royal family of Qatar. Other competing giant offerings, including the Mountain, a 157-acre plot in Beverly Hills Post Office now listed for $650 million, and a 120-acre site owned by an entity linked to the late Paul Allen asking $150 million, don’t have plans or permits in place for mega-mansions, Blankenship said.

Massive spec mansions on the market right now include Bruce Makowsky’s 38,000-square-foot estate at 924 Bel Air Road, asking a much-reduced $150 million, and the Mohamed Hadid-developed mansion at 901 Strada Vecchia, which is the subject of an FBI probe and a lawsuit from neighbors who want to see it torn down.

Granted, it sounds like some of the activity in Bel Air may be consistent with several features of McMansions: big homes, teardowns, and status symbols for the wealthy. For those who live in Bel Air, it could be disconcerting to see the scale of new construction. But, this article focuses primarily on the really big homes, the ones that are not just someone upgrading from a 2,000 square foot ranch to a 5,000 square foot home with a mishmash of architectural features. The last example in the piece illustrates this difference between a McMansion and mansion: a billionaire/actress couple want to tear down a home under 8,000 and more than double the square footage in a new home. Again, that is a scale far beyond the average upper middle-class American (and that does not even include the price it takes to buy into this particular neighborhood). Perhaps the real goal of using the term McMansion here is to denigrate the new homes and not grant them the status of mansion.

I would argue McMansions are roughly 3,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet. The bottom end may seem rather small but this size home could be quite large if constructed in a home of small homes. The upper end is a rough cutoff when a home goes from regular big home to extra large/wealthy big home. Size is a critical factor in defining a McMansion and these Bel Air homes are way beyond McMansion limits.

Fighting against McMansion apartment buildings

One commentator suggests apartments enabled by transit oriented development regulations in Los Angeles will be like McMansions in residential neighborhoods:

The development in question is on the 1500 block of South Orange Grove Avenue, a modest residential neighborhood one block east of Fairfax and two blocks south of Pico. The proposed structure is a five story, twenty-eight unit apartment building, replacing a single-family home and a duplex. It would be the tallest building in the neighborhood by two stories. The artist’s rendering above shows how it would impact the neighbors on the abutting block of Ogden.

Yet this particular building is only the first of many to come in Picfair Village and other areas throughout Los Angeles, transforming the character of our neighborhoods and adding boxy, out-of-scale buildings to a city already plagued by terrible traffic and failing infrastructure. Though the planning commission turns up its nose at the unappealing designs, they never fail to move the projects forward…

The bulk of this development is being done under the auspices of Measure JJJ, transformed by the City Planning Commission into Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) Guidelines. Shrugging their shoulders of any responsibility, the City Planning Commission’s members, along with City Planning Department staff (also busy with the equally pernicious Purple Line extension upzoning plan), fondly refer to the TOC Guidelines as “the will of the people,” washing their hands of responsibility…

For whatever reason, City Hall and City Planning Commission members are embracing the TOC Guidelines and fully abetting developers’ plans to move full steam ahead with real estate projects that will drastically alter the character of our neighborhood and many others throughout Los Angeles.

The term McMansion refers to a single-family home. The headline for this commentary – the text of the piece itself does not use the term McMansion – uses the term to describe a certain kind of apartment building: ones that will tower over blocks of single-family homes. While these apartments are not oversized single-family homes, they may have a similar effect to many McMansions with significant size and a change in scale. The commentator suggests this will alter how these blocks are experienced, particularly for those in homes adjacent to the apartment buildings.

The broader use of the term McMansion could be applied to a number of items. For example, I recall seeing articles in the early 2000s comparing boats and other consumer goods to McMansions. Generally, this use would refer to a supersized and/or extra luxurious model. Applying the idea to other kinds of housing could prove trickier. Could you have a McMansion tiny house? A McMansion accessory dwelling unit? A McMansion condo high-rise? Broadening the term to more housing could make a fairly complex idea – with at least four traits – even more complicated.

More worry over McMansions than LeBron’s teardown that replaced a midcentury modern

Are McMansions in Los Angeles disliked because of who might live in them or because of their architecture?

Newly signed Laker LeBron James’ $23 million digs on Tigertail Road in L.A.’s Brentwood come with a deep roster of industry neighbors, from stars (Jim Carrey) and execs (ABC’s Ben Sherwood, Scooter Braun) to reps (CAA’s Fred Specktor, Lighthouse’s Margaret Riley), writers (John Sacret Young) and movie royalty (or at least movie royalty-adjacent: John Goldwyn’s ex Colleen Camp)…

The tony community is taking well to its new neighbor, says one homeowner, who adds that there’s more concern about the explosion of “McMansions” in an area that boasts so many architecturally significant houses, like the William Krisel-built midcentury modern that was torn down in 2014 on the lot where James’ new home sits.

While James’ new-build eight-bedroom home has been under renovation since May as he adds a basketball court and indoor wine tap, the construction hasn’t been particularly disruptive, says the resident, given the large number of homes being built and updated throughout the neighborhood. “[His house] is set on the hillside, very tasteful and pretty, and it’s been low-key so far,” says the neighbor. “People were a lot more upset when Justin Bieber was looking around here.”

Even though James now lives in a large house that replaced an “architecturally significant house,” at least one neighbor does not think it is a problem for three reasons:

  1. The new house is “very tasteful and pretty.”
  2. LeBron James is not Justin Bieber. Not only is Bieber less popular than James, he has a Los Angeles reputation for parties and fast driving.
  3. The construction “hasn’t been particularly disruptive.”

So because Lebron James is simply a better-liked neighbor than Bieber, the construction of a mansion (or McMansion) can be overlooked? According to some, midcentury moderns are worth celebrating compared to McMansions.

How to make a better public case for abundant housing in four steps

After witnessing a positive result in front of a neighborhood council for a small project in Los Angeles, Virginia Postrel suggests four steps can help smooth the process:

Respect matters. Especially in liberal enclaves like West L.A., opposition to new housing — and to change in general — comes wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy and procedure. Activist residents, including official representatives, are jealous of their prerogatives as neighborhood incumbents. They’re more likely to say yes — or at least not say no — if they feel they’ve been listened to…

But so do the rules. Under a law signed in 2017, anti-development activists can no longer easily block new housing if it meets zoning requirements and incorporates 10 percent low-income units. One reason the Mar Vista project garnered support was that activists feared the alternative would be something less considerate of neighborhood sentiment.

 

Showing up is important. By answering questions and treating the meeting as important, the developer’s representative helped flip sentiment in Mar Vista. And the Abundant Housing LA speakers made arguments that often go unspoken in such forums. They reminded locals that by not letting people build housing near jobs, they make traffic worse, and that by blocking new apartments, which tend to be expensive, they send high-income renters into places where they push out middle- and lower-income residents. Beyond the specifics, it’s simply harder to argue against housing when you don’t have the overwhelming majority.

Don’t assume residents are against housing. In March 2017, Angelenos had the opportunity to vote for a slow-growth initiative that would have blocked at least a quarter of new housing developments. They overwhelmingly said no, defeating Measure S by a 70-30 margin. “That stereotypical kind of Nimby does exist, but there aren’t really that many of them,” says Burns. “When you really talk to people and you put a face on what it means to develop more — to add more housing — and it’s somebody who lives close by, you can really come to some sensible kind of compromises with folks.”

 

Generally, these look like good steps anybody seeking to redevelop property could benefit from. From some of my own work, these would be helpful for those constructing teardown houses in the suburbs as well as religious groups seeking to alter an existing building or construct a new building. Building a relationship with people in the community as well as presenting a cogent and reasonable case can go a long ways.

At the same time, I wonder if these four steps might be idiosyncratic and apply only to certain places and at certain times. This particular case is from a state and region that has a large need for more housing. The description of the steps above suggest that residents were more open to this project because they feared something worse. Additionally, this project is within a city and region that is already very dense (and one of the densest regions in the United States). Residents are used to denser housing.

I suspect redevelopment would be a much tougher sell in areas or communities that are (1) primarily comprised of single-family homes with some distance from denser land uses and (2) where housing demand is lower (or is perceived to be much lower – the Chicago area may have a big need for affordable housing but it would be hard to convince many communities of this).

 

Fighting smog not by reducing driving but by insisting on more efficient cars

Smog and air pollution due to vehicles is a familiar sight in many large cities. Yet, Crabgrass Crucible suggests the fight against smog in Los Angeles did not target driving itself but rather automakers:

The ban on fuel oil easily found favor among antismog activists. After all, like the steps with which smog control had begun, it mostly targeted the basin’s industrial zones. Harder to swallow in Los Angeles’s “citizen consumer” politics of this era, even for antismog activists, were solutions that might curtail the mobility associated with cars. Consonant with national trends noted by automobile historian Thomas McCarthy, there was a widespread reluctance to question orthodoxies of road building and suburban development. Even the “militant” activists at the 1954 Pasadena Assembly only went so far as a call to “electrify busses.” By the 1960s, as motor vehicles were estimated to cause nearly 55 percent of smog, there were suggestions for the development of an electric car. Yet Los Angeles smog battlers of all stripes raised surprisingly few questions about freeway building. For many years, Haagen-Smit himself argued that because fast and steady-running traffic burned gasoline more efficiently, freeways were smog remedies. So powerful and prevalent were the presumed rights of Angelenos to drive anywhere, to be propelled, lit, heated, and otherwise convenienced by fossil fuels, that public mass transit or other alternatives hardly seemed worth mentioning.

Once pollution controllers turned their sights to cars, they aimed not so much at Los Angeles roads or driving habits or developers as at the distant plants where automobiles were made. Probing back up the chain of production for smog’s roots, local regulators and politicians established a new way of acting on behalf of citizen consumers. Rather than pitting the residential suburbs of the basin against their industrial counterparts, in an inspired switch, they opened season on a far-flung industrial foe: the “motor city” of Detroit. The APCD’s confrontations with Detroit car makers had begun during the Larson era, but quietly, through exchanges of letters and visits that went little publicized. In 1958, after the nation’s chief auto makers had repeatedly shrugged off Angeleno officials’ insistence on cleaner-burning engines, the Los Angeles City Council went public with its frustration. It threw down the gauntlet: within three years, all automobiles sold within the city limits had to meet tough smog-reducing exhaust standards. Because its deadline had passed, a 1960 burst of antismog activism converged on Sacramento to push through the California Motor Vehicle Control Act. The battle was hard-fought and intense, but the state of California thereby wound up setting pollution-fighting terms for its vast car market. (232-233)

This helps put us where we are today: when the Trump administration signals interest in eliminating national MPG standards for automakers, California leads the way in fighting back.

Ultimately, this is an interesting accommodation in the environmentalist movement. Cars are significant generators of air pollution. Additionally, cars do not just produce air pollution; they require an entire infrastructure that uses a lot of resources in its own right (building and maintaining roads, trucking, using more land for development). Yet, this passage suggests that because cars and the lifestyle that goes with them are so sacred, particularly in a region heavily dependent on mobility by individual cars, the best solution is to look for a car that pollutes less. This leaves many communities and regions in the United States waiting for a more efficient car rather than expending energy and resources toward reducing car use overall. And the problem may just keep going if self-driving cars actually lengthen commutes.