Let LA Be LA

Curbed LA has a nice feature profiling three ex-San Franciscans who’ve found themselves in Los Angeles. The comparison is perhaps a little unfair, because LA is so much larger geographically. SF’s 47 square miles would fit comfortably on LA’s Westside with room to spare, so we could just as well ask about people who moved from SF to Oakland, or Santa Monica to Highland Park. And before you pop the champagne to celebrate LA’s relatively easy life, remember that a much larger group of people could be profiled in an article titled “Former Californians Explain Why They Moved to Texas”.

The stories relate familiar problems of SF’s affordability crisis – steep rent increases, landlords unmoved to put derelict buildings in order, restaurants that look like iPads. And the qualities of LA mentioned – lower rent, ability to pursue other goals and get by on part time work, “room for mediocrity” – share a common theme. Lower residential and commercial rents increase opportunity, both economic and personal.

“Room for mediocrity” isn’t a great way to put it. What LA has is plenty of ordinary buildings, like dingbats and commercial strips, and that creates a lot of room different people and enterprises. That, in turn, allows for both ordinary and eclectic experiences, because people don’t have to focus on solely profitability. If you’re paying thousands a month for a residential studio and top rents for commercial space, you can’t afford to screw around with oddball ideas, at least not without an investment from the likes of Marc Andreessen. Venture capitalists might salivate over your questionable startup idea, but they’re not going to bankroll your pupuseria or specialty book store.

The troubling thing is that the Los Angeles that creates these opportunities is in jeopardy too. Increasing rents are pushing out lower income residents and marginally profitable businesses here as well.

The upside is that we don’t have to look far for inspiration. The building types and development patterns that helped create affordability and diversity of urban experience in Los Angeles are everywhere around us; all we have to do is decide to put them back to work for us. There’s no need to try to be Manhattan; all we need to do is be more like LA. Palms might need to be a little more like K-town, and neighborhoods in the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys might need to be a little more like Palms. If single-family is more your style, there’s plenty of room for more of that in places like Irvine and Ontario. Growth like this was an integral part of LA’s post-war boom, and it will be part of LA’s affordable future if there is one.

The hard part, of course, is that this would require entrenched interests to surrender a lot of control for an idea that’s not easy to articulate. It’s easy to pitch someone the Pearl District, not so easy when your goal is a city that offers everyone the opportunity to build an enjoyable life, whatever that might be.

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