Tag Archives: Joel Kotkin

Downtown in a Polycentric Region

This Joel Kotkin piece on downtown LA is about a month old, but I missed it and @720thruLA pointed it out recently.

Joel Kotkin’s latest dispatch pitches SoCal’s regional decline as the counternarrative to downtown LA’s renaissance, and posits that the regional story is more important.

To be honest, I agree with some of Kotkin’s writing about LA; my only major point of contention is that I’m much more optimistic about the value of our public transit investments. I’ve never met Kotkin, but in his writing he seems to genuinely care about the success of the LA region, which is obviously a primary concern of this blog. I think he raises interesting points, and want to explore some of the themes of the article in a little more detail.

Regional Decline or Regional Reorganization?

Economically, LA is somewhat unique among US cities – it’s partly coastal “knowledge” city, partly Rust Belt city, and of course partly the prototype Sunbelt city. LA isn’t as big as NYC, but it’s too big for a tech boom to have the same impact as it does in a boutique city like Boston or Seattle. LA’s manufacturing economy has suffered just as badly as any Midwestern city, but LA’s economy is much more diverse. Sunbelt cities have emulated LA’s growth, but none of them have reached the geographic extent where commuting across the entire metro region is impractical.

The result is a befuddling mix of high cost of living despite stubbornly high unemployment. One of the most troubling things about the LA metro area is that there has been zero net job growth for almost 25 years. Now, I’m no economist, but I think the use of 1990 as a benchmark coincidentally makes things look really bad for LA. In 1990, employment had just peaked from the 80s defense boom, and LA was about to take a double body blow from big cuts to defense spending followed by the enactment of NAFTA and other free trade agreements which, whatever you think about their macro impacts, have undeniably eviscerated US manufacturing.

Let’s go to the tape. If we index metro employment to January 1990, LA clearly looks worse than NYC, SF, and Chicago, and was even getting outclassed by the likes of Detroit until the financial crisis.


Ok, but here’s what happens if you net out manufacturing employment.


In that case, LA and NYC are basically on the same track, with SF and Chicago doing only a little better.

Now here’s what happen if you index to January 1994, when LA employment bottomed out from the early 90s recession.


How do you like them apples?

That’s not to excuse us from trying to address our economic problems like high unemployment, but it does provide some perspective. One interpretation is that LA is a region in decline compared to other major US cities. Another interpretation is that LA is dealing with the structural changes that those cities faced a few decades ago, but doing a better job of it than they ever did.

But Back to Downtown

In the context of those regional challenges, Kotkin frames residential growth in downtown LA as a footnote, since thanks to LA’s polycentric nature, the fate of downtown is not very relevant. He notes that despite the increase in people living downtown, surrounding neighborhoods lost more population, and office vacancies remain high. On Twitter, there was some pushback, saying that downtown is only in its infancy, while Kotkin treats it as an adult.

I sort of agree with both points of view. Downtown’s emergence as a desirable neighborhood is very recent, and rising residential rents and the boom of mid-rise and high-rise construction show that there’s still quite a bit of unmet demand. I also think that the “creative office space” market will eventually head east to downtown, where office rents are a little lower than West LA and firms can be in proximity to the urban amenities their young employees want, the same way that Silicon Valley’s boom has swept up the peninsula into San Francisco.

I will also note that while office vacancy downtown is high, it’s not atypical of the current office market in greater LA.


Now who thought Gateway Cities would come out on top!?

On the other hand, even if downtown’s population increases by an order of magnitude, it will still only be about 1% of LA County population. Current mainstays of the downtown office market, like the finance industry, have been reducing headcounts and office lease sizes. The most desirable office space in LA is Avenue of the Stars in Century City and Newport Center Drive in Newport Beach.

So in that sense, I agree with Kotkin that no matter what happens downtown, it won’t matter that much for the region. We already have over 13 million people in LA County and Orange County living and working with our current distribution of housing and employment. If you’re expecting the changes downtown to fundamentally alter the urban geography of Los Angeles, I suspect you’re going to be disappointed.

I also agree with Kotkin that subsidies for downtown hotels and the convention center are foolish – but that’s a general observation, not anything specific to Downtown LA. You can’t walk fifty feet in the halls of US city governance without tripping over someone who wants to dole out public funds to questionable projects like convention centers and stadiums. If you look for lodging downtown, you’ll find reputable places going for $150-$250 a night, with the chains, especially near the convention center, starting at $300 and up. If the market can’t build profitable hotels in a place where a new projects command $300/night with reliable occupancy, there’s bound to be some regulatory impediment in the way that could be removed. In fact, much of downtown’s boom is based on precisely that – eliminating regulatory boundaries through the adaptive reuse ordinance.

About That Transit Network

Unsurprisingly, my biggest disagreement with Kotkin is on transportation. He throws investment in public transit in the same boat as subsidies to private developers, and submits that a downtown-centered rail network is going to be ineffective in a polycentric region like LA.

On the funding side, self-help sales taxes have proven to be the only reliable way to get new infrastructure funded in California. It’s worth noting that over 2/3 of LA County voters have staked themselves to these projects being worthwhile for the future growth of the region. It’s also worth noting that 35% of Measure R funds go to highway infrastructure (20% for freeways and 15% local return to cities, which can use all of it on roads if they want). The major expansions on Kotkin’s beloved freeways, from the 5 in Norwalk Narrows to the 405 carpool lane to improvements on the 710, are all getting subsidized by sales tax money too.

On the rail network side, a downtown-centered system would be ineffective, but fortunately, that’s not what we’re going to get. There are major projects underway that don’t go downtown, like the Crenshaw Line, which will serve other important centers like El Segundo, LAX, and Hollywood (when it is inevitably extended north). Projects that are high priority for “Measure R2”, like a Sepulveda Pass/Westside transit line, will serve major destinations even further from downtown. And you could probably argue that two projects under construction that do go downtown – Expo Line Phase 2 and Westside Subway – bring more employment access benefits at their west ends in Santa Monica, Century City, and Westwood than they do downtown.

Downtown the Redeemer

A final point on which I completely agree with Kotkin is the uselessness of the East Coast journalist redemption narrative, where LA “unlearns the mistakes of its past”, builds a radial transit network, stops turning its back on downtown, and finally becomes a place that they deem worthy of calling a city.

I’m happy to see downtown’s growth, but it makes the lack of growth in other important regional centers that much more apparent. We do, as Kotkin says, need to boost jobs “from Studio City and Sherman Oaks to Boyle Heights, Leimart Park and Silver Lake”, and to do that we need to remove the regulatory barriers like residential downzonings and Prop U that stunted LA’s polycentric growth.

People have always refused to try to understand LA on its own terms, from HL Mencken calling it “Los Angeles the damned” to James Howard Kunstler writing about “its pervasive aura of doom”. Screw them. LA’s land use patterns already work pretty well, and Angelenos should be proud of their city. If we can overcome the challenges on land use, transit and polycentrism are going to work together better than post people expect. The challenges facing us are large, but there is tremendous potential in our region. Let’s get to work so that I can look forward to being able to say that all of LA’s centers, from Warner Center to El Segundo, Glendale to Long Beach, are creating opportunity for everyone.

What Defines LA?

Los Angeles defies normal urban analysis. A city with no center. Amorphous urbanism. Density that doesn’t feel dense. An entire urban area existing at a density that Jane Jacobs believed would fail, functioning as one of America’s most dynamic cities. A place built for cars, but where people drive less than most US cities. The reluctant metropolis, but a metropolis nonetheless.

Faced with the apparent contradictions of Los Angeles, many observers simply throw up their hands and declare that the city must be a failure, or a success, depending on the observer’s preexisting frame of analysis. A famous example would be James Howard Kunstler devoting an entire chapter of The Geography of Nowhere to ranting about Los Angeles, and failing entirely to understand the city’s structure.

This is a shame. Like all cities, LA succeeds in many ways and fails in many ways. Like any city, there is much to be learned from LA, and many ways to make the city a better place. But if we hope to do so, we have to understand, appreciate, and analyze LA on its own terms. If you approach LA with the analytical framework of Manhattan, for example, you are going to learn little and have little to contribute. So what is Los Angeles? How does it work, and how can it work better?

In one of his better pieces, Joel Kotkin waxes philosophical about LA as a city of villages:

But to those of us who inhabit this expansive and varied place, the lack of conventional urbanity is exactly what makes Los Angeles so interesting. My adopted hometown is the exemplar of the modern multipolar metropolis: less a conscious city than a series of alternatives created by its climate, its diversity, and a congested but still-functional system of freeways that historian Kevin Starr calls “absolute masterpieces of engineering.”

. . .

Los Angeles may lack the kind of dynamic urban core that we associate with traditional great cities. But to most of its residents, the city is an urban feast on a gourmet scale. We wouldn’t trade it for the world.

This isn’t enough, though. Every city is a city of neighborhoods; go to Boston and they’ll tell you the same thing about their city, but Boston is a very different place than LA.

I think to achieve a better working definition of Los Angeles, we need to go further in our understanding of what makes the city unique. To me, LA’s distinctive character springs from the combination of relatively high density and strong polycentrism, something found no other US city. There are other cities with higher density, like San Francisco and New York, but they have a strong central city. There are other cities with polycentric nature, like Houston and Atlanta, but they’re nowhere near as dense as LA.

That unique structure is why many observers misinterpret LA as a city where every place is no place. I prefer to think of LA as a city where any place can be anything.

That’s what allows Kotkin’s ethnic neighborhoods to flourish, and it’s a wonderful thing, because it allows the whole region to fulfill the role of the city. That’s why you can find great Korean food in low-key strip malls in places like Gardena and Torrance. It’s why everyone knows that if you want really good Chinese food, you go to the decidedly suburban San Gabriel Valley. As the core cities of East Coast metro areas get more expensive, you can see this happening to some extent there too, e.g. the emergence of Quincy as the new Chinatown in Boston. The difference is that in LA, the penalty you pay for not being downtown is basically non-existent, while in Boston or New York, it’s considerable.

Oddly enough, the Kotkin/O’Toole framework comes up short at understanding Los Angeles for the same reason that the urbanist framework comes up short – they misunderestimate the importance of agglomeration and matching as essential urban functions, and fail to understand how LA accomplishes those functions.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the limit of O’Toole-onomics in a place like LA is that preventing construction of multi-family housing prevents people from capitalizing on agglomeration effects. It is easy to build SFRs (and offices) in the Inland Empire and Antelope Valley, but the booming economic sectors are currently concentrated on the Westside, which makes it hard for workers to take advantage of that opportunity without paying very high housing or transportation costs. So when one of Kotkin’s villages acts to restrict development through repressive zoning, it has negative effects on the city at large.

On the other hand, the traditional urbanist framework of central business district (CBD) oriented transit serving a satellite network of small high-density nodes (TOD or urban villages) doesn’t work either. Our transpo network needs to serve the city as it exists and build on that, not try to remake LA in the shape of Chicago or Manhattan – a hopeless endeavor when 18 million people have already organized their lives around the city’s current form. The development that’s happening downtown is almost all residential, and many of those people will commute elsewhere – increasing LA’s polycentric nature rather than reducing it.

A large city must have effective transportation if it is to allow people to capitalize on opportunities for economic specialization. For example, maybe you can’t afford to live close to where you work. Or maybe, like me, you work in one place (downtown), have a bunch of stuff to do in another place (Westwood), and live in a third place that fits your lifestyle and price point better (Palms). All three of those places are pretty walkable in and of themselves, but quality transportation between them is critical.

Thanks to LA’s density, its polycentric nature isn’t as much of an impediment to transit as one might otherwise think. LA can continue to grow in its current form as its transit network expands, but LA is going to need a different kind of transit network than most cities, and will have different challenges and opportunities. For example, the lack of a dominant core makes it very difficult to operate a traditional commuter rail network, but it also means travel demand is more directionally balanced. You can already see this in travel patterns on the Blue Line and Expo Line, where the “reverse” direction is just as strong, if not stronger, than the peak.

Mix all of this together and you can see where I’m coming from on this blog. I’m down with allowing more development all over LA, because LA could use more neighborhoods like Palms, and I’m down with SFRs in Fontana, because the IE needs to become more like LA, and that’s the first step. When folks like Kotkin say that tall buildings don’t define LA, I pretty much agree – if developers want to build tall buildings it’s cool with me, but building them isn’t the defining challenge facing LA. And when folks argue for high quality transit projects and better bike/ped infrastructure, I pretty much agree with that too, since they’re important for helping people access opportunity and helping the city keep reinventing itself.

LA is a wonderful place, and it’s big enough to contain diverse and varied neighborhoods to suit just about anyone’s tastes, from Joel Kotkin to Latino immigrants to Chinese investors to whoever. That’s pretty awesome, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.