Former Planning Commission President Jane Usher lives in a nice neighborhood. It has street after street of 200-by-100-foot lots. Los Angeles overall is significantly denser than that, particularly in neighborhoods built after 1950. But Usher's pre-1950 neighborhood is still on the same, familiar suburban grid as my 5,000-square-foot lot, which is in distant Lakewood.Inevitably, we must fit more of us into the grid. More of us implies greater density, since there are no more greenfields in which to build. Density is a direction (higher, more compact, closer to the street) and it also can be a means "? to fewer car trips, more use of transit, a better urbanity. That kind of density can even be seen as value in itself. Density as an abstract good, like the idea of home.
Density and Usher's home or mine "? apparently contradictory values "? would require enormous tact to reconcile, a degree of both humility and invention to join. Her work on the city's planning commission trended imperfectly in that direction "? toward what she called "elegant density" in her letter of resignation. Unexpectedly eloquent for a planning official. or "gross leasable area."
Whatever Usher's "elegant density" might be was contradicted by other language "? in the state law that created density incentives for development projects and in the city council decision to exempt from environmental review projects that benefit from those incentives. The environmental review process had been the leverage to restrain the opposite of "elegant density." The opposite would be the sorry result of planning that maximizes profitability and disenfranchises residents.
Unleashed from environmental review, plugged into the city council's "pay-to-build" approval process, and tarted up with slogans, today's growth machine looks a lot like the previous models. Buy a little lot with a wan orange tree on the anonymous edge of the Los Angeles plain, and you were told 80 years ago that you had bought a whole, paradisiacal landscape of ease and sunshine. Buy a condo in an anonymous tower on the edge of that 1920s neighborhood, and you are told that you are buying an environmentally responsible, transit-oriented place in the big city, full "? paradoxically "? of intensity and speed. Despite the decades between them, the sales pitches are nearly the same. And unchanging are the illusions that this city cynically manufactures and naïvely buys.
Usher found it difficult to resolve these contradictions. Perhaps because of that difficulty, she resigned.