Compromise, Reality, and Disappointment

19 thoughts on “Compromise, Reality, and Disappointment”

  1. I don’t think that the Wilshire Corridor provides much of an argument against suburban retrofitting. It was largely built up before I got here 30 years ago and nobody was thinking about walkability then. But, if there were street-level commercial stuff there, it would be extremely walkable in terms of distance. Plus, I guarantee that if it were built like that the wealthy and influential people who live there would get the city to take out a lane from Wilshire and put in traffic islands and wider sidewalks, which would provide the physical walkability.

    It’s easy to build those midrise/highrise condos with surface commercial space, it just wasn’t done then. Around me there are a number of places that were originally suburban but now have pretty manageable walk scores, e.g. (actually a grocery store, but there are condos in the same complex). I actually walk there about once a week.

    Anyway I’m much more sanguine about suburb repair because I live in a place where it’s actually been done along the major arterials. It’s no match for San Francisco, sure, but it’s liveable. It’s also to the point where incremental changes – filling in empty parking lots, widening sidewalks, and relaxing zoning – could make it pretty nice.

  2. I’d like to add that my biggest complaint about the Westside is that it is a wealthy area and this is the best that they could do. I find the up and coming neighborhoods on the south and east sides of the city much more interesting.

    1. Agreed. Back in the early 80’s I used to live in the Los Altos building (Wilshire and Bronson) back when it was just called Miracle Mile before it fully emerged as Koreatown. Wilshire is ever so slightly less wide in that part of the city. The old Art Deco Wiltern Theater (Wiltshire and Western) is a great example of a building that has small mom and pop sized retail shops lining the sidewalk, small offices on the second floor, and a tower at the corner along with the theater itself. Unfortunately the trend with newer buildings is more hermetically sealed complexes with suburban shrubbery on the edges and a massive internal parking decks. Once a city is built for cars you tend to get auto-oriented everything even as the place thickens. Properties (perhaps rationally) turn their backs to the traffic in favor of private interior space.

  3. Great observations on the Wilshire corridor, aka Condo Canyon. I live just south of that area and I make a point of walking Wilshire occasionally. Each time, I think of how simple it would be to add a coffee shop here and market there at the bottom of the towers and generate a little urbanity. Then I recall that the neighborhood groups opposed peak hour bus only lanes along that corridor because it would take up parking. In the end it’s a freeway (wider than some freeways!) lined by towers. However, nearby Westwood Village is charming and walkable and traditional main street urbanism and it will be one of the stops on the Red Line subway extension. Hope amid the grossness.

  4. Johnny, as I’ve said before, we have a lot in common. Not least of these are aesthetic preferences and the potential of underrated rust belt cities (Pittsburgh seems the most undervalued in my estimation.). As others have kind of pointed out above, there are good urban-suburban compromises, and there are bad ones. The details of market perception and other factors may be debatable. I know my two experiences with this, both in your chosen site of Cherry Hill, NJ and two years in Falls Church, VA —- both times I would have MUCH preferred living in some “new urbanism” neighborhood like Shirlington, Reston Town Center, Pentagon city (or, some unattainable townhouse in Dupont Circle or something) but our finances determined our somewhat soulless choice. Two things about that condo in Falls Church (not close to “downtown” Falls Church) 1. It provided just about everything we former-DINKs wanted OTHER than an acceptable level of sense of place. (Oddly enough there were sidewalks most everywhere, but only “immigrants” seemed to use them, and not in great numbers themselves.) 2. As in many other such locales, the, for lack of a better term, the Main Street Bereftness was something that could easily be remedied, as there was plenty of unsightly single and two story honky-tonk that could be removed, and a strip mall with a Trader Joes that could’ve been new-urban-Ed up. I’ve actually seen this happen in many areas as places gradually start looking more like the Plaza in Kansas City, MO and less and less like tyson’s corner (which is trying to remake itself in just this kind of direction.)

  5. I’ve lived in LA, both West & East, with and without wheels. I don’t think anyone was under any illusion, or had any intention, when they were creating those towers in Westwood or Century City, to create a walkable neighborhood. In other words, no one is even aware it’s a disaster from that viewpoint, even today. They just don’t care. As you point out, that inevitably just creates more traffic that no camp is happy about.

    There are of some islands of walkability nearby – Westwood, Santa Monica, Culver City, Sawtelle, etc. And that’s the way L.A. functions: island hopping and strip shopping. That will continue even if they carpet the basin in light rail. It’s just too large an area for a legacy city to develop out of thin air. It’s weird because it’s actually a pretty solid uniform density but without the street life except on said islands or certain popular streets. So it’s a different animal altogether.

    And the East side of the city, which has both older bones and the subway backbone, is far more walkable/bikeable and functions almost like a legacy city in that regard. Almost. Getting there. I know Koreatown has changed immensly since I’ve lived there (early 2000s) and there’s a lot of good effort on the ground.

    I think the end result will be a total hot mess but maybe a far more compelling and sustainable place than San Francisco which is turning out to be some combination of Sausalito and Singapore if the current trends continue.

    1. Current trends in San Francisco will not continue. At least not forever. Everything has a beginning, middle, and end. An earthquake. A market crash. A tech industry that matures and gradually declines. A tightening of global capital flows due to international hostilities. As I’m fond of saying, today’s luxury million dollar one bedroom condo is the affordable starving artist immigrant apartment of the future. I give it thirty years. Sound crazy? It’s already happened several times. No one remembers the dark days of the 1970’s or 1930’s or 1880’s.

      1. LOL. Excellent points, Johnny! The flow of capital to ap producers who make it easier for yuppies to wave their iphones at the cash register to pay for their artisan coffee drinks will ease.

      2. Yeah, what goes up… That being said, even in the dark days of the 1970s San Francisco was still expensive (about 75k for a SFH or 2x the national median). That, along with the crime and general lack of space, sent my parents to the burbs in 1976, sealing my fate as a cul-de-sac kid.

        Also, if the Strong Towns thesis is correct, the demand for urban living will continue and increase regardless of the macroeconomic picture. Finally, San Francisco was historically not part of the global “superstar” cities but now is firmly on the map for the uber rich as a 1st tier residence, which creates price pressure unrelated to the U.S. economy. The strong connection to Asia (the dominant 21st century economic engine) also is a factor.

        Of course, this will all change as it always does. Xian, Cairo, Lisbon, Philadelphia… there’s a long list of cities that were once the “stars” but are 2nd or 3rd tier at best now. But the timing is pretty hard to predict and the unique circumstances of flight to post WWII suburbia are unlikely to repeat again so I think S.F. 1970-2000 is just not gonna happen again.

        But… prices will definitely go down. People can work from anywhere and the 2nd tier (& “3rd world”) cities are fast catching up. Asia long ago surpassed us in infrastructure and Latin America is more sophisticated than ever. Then there’s all the WWIII / global economic meltdown scenarios. Little ol’ S.F. might be a dilipidated & forgotten city on the far end of a continent sooner than anyone imagines.

  6. Hi Johnnie. Big fan of your blog and I think your observations are spot on. My wife and I have been living in Denver for about 5 years. We’re jockeying to move back to the midwest though (where she’s from), having just sold our first place here, a condo, and making a tidy profit. Denver, like Seattle, Portland, Austin, etc. is just too expensive for us to have the life we want to have. Salaries and jobs (at least in the types of work we do) are just not in line with housing prices, and the housing being built is frankly pretty disgusting.

    Curious if you have any plans to “cash out” in SF and live in Cincy or the like? Why stay in SF? You are such a champion for these far cheaper places where you get so much more for your money. Thanks. Jeff in Denver

    1. Jeff – Good questions. I have two answers.

      1) San Francisco is still a beautiful city and a good place to live, although it is starting to get a bit sterile as all the most interesting people are being driven out by high rents. I would have cashed out and left already, but my boyfriend likes it here. He has a point. Since we bought property in the city a long time ago we’re insulated from the current craziness. (We may regret not moving after the next earthquake/market correction…)

      2) I’ve been cultivating relationships in the Rust Belt (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in particular) for a few years and I recently bought a fixer upper in an amzing old 1890’s neighborhood in Cincy that I’m renovating. I plan to buy more in the future. I see the Midwest as having the best quality-of-life relative to cost and I could easily relocate there if/when circumstances realign.

  7. The type of higher density suburban development is just in response to market demand and land prices. As you make clear, simply adding density does not create an urban environment, but that’s not the goal of these developments. Retrofitting the suburbs to be more urban must start in the public realm. It starts by making roads narrower and sidewalks wider. It starts by requiring active uses oriented to the street. It starts by removing parking requirements and providing non-car modes of transit.

    We cannot rely upon the private sector to transform our suburbs into bastions of urbanity. Suburban residents and governments must realize that ending their reliance on cars, whether for municipal fiscal solvency, protection of the environment, or the personal costs of car ownership, and incentivize private developers to make it a reality.

      1. I think this may be somewhat premature question, Johnny. Remember that post-war suburbs are themselves a fairly new phenomenon and the impetus to transform them back into more walkable communities is very new and not very deep.

        But could you not see the slow, halting transformation of, say, University Avenue in Berkeley, which was not a true suburb per se but certainly developed as typical one story strip commercial, as one (imperfect) example?

  8. Johnny: Your pieces are great. The photographs are of course tragic and their bleakness strongly supports your points. Being someone who has always been able to live in major cities and refused to go to shopping malls, it is perplexing to me how people accept the sad emptiness of so much of our built environment. There are options out there – and they don’t have to be expensive. It is heartening to see the younger generations searching out those more vibrant options. Many of the reviving older neighborhoods in Philadelphia, for example, are still affordable.

  9. Are you wandering around North Hollywood and Westwood lately?

    The “facts” you site are sometimes true, sometimes not. The battle to make Los Angeles more walkable, with more street level shops and more biking is a long one. But live here long enough and you will see a vast change in the ethos of younger Angelenos who do, indeed, walk, bus, bike and get around in a much different way than their parents or grandparents.

    And the pleasures of urbanity are reserved for the very rich and the very few in much of San Francisco. The ability not only to walk, but to have money to spend, to have money to save, to have security, that only belongs to a rarified few in the most thriving urban areas of the US. The rest have to make do with the mediocrity presented to us and make the best of it.

    1. Andy – always great to get feedback from you. I took these photos on one of my trips to LA last year. If I had been in town recently I would have looked you up.

      This blog post is partly a set up for a series of future posts that will explore (as you say) how a new generation and people of less than stratospheric means adapt to conditions on the ground. Stay tuned.

      As for people like me who live in San Francisco… Keep in mind, I’m poor white trash who moved here a long time ago before the whole tech economy transformed the city. I couldn’t afford to live here either if I hadn’t bought way back when things were still reasonable. And I don’t assume that the city will remain this prosperous forever. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The city is already choking on its own success and driving away the very people that make it interesting and vibrant. More posts on that coming too…

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