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Better Here than in Philadelphia

By Frank Gruber

As the L.A. Times told the tale in a front page story last Sunday, during the Reagan years the FBI, ironically under the (ironic?) supervision of traitor agent Robert Philip Hanssen, monitored the activities of liberals and liberal organizations that the government believed might be susceptible to Soviet influence.

My home town, Philadelphia, came under particular scrutiny. According to the Times, quoting from FBI memoranda obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (after 15 years of stalling!):

"[FBI] agents in Philadelphia were concerned that it was 'a fertile region' for Soviet influence operations. Among the causes: 'the decaying industrial base, high blue-collar unemployment, homeless[ness], racial tensions, influential religious community, and concentrated liberal academic environment of the region.'"

Being from Philadelphia, I could have told the FBI they were wasting their time. In Philadelphia sports are the opiate of the masses. The Phillies won the World Series in 1980, and the National League pennant in 1983, and in victory-challenged Philly, that was enough to make the city indifferent to Soviet propaganda for at least the rest of the decade.

All seriousness aside, the Times article could explain a lot. Perhaps the destruction of the urban centers of our civilization, through disinvestment, white flight, freeways, drugs, etc., was all part of a Soviet plot to create the appropriate context for revolution, not, as previously thought, the result of politicians catering to the interests of suburban real estate speculators and shopping center magnates.

I only bring this up because once, back in 1994 when Tom Hayden was collecting signatures to put the Civic Center plan on the ballot, he accused me of trying to turn Santa Monica into Philadelphia. I now suspect the FBI duped Hayden to goad me into revealing a Soviet plan to foment revolution on the Westside.

In any case I didn't know how to reply to Hayden, which probably proved to him that I was in fact working for the FBI.

Actually, Santa Monica and Philadelphia have at least one thing in common -- they have both been losing population. Between 1990 and 2000, Philadelphia's population declined 4.3 percent from 1,585,577 to 1,517,550, while Santa Monica's population declined 3.2 percent from 86,905 to 84,084. Of course, Philadelphia's population reached its peak decades ago, at about 2 million and has declined almost 25 percent, while Santa Monica is still within 5 percent of its 1980 peak of 88,314.

But Santa Monica's population decline is contrary to popular wisdom, which holds that Santa Monica is more densely developed than its neighbors. In fact, Santa Monica's population density of 10,100 per square mile is significantly lower than the average density of 13,000 per square mile that exists on average in the area between downtown L.A. and the ocean that the MTA studied for its Westside transit projects.

The perception persists that Santa Monica is "built-out" or "overdeveloped" even though it consists mostly of one and two story buildings even in the districts that are not zoned single family. This perception permeates all discussion about development. I remember shaking my head last year at the Planning Commission hearing on Target when commissioner Jay Johnson complained about Santa Monica's continuing population growth.

Johnson unfortunately was in good company, or company that should know better. In 1996 the City's Master Environmental Assessment predicted that our population would be 90,777 in 2000, and the sign on Lincoln Boulevard at the entrance to the city states our population as 94,000.

In certain respects, the decline in Santa Monica's population is more dramatic than the decline in Philadelphia's. Philly's population decreased in the context of stagnant population growth in its region, as the population of the Philadelphia metropolitan area increased only slightly during the past several decades.

But Santa Monica's population decreased while the population of the region boomed. Between 1990 and 2000, as the population of the L.A.-Long Beach metropolitan area increased 11%, and the population of outlying districts increased even faster, Santa Monica was the only city of significant size in Los Angeles County to show a decline in population.

Proponents of "smart growth" promote increased density within the urban core of the region as the most promising solution to sprawl. They point out that Southern California is going to add millions of new residents in the next couple decades no matter what, and if those people don't live inside the core, in places like Santa Monica, they are going to live outside it.

More sprawl will perpetuate the social and environmental problems we have today, including in Santa Monica, which is inseparable from the region and where the poverty rate is equal to the national rate, we have gangs, homelessness, substandard housing (but not enough of it!), a decline in industrial employment, and, of course, bad traffic.

Sprawl, not density, has caused the region's traffic congestion, and investment in outlying areas at the expense of the urban core is the root cause of urban decline.

I often get the feeling that the anti-density, anti-development people want to say, in response, that they disagree with the "growth will happen no matter what" part of smart-growth argument. They want to say, "Why do we need to have growth? Why can't we stop growing and reach a happy stasis?"

Good questions. Put another way, do cities -- do regions, for that matter -- do better growing, or not growing?

I can best answer the question with a word: "Philadelphia."

The Philadelphia metropolitan area stopped growing about 40 years ago, and guess what -- Philly and its suburbs have the same problems Los Angeles has, but worse.

If you don't believe me, ask the FBI.

Not only that, but Philadelphia manages to have all its problems without having to deal with much immigration -- but because it has few immigrants, it also loses out on the entrepreneurial and cultural energy immigrants contribute.

Next time I see Tom Hayden, I'll have my answer ready. I do not want to turn Santa Monica into Philadelphia. That's why I believe we cannot turn our back on development and change.

The Bubba Gump fiasco is an example of "we have met the enemy, and he is us." As I understand it, the City's decision to lease this prime location to a national promulgator of artificial kitsch, resulted primarily from the City's requirement that the lessee spend $3 million to upgrade the location. Given the millions the city and other public agencies have spent renovating the Pier and the beach, isn't it ludicrous to ruin the whole effect over $3 million?

It is not unusual for a commercial landlord to loan a tenant money for improvements, at a reasonable rate of interest, secured by the improvements. Couldn't the City have done that, with a local restaurateur, and got something better?

Upcoming Meetings.

Although I now realize I spend too much time attending meetings of the Downtown Parking Task Force, and not enough at the Pier Restoration Corporation, you might want to calendar the next two meetings of the Task Force:

Monday, August 13: Continued discussion of parking strategies, retrofitting, traffic impacts and financing.

Monday, August 27: Discussion of downtown valet system.

Both meetings 6:30 - 8:30, Ken Edwards Center, Room 103-04, 1527 Fourth Street.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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