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Building for Tomorrow

By Frank Gruber

It's amazing what a busy legislature, busier courts, and various regulatory bodies can do in a year, but those who attended UCLA Extension's annual Land Use Law & Planning Conference last Friday in downtown L.A., were on sensory overload by the end of the day.

Santa Monicans will be happy to know that we were well represented, by both the public and private sector. I saw City Attorney Marsha Moutrie and Senior Land Use Attorney Barry Rosenbaum there, as well as local land-use attorneys Chris Harding and Laurie Lieberman, and Joan Ling, from Community Corporation of Santa Monica.

Our own State Senator Sheila Kuehl gave the luncheon address. She talked about her bill, recently signed by the governor, that ties development outside urban areas to the availability of water.

I will not try to summarize seven hours of panel discussions and well over 300 pages of written materials, but I did detect a major theme that unifies many of the disparate developments occurring in California's land use law. If the law continues to develop in the direction it appears to be going, the future for California may be brighter than we think.

What is happening is that although the legislature and the Governor would find it far too radical to legislate urban growth boundaries (UGBs) of the type Oregon has created to curb sprawl, the law, by various means, is creating de facto UGBs. Water legislation like Sheila Kuehl's bill, federal protection for natural habitats and wetlands, and local initiatives like those in Napa and Ventura Counties protecting agricultural lands and open space, are together drastically limiting the land available for sprawl.

This is good news. Although developers have attacked these limitations on sprawl by linking their endless subdividing with the need to build housing for California's growing population, our best hope for housing our people is to stop subsidizing sprawl with public infrastructure (roads, schools, water, sewers, etc.) and to redirect our resources to urban areas.

If developers can't build on cheap land on the outskirts, they will start looking closer at in-fill developments in the cities. While planners often say that "density" is the only word more obnoxious to voters these days than "sprawl," increased urban population, linked to improved quality of life, is the only way out of both our housing and transportation crises.

Fortunately, another theme, perhaps in a minor key at this moment, but building in intensity, was also audible at the conference and in last year's developments in land use law. That is support for "smart-growth" policies in the cities. These developments include legislation to facilitate redevelopment of industrial sites (so-called brownfields) and efforts to exempt urban developments from the unintended consequences of the California Environmental Quality Act.

Significantly, last week Christine Todd Whitman, Administrator of the E.P.A., announced the Bush Administration's support for smart growth policies. (See

The word "density" may frighten politicians, but, politically, something has to give when it comes to housing. When housing prices rise even in a recession, the middle-class learns what the working class already knows: we have a housing crisis.

For the first time in the history of Southern California, population is growing more from natural increase rather than immigration. If our children can't live in our communities, what are we going to do about it?

The key to whether urban growth boundaries will be linked to urban growth will be the reaction of the environmental community, which has led the fight to contain sprawl and which is so important in leading public opinion. But one cannot be opposed both to Ahmanson Ranch and increased urban density and expect your kids to have a place to live.

* * *

At last Thursday's School Board meeting the CEO of Jacobs Facilities, Inc., the Board's contractor for Prop. X improvements, got an earful from irate parents and severely annoyed members of the Prop. X Oversight Committee.

The District hired Jacobs to perform both design and project management services. I was on the Prop. X Oversight Committee when this decision was made, and the idea was to avoid the problems that plagued the previous bond issue, ES, when a division of labor between design and management made it hard to assess responsibility when there were construction problems.

So much for good ideas. Jacobs has consistently had difficulty estimating costs accurately and making subcontractors do their work.

The result has been delays and constant "de-scoping," whereby the bang for the buck is constantly being downsized.

One Malibu parent compared Jacobs' work to an oil spill, complete with images of birds dying in the surf. Wow. A few years ago when my wife and I were building our house and that project went over budget and over schedule we could have used this parent and her metaphor.

I didn't know you could talk to contractors like that, and I'm a lawyer.

Ultimately, after the Jacobs executives promised to do a better job (that certainly rang bells with me), and a skeptical Prop. X Committee grudgingly recommended giving Jacobs another chance, the Board decided to stick with the horse they were riding.

It would be easy to jump on the District and criticize the slow and sometime chaotic progress of school improvements, but the District -- and my wife and I -- are not the first to have problems with construction.

Consider the City's problems with the public safety building and other projects. Consider the cost overruns on the typical highway or mass transit project. Consider the typical submarine.

The difficulty school districts have, however, is that because they cannot raise taxes on their own, they have to seek voter approval of nearly every capital expenditure. The City has had more trouble with the public safety building than the District has had with Prop. X, but instead of de-scoping the City can increase the budget and issue more bonds by itself, without a vote. The political impact is less direct.

The underlying problem is that because taxpayers pay for all public improvements, wishful thinking about costs is endemic. A rosy tint colored the whole Prop. X process, from its inception, when the Board was concerned that if it asked for too much the public would vote no, to Jacobs' estimates, which had a symbiotic relationship to each school's wish list.

Much like a family contemplating a bathroom remodel -- let alone my wife and me, planning our dream house -- the taxpayers can't believe that just a little bit of work is going to cost so much.

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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