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How City Hall Corruption Leads to a Failed State

PLANNING WATCH-Failed states don’t just happen. Countries don’t suddenly careen out-of-control because a foolish leader pursues irresponsible policies.

Failure accumulates slowly, as thousands of bad decisions merge together. The late Professor Chalmers Johnson, a highly regarded UC Berkeley and UC San Diego historian, predicted that the United States would implode by the mid-21st century because of imperial over-reach. He argued that the blowback from multiplying foreign wars would eventually cause the country to rot from within, making life untenable. Since Chalmers’ predictions of U.S. collapse did not include climate change, they now seem optimistic. 

This, sadly, is the situation the United States now faces, and many commentators contend that the U.S. either is or is becoming a failed state.  These analysts, such as Princeton Emeritus Professor Richard Falk, consider the uncontrolled Covid-19 pandemic, increasing inequality and poverty, rising unemployment and evictions, collapsing infrastructure and social services, and high-priced forever wars. Unlike Falk, some optimists believe this situation will end with a Democratic victory, forgetting that former U.S. Senator Dan Kaufman, who heads Biden’s transition team, told the Wall Street Journal that the pantry is bare. The U.S. government cannot afford major infrastructure investments, a Green New Deal, Medicare-for-All, and free college tuition. The next administration’s challenge will be to maintain existing programs, not expand them. 

City Hall’s contribution to eventual collapse. In addition to the federal government’s lopsided foreign and domestic priorities, cities like Los Angeles have also made foolish decisions that lead to implosion, the signs of which already surround us, such as pot-holed streets, sidewalks and parking lots sprouting weeds, homeless encampments, boarded-up stores, piles of litter, bursting water mains, and electricity blackouts. 

The most visible contributors to this decline have been City Hall’s corruption kings, former Councilmembers Mitchell Englander and Jose Huizar, both waiting for their Club Fed sentences. But, the mainstream press downplays the rest of the story. LA mimics the Federal government’s enormous military expenditures by spending over half of its discretionary budget on the LAPD, a significantly higher percentage than other large U.S. cities. Furthermore, this lop-sided budget allocation will grow because City Hall’s employee furloughs and buyouts do not apply to the LAPD, which will get raises. 

Paying a steep price. Angelenos pay a steep price when policing, like soldiering, precludes other budget categories, including programs desperately needed to slow down climate change. These include preparing a climate change General Plan element, maintaining and expanding LA’s puny urban forest, repairing the city’s broken sidewalks, installing bike lanes and bus shelters, and building a mass transit system that serves the transit dependent, not real estate scammers. It is the latter who benefit from transit-justified increases in property values, windfall profits, and expanded investment sites, despite the dire long-term consequences. 

This latter category is particularly galling, which is why I wrote several CityWatch columns exposing an outrageous real estate scam, the Purple Line Extension Transit Neighborhood Specific Plan (TNP). It bills itself as a solution to LA’s mounting crises of homelessness and declining transit ridership, but it would make these crises worse. If the City Council eventually adopts this Specific Plan, it will make it easier for real estate developers to build expensive in-fill housing near subway stations and bus stops. Since it is hard work to sell this scheme to a wary community, City Hall has shrouded the TNP in deceit and unanswered questions, such as: 

  • Why were the greater Fairfax and Miracle Mile areas selected for this up-zoning Specific Plan? Unlike LA’s other 52 Specific Plans, the City Council did not initiate the TNP with a motion.  Therefore, who applied for a METRO planning grant, and why did they do it?  All the public knows is that a crook, Jose Huisar, authored the Council motion to accept METRO’s grant.  Was this another one of his dirty deals? The public deserves clear answers before his trial and sentencing. 
  • What businesses, local groups, and individuals lobbied the Department of City Planning and City Council offices to prepare a Transit Neighborhood Plan that up-zoned private parcels in the Miracle Mile and greater Fairfax areas? 
  • Why has the Department of City Planning separated the Purple Line Transit Neighborhood Plan from the parallel update of the Wilshire Community Plan even though they examine the same area, utilize the same 2040 horizon year, and are prepared by the same City Planning section? 

Despite its poorly hidden agenda, the TNP is not an anomaly. It is similar to many other Sacramento and LA City Hall schemes to feather the nest of real estate developers who make generous donations to politicians, what the LA Times calls soft corruption 

Bait and Switch: For example, while City Hall hands out up-zoning gifts to property owners and real estate developers in the Fairfax and Miracle Mile neighborhoods, they are pursuing similar ruses in other Los Angeles neighborhoods: 

  • City Planning recently unveiled a 95-page Community Plan Implementation Ordinance (CPIO) for the Hollywood Community Plan. It allows developers to increase the height, size, and density of “transit-oriented” real estate projects with minimal public hearings and environmental reviews. 
  • The update of the four West Los Angeles Community Plans takes the same bait and switch approach.  The bait is pie-in-the-sky clichés about planning for equity, quality of life, and resilient neighborhoods. The switch is the clichés (e.g., accommodating growth, increasing housing opportunities) that ambitious city planners have contrived to obtain public acquiescence to the up-zoning of commercial parcels. 

As most CityWatch readers know, the up-zoning City Hall plans for the Miracle Mile, Hollywood, West LA, and other LA neighborhoods increases the cost of housing. Only the well-off can afford this new housing, and they seldom take busses or rail. This is why transit ridership declines in neighborhoods with new “transit oriented” apartments and town houses. This also explains why up-zoning ordinances never contain monitoring programs. If their upzoning was contingent on reducing housing costs and increasing transit ridership, CPIO, TNP, and Community Plan Updates would reveal themselves as frauds. 

When similar real estate scams are repeatedly rolled out in city after city, they incrementally contribute to the broad failure of the United States as a sustainable society.  Schemes, like these, that sacrifice the public good for the short-term profits of real estate speculators take a tremendous toll.  They lead to increased homelessness, climate change, economic inequality, harsh policing, and the collapse of municipal infrastructure and services – all markers of societal implosion.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch. He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and is co-chair of the new Greater Fairfax Residents Association.  Please email comments and corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com or via Twitter to @DickPlatkin.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.