Someone I consider to be very wise once asked me exactly what my problem was with expensive restaurants. I explained that, for me personally, there was a conflict in stuffing one’s self with high-end restaurant fare when that day’s news was almost certain to contain some story about hunger or aching need in another part of the world. I said it wasn’t just about redirecting the resources, although a $200 dinner that somehow resulted in sending $100 to Haiti would make for a righteous concept restaurant. No, it was more a matter of just being comfortable with the voraciousness of my own appetites: I didn’t want to be eating a $40 entrée at the very moment people in other lands were starving.
To which the wise person responded that restaurants, like all businesses, create work and jobs and salaries and end-up helping people who live right here and are in need… of a job. And that closing down fancy restaurants would hurt those people, take away those jobs… you get the picture.
I was reminded of the ecosystem of money last week when I read that the Playa Vista project was granted the right, by way of an up-zoning Los Angeles City Council ordinance, to build more “luxury” housing and retail space by cutting into more of the Ballona wetlands. The immediate beneficiaries are Playa Vista co-owners Goldman Sachs, who in addition to buying into the Playa Vista project in 1998 were bailed out with $10 billion of American tax payer’s money in 2008. Then in 2009 we watched their executives take home millions in salaries and bonuses. Thanks to the rezoning ordinance, Playa Vista can go ahead with the new construction even as much of the project’s original retail space still sits vacant. And according to one estimate the ordinance pumps up the value of the property involved by $145.6 million dollars.
Of course this additional development, which will reduce open space and add congestion to the west side, was absolutely necessary. You’ve all seen the screaming headlines: “Shortage of Luxury Condos Causes Rioting” and “Shoppers Desperate for New Retail Go on Hunger Strike.” There were tears in the eyes of many the morning we all read “Yuppies Homeless as Open Space and Stupid Trees Thrive in Ballona Wetlands.” Something obviously had to be done, and the LA City Council has done it.
Once again I could hear my wise friend saying, “If there is no new construction, then there is no construction work…” Only she didn’t say that. She was as teed-off as I was that sprawl for its own sake was once again munching away like Godzilla on our part of the city. Even further, the whole thing immediately benefited a ship full of pirates like Goldman Sachs.
A salute goes out to Westside LA Council member Bill Rosendahl and Paul Koretz who were the lone opponents of the LA Council’s vote. Their sensible resistance matters, as do other voices in the matter. In a story on the vote in the LA Weekly, community activist Jack Humphreville argues that when the city of LA gives away value like it did on the Playa Vista vote, the city should get back at least some of the increase in the value of the property. That way, schools might have more money to buy books with pictures of trees when actual trees are replaced with luxury condos. But his point is that citizens other than luxe condo tenants should realize some dimension of benefit and gain.
To me that kind of thinking resonates of cap and trade, where pollution limits are theoretically maintained by allowing those who want what they want to simply buy it. To bring this home a little bit, find yourself one of those books with the photographs of the Santa Monica beaches in the 1920s and 30s. You’ll see that the beach at that time was huge compared to the size it is today. Not because nature eroded it, but because we kept building more streets on top of it. But that was natural, right? So filling up the Ballona wetlands with more and more construction is natural too… right? Can we ever “Just Say No” to development? I don’t mean for the current year until lawyers find another angle, but rather with some kind of permanence.
In the course of viewing some (not all) of Ken Burn’s excellent documentary series on America’s National Parks I was impressed to learn that few other nations have had as much success holding on to public lands in the amount that we have. So, we’re clearly capable of acting in our own self-defense against a mentality that would develop every single inch and pave over… well, okay, with the exception of drilling for oil on public lands… and snowmobiles barking out exhaust in Yellowstone… and Native Americans might have an altogether different take on the glory of National Parks. But I’m saying we do act, we do stop, we do resist. Sometimes slow encroachment, like the beaches shrinking over a hundred years, feels different than a swift kick in the pants scored by Goldman Sachs. And luxury housing buyers shouldn’t always have the loudest voice. As Bob Dylan once noted, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” Gosh darn it.
Mirror Contributing Writeropinion@smmirror.com