The Law's No Ass: Rejecting Hollywood Densification


The city of Los Angeles received a stunning rebuke, when California Superior Court Judge Alan J. Goodman invalidated the Hollywood Community Plan. The Hollywood district, well known for its entertainment focus, contains approximately 5% of the city of Los Angeles’ population. The Hollywood Plan was the basis of the city's vision for a far more dense Hollywood, with substantial high rise development in "transit oriented developments" adjacent to transit rail stations (Note 1).

The Hollywood Plan had been challenged by three community groups (, La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association of Hollywood, and Fix the City), which argued that the approval process had violated provisions of California law, and most particularly had relied on population projections that were both obsolete and inaccurate.

Judge Goodman called the Hollywood Plan "fatally flawed," and noted that it relied on errors of both "fact and law." He ordered the City to:

(1) Rescind, set aside and vacate all actions approving the Hollywood Plan and prepare a replacement that is lawful and consistent with the City's general plan.

(2) Grant no permits or entitlements from the Hollywood Plan until it has been replaced with a lawful substitute.

An "Entirely Discredited" Population Baseline

The principal issue in the case revolved around out-of-date and erroneous population estimates (Note 2). The city based its densification plan on an assumption that the population of Hollywood would rise from 200,000 in 2000 to 224,000 in
2005. This estimate was produced by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), which is the metropolitan planning organization for all of Southern California outside San Diego County. SCAG had further projected that Hollywood's population would rise to 250,000 by 2030.

To house these additional residents, the city reasoned that higher density development was necessary. In a related matter, the Los Angeles City Council approved Millennium Hollywood, a pair of 35 and 39 story mixed use towers. This was in spite of warnings from the State Geologist that the property was bisected by a dangerous earthquake "rupture" fault (Note 3). Litigation is pending.

But there’s a fly in this planning ointment, rather than gaining population, Hollywood is losing people.   Before the Hollywood Plan was finally approved, 2010 United States Census data was released that indicated the population had dropped to 198,000. This revealed both the SCAG estimate of the actual population and its 2030 projection to be highly inaccurate. Judge Goodman referred to the SCAG 2005 estimate as "entirely discredited."

Elementary Questions Raised

Nonetheless, the city proceeded based upon the incorrect population data. This led the Judge to raise elementary questions about the process (paraphrased below).

(1) Why was the SCAG population estimate used as a baseline by the city of Los Angeles if the US Census count, readily available before the environmental process was completed, had shown a significantly smaller population?

(2) Why was the 2030 projection (from SCAG) not adjusted in the Plan based on the new, lower 2010 US Census population count?

The City defended using the stale and erroneous population data. Judge Goodman commented: "That clearly is a post-hoc rationalization of City's failure to recognize that the HCPU (Hollywood Plan) was unsupported by anything other than wishful thinking" (parentheses and emphasis by author). The Judge continued that this resulted in a "manifest failure to comply with statutory requirements."

The Judge set out the burden faced by the City to achieve a legal (and rational outcome):

...if the population estimate for 2030 were to be adjusted based on what the 2010 Census data had shown, then all of the several  analyses which are based on population would need to be adjusted, such as housing, commercial building, traffic, water demand, waste produced -as well as all other factors analyzed in these key planning documents.

To its discredit, the city incredibly argued that "it was entitled by law to rely on the SCAG 2005 population estimate." The Judge disagreed. Any other conclusion would have proven "the law to be an ass" (Note 4).

Abuse of Discretion

The La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association argued that the city of Los Angeles had failed to exercise "good faith effort at full disclosure," contrary to the requirements of California environmental law. Judge Goodman appeared to agree, finding that the city of Los Angeles had abused its discretion, noting "A prejudicial abuse of discretion occurs if the failure to include relevant information precludes informed decision-making and informed public participation, thereby thwarting the goals of" the environmental process.

Inaccurate Population Estimates and Projections

This is not the first time that Southern California population projections have been so wrong. With more than a century of explosive population growth, more recent trends may have eluded some of the planning agencies. In 1993, SCAG projected that the city of Los Angeles would reach a population of 4.3 million by 2010. SCAG's predicted increase of more than 800,000 materialized into little more than 300,000. This is not to suggest that projecting population is an exact science, nor that SCAG has been alone in its inaccuracy.

In 2007, the state's official population projection agency, the Department of Finance projected that Los Angeles County would reach 10.5 million residents in just three years. But the 2010 US Census counted only 9.8 million residents (See 60 Million Californians? Don't Bet on It). In contrast with the previously accustomed growth from other parts of the country, Los Angeles County lost a net 1.2 million residents to other parts of the nation while the rate of immigration fell.  

Not a Unique Problem

This instance of overinflated and inaccurate projections is not unique to Los Angeles. The use of out-of-date or erroneous information is increasingly being used in regional planning. Recently, the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission approved the San Francisco Plan Area Plan, which used population projections substantially higher even than those of the Department of Finance (despite that agency's previous over-optimism).

As in Los Angeles, Plan Bay Area also used outdated data for automobile greenhouse gas emission factors that have long since been rendered obsolete by technological advancements. Other planning agencies around the nation have engaged in similar practices.

Planners in the Bay Area, SCAG and elsewhere in California are using similarly flawed projections that presume a substantial change in housing preferences toward multifamily and smaller lots. Yet, years later, the projected trends have not emerged in any significant way (See: A Housing Preference Sea-Change: Not in California).

Wishful Thinking: No Basis for Action

Judge Goodman's decision could have relevance well beyond Los Angeles and the state of California. Regional plans must be based upon current and reliable data, no matter how late received.  To proceed based on faulty data is no different than not changing course when an iceberg appears in the navigation path. Wishful thinking has no place in rational planning.


Note 1: The Hollywood rail stations are on the Red Line subway, which was projected to carry 300,000 daily riders by 2000. The Red Line is carrying approximately 170,000 daily riders and would need three-quarters more to reach the projection for more than a decade ago (see: Report on Funding Levels and Allocations of Funds, Urban Mass Transportation Administration, 1991, page B-49)

Note 2: The plaintiffs also argued that the Hollywood Plan's densification would result in additional traffic congestion. This is a serious concern, given Hollywood's central location in the second most congested metropolitan area in North America (following Vancouver, which recently ended the decades long reign of Los Angeles). Greater traffic congestion is associated with higher population densities.

Note 3: LA Weekly said that the fault might be capable "of opening the Earth, splitting buildings in half" (See: How the Hollywood Fault Made Millennium's Future Uncertain, and L.A. a Laughingstock).

Note 4:  "The law is an ass" (as in a donkey) refers to cases in which the law is at odds with common sense. This phrase was used by Charles Dickens, but appears to have first been used in a play as early as 1620.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

Photograph: Los Angeles City Hall (by author)

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Mixed USe Disasters, Metro at Hollywood Western

The CRA project on the S/E corner of Hollywood-Western has been a disaster. It never rented more than 1/2 of its retail space and then lost its anchor tenant. Thus, the retail is 20% rented.

As Cox points out, the subway ridership is only 170,000 ppl in 2010 when it was supposed to be 300,000 by 2000. The elderly do not use the subway. There is private parking beneath the complex so many have cars. Others happen to live close to family in Little Armenia. When they lived in the traditional non-CRA apartments, they walked, drove themselves or had family and friends drive them -- just like they do today.

Elderly people seldom have jobs and hence they are not a large commuting pool, and thus, putting them in a Project above a subway does not affect vehicle traffic one way or the other.

TODs in general make traffic congestion worse as TODs attract more cars into a small area -- that's the point of density -- to cram more people into a smaller place. Since the subway covers about 5% of LA, the subway is not a feasible form of transportation. Also the subway takes 175% of the time it would take to drive a car.

The only way out of this mess is less density. This alternative does not maximize the sq ft value of the billionaire's TOD, and thus, the city opposes de-densification.

with more density, places move farther apart. As we know distance is measured in time in Los Angeles. The extra congestion which TODs bring to an area delays traffic for both people who drive in the neighborhood and those who drive through going elsewhere. That's why CalTrans opposed the Millennium. If it had 40% of its projected tenants, it would cause virtual gridlock o the Hollywood Freeway -- pushing DTLA farther from the Valley.

"Smart growth" a good fit with beneficial dispersion, though

Scott, your insights are sound. But if "smart growth" type nodes are all over the place, (embedded in surrounding low density) the congestion will be sufficiently dispersed to not be a problem.

I have had this disagreement with numerous smart growth advocates. They don't want the nodes to be everywhere; they want them to be few in number so they fit better with a "transit" plan.

I say there is far more sense in keeping all urban land low in cost and dispersing "amenities" so that as many people as possible can easily be located close to as many of them that they want. The problem with a limited number of "smart growth" nodes is that they are little elite high-priced de facto gated communities where the benefits get captured by the new Nomenklatura.

But there is far more potential gains in enabling the demand for "walkability", by means of many small mixed-use nodes, than there is in enabling the "demand" for transit by having a smaller number of stronger mixed-use nodes connected by transit. People who walk cost us nothing. People who ride transit drive us broke. TOD drives us broke too, especially when the whole urban area's land prices are inflated by the overall plan. "Walkability" costs us nothing - all it needs is the enabling zoning and the free market to take over from there.

Population Growth and Density

Kevin Kleen

It seems to me the focus on population estimates misses the point. Hollywood vacancy rates are very low, and it's virtually fully built out. The only way population growth happens in this scenario is redevelopment at higher density. Maybe the expected growth didn't happen because such redevelopment has been blocked?

Also, Red Line usage may not have hit original projections, but I ride it every weekday and I can tell you usage is high and the numbers clearly show a dramatic trend up. It's a fantasy to think blocking redevelopment will somehow ease existing congestion, and it would be stupid not to increase density where there is viable mass transit available.

The pursuit of failure. Good Judge for blowing the whistle on it

"Maybe the expected growth didn't happen because such redevelopment has been blocked?"

More likely it has happened because people are "priced out" of living there.

Even overcrowding has obviously failed, given the fall in population along with the low vacancy rate.

High intensity redevelopment is not acceptable to any local populations anywhere I am aware of. It is fanciful imagination of planners to think it can be made to happen in line with the pictures they carry around in their heads.

It doesn't improve housing affordability either. All it does is increase the economic land rent that the site owner captures.

I know of no city in the world that has used intensification to make housing more affordable. Singapore has no NIMBY rights at all, and even minimal property rights, and what the planners say is to happen, is what happens; but their "housing" is more than twice the median multiple price of Houston for a LOT smaller size. This is an achievement when you realise that Hong Kong is double the price again. But it does indicate that median multiples of around 7 is about as good as it gets when you haven't got competitive automobile based development providing genuinely affordable housing.

Kevin Kleen I agree

Kevin Kleen

I agree overcrowding isn't the answer, and higher density + affordabilty doesn't happen without public restrictions and/or subsidy, but affordable high density apartments have been developed at many Red Line stops (for example, google "Metro Hollywood Apartments", "Metro MacArthur Park Apartments", "NoHo Senior Villas"). These projects have all been completed and leased up immediately. Seniors projects in particular should be something people can agree on, since very few low income seniors in urban Los Angeles have cars and easy access to transit gives them some mobility.

The above article contains

The above article contains some errors and omissions. Overall, the article gets the message correct.

(1) The first group to object was Petitioner Hollywoodians Encouraging Logical Planning [HELP] and its first objection was on June 14, 2005. All the other petitioners came years later. HELP and SaveHywd were co-petitioners in one of the three cases.

(2) "The city based its densification plan on an assumption that the population of Hollywood would rise from 200,000 in 2000 to 224,000 in

The errors, which are discussed below, may seem small, but within the context of litigation, they are significant. The City did not just make wrong assumptions, it told deliberate falsehoods, and to this day the City is still demanding that the Court use Garcetti's fictitious 224,462 ppl figure for the 2005 population. Only by use of the false figure can Garcetti justify upzoning Hollywood for his developer buddies.

Hollywood's population in year 2000 was 210,794 ppl -- not 200,000 people.

The City did not "assume" that the population "would rise" to 224,462 in 2005, the City stated as a fact that the population had risen to 224,462 ppl in 2005 and said that it had to use the 224,462 ppl figure because SCAG had made that determination. In reality, in 2011 SCAG had determined that the 2005 population had been only 200,564 ppl. In other words, SCAG's 2005 population determination was 24,000 fewer people than the City had said.

The important point was that the City knowingly used false data as the basis for the entire Hollywood Community Plan.

(3) The wrong population data was not the most important point. It was the foundation for the most important aspect of the litigation. The crux of the HELP & SaveHywd entire petition was the Decline in Hollywood's population from a high of 214,883 ppl in 1990 down to 198,228 ppl in 2010 without any interim increase. Therefore, the City had the absolute duty to study a DownSizing - DownZoning Alternative for Hollywood's future where there would be no Earthquake Towers and no more TODs, but instead Hollywood would focus on the quality of life for its residents. The Court said that the city must study this alternative since it is the only future Hollywood that is consistent with the facts. As a corollary, there is no factual basis to study any UpSizing-UpZoning Alternative in the face of a dramatic 20+ year decline in population.