By Joan Niertit
Two weeks ago, the lovely 1938 historic Victorian home on the corner of Gallatin and Lemoran was torn down, along with a 60-ft eucalyptus that was probably as old as the home.
They were torn down to make way for the division of the 30,000 square foot-lot into three pieces, each destined to have its own McMansion, and the beautiful park-like expanse on the corner will be no more. Along with the destruction of a grove of tall and healthy ash and black walnut trees immediately next door (replaced by a bleak, weed-filled dusty lot and the remnants of a McMansion that was never completed) everything that was lovely, peaceful, and green in this corner of the neighborhood - what made us buy a home in this particular spot of Downey- is gone. Maybe it's time to move on.
All of this made me think about the direction of Downey as whole, in terms of finances, quality of life, growth, and sustainability.
First of all, I need to say that I believe that the City Council and the Planning Commission are honest and sincere in promoting Downey's best interests. I applaud their efforts to bring new, profitable, forward-looking businesses to Downey, such as Tesla motors, Downey Studios, and Porto's. I'm sure there are other efforts in the background (Trader Joes? BevMo?) that I'm not aware of. That not all of these efforts were successful doesn't diminish the fact that the city is doing its best to create a financially sound, viable base.
I also applaud the construction of plantable medians throughout the city, the addition of recycled water irrigation, and the inclusion of California natives on Florence Avenue and other drought-tolerant plants elsewhere. The construction of affordable housing in a prime part of the city – within walkable distance to almost everything important – is sheer genius. I'd love to live there myself.
I love the farmers market, which I visit every week. I'm the envy of my coworkers - who live from Temecula to Thousand Oaks - for my access to pesticide-free vegetables, fruits, eggs, yogurt, and chickens. And the dozens of events in Downey, including Saturday's international food fair, are a wonderful place to pull people together and create a community.
Everywhere I look, something is being "developed". In the past year or so, with the improvement of the financial industry, houses and condos and springing up like mushrooms.
The empty lot across from Ralph's on Lakewood? Townhomes.
The empty lot on Florence, east of Lakewood? Townhomes.
The historic home on the corner? Torn down for three single-family homes.
And, in an example of extreme irony, on the very same June 10 front page of the Patriot, where the city announced significant water restrictions for the first time this drought, they also announced the approval of 117 townhomes on Paramount Boulevard.
For me, I see lost opportunity instead of improvement. I understand that an undeveloped lot represents lost real estate taxes and development fees and therefore lost revenues. I also know that development is under the guidance of the City's Master Plan. What I question is whether that Master Plan is guided by a master strategy.
Here's the problem: Every developed residence represents an increase in real estate tax revenues, which improves the city's bottom line. On the other hand it also represents an increase in costs.
Every newly occupied home means more traffic. More road repair. More teachers and more classroom space. More police and firefighters and EMTs. More trash pickup. More water. More parking space. More of everything that the city needs to account for. What is the net increase, if any, for city coffers? There are probably a half-dozen other kinds of developments that would increase revenues without such a large increase in costs.
Another way to increase revenues without significantly increasing costs is to increase the value of existing homes, and there's a lot of room for improvement there. If you look at the average cost per square foot, Downey doesn't really distinguish itself from Pico Rivera or South Gate. Yes, the average listing in some areas is higher, but that's because the homes are larger.
So, what is it that distinguishes Downey from Santa Monica, or Pasadena? What increases the valuation of properties?
In a feedback loop, better schools increase valuations. Lower crime. Bigger-city features, like world-class libraries. Community colleges. Even unique geographic features (which Downey has, by they way.) Charm, and an architectural history that goes back more than 20 years (or at least looks like it does!). Convenient transportation and parking. Green space. A unique industrial, retail, entertainment, or commercial center.
I think Downey can achieve all of that, with persistent application of smart development. Instead, what I see is relentless suburbanization of... well, everything. A relatively uniform density of housing, which has neither the energy and vitality of a city nor the peace and quiet of the country. Jam-packed parks. Bottom-line retailing. Poor parking and no apparent transportation plan. Lack of synergy. No mixed-use zoning. The thoughtless destruction of anything historic, including large trees.
There is another thing to consider, and that's the idea that Downey, like many Southern California cities, may actually be at the limits of its development due to lack of water. Once waste is wrung out of our lifestyle, there is an irreducible limit on the amount of water available. Even if the drought is broken this year, our area is modeled to get 25% less rainfall in the next 30 years. How many people can the Downey recharge area reasonably sustain? In 1980, Downey had about 88,000 people. Roughly 35 year later, that has number increased by about 30%. What will it be 30 years from now?
Finally - and I hate to be so persistent about this - the future of Downey will be hotter. Thanks to tree loss, the city of Louisville, KY gained the dubious distinction of becoming the fastest-warming urban heat island in the USA. Louisville is now considering a heat-management plan which includes cool roofs and tree-planting. Downey should also consider a heat-management plan, because the problem isn't just on its way, it is already here.
None of the improvements are immediately doable, but they don't need to be expensive or fast. It needs proactive planning and a long-term vision. And it will require a constant commitment from both the Planning Commission and the City Council to defer development until it's the right development, which means a far more stringent evaluation to determine whether a proposal improves Downey in a myriad of ways, not just one.