Dynamist Blog

The Latest Farm Follies

Since he's gotten over his fear of vetoes, Bush's threat to veto the abyssmal Senate farm bill looks somewhat credible. Organic foodie Michael Pollan published a passionate piece against the bill in Sunday's NYT, concluding that the "politics of food have changed." If only. I can't decide whether he's disingenuously attempting to mold reality or very ingenuously mistaking his new-found interest for a new coalition. In fact, the coalition he identifies has existed at least since the late 1980s, with little to show for its efforts. I fear the SacBee's Dan Weintraub is closer to the mark:

This should be an ideal time to reform federal farm policy, if not junk it altogether. Farm incomes are forecast to be a record $87.1 billion this year, up an astounding 47 percent from a year ago and about 50 percent above the average for the past 10 years. The average farm household income is up 8 percent this year to about $87,000.

But instead of recognizing that subsidizing agriculture, if it ever made sense, no longer does, Congress is bent on continuing and even expanding the old ways. The new bill retains subsidies for corn, soybeans, cotton and rice as well as sugar price supports. Its worst feature is a projected $26 billion in direct payments that go to farmers even if prices and incomes are high — corporate welfare at its worst....

These concerns prompted the creation this year of a broad coalition of environmentalists and fresh-food advocates opposed to the status quo. They seemed to be making some headway until Congress threw a token to California's fruit, vegetable and nut industry, which had been shut out of subsidies in the past.

These specialty crop growers would get $1.6 billion over five years in the House version of the bill and $2 billion under the Senate version — a tiny piece of the total package but enough, apparently, to buy their support. The Western Growers Association, which represents California fruit, nut and vegetable growers, plans to support the bill.

Read both articles. And check out this semi-hopeful Jonathan Rauch piece from January. Ask yourself how many presidential candidates have taken on the farm lobby as they campaign across Iowa. (Even Pollan suggest that food stamps are a good idea, when cash payments that could be spent on rent, doctor visits, or school clothes would be more useful to the poor--and less fattening.) An unpopular lame-duck president, however, has nothing to lose. Maybe a veto could in fact change the usual dynamic.

The Great Divide (Cont'd)

I just received the newsletter from the Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners' Association, the neighborhood political pressure group (not the kind of contractual homeowners' association that provides joint services and governs a community). From their literature and website, the organization's implicit mandate is clear: to oppose any change in the neighborhood's configuration, especially new construction. I was particularly struck by the association's boast of opposing mixed-use projects on Westwood Blvd. and Santa Monica Blvd., both major commercial streets, because they "could result in 5-story buildings dwarfing adjacent homes."

From a crass financial perspective, blocking new construction may make sense. Restricting the supply of new housing, preferably to zero, jacks up the price of the existing housing stock--at least until the neighborhood becomes elderly, moribund, and jammed with traffic from people who have to commute from more affordable areas.

The Great Divide (Cont'd)

Reposted, for the benefit of Dallas Morning News readers: Here's an interesting followup to my Atlantic column (free link good for three days), discussed below: a chart comparing the number of building permits per 1,000 population in different metropolitan areas. It demonstrates the same phenomenon I discussed. The cities toward the bottom of the list, those with the fewest permits issued, fall into two categories: those with low demand and low prices (Detroit, Buffalo, Rochester, etc.) and those with high demand and high prices (LA, San Francisco, Boston, etc.). The fast-growing Sunbelt cities where housing is cheap are at the top of the list. Compared to the economic research I cited, this is a fairly crude way of cutting the data. But it did help reassure my Pasadena-based fact-checker that, despite the new construction she sees around her, it really is hard to get a permit in our area.

As you can see from these charts the number of permits in L.A. proper has grown a bit, no doubt as an effect of the run-up in housing prices. But the numbers are small--9,889 permits for multi-unit buildings, 1,969 for single-family homes in FY06--compared to the demand. They're also skewed geographically (bar charts here and here), with local development policy favoring downtown while making it difficult to build on the westside and in the south Valley, both places with high prices and lots of local opposition to new construction. One result, as Mitch Glaser discusses on his interesting blog, is that more and more people are commuting to the increasingly job-rich westside, making the traffic jams horrendous. (I make it a point to walk anywhere I need to go around rush hour.)

As the decade-plus struggle over the Playa Vista development near LAX demonstrates, westsiders will fight like crazy to beat back new construction even on vacant land, in this case the last large tract on the westside. Thanks to litigation, the project's second stage is now on indefinite hold, as Gary Walker of the Argonaut explains in this detailed news story:

A state appeals court in Los Angeles voted unanimously to halt construction on the second stage of commercial and residential development for Playa Vista, dealing the Playa Vista Capital real estate group a powerful and potentially costly legal setback.

The California Second District Court of Appeal found that the Los Angeles City Council violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) after it approved an environmental impact report that permitted construction for the development's second phase in 2005.

"The [environmental impact report on the project] was deficient in its analysis of land use impacts, mitigation of impacts on historical archaeological resources, and wastewater impacts," the court declared in its ruling.

The California Environmental Quality Act, a landmark state environmental statute, is the basis for environmental law and policy to protect environmental quality in California.

The judicial order covers two consolidated cases involving groups as diverse as the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, the Tongva/Gabrieleno Tribal Council of San Gabriel, the City of Santa Monica, the Surfrider Foundation and the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project.

The verdict calls for the immediate stoppage of construction of the 111-acre Phase 2 project, which includes The Village at Playa Vista, the commercial linchpin of the development.

The appellate court overturned all city approvals for the project and revoked all of the permits acquired for the construction work.

Under the court ruling, Los Angeles City Council is mandated to comply with CEQA, write a new environmental impact report (EIR) and hold new public hearings.

Amenities for The Village include new public parks, a neighborhood retail center and 2,600 residential units. It was slated to have 175,000 square feet of office space, 150,000 square feet of retail space and 40,000 square feet of other uses.

The ruling means not only that L.A. will have 2,600 fewer residential units but that the office and retail space that would make Playa Vista more self-contained, thereby generating less traffic out of the neighborhood, won't built. (Thanks to my friend Cosmo Wenman for the tip on Playa Vista.)

The Aesthetic Imperative Comes to Convenience Stores

12620-2.jpg&wmax=259&hmax=175&quality=90 The trade magazine VMSD (for visual merchandising and store design) reports on a trend I noticed first in a couple of Dallas 7-Elevens. Under competitive pressure, convenience stores are getting aesthetic overhauls.

Pay-at-the-pump technology is making it easier for customers to buy gas without walking through the door. And higher gas prices are taking a more sizable bite out of each transaction, leaving less disposable money for that carton of milk, magazine or slushy. Besides, margins on such c-store staples as gasoline and tobacco have shrunk in recent years.

And as if those challenges to U.S. c-store operators are not enough, a brash – and big – new competitor will enter the fray this month, when British-based food retailing giant Tesco begins rolling out its first Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona....

"People typically stop at a c-store because 'something's empty or something's full,' " says Tom Ertler, prototype director at retail design firm WD Partners (Dublin, Ohio), whose clients include TravelCenters of America's Goasis chain and The Home Depot Fuel c-stores. "They may stop because of competitive fuel prices, a convenient location or the need to use the restroom. But to get them to spend any time and money in the store itself, the retailers have got to make those spaces easy to shop, clean and visually appealing."

One goal of the overhauls is to bring in more female customers. The old functional aesthetic was good enough for the "smokes and cokes" blue-collar male crowd, but women apparently want something at least as inviting as a Target, if not a Starbucks.

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