Misled Millennials: How Fake News Could Set Los Angeles Down A Dangerous Path

The LA electorate will soon vote on an aggressive piece of legislation, one which has been dangerously misrepresented on social media.

Image courtesy Pixabay

If previous voter turnout is any indication, on March 7th, 2017, 10% of the Los Angeles electorate will determine the city’s future.Tucked away in the “Consolidated, Municipal and Special Elections” ballot is Measure S (formerly known as the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative). This aggressive piece of legislation would place an immediate two-year-long moratorium on most new development. If enacted, it would effectively halt many residential projects throughout a city in the midst of a severe housing shortage.

The measure is the handiwork of the Coalition to Preserve LA, a NIMBY group committed to preventing an increasing population from “destroying the character of communities.” Supporters of the initiative tend to be older, whiter LA natives who wish to preserve outdated visions of the city. It’s unfair to imply that proponents of Measure S do not have any valid qualms. Los Angeles’s Planning Commission has largely failed to address concerns of gentrification or Art Deco preservation, let alone rising rents. The recent influx of tastelessly ostentatious complexes full of bad architecture and overpriced luxury condominiums is, admittedly, irritating. And so the temptation to slam the brakes on unchecked development is understandable.

However, the initiative, while it may provide short-term relief, would be a great detriment to the city’s future growth. The LA rental market is already precarious enough. New construction has not been able to keep up with demand for residential units: the vacancy rate currently sits at an unsustainably low 2.7 percent. Los Angeles’s population increased by over 50,000 people in 2015, while the city only managed to construct around 12,500 apartments. The Los Angeles Times’s editorial board warns that if Measure S were enacted, it would exacerbate this deficit and lead to “higher housing costs, more homelessness and greater inequality.” A recent study (conducted by Beacon Economics) projects that if the measure were to pass, it would instantly eliminate 12,000 construction jobs and cause the city to lose out on over $70 million in taxes per year.

Nevertheless, the Coalition to Preserve LA was able to gather over 104,000 signatures to force the measure onto the ballot. Although the “yes” vote trailed by seven points in a May 2016 poll (conducted by the firm Fairbank, Maslin, Metz & Associates), the survey unearthed an alarming statistic: 19% of the electorate is uncommitted—a terrifying number considering that last year’s March voter turnout was only 8.6%. If there is anything to be learned from 2016, it’s that an energized irrational minority combined with a large number of 11th hour undecideds can defeat an unenthusiastic, levelheaded majority.

The proposal’s new momentum and lackadaisical opposition should have urbanists sweating. Particularly when young millennial voters—a demographic that could effectively stop this legislation in its tracks—continue to consume local news with misleading headlines that couch this dangerous legislation in righteous, progressive clothing.

For example, this past fall culture and architecture publications quickly spread word online of the impending destruction of Los Angeles’s favorite record store (and one of the most significant of the Western United States)—Amoeba Music. In response, the website LAist published a story with the sensationalist headline, “Is Amoeba Going to Get the Wrecking Ball For A Big Fancy Tower? Let’s Hope Not.” The post was immediately assaulted with angry emojis and outraged 20-somethings. The top commenter proclaimed: “If Amoeba goes, I’m burning this city to the ground.”

Grief over the fate of the institution’s flagship store is warranted, but the notion that greedy developers are demolishing a helpless cultural landmark—and replacing it with a bland 28-floor glass box—is a riling and inaccurate narrative. In reality, this is not a high-profile eviction. Amoeba’s owners willfully cashed in on the Sunset Boulevard property for a cool $34 million. Though the original journalism is in no way fictitious, its immediate presentation on Facebook failed to make this distinction, and opened the door for groundless interpretations. The Coalition to Preserve LA quickly capitalized on the story, spinning the incident as “a backroom deal at City Hall” that will “rob L.A. of another cultural treasure.”

To LAist’s credit, a sidenote was added to the article, urging readers to not use Amoeba’s potential passing as a “reason to support That Terrible NIMBY Ballot Measure,” which the publication considers to be “dangerous and potentially disastrous.” The inclusion of this postscript is commendable, but is essentially an afterthought that isn’t nearly as sexy nor visible as its Facebook headline. The unwarranted indignation undoubtedly increased the measure’s momentum.

But the prospect of a moribund Amoeba isn’t the only story potentially hoodwinking the electorate. Leonardo DiCaprio, who has transformed himself into one of highest profile environmentalists on the planet, supposedly endorsed the measure earlier this year. The A-lister’s alleged support was ceaselessly touted by the Coalition to Preserve LA as they scrambled to collect signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. However, the thing is that DiCaprio never actually endorsed it. It was only after being repeatedly pestered by Curbed LA and (its sister site) Vox that the Oscar winner clarified his position.

The online publications called out the actor’s hypocrisy in supporting a measure that would reduce densification and public transit use, actions at odds with his environmental activism. Leo’s spokesperson then released a statement—two months after the Coalition to Preserve LA had begun to parade his name. DiCaprio’s representatives quietly refuted his alleged endorsement, justifying the confusion by insisting that the actor only signed a petition (sponsored by the Coalition to Preserve LA) to save a specific building in Hollywood, but by no means supported the measure at large. Following the statement, the Coalition to Preserve LA discretely and retroactively erased Leo from their entire campaign. DiCaprio now holds a reportedly neutral stance on Measure S, but has taken no action to correct the fallout from misinformation. Just as with Amoeba, the debunked story isn’t as visible. That, in a nutshell, was 2016, where fake news and endorsements can tip elections.

But there is hope. Despite November 8th’s top-of-the-ticket tragedy, Los Angeles voters gave themselves a lot to be proud of. Voters passed: a $1.5 billion bond (Measure HHH) to provide housing and services to the county’s estimated 43,000 homeless people; a half-cent sales tax hike (Measure M) to fund an ambitious public transportation expansion plan (including light rail, subways, road repair, and other transit improvements to ease traffic across the LA basin); and a new law to streamline high-rise development (Measure JJJ) and provide more residential units, of which a significant percentage must be “affordable”. These progressive measures all handily passed thanks to overwhelming enthusiasm and turnout from millennial voters. In the case of Measure M, an estimated 85% of 18-to-29-year-olds supported the legislation. This bodes well for the future, as these changes will turn Los Angeles into a more unified metropolis and make it feel less like the loose collection of individual cities it currently is.

It’s little surprise that two of these measures (M and JJJ) were actively opposed by the Coalition to Preserve LA. Their Measure S is an inappropriately drastic reaction that would directly sabotage many of the gains made through the passage of the aforementioned measures (and void most of JJJ). The Coalition hopes its measure will squeak by thanks to euphemistic, manipulative language and a pathetic voter turnout, which would play into the hands of conservative, anti-development voters. It’s up to millennials to vacate their online echo chambers and usher LA towards thoughtful growth—and that begins by saying “no” to this shortsighted measure.

Thomas Musca was the assistant curator for the Architecture and Design Museum’s 2013 exhibition Never Built: Los Angeles. He is currently studying architecture at Cornell University and is a contributor to ArchDaily.

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