Angelides Must Be Kidding About Laguna West

By Garry South

August 6, 2006

Capitol Weekly

In last week’s Capitol Weekly, State Treasurer and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides painted himself as the Jolly Green Giant — a veritable trailblazer and trendsetter on environmental issues.

“Environmental protection is, and has always been, at the center of my work in my career both as a businessman and elected official,” Angelides boasted in the column.

Angelides career as a businessman, of course, consisted of 16 years as a land speculator and real-estate developer in the Sacramento area. (Remember, when running for the GOP nomination for president in 1988, Pat Robertson also demanded that people call him a “businessman,” not a TV preacher. I guess neither “developer” nor “televangelist” is a very good ballot title.)

To illustrate the point about his enviro-friendly private-sector exploits, Angelides quite incredibly cited a huge “jump” subdivision he foisted on the Sacramento metropolitan area called Laguna West: “Dissatisfied with the impacts of suburban sprawl, I planned and built the community of Laguna West… a model of a livable, walkable, environmentally sustainable community — good for families and good for business.”

Surely he’s got to be joking. If Laguna West is the centerpiece of his career as a supposed developer-cum-environmentalist, then God help us if he loses the race for governor and reverts to the development business. In reality, this behemoth is exemplary of the very sprawl and environmental degradation Angelides now claims to abhor.

But don’t only take my word for it that Laguna West ain’t exactly Shangri-La. “Walking is not what comes to mind as one speeds west on a roomy boulevard south of Sacramento. Elk Grove falls behind, and Laguna West fans out beyond the railroad overpass. The clay and gray rooftops blend in a nearly impenetrable expanse of large, tightly packed homes. ? It’s easy to mistake it for more of suburbia,” said a news story in the San Luis Obispo Tribune on June 18, 2002. “Opponents point scornfully to an ugly sound wall in one part of the development, the abandonment of a light rail station in the center and the failure to develop a thriving apartment and shopping core.”

An article about Angelides’ career as a developer in the February 19, 2006, Sacramento Bee echoed the verdict: “Environmental critics today say that [Laguna West] serves largely as a bedroom community 12 miles south of downtown Sacramento. Many stores and jobs are beyond walking distance, while transit options are not abundant. ‘It was supposed to be a lot more transit-oriented & but instead it’s added so much gridlock to the south county region,’ said Mindy Cecchettini, a rancher in Sloughhouse and activist with the South County Residents for Responsible Growth.”

Renowned urban planner and professor Sir Peter Hall, writing in the June 2000 issue of the journal Town & Country Planning, calls Laguna West a “California tragedy” in an article tellingly entitled “Lessons from a Magnificent Failure.” He noted that even the award-winning architect Angelides hired to design his pride-and-joy project had gone sour on it — and was beseeching people not to even go take a look at it.

“But [Peter] Calthorpe’s most ambitious plan, and the one most often quoted, was for Laguna West, south of Sacramento. Over coffee, he bewailed what had happened to it ? [describing] it as an utterly conventional Central Valley tract-home development. Don’t go and see it, he begged. It isn’t worth the ride. I pondered, and finally failed to take his advice. ? At the end of the day, I knew what he had meant. ? The fact is that Laguna West is a catastrophic failure,” Hall concluded.

In a December 19, 2005, article in Land Online, the Landscape Architecture News Digest for the American Society of Landscape Architects, Hall also panned Laguna West as a “failure,” noting “the development fails the sustainability test because it is not served by public transportation and is as completely car dependent as any other suburb.”

The New York Times, on June 14, 2002, described Laguna West as “classic urban sprawl”: “For example, Laguna West, a development near Sacramento, was initially hailed as a pioneering example of how to build a community that was not overly dependent on the automobile. But it has since gone through changes that have led critics to label it as classic urban sprawl, though with porches and alleys.”

The same Times piece also quotes Wendell Cox, a design consultant who has written critically of recent subdivisions, labeling the project “pitiful”: “Laguna West is one of the most pitiful examples of a so-called New Urbanist community that in reality is little different than a 1970’s-era development in Los Angeles.”

Even the Sierra Club, in the May/June 1997 issue of the club’s magazine, Sierra, termed Laguna West a “fairly conventional suburb.” Livable? Walkable? Environmentally sustainable? Only in Angelides’ imagination.

And another thing: Angelides didn’t tell Capitol Weekly readers how his involvement in this putative model project came to an ignominious end. In December 1992, just two days before a $592,000 Mello-Roos bond payment (bonds sold to finance public infrastructure in new developments) was due — and missed — he unloaded the whole financially failing fiasco onto his longtime business partner and mentor, Angelo Tsakopoulos, and washed his hands of it. (The Sacramento Business Journal; February 15, 1993; in an article titled “Angelides got out: Divested as Laguna payment due.”)

“We” — California, presumably — “have a history of elected leaders who talk a good game on the environment,” Angelides wrote in Capitol Weekly. Yup, and that includes at the top of the list Phil Angelides himself, who made his millions paving over wetlands and perpetrating massive sprawl and traffic gridlock as a developer, but now wants voters to believe he’s God’s gift to His own creation.

Now, that’s a real “urban legend” if I ever heard one.