The STB and Piggies

I’m a huge supporter of LA’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. LA pulled off successful games in 1932 and 1984, with the latter doing so well that the profits still help pay for youth sports programs in the city. If any city has the business community savvy and public spirit to put the games back on the right track, it’s LA.

That said, the proposal to locate the Olympic Village at the site of UP’s Piggyback Yard on the east side of the LA River is a little puzzling. As far as I can tell, Piggyback Yard redevelopment plans are a solution in search of a problem – the city’s big thinkers seem to have an obsession with turning the site into something else. Many of the proposals call for large portions to be parks, despite the relative isolation of the site, surrounded by rail lines, the 5 freeway, and the 10 freeway.

The biggest concern about the Piggyback Yard should be that is an active freight rail yard. Since freight rail is more efficient than trucking, it’s a desirable regional goal to encourage the use of rail. Eliminating the facilities required for effective operation of freight rail is counterproductive. The Piggyback Yard would need to be replaced with a new facility or expanded existing facility elsewhere, the right-of-way for which is not available cheaply in a place like LA. The San Gabriel Valley is currently investing well over a billion dollars in improving the freight line east of here.

In addition, UP has not indicated any interest in selling the site, meaning the price offered would probably have to be very high relative to the cost of developing the Olympic Village at other nearby sites. Despite the expansive (and questionably reasoned) eminent domain powers granted to public entities by the Supreme Court in Kelo v New London, eminent domain is not an option for the Piggyback Yard, because the railroad can always appeal to the Surface Transportation Board (STB).

The who? The STB, which is the federal agency that exercises the federal government’s powers to regulate interstate commerce when it comes to railroads. The STB has the power to preempt any state or local eminent domain action to take railroad property at the railroad’s request, and it is often quite deferential to railroads on these issues. For example, the city of Lincoln, NE tried to use eminent domain to take a 20’ wide strip of a 100’ wide right-of-way from a short line railroad that serves only one customer, receiving only 50 car loads per year. The railroad protested, and the STB ruled in its favor, preempting the eminent domain action. When the city foolishly appealed to Court of Appeals, the court held that the STB did not act arbitrarily or capriciously, citing previous rulings that “it can never be stated with certainty at what time any particular part of a right of way may become necessary for railroad uses.”

Lest you think that this is another case of regulatory capture, consider the STB’s bureaucratic pedigree, having inherited its powers from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Before the Stearns Act, the ICC was notorious for forcing railroads to operate unprofitable branch lines, setting rates too low for lines to stay profitable, and denying railroad petitions to abandon lightly used branch lines. When you’re running a utility-type business, heavy regulation is going to be a fact of life.

The deference shown towards railroad property is a necessity, because railroads are a very peculiar type of interstate commerce. McDonald’s is certainly engaged in interstate commerce, but if a city takes a McDonald’s restaurant by eminent domain, it doesn’t impact the viability of the corporation. On the other hand, if a city takes a portion of railroad right-of-way, it very well may impair the ability of the railroad to continue its operations or expand them in the future, and that not a desirable societal outcome. For this reason, cities and states invariably work cooperatively with railroads to acquire property and relocate railroad facilities.

Now, if UP wants to sell the Piggyback Yard and move its operations elsewhere – for example, by expanding on-dock rail facilities at the ports and increasing utilization of the Alameda Corridor, or expanding operations in the IE and using natural gas or electric trucks to move freight there – I’d be all for that. The Piggyback Yard is a great site for housing development, close to downtown without displacing any affordable housing units. It may be that UP wants to sell but is keeping quiet to better play its cards.

However, if UP doesn’t want to sell, prudence dictates that other options for the Olympic Village be advanced so that the city’s plans are not at the railroad’s mercy.

Fortunately, there are several options around downtown that would also make appealing sites for the Olympic Village. There’s a lot of vacant land and parking lots in the Cornfield area, just east of the Chinatown Gold Line stop. There’s a gigantic mess of parking around Dodger Stadium, which would hugely benefit from having a new neighborhood around it. There are many parking lots between Union Station and Temple St, where downtown’s government employment district starts; developing those parking lots along with a couple overbuilds of the 101 between Hill and Los Angeles would be another major improvement.

LA 2024 is a great opportunity for us to show what kind of city LA can be, and leave a lasting positive legacy like 1932 and 1984. The long-desired urban redevelopment schemes of a few big thinkers shouldn’t be allowed to piggyback onto the games if they’re not the best option. While the Piggyback Yard might work out to be the best, we owe it to ourselves to keep other options on the table, and give ourselves the best chance for a successful games that we can.

LACMTA Rail Ridership Update – July 2015 Edition

Another three months has passed, so it’s time for another LACMTA rail ridership update. As a reminder, bus ridership for the Westside and San Fernando Valley has been broken out into separate posts.

First, the raw data. Highlighted cells represent the top 10 months for that line (since January 2009).

rawdata-201507

Recent trends have continued, with the Blue and Red/Purple Lines continuing to slip a little, while the Green Line stabilized. The Gold Line and Expo Lines continue to be near, though not at, all-time highs, with the Gold Line just missing a top 10 month in July. Expo Line ridership picked up from April and May, but is still running a little below last year, so the rolling 12-month averages dropped a little..

Here’s the rolling 12-month average of weekday ridership:

wkdy-12mo-201507

As noted previously, some of the drop in the Blue and Red/Purple Lines may be due to ongoing construction that has increased late-night headways and shut down portions of the Blue Line at times.

Saturday and Sunday ridership on the Blue Line continued to slide, possibly due to construction. The Green Line declined but not as significantly. Interestingly, Red Line ridership dropped on Saturday, but had three straight top 10 months on Sunday. The Gold and Expo Lines also had three straight top 10 Sunday months, and had strong Saturday ridership as well.

Here’s the Saturday and Sunday rolling 12-month averages.

Sat-12mo-201507 Sun-12mo-201507

And lastly, here’s the update for the rolling 12-month average of boardings per mile:

wkdy-bprm-201507

Again, Expo Line ridership is leveling off. The Expo Line is closing in on the Blue Line for boardings per mile, but not for the reasons we’d hope!

Housing Affordability: Using the Buildings You’ve Got

Residents of cities like New York are familiar with the flexibility of interior spaces. Townhouses built for the rich become working class apartments when a neighborhood loses its luster, or even single-room occupancies. Units in tenements get combined into larger apartments. More recently, and less fortunately, apartments have been getting turned back into townhouses in places like the Upper West Side.

Early residents of LA would have recognized the same patterns. Bunker Hill began as grand Victorian mansions and ended with the mansions carved up into low-cost lodging houses, before the whole area was demolished in an urban renewal scheme. Recent experience in LA is largely limited to the adaptive reuse ordinance (ARO), which resulted in the beneficial conversion of many vacant commercial buildings downtown to residential use. The ARO should be commended and expanded, but the need for it is indicative of how little appreciation we have for how cities once developed.

Residential zoning in LA, like most California cities, separates single-family residences and multi-family buildings, whose density is in turn regulated by a minimum lot area per dwelling unit. Zones are also controlled by a maximum floor-to-area (FAR, floor space of the dwelling units to area of the lot). For example, in LA, the primary single family zone is R1, and two of the main multi-family zones, R3 and R4, require 800 SF and 400 SF of lot area per dwelling unit, respectively. In Glendale, R1 is the most common single-family zone, and there are four main multi-family zones, R-3050, R-2250, R-1650, and R-1250, with the number indicating the required lot area.

Since the demand for housing is high, and many areas have been downzoned, many buildings already have the maximum number of units allowed by the zoning, if not more. In addition, some cities have minimum square footages for apartments, and few buildings have excess parking spaces beyond what’s required by high parking minimums.

As a result, one of the most cost-effective ways of increasing housing supply – remodeling existing buildings to increase the number of units or convert underused spaces into apartments – practically never happens. This is unfortunate, because you really can’t build new housing units at lower costs. The owner already owns the land, and the building is already there; financing costs for both may have already been fully paid off. All you have to do is remodel the interior.

Compare the strict controls of California to Japanese zoning. Japan has exclusively low-rise residential zones, where FAR is 0.3-0.5 and height limits are also not drastically different than in California’s R1 zones. However, unlike California, Japan does not prohibit multi-family development in these zones, and it doesn’t have minimum unit sizes or lot areas. The result is a healthy mix of housing options for people from all walks of life, from students to families to retirees.

We can see a mix of housing options in some places in California; for example, last week’s look at West Wilson Ave in Glendale shows that a mix of housing types can work just as well in California as elsewhere. It’s no coincidence that, if you spend some time walking on W Wilson, you’ll see everyone from retired couples to families with kids, singles to extended families.

Regrettably, LA’s mixed housing neighborhoods are going to be coming under increasing pressure from rising rents. Last week, we mentioned the possibility of a small SFR with a few ADUs being torn down and replaced with a smaller number of larger housing units. But we could also see existing duplexes converted into single-family homes, just like New York’s apartments being turned back into row houses.

Solving LA’s housing crisis is going to require a lot of new construction. But every solution that could help should be on the table. That means we should consider using existing buildings to their best potential too, by giving people the flexibility to create more housing units in existing structures. Zoning changes to allow more units in existing buildings could be designed to serve other goals as well.

For example, the LA region has many older apartment buildings that do not meet current requirements for seismic design. Allowing the building to be remodeled to increase the number of units could be tied to a requirement for seismic retrofitting. Increasing the number of units would help owners cover the cost of retrofits, reducing the need for cash-strapped cities to try to provide tax subsidies. Another option would be to require a few of the new units to be deeded affordable.

LA needs a housing boom, but that doesn’t just mean new construction. Existing buildings can help contribute to meeting our housing needs, and provide some of the best opportunities for affordable units.

‘Round Glendale: West Wilson Ave

Our inaugural look at development patterns in Glendale starts with W Wilson Ave, which runs from Brand Blvd, Glendale’s main street, to San Fernando Rd, which forms the border with Los Angeles and has a decidedly more industrial aesthetic.

For readers outside SoCal, Brand Blvd is Glendale’s main commercial street, home to everything from Glendale’s small skyscraper district to car dealerships to Rick Caruso’s wildly successful Americana at Brand, along with a wide variety of local businesses. Glendale’s early planners put a stunning view of the Verdugo Mountains to the north, and later planners in Los Angeles anchored the view to the south with the Library Tower. Brand serves as the west-east dividing line in the city, and it’s here we’ll start our journey down W Wilson Ave – down indeed, as this entire part of Glendale slopes gently west towards the LA River.

Downtown Glendale

Well, we’ll almost start at Brand. I’m going to cheat, and start one block east at Maryland, in order to offer up a couple more buildings. First up is the Maryland Hotel, one of only a few pre-war (World War 2, that is) multifamily buildings we’ll see. How do we know it’s pre-war? Fire escapes and no parking!

IMG_2923

Kitty corner to that is a construction site, future home of the Laemmle Lofts – a mixed-use development of 42 apartments, a restaurant, and a 5-screen movie theater.

IMG_2922

Across from that on the south side, there’s a one-story commercial building housing some restaurants and medical offices.

IMG_2924

This side of the block has a nice mid-block pedestrian court leading to The Exchange, one of the oldest developments of the “new” downtown.

IMG_2920

On the northeast corner of Brand and Wilson, there’s a Jewelry Mart in an older one-story commercial building, fitting since Glendale is the Jewel City.

IMG_2919

There’s another set of older one-story buildings across Brand, on the north side of Wilson, with small retail spaces that are the perfect fit for local and niche businesses. Los Angeles in general has a wealth of this type of space; let’s hope the commercial construction market picks up so that rents don’t start to rise too much.

IMG_2918

The building at far right is currently vacant; it used to be a Staples but apparently before that it was a Woolworth’s.

IMG_2927

On the south side of Wilson, stretching from Brand to Orange, is a big, bold symbol of the new downtown Glendale: The Brand Apartments.

IMG_2925

There’s a lot to talk about here, so let’s take a closer look. First off, let me say that I love this building. I think it looks great. Since it’s got frontage on Brand, which is by far Glendale’s highest-demand retail street, the retail filled up almost instantly with a Chipotle and a Tender Greens. They may not be your cup of tea but established brands that can pay higher rents are what you’re gonna get in new retail more often than not. The mix of businesses in the older building across the street is a reminder of the importance of having some old buildings. Of course, let’s not forget that if you don’t have any new buildings today, you won’t have any old buildings tomorrow.

Here’s a shot of The Brand showing its neighbor to the south, the 20-story Glendale City Center office building. I’m told the zoning at The Brand would have allowed for another 20-story building, but the market for high-rise residential just isn’t there.

IMG_2926

Here it is looking southeast back towards Brand.

IMG_2928

The next block west is the second part of the same development, and again, I think they did a fantastic job.

IMG_2929

The horizontal elements break up the façade nicely, the vertical stone-faced element is a beautiful accent, and the orange support is a nod to the first building that ties things together without being repetitive. The orange accents are also a nod to Orange St, which runs between the two buildings, and now has one of the more urban vistas in Glendale.

IMG_2930

Note how the second floor is cantilevered out over the sidewalk, with the balconies projecting further. Here’s another shot showing the second building doing that.

IMG_2913

A reliable source tells me that the edge of the second floor projection is at the property line. I like the effect; it creates a wider sidewalk at street level, but doesn’t make the street room feel any wider, so it still feels like a downtown.

The north side of the street here is another block of small, older one-story commercial buildings, home to a mix of small restaurants and retail.

IMG_2912

A Big 5, super convenient if you’re in need of outdoor supplies, takes us to Central on the south side, with the north side being a parking lot.

IMG_2911

The northwest corner of Wilson and Central is another strip mall, while the southwest corner is currently under construction with another mixed-use development.

IMG_2908

Development in this area is governed by the Glendale Downtown Specific Plan, designed to encourage mixed-use development – the “18-hour city” as official plans call it. The zoning for this area is shown below.

downtownSP

The zoning regulations of interest to readers are summarized below:

DSPchart

Note that the zones with the highest density, DSP/BC-B and DSP/BC-C, are occupied by The Brand apartments and Glendale City Center, but there’s a lot of area with 4-6 stories by right still available. Parking requirements are one spot for singles and 1-bedroom units, two spots for all others, and one guest spot for every 10 units for projects of 10 or more units. This probably sounds like a lot to many readers, though it’s less than required elsewhere.

Vineyard – Central to Columbus

Past here, we’re out of the Downtown Glendale Specific Plan and into West Glendale, or Vineyard if you want to get particular about it, and development changes to smaller scale, all residential buildings. If you haven’t already, you’ll want to open up Google Earth and turn on 3D buildings so you can see what’s really going on; it’s totally impossible to figure it out from the street! Development here offers a lot of inspiration for how to densify existing single-family neighborhoods, but wily West Wilson hides a lot of its tricks from view.

First up, this handsome pre-war apartment block called Canterbury Court. Note its size relative to its neighbor! The Tudor-ish façade is interesting too, since that style enjoyed a renaissance during the 1980s apartment boom, as we’ll see later. The age of many buildings on Wilson is missing in this handy database, but it does have data for Canterbury Court – 1928.

IMG_2906

The first building on the south side of the street is this single-family house, with an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) behind it not shown.

IMG_2905

West of that is our first trick building. From the street, it looks like a simple fourplex, with numbering (330, 330 ½, 332, 332 ½) that evokes prewar patterns.

IMG_2903

Check it out in Google Earth, though, and this fourplex has a hidden ADU building (can we call it a rear house!?) that looks like it has another four units! This unimposing lot appears to be developed at close to dingbat density.

On the north side, we have three larger 1980s apartment blocks (the underground parking is a dead giveaway as to the era of construction).

IMG_2907 IMG_2904 IMG_2902

This one is harder to place (it’s 1975), but I really like the twin chimneys and peaked roof.

IMG_2934

Back to the south side, we’ve got a classic dingbat (1961) and a building that I’m guessing is from the 1980s just because it looks like boatloads of unprofitable condos built around Lake Tahoe at the same time (and indeed, it’s 1987).

IMG_2932

The next building west puts on the front of a single-family residence (SFR), but it’s got an ADU out back and it’s actually a duplex itself.

IMG_2935

Moving back to the north side, we’ve got an SFR and a dingbat, built in 1962.

IMG_2937

Well, at least that’s what we have in front! The dingbat’s got a rear house that appears to be two more units, and the SFR has an ADU building.

IMG_2940

West of that, there are three buildings that genuinely appear to be SFRs.

IMG_2942

Back to the south side again, there’s another classic dingbat, and an older SFR.

IMG_2939

We’ve then got another dingbat with a rear house (built 1963) just peeking out into view.

IMG_2941

A newer single-lot apartment building (built 2005) and two large dingbat-like buildings (1986 and missing) take us to the corner of Columbus on the south side.

IMG_2944

On the north side, three SFRs take us to Columbus. The first has a couple units over a carport in the back, and the second has a single ADU. The houses all date to the 1910s and 1920s.

IMG_2946 IMG_2947

Vineyard – Columbus to Pacific

This block starts with a bang, with dueling dingbats on the corners, both built in 1963.

IMG_2949 IMG_2950

After that, on the north, we have an SFR with a four-unit rear house behind it, and a large 1984 building.

IMG_2952

On the south side, we have a single SFR (just visible on the left), and an SFR with a multi-unit ADU behind it.

IMG_2954

This is one of the trickiest blocks on W Wilson; housing units are everywhere – blink and you’ll miss them. Fortunately we have an alley between Wilson and Broadway to help us get a little better view on the south side. The next two buildings on the south side are what looks like an SFR and, um, what?

IMG_2955

Maybe we can get a better view from the back.

IMG_3047

Yep, that’s three cottages with a two-unit rear house over a carport. And surprise: totally invisible from Wilson, there are two little buildings behind the SFR

Next up is another larger structure, dating to 1991, the very tail end of the 1980s boom.

IMG_2956

This is followed by another SFR with a four-unit rear house.

IMG_2957 IMG_3048

Note that there is a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but the size isn’t necessarily a good proxy for number of units! In fact, the adjacent building to the west is a newer project, taking up 4 lots, but appearing to only have 18 units (4.5 units per lot, the maximum allowed by the current zoning). They’re certainly larger units, but on a dwelling unit basis, this building is less dense.

IMG_2959

Back on the north side, we have two SFRs, but they both have ADUs, hidden but for the subtle house number that can be seen at the edge of the yellow house.

IMG_2960

There are also two SFRs across the street on the south side, and the one on the right looks to be the only unit on the lot. The one on the left has a second house in the back, hidden from view on Wilson.

IMG_2961 IMG_3050

There are two more SFRs to the west on the south side, with the left one harboring a four-unit rear house, and the right one harboring a small parking lot for, um, what? The buildings across the alley?

IMG_2963 IMG_2962

The north side of the street is much more straight-forward: several 1980s apartment buildings and then two SFRs to take us to the corner of Pacific. The apartment building on the right is from 2002.

 IMG_2964IMG_2967

The south side finishes up with two SFRs that, of course, have ADUs out of sight. They’re actually big enough to be called houses in their own right.

IMG_2968

Vineyard – Pacific to Concord

Ok, ready to push through the last block? Well, plus a little coda, and a zoning discussion?

As we’ll see, the further we get from downtown Glendale, the less dense the development gets. The southwest corner of Pacific and Wilson is the last big pre-war multi-family building we’ll see. The architecture, lack of parking, and numbering scheme (500, 500 ½, 502, 502 ½) are the giveaway.

IMG_2969

Next, there’s a few SFRs; the one on the left has an ADU in the back. With only a few exceptions, the SFRs on this block date to the early 1920s.

IMG_2970IMG_2972

The north side of the block starts out with SFRs as well; I think the center one in the first picture has an ADU but it’s hard to tell from the street. The house in the center of the second picture definitely does, but it’s not easy to see. The one on the right in the last picture also has an ADU, which can be seen in Google Earth.

IMG_2971 IMG_2974 IMG_2976

On the south side, we have the first large apartment building on the block, taking up two lots. This building was built in 1979, before any downzoning, at the head end of the 1980s boom.

IMG_2977

Two true SFRs with no ADUs on the south side take us to Kenilworth Ave, a small local street.

IMG_2978

Next, on the north side, we have a single SFR, followed by a large 1985 apartment building that takes up four lots and appears to have about 20 units. The landscaping on the street makes it almost impossible to see all four buildings at once.

IMG_2981

On the south side, there’s a 1987 building and a 1963 building, both typical for their time.

IMG_2985

This is followed by a small SFR set so far back on the lot that one might conclude this was originally an ADU to a dearly departed main dwelling. However, if that’s the case, the original house has been gone since at least 1989, Google’s oldest aerial image for the region. The sign out front announces a proposed triplex on the site, the greatest number of units allowed by the current zoning.

IMG_2984

Next to that is a 1980s-looking building that shows how much more density was previously allowed.

IMG_2986

Back on the north side, there’s an SFR with an ADU peeking out; in Google Earth, it looks like the rear building actually has two units.

IMG_2987

The next house west straight up has a second house in the back yard.

IMG_2988

On the south side, there are two handsome SFRs; at left, an ADU can be seen, and there is a third unit totally hidden from view.

IMG_2989

Next to that is a large apartment block on two lots – two buildings, not identical but fraternal twins, dating to 1983 and 1985.

IMG_2993

Further down, a classic modern stucco apartment house from 1963 (hey, didn’t we see you on dingbats dingbats dingbats?) and a Tudor-ish 1974 building on four lots.

IMG_2994

Across from that, on the north side, are several SFRs; all but one have ADUs, but you’ll have to look in Google Earth to see them.

IMG_2991 IMG_2992

The north side of the block continues to stretch west with SFRs; some have ADUs, while others are actually duplexes, a type we haven’t yet seen much of on Wilson.

IMG_2996 IMG_2999 IMG_3003 IMG_3004 IMG_3009 IMG_3010

You’ll really have to look closely in Google Earth and Street View to try to see what’s what. Here’s a few where you can catch a glimpse of the ADU.

IMG_2995 IMG_3006 IMG_3020

Here’s one of the more obvious duplexes.

IMG_3021

Rounding out the residential units on the south side, we have an SFR (with an ADU not shown) and a dingbat with a rear house.

IMG_2997 IMG_2998

There’s a large one-lot 1973 building and then two true SFRs without ADUs.

IMG_3002IMG_3001

The south side then goes industrial, with some single story office/warehouse type buildings.

IMG_3005 IMG_3007

Vineyard – Concord to San Fernando

The last little block takes us down to San Fernando Rd, which runs next to the Metrolink tracks that form the boundary with Los Angeles. This block is made up of one-story industrial uses.

IMG_3012 IMG_3013 IMG_3017

At the corner of San Fernando, there’s a small local hangout.

IMG_3015

Vineyard – Zoning

Zoning west of Central is covered by Glendale’s general zoning plan.

generalzoning

From east to west, the blocks of W Wilson are zoned R-1250, R-1650, R-2250, and IMU. The R zones are residential multi-family zones, where the number indicates the required lot area in square feet per unit. IMU is industrial/commercial mixed use. Parking requirements are 2 spots per unit, except 2.5 spots for 3-bedroom units and 3 spots for 4-bedroom units.

Thus, the permitted residential density on W Wilson steps down as you head west towards San Fernando Rd. Lots on the north side of Wilson appear to be about 50’ x 140’ lot, which translates to 5, 4, and 3 units per lot; on the south side, lots appear to be about 50’ x 175’, which translates to 7, 5, and 3 units per lot.

Which Way, W Wilson?

West Wilson Ave presents an interesting variety of residential housing types, from single-family houses to large apartment buildings, backyard cottages to dingbats with rear houses. In these few blocks, it captures both the opportunities and challenges for housing in greater LA in general.

The housing types of W Wilson point the way forward for natural growth of less dense neighborhoods, such as centrally located single-family areas. These options – ADUs, rear houses, small apartment buildings – are some of the best ways to improve housing affordability. They’re lower cost to construct, and don’t result in the loss of a lot of existing units. They allow for an evolution of building types rather than a sudden change. There are still development opportunities on Wilson; you could buy one of the remaining SFRs and built townhouses or put up some ADUs in the back. We would do well to allow other neighborhoods to grow the way Wilson did.

On the other hand, this area was clearly downzoned in the 1980s. There are lots occupied by SFRs where you can only build 3 or 4 units, despite the adjacent lots having 7 to 10 units. If housing prices in LA continue to rise, there will be pressure to redevelop lots that are currently occupied by a SFR and a few ADUs. Under the current zoning, we won’t end up with more housing units, just larger, newer, more expensive units. In some cases, redevelopment might result in a net reduction of units. It shouldn’t be a radical idea that new development be permitted to be at least as dense as its neighbors. Would a few 5-story buildings really make a big difference in how the street feels?

The foot of Wilson Ave, along with San Fernando Rd itself, is worth looking at in more detail, in a future post. For now, development patterns on Wilson Ave stand as proof that we do know how to do mixed-use projects and residential density in the LA region, when we let ourselves do them.

From Glendale to Downtown LA and Back

Consider this post to be, um, sorbet, a palate cleanser before the long-promised meatier course – a course for which your impatience with the chef is no doubt growing.

Living in Palms, commuting to downtown was easy: I could take my early af carpool, or I could walk to Culver City station and take the Expo Line. Driving to downtown that early, there’s practically no traffic on the 10. But did I mention it was really early? The Expo Line, with 10-12 minute headways all day long, about a mile from my apartment, was the natural transit choice, unaffected by the whims of the traffic deities. If something disrupted rail service, like drivers behaving badly, the Venice bus routes (33/733) were a solid backup, even if the lack of bus lanes on that wide ROW west of Crenshaw got frustrating.

In Glendale, the length of my commute is the same, within less than a mile. I still have the option of the crazy early carpool, the one that lets me start tweeting when the rest of the West Coast is still dreaming. There’s still no delay driving at that time of day, but the background traffic on the 5 is significantly larger; on the 10, there’s nothing but ocean to the west, while on the 5, there’s a lot of long distance north-south traffic.

On the other hand, there’s no rapid transit to Glendale, so the transit options aren’t as good. The closest Metro bus route to me is the 94/794 on San Fernando Rd. As has been discussed on Twitter, the split between a local and rapid here is not particularly helpful, because the headways on both are large enough that you’re better off just taking whatever comes first. The 94/794 is nearly 30 miles long, about twice as long as many Westside bus routes, which makes it even harder to regulate headways. Lastly, the 94/794 uses Hill St downtown, which adds a lot of delay when traffic is stacked up getting on the 110.

You can try to skip past downtown congestion by taking the Gold Line to Lincoln Heights/Cypress Park, and taking a short walk to the 94/794 stop at Ave 26 and Figueroa. However, if Union Station isn’t one end of your trip, that means two transfers, and two transfers can add a ton of delay. Odds are, of course, that Union Station is not one of the ends of your trip.

Today, I finally tried taking Metrolink from LA Union Station to Glendale. The train left on time and it was a fast 10-minute ride to Glendale Station, which is near the southern end of the city by Los Feliz Blvd and San Fernando Rd. Even with zero traffic, you’d be hard-pressed to compete with that time by car. Thanks to Art Leahy and Mike Antonovich, the fare currently sits at a very reasonable $2; before the Antelope Valley Line pilot program, it was $5.50. Honestly, that kind of speed is probably worth $5.50 and I’m just a cheapskate.

Again, though, if you have to transfer, that advantage starts to rapidly dissipate. I happened to be at Union Station today; for most people a Red/Purple Line ride would be tacked onto the end, but service there is frequent enough that it’s not a big deal. At the Glendale end, I had to wait for the 94/794, and the last 2 miles of my trip ended up taking more than twice the time that the first 8 miles took. Glendale runs a bus, route 12, from the Metrolink station up San Fernando Rd; Glendale routes 1, 2, and 11 would also arguably be viable for my trip. The overarching problems with any of these transfer options are the potential for a long transfer delay and infrequent or non-existent service during off-hours.

Two final options that would serve my commute would be Metro bus route 92, and Metro bus 180/181/780 to a transfer to the Red Line. I haven’t had occasion to try these; to be honest, the traffic on Los Feliz Blvd scares me a little bit regarding the latter.

Meanwhile, the Metrolink tracks paralleling San Fernando Rd offer an intriguing possibility. But more on that another time.

‘Round Glendale: Dingbat Quartet

Now that blog headquarters is in Glendale, it’s time to reboot the ‘Round Palms department to take a closer look at housing and development patterns in the Jewel City. There will be some more detailed posts coming up, but for now, an appetizer: this four-pack of dingbats located on Chester St just south of the 134 freeway.

Chester-overview

These four buildings are all built from the same plan, with two being mirror images of the other two. This lends some variability to the view from the street but also creates a pleasing symmetry. The southernmost building fronts on Doran St as well as Chester St.

IMG_2840

The matching staircases, one rotated at 90 degrees to the other, is a nice touch. Here’s the skinny end of the next building north, fronting on Chester St only.

IMG_2841

The next building north is a carbon copy of the southernmost building. Note that while these buildings started the same, over time they’ve acquired some individuality. While the first building has original construction and the second hasn’t even managed to lose its window bars, this one has managed to acquire some new windows.

IMG_2842

As any dingbat resident can tell you, that’s a major improvement: the original construction featured drafty, rattling, leaky single-pane windows that do almost nothing to stop the transmission of sound. The denizens of this building are enjoying better climate control and more respite from the sounds of the street and the nearby freeway.

By using mirror images of the plan, the designers created a little open space between the second and third buildings, pleasant enough to support a few large trees and children’s swing.

IMG_2843

It’s perhaps a little surprising that the architect didn’t flip all four buildings, creating two courtyards, but apparently they wanted to have the open side of the southernmost and northernmost buildings fronting the street.

The northernmost building, fronting on Pioneer Dr, appears to have received the most love through the years, receiving not only new windows, but fresher paint and, if you look closely, some reinforcement for the railings on its exterior walkways

IMG_2844

In addition to providing some courtyard space, a nice feature of these buildings is that, unlike most dingbats, the parking is not featured front and center, but rather tucked around the back off of a small alley.

IMG_2845

This appears to have been accomplished by assembling several lots and adding an alley where none existed before. If you go back and look at the first image, you’ll note that these buildings are oriented perpendicular to all the other lots on Doran and Pioneer. These lots are about 50’ wide and 115’ deep, and the dingbat quartet was constructed on six lots put together. Putting the parking in back, off-street, is a nice design feature that improves the final result. As we’ll see in future posts, this seems to be more common in Glendale apartment buildings from the 1960s boom than in places like Palms.

Single-Family Homes and Affordability

The big news in land use wonkdom is one of the recommendations of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) Advisory Committee: that the city consider doing away with single-family zoning in many areas, perhaps entirely. To understand why this is such a big deal, let’s take a closer look at the single-family residence (SFR), both in terms of its economic function and its space in city planning.

The Economics of the SFR

From the perspective of affordability, the SFR is terrific – terrific twice, in fact.

First, SFRs are the cheapest kind of housing to build on a unit area basis. At the margins of the city, where land is cheap and constraints are few, large numbers of SFRs can be built based on a few variations of a few basic design templates, keeping costs even lower. The SFR will pencil out when and where almost no other type of development will. There are cases where it’s profitable to go directly from vacant land to dense apartments at the edge of the city, but that’s often indicative of highly distorted housing markets – in other words, to go directly from vacant land to dense housing at the fringe, something must be artificially raising housing prices or subsidizing development. The ability to provide new housing cheaply through SFR construction helps keep regional housing prices low.

Second, in built-up parts of a city, SFRs are the easiest type of land use to redevelop, excluding vacant land at infill sites. This is for the same reason that SFRs pencil out first at the urban fringe – they are the lowest value use of land. As we explored in the limits to redevelopment, more intense existing land uses require longer to redevelop and have higher opportunity costs, thus requiring higher prices to justify redevelopment. For example, a one-story commercial retail building or a 6-unit apartment will generate more income than an SFR, so they will only redevelop at higher prices. In addition, redevelopment of SFRs is less disruptive to communities and carries less risk of displacement. Thus, SFRs are not only the easiest type of residence to develop, they’re also the easiest type of residence to redevelop.

The Single-Family House and Planning

From the perspective of planning, the cardinal rule of urban development in many cities has been, for decades, that SFRs and SFR neighborhoods must be “preserved” and “protected”. No matter how much SFR owners protest otherwise, they are one of the best-organized and most powerful political forces in land use. Open a general plan or community plan in any growing American city and you will likely find language about “protecting” SFR neighborhoods. In this framework, single-family housing is a bystander in urban land use, a passive actor that is almost invariably degraded by other types of development.

Given the economics of SFRs and development, this is clearly not the case. Policies to prohibit the redevelopment of SFRs, especially in wealthy areas, raise the regional housing price level until it is feasible to redevelop higher-intensity land uses or demand can be forced to flow to other neighborhoods. This results in higher housing prices and the potential for displacement.

The recommendation of the Seattle HALA Advisory Committee may not result in any changes to the city’s SFR zones. However, it is extremely important just that these issues are on the table in a major US city. Cities, regions, and states might decide to retain SFR zoning near the core of metro areas. But they should only do so after an honest accounting of the costs and impacts – and who those costs fall on.