Los Angeles: Density Done Well

Wait, what’s this, an actual post on LA? ‘Bout time. I’ve been trying to cover the philosophical stuff up front to give context of where I’m coming from. I’ve still got a lot of ground to cover there, but this post provided a good opportunity to use real LA examples to back up the theory side of things.

I recently had an interesting exchange with Neal Lamontagne on Twitter, about density in Santa Monica and mid-rise versus high-rise development.


I guess that still sounds like tastes to me. Some people prefer towers – call it Vancouverism – and some people prefer sprawling low-rise and mid-rise density – call it the LA pattern, since LA invented it, perfected it, and turned itself into the densest US metro using it. Given that I’m an unabashed LA cheerleader, you can guess which way my tastes run. The LA pattern: tastes great, less filling. You can get a ton of density that doesn’t feel dense, which is perhaps LA’s most underrated achievement. It’s one of the main points of my project here.

Now, another premise of this blog is that personal tastes shouldn’t get force of law through zoning and permitting. So if I’m gonna come at you with the LA pattern, I’m gonna come correct, and give you some solid theoretical reasons you should learn to love it.

Note: Neal also raises an interesting point about the street-level impact of developments that take up an entire block. This is worthy of discussion in a separate post. For now, I’m going to focus on low-rise and mid-rise development in comparison with high-rise development.

For one, low-rise and mid-rise density offers more development model options, which leads to more diversity of use – something both Neal and I highlighted as being important. Why does low-rise and mid-rise offer more possibilities? Well, for the reason that Neal notes: it’s cheap. Lower construction costs mean lower rents, which makes it possible for a greater variety of land uses to make a go of it. There’s a good reason why skyscrapers are overwhelmingly built by the FIRE industry, luxury residential developers, and the government. It’s something Joe Satran touched on recently in the context of restaurants, too. LA has space for everybody to try their idea, and that’s an asset we ought to strengthen and reinforce when we have opportunities like Recode LA.

Lower construction costs also open the door for a wider variety of players to try their hands at land development. A low-rise or mid-rise block can be built by small-time local developers, backed by local banks, insured by regional firms. That means the development will be built and backed by people who know the city better, have a better feel for the local market, and have a bigger stake in its success. Skyscrapers require bigger developers, bigger banks, and bigger insurers, which means more generic development and less concern for the city. When I lived in Boston, a major skyscraper was derailed because Anglo-Irish Bank and CalPERS pulled funding. Not surprisingly, people in Dublin and Sacramento don’t care that much about their impact on Boston. People in LA care more about LA.

This being LA, there is one other thing we should mention: earthquakes. Contrary to what you may have heard from armchair engineers on the internet, geotechnical and structural design have made some major advances since 1906, and there is no technical reason we can’t build skyscrapers in LA, at least provided we’re not building it right on top of the damn fault. However, if you look around LA, you’ll notice that a lot of the new construction going in – say, NMS buildings in Santa Monica or the Italian series buildings downtown – tops out at, oh, I’ll guess 65’. Why? Well, get out your ASCE/SEI 7-05 and flip to Table 12.2-1…

Wait, you don’t have an ASCE/SEI 7-05?

It’s the standard design loads for buildings. Unfortunately, it’s copyrighted, so I can’t reproduce it here, but the point is this: for Seismic Design Categories E and F, the maximum height for a wood frame structure is 65’. If you’re in California, it’s almost certain you’re in E or F. If you want to go taller than 65’ you’re into special moment frames or eccentrically-braced steel frames or some other fancy structural system. This means that in LA there is a very real break point at 65’, about six or seven stories, above which there is a major non-linear jump in construction costs. Again, low-rise and mid-rise density allows for a variety of uses without breaking the bank.

None of this should be taken as being anti-skyscraper. I think skyscrapers present more significant architectural challenges than low-rise and mid-rise buildings because they present two problems that low-rise and mid-rise buildings do not: the potential for monotonous repetition of surface treatments in the middle, and the skyline view at the top. For a long time, these problems were solved by the International Style, which said that monotony and boxy tops were good things; now, they are being solved by Gehry-esque mind tricks. I’m not really a fan of either, though I do think that the early Art Deco and Neo-Gothic skyscrapers proved that these challenges can be addressed elegantly. But again, all of that is tastes. So, if a private developer thinks they build a profitable skyscraper in LA, I’m all for it!

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: what are our goals? What outcomes do we hope to achieve through things like Recode LA? Only then, goals in hand, can we proceed to determine what the best policies would be. My goals are as follows:

  • Increase housing affordability so that people spend less of their income on housing and transportation. This is usually pitched as a problem of low-income people, but it’s increasingly applicable to the middle class.
  • Make it easier and cheaper to do business, which together with the previous goal, would allow LA to resume its historic role as a place for people of all backgrounds to come and get another chance at life.
  • Make efficient use of previous capital investments in infrastructure.
  • Use the market to help reduce environmental impact.

When it comes to zoning, the best policy for achieving these goals would be allowing more low-rise and mid-rise development.

On the other hand, maybe you like the way Vancouver looks, and you want LA to be more like Vancouver. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if that is your goal, you need to understand that, and realize that other goals, like affordability and diversity of use, are going to take a back seat. But if you want to allow for density to increase quickly and cheaply, for different development models, and for greater diversity of use, you should learn to love LA!


3 thoughts on “Los Angeles: Density Done Well

  1. Pingback: Sticks and Stucco | Let's Go LA

  2. Pingback: Barriers to Fine-Grained Urban Development | Let's Go LA

  3. Pingback: If Jose Huizar Wants More Skyscrapers Downtown, He Should Make It Easier to Build Mid-Rises | Let's Go LA

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