A Modest Zoning Proposal

There’s a rezoning effort underway in Los Angeles, branded as recode:LA, that’s going to rewrite the city’s entire zoning regulation. This is a huge opportunity to make it easier to build in LA, restoring affordability and capitalizing on infrastructure investments. I’m planning to get involved and start attending meetings, and I encourage everyone interested in seeing LA flourish to do the same.

Where Are We Today?

First, a quick summary of where we are. Typically in LA, the arterials on the grid are zoned for commercial uses, and the area between the arterials is zoned for residential. For example, here’s the general zoning for Palms and Cheviot Hills.

Palms-CH-RP legend

To simplify things, there are 10 major residential zoning groups in LA, designated A through R5. Note that the default zoning in many New England suburbs equates to the lowest density zones available in LA, which explains why LA isn’t sprawl and is denser than everyone thinks. Here’s a summary of the major residential zoning requirements:


There’s also RAS3 and RAS4, which are basically R3 and R4 with ground-level retail permitted, and slightly less restrictive setbacks.

Where Do We Want to Go?

Now, before we start rezoning, we have to ask ourselves what we’re trying to do here. What goals are we trying to achieve? What do we hope LA will become?

For me, as I have said before, my main goals are affordability and opportunity. I want LA to be a place where low-income people can afford a roof over their heads, and where all people have the opportunity to pursue their goals in education, starting a business, etc. In my mind, that should be LA’s raison d’etre. Better infrastructure, including transit, is not a goal unto itself, but a means of achieving those two cardinal goals. Achieving these two goals would help address many other social concerns. Other benefits that might flow out of that, such as reduced per capita energy use, would be nice, but they’re not my main concern.

Part of my project here is to try to convince you that affordability and opportunity are the two best goals for improving LA. But obviously, not everyone is going to share my goals, and that’s ok. I don’t expect people in Rolling Hills or Calabasas to give a rat’s ass about affordability in their cities, because that’s not the reason those cities exist. The important thing is to recognize and be honest about your goals. If you say you’re in favor of affordability but also want to protect SFRs, you’re lying about one of them.

Of course, there’s a huge social justice and equity component to affordability and opportunity that I haven’t addressed on this blog yet, mainly because I know planning/engineering much better, and planning/engineering challenges are much easier to solve.

Back to the zoning.

How Do We Get There?

If I had my way, we’d just let people build however many apartments they want wherever they want. The collective knowledge of the market is almost certain to be better than anything planners could devise, not because planners are no good but because of the inherent complexity of the system. It would be like trying to do an analysis to figure out how many trees there should be in the forest and where they should grow.

It’s easy to sit around, say “upzone everything”, and then hit the bar and start pounding beers, but that’s ultimately an academic exercise. Any proposal to just upzone everything is probably dead in the water. It’s much harder to come up with a plausible plan that has a chance of being implemented. So here’s my attempt at a plan that I hope could win some public support. As with everything here, consider this a starting point; comments and suggestions for improvement are encouraged.

So, here’s the basic idea. The following rules would apply to areas currently zoned R1 through R5:

Pace of Redevelopment

  • In any neighborhood, 4% of lots will be permitted for redevelopment each year.
  • If a developer consolidates lots, the project requires a number of permits equal to the original number of lots. Future redevelopment of the consolidated lot would need only one permit. This encourages small-scale development.
  • The neighborhood council can decide to permit more than 4% at its discretion.
  • Permits are auctioned off to the highest bidder. This will encourage the best projects to be built first. It also gives opponents of development the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are – if they don’t want new development, they can buy all the permits.
  • Revenue from permit auctions to be invested in neighborhood improvements by the neighborhood council.
  • Permits expire 18 months after sale if no construction initiated – i.e. no permit hording, and opponents can’t foreclose on redevelopment forever by buying up permits for a few years.

Permitted Development

  • Any structure of up to 3 stories and up to 6 units per 5,000 SF lot is automatically permitted.
  • Any structure of equal in height to the 85th percentile height, plus one story, is automatically permitted.
  • Where automatically permitted, 4-story structures may have 10 units, 5-story structures may have 16 units, and 6-story structures may have 25 units, per 5,000 SF lot.
  • Mixed use development up to 6 stories and 200 SF lot area per unit automatically permitted on arterials (e.g. Venice, Western, Pico). Mixed use includes light industry that does not produce noise or odors. Commercial uses not restricted to ground floor.
  • Setbacks per current R4 standards, except arterials, to be per RAS4.
  • Nothing in these rules shall be interpreted as making existing zoning more restrictive.
  • Rules become effective 15 years after initial subdivision is recorded. This would allow owners in new subdivisions some certainty that property won’t immediately be redeveloped in newly established neighborhoods. This provision would have little effect in LA, where most neighborhoods are long established.

When it comes to the large lot zones – A, RA, RE – I would propose allowing them to be subdivided per current R1 zoning standards. After 15 years, the subdivided lots could be developed according to the above standards. But really, A/RA/RE are a small component of the plan. The major benefit is the above rules applied to zones R1 through R5.

In neighborhoods where these rules would result in buildings up to 75’ – the maximum for Type 3 construction – being automatically permitted, the neighborhood council and city could begin to consider allowing high-rises. I’m mostly ignoring high-rises in this proposal, because we don’t need a single high-rise in LA to make the city more affordable and welcome many more future Angelenos to our city.

Parking would be handled like Donald Shoup says it should.

How Does This Work?

Perhaps the best way to explain this concept would be by example. Take an existing R1-zoned neighborhood. In the first year, up to 4% of properties could get permits to be redeveloped into 3-story 6-unit apartment buildings – assuming, of course, that 4% of owners want to redevelop their property, and they don’t get outbid for the permits by opponents. Replacing 1 out of every 25 SFRs with a 3-story duplex where every floor is an apartment isn’t going to change the character of the neighborhood much. Under this plan, it would take at least 25 years for all structures to be replaced – a low rate of change.

In the second, third, and fourth years, the same thing would happen. Assuming 4% of lots are redeveloped every year for the first four years, by year five, 16% of the lots in the neighborhood would have 3-story buildings. Therefore, the 85th percentile height would be 3 stories, and 4-story buildings would become automatically permitted. Again assuming 4% of lots are redeveloped every year after that, in year nine, 5-story buildings would become automatically permitted, and so on.

Starting Points

Again, this proposal is just a starting point. I’d expect a healthy debate about the percentage of lots that can be redeveloped every year, the number of units allowed, and the percentile trigger that permits another story. We could also define a few different zones with different rates and triggers, some more permissive and some less permissive.

I will also note again that this is not necessarily my preferred solution; I’d rather leave more up to market forces. But this is a proposal that can hopefully accommodate a significant amount of new development to improve affordability, spread out the development so that no one area is overwhelmed, and still provide property owners with the certainty they desire.

So, what do you think? Is this a viable proposal? And what would make it better?


7 thoughts on “A Modest Zoning Proposal

  1. Dennis Griffith

    Given previously discussed construction costs once earthquake safety requires a switch from wood, wouldn’t this be likely to stall permissible story growth whenever the costs for the increment can’t be amortized over enough units? I suppose individual exceptions would still allow them for connected developers.

    1. letsgola Post author

      Everything I propose to automatically permit can be done w/ wood (allowed up to 75′ by LA building code). Once you go over 75′, you have to go to concrete/steel, and developers say that they have to go to 15-20 stories in that case to make things economical.

      Due to LA’s polycentric nature, there are many more places than just downtown where skyscrapers would probably pencil out. But because LA is so big, it’s not like NYC or Hong Kong or Singapore. We don’t *need* any skyscrapers to allow a lot of affordable growth – we need a lot of ordinary mid-rises.

    2. letsgola Post author

      Addendum: you may note that the proposed max units per lot doesn’t scale linearly w/ number of stories. That’s intentional; it would make the apartments in the first batch of redeveloped properties larger, to try to alleviate opponents concerns about a huge number of micro-apartments being built from the outset.

  2. mark vallianatos (@markvalli)

    Thanks for sharing these ideas. It’s interesting because the usual approach to balancing development and concerns over development have been to assume growth will happen in central areas or corridors and to preserve single family zoned areas. Ie centers concept with high rise clusters connected by transit and surrounded by suburbs which shaped LA’s first general plan, that has morphed in the current general plan to a focus on corridors and regional and neighborhood centers.

    Here are some thoughts:

    * all the funds going to local neighborhood improvements might tend to make “rich richer” if development is focused in areas with existing demand. Perhaps 50/50 split between local area improvements & general pool of money for improvements citywide.

    * since I think there may be a need for rapid change in dwelling patterns to reduce climate emissions etc, I want to suggest some ways to narrow the applicability of your 4% per year limit on development (even though if 4% of the city’s residential lots were redeveloped each year it would actually be a huge boom):
    a. what about having your suggested system only for r-1/r-2, which is the largest built portion of city and area most likely to want slow change?
    b. or setting multiple tiers of development permits so that each neighborhood could have up to 4% of r-1 lots change per year, 8% of r-2/3, 16% of 54/5- something like that?
    c. or no limits on development within 1/2 mile of transit stations

    * auctioning permits could disadvantage affordable housing developers and groups seeking to create non traditional multi-family housing forms such as limited equity coops and community land trusts. I’d suggest allowing these types of projects to proceed automatically without needing to bid (would need to set a minimum threshold for % of affordable deeded units or only allow exemptiion for 100% affordable units.)

    *I think that you might want to exempt remote hillside areas where more population density will tend to generate more driving rather than more transit use/ cycling/ walking

    *finally, what about flipping the assumptions and requiring residents who want to keep their lots zoned low density to bid for that right. Like cap and trade, set a quota of R-1 and lower zoned lots in each area (or citywide) that decreases each year so owners have to bid to maintain their low density zoning.


    1. letsgola Post author

      Mark, thanks for taking the time to review and respond to this idea. I think those are all good suggestions. As you note, the real benefit of a plan like this would be allowing growth in R-1 & R-2 zones. Places that are already R-3 and up (I think Palms is mostly R-3 & R-4) have fewer obstacles to redevelopment. I also like the idea of no limit within 1/2 mile of good transit (we should include places w/ 24-hour bus, Rapid bus, etc like Venice Blvd), though neighborhood opposition might make it more practical to make the provision applicable to the major arterials close to transit.

      Agreed on the need to create a separate path for affordable or non-profit developers. Hillside areas can be tough, so maybe they need to be handled differently, though some very hilly places (like SF) seem to do ok.

      The idea of flipping the assumptions is interesting, but I wonder if it would run into more opposition, since it would require people to pay to keep their own lot zoned for low density rather than paying to keep other lots from redeveloping.

  3. SD

    Is there anything in your plan that encourages mixed-use development first along commercial arteries versus in the R1 and R2 zones? It seems that automatically permitting 6-7 story mixed-use buildings all along our main boulevards without off street parking requirements ( a ls Shoup) would lead to a construction boom that would fill a large part of our need for housing while preserving the quiet and greenery of the lower density R1 and R2 — which is also a benefit to the mixed-use residents who can go for strolls in those streets when they want to escape the more trafficy (both automobile and pedestrian) arterials. However, I haven’t done the math to see if lining Fairfax and Jefferson and Van Nuys and Santa Monica, etc… with 6-7 storey buildings is enough to provide the number of units we need.

    1. letsgola Post author

      Mixed-use along commercial arterials should be a goal as well. Due to FAR limitations in C zones, you’d have to rezone to RAS-4 or ideally a new RAS-5 or Mixed Use zone. (The FAR limits are by ballot initiative, ugh.) Some people, like Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism, have argued it’s harder to get this type of redevelopment because commercial rents are much higher than residential, so the property owner would be forgoing high commercial rents for a year or more during construction.


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