Daily Archives: December 30, 2013

Where Should We Have Skyscrapers in LA?

Perhaps as a compliment to my posts on how we don’t need to worry about the pace of skyscraper construction in downtown LA, here are some quick thoughts on where skyscrapers do make sense.

In most cities, high-rises are only economic near the core of the city. For example, I doubt there’s much demand for residential or commercial skyscrapers outside of Boston proper and parts of Cambridge – maybe a few beachfront condo towers, but that’s it. In Chicago, it’s the Loop. Philly, Center City. Las Vegas, the Strip. SF, mostly just SF city itself, but not in the suburbs (though the Bay Area’s natural beauty would encourage some high-rises simply for the sake of views). And so on. Your North American megalopolises, New York and Toronto, have managed to get big enough to support skyscrapers in the first ring suburbs – Brooklyn, NJ suburbs on the Hudson, Mississauga – and a few even further out, like New Rochelle.

So naturally, the focus in LA is downtown LA, with Councilmember Huizar’s proposal to encourage skyscrapers, and architects like Gensler fantasizing about adding 3m people inside the downtown freeway loop.

But LA, with its undense density and highly decentralized employment, isn’t like other cities. Efforts to remake LA in Manhattan’s image would take a tremendous amount of energy, and ignore all of the strengths of LA’s land-use patterns. These ideas are also probably dead on arrival – if you add another million people to downtown LA, how enthusiastic are they going to be about adding the second million?

LA’s polycentric nature means that downtown LA is relatively unimportant in the regional scheme of things. This is a strength, because growth and its impacts are distributed around the region. If you’re in the LA tech scene, you probably want to be in Santa Monica, Venice, or Playa Vista. If you want to make TV or movies, you probably want to be in Burbank. If you want to be in aerospace, it’s El Segundo or the Antelope Valley. The priciest finance and law firm addresses are in Century City. And all of those industries have major nodes in Orange County.

Notice that we covered some pretty major parts of the LA economy without even mentioning downtown. On the other hand, if you’re a major part of the New York economy, odds are you want to be in Manhattan, below something like 72nd St.

Logically, it follows that any of LA’s major nodes are logical places for high-rises. Century City could probably support residential high-rises, along with increased development along the Wilshire Corridor. Santa Monica and Westwood. Hollywood. El Segundo and Long Beach, probably. Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena could support residential high-rises if they want them. I bet you could make a few work in Universal City, Studio City, Sherman Oaks, and the Warner Center. Orange County, I’m not sure it works yet, and that’s not really their style.

And honestly, if your goal is letting more people live closer to where they work, you should support allowing construction of high-rises in all those places. Downtown LA is a small percentage of regional employment, and that number isn’t changing much anytime soon. Channeling all residential growth into downtown LA would have the perverse effect of greatly increasing the number of “reverse” commuters (reverse in scare quotes because the “reverse” direction already is the dominant direction on the Westside).

That’s not to say we shouldn’t allow residential high-rises in downtown LA – we should! If developers want to build them, I’m more than happy to see them built. But we should realize that we have several other parts of the region where high-rises also make sense. We should be happy for that, and allow construction of high-rises in those areas as well.

(Note: any beach city could support high-rises on the shore, but that’s one case where I’m sympathetic, instead of skeptical, to the argument about views – skyscrapers along the beach are like a row of giant middle fingers to the rest of the city.)