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.)


6 thoughts on “Where Should We Have Skyscrapers in LA?

  1. Henry Fung (@calwatch)

    What do you define as a “high rise”, though? Something above 30-40 stories, or are the 20 story buildings that dot South Coast Metro enough? Over 30 stories (400 feet) anywhere along the Wilshire corridor would do well, especially in 2025 with a Wilshire subway and Expo Line to Santa Monica. I’d see more 10-15 story buildings in the San Fernando Valley than anything tall – Ventura Boulevard in particular has tremendous reuse potential for residential. Ultimately suburban development will probably densify, but you’ll see more Pasadenas and Ontarios become more like South Coast Metro than places like South Coast Metro or Warner Center take the next step.

    1. letsgola Post author

      Generally, I’m thinking anything tall enough to require steel/concrete construction, which due to building & fire codes is 75′. So I’d agree that we’d expect 10-15 in the Valley, densification in Pasadena, Ontario, Riverside, etc.

  2. Andrew

    “skyscrapers along the beach are like a row of giant middle fingers to the rest of the city”

    Haha, I was just going to say that aside from the Loop, Chicago also has quite a few mid-rise buildings along the northern lakefront. Having lived there for three years, using the lakefront beaches a lot (during the summer season at least…not this time of year!) I don’t know if they’re really that awful; I think the fact that Lincoln Park, and the less-pleasant Lake Shore Drive, separates them from the water mitigates it somewhat. There is something kind of cool about being at Oak Street Beach and seeing the skyscrapers just behind you.

  3. Kenny Easwaran

    I’ve been thinking about this a bit. It seems to me that it would also make sense to create new nodes around transit hubs. That would mean places like Expo/Crenshaw, or the intersection of the Blue and Green lines. (It would also mean the vicinity of LAX, but I assume that there are restrictions on how high one can build near the airport.)

    Now I’m not actually familiar with these parts of town, so I don’t know whether this would cause severe dislocation of existing communities. And I don’t know how you go about getting a less dense place to start on this sort of trajectory.

    1. letsgola Post author

      Those neighborhoods could certainly support mid-rise construction (basically, up to 75′ per LA building codes) if it were permitted. I don’t think high-rises would pencil out due to the higher construction costs.

      There are indeed restrictions on how high you can build next to an airport, set by the FAA; in fact, the FAA is why the Crenshaw Line is going below grade between elevated stations at Aviation/Imperial & Aviation/Century. Here’s a summary: https://oeaaa.faa.gov/oeaaa/external/portal.jsp or for more detail (FAA’s model zoning code): http://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/advisory_circular/150-5190-4A/150_5190_4A.PDF

      Nevertheless, the Century corridor is probably a good candidate for high-rises. My understanding is that office vacancy there is still surprisingly high, but maybe some residences would work. With high quality windows, the noise wouldn’t be much of an issue, and it’s not close to anybody who would protest.

  4. Pingback: People Move to Suburbs Because They’re Cheap, Volume 1 | Let's Go LA

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