Monthly Archives: June 2014

What Are City Planning’s Goals?

In Chapter 10 of Human Transit, Jarrett Walker writes about the contradictory missions faced by many transit agencies:

Coverage: serve all parts of our community.

Ridership: maximize ridership with our fixed service budget.

It is one of the most fundamental insights of Human Transit that, while reasonable and achievable when stated separately, these goals cannot be executed simultaneously. Thus, agencies usually face criticism on both counts: that they are not serving low-demand parts of the city well enough, and that they require too much subsidy per rider. Note that, all other things being equal, it is impossible to improve on both measures at the same time – doing one works against the other.

City planning, as we have currently constructed it, also faces contradictory missions – an urbanism equivalent of “fast, cheap, or good – pick two”. In coastal regions of the US, we have assigned city planners with three primary missions:

  • Stop sprawl: slow the conversion of rural land into suburban developments of single-family homes and low-rise commercial.
  • Protect existing neighborhoods: prevent changes that current residents find discomforting, such as construction of apartment buildings or “McMansions” in single-family neighborhoods.
  • Affordability: ensure that a variety of housing types are available so that everyone can find a place to live without spending a burdensome part of their income.

Any two of these goals can be executed well together:

  • Stop sprawl and affordability: you can do this if you increase density in the existing built-up city. Who does this well? Tokyo. And Toronto! You can buy a brand new condo in a high-rise in downtown Toronto for barely $200,000. Read it & weep, coastal elites.
  • Protect existing neighborhoods and affordability: you can do this if you unabashedly sprawl out. Who does this well? Sunbelt cities, like Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, and any place in North Carolina.
  • Stop sprawl and protect existing neighborhoods: you can do this if you don’t give a crap about how expensive your city gets. Who does this well? San Francisco, obviously. London, again obviously. This is where Boston might end up, too.

Notice that I didn’t throw LA, or Houston, into any of these bins. LA’s development pattern until 1990 allowed both sprawl and densification of existing neighborhoods, much like Houston does today. And while “neighborhood protection” has become the NIMBY rallying cry in LA, and some inland cities like Norco and Redlands have “slow growth” regulations, the sprawl outlet is still very much available in Southern California. There’s not much stopping suburban development in places like the Victor Valley or the Antelope Valley – in fact, people like Lancaster Mayor R Rex Perris are out there trying to encourage it. The problem in LA is that the land where it’s easy to sprawl is too far from the locations with high job growth – even given LA’s polycentrism.

Walker writes in Human Transit that “eventually… the reality of the contradiction overwhelms the best rhetorical efforts”.

This is where we are with land use planning in California. Every city general plan, and every politician, will tell you that affordability is important. But when the steel hits the rails, that piece of land is too special to develop, that neighborhood can’t possibly support any redevelopment, and that building is too unique to be demolished. For a while, the terrible economy of the early 1990s and pre-existing housing slack masked the problem in LA, but no more.

Actions speak louder than words. No matter how loudly they claim to care – if they think Expo/Westwood and Expo/Western should stay SFRs forever, if they support the proposed downzoning in Echo Park, if they opposed the seven years and 8,000 page EIR in the making Bergamot Station plan – they don’t care about affordability in a meaningful way. The real world outcomes confirm that: the sprawl gets stopped, and the neighborhoods get protected, but housing prices and rents continue to rise.

Our current policies prioritize stopping sprawl and neighborhood preservation, with little regard for affordability. It’s important that we realize this and have this conversation. If you’re a renter in LA, you need to ask yourself how important it is to you that SFR owners are protected from change. Are you willing to pay higher rents for that? Because that’s the option you’re being presented. If that doesn’t sound like a great tradeoff, we need to do something about it.

Four LA-Native Housing Types that are Ready to go to Work Solving Our Affordable Housing Problem

LA needs a housing boom. Not just in downtown or Hollywood or Santa Monica, but everywhere. From Reseda to Harbor Gateway, Palms to Fontana, Bellflower to Mar Vista. It can’t be just a few enormous projects; we need thousands and thousands of small projects all of the region. To paraphrase Mao, let a thousand dingbats bloom, let a thousand accessory dwelling units contend.

In that spirit, here’s four housing types already found all over LA that are good to go. All we gotta do is let them do their thing.

Dingbats

We sort of have to start here, don’t we? The dingbat is probably the definitive LA apartment type. Reviled by architecture critics and urbanists for their style, doubted by structural engineers for their seismic stability, lived in by hundreds of thousands for their undeniable functionality and cost effectiveness.

DSCN0103

On the style count, well, everyone can’t be as beautiful as Andres Duany. If you care about architecture, worry about making sure that architectural variety and experimentation aren’t being sacrificed at the altar of neighborhood character. Most of us can’t afford Hermès, but we’ll happily take Forever XXI.

On the seismic count, the problem with dingbats is the open nature of the first level caused by parking bays. (In engineering parlance, it’s a soft story because it has much less shear strength than the solid-wall apartments above.) This can be fixed pretty easily by (1) reducing parking requirements and eliminating the problem in the first place and (2) engineering better connections between the steel supports and the wood above. It’s a trivial problem – really.

Where should they be built? Just about anywhere in LA County. In the City of LA, the sweet spot for dingbats is probably neighborhoods that are currently zoned for minimal multiple-family (RD or R2) where dingbats could probably be built under R3 or R4.

Attached Apartments

Regardless of the zoning code’s approval or lack thereof, accessory dwelling units and attached apartments abound across the city. It’s a win-win-win: the region gets a bunch of apartments supervised by someone who’s bound to really give a crap about the impact of their tenants (i.e. an on-site owner), owners get some bonus income from renting the units, and renters get, you know, a place to call their own.

DSCN0105

You see these here and there in places like Palms and Torrance, sometimes even purpose-built as SFRs with apartments in back. In a few places, like Hawthorne, you see them all over the place. It’s a really natural addition to neighborhoods.

Where should they be built? Any single-family neighborhood that hasn’t seen an increase in supply in about 50 years. In the City of LA, this is everything R1 and below.

Cudahy Lots

Way back at the turn of the last century, LA was seeing a large number of immigrants from the Midwest, looking for better weather and better work. Michael Cudahy enticed a bunch of them to buy long, skinny lots (50’-100’ wide by 600’-800’ long) in his eponymous city, with the idea being that you could build a house and have a huge back yard for a garden or orchard.

As the population of LA County boomed, these lots were redeveloped into apartment complexes that are sort of like the megafauna of railroad flats.

Cudahy_lots

The resulting urban form looks like low-rise suburbia, but creates surprisingly high densities: Cudahy is the second-densest city in California (after Maywood).

In addition to their namesake city, Cudahy lot redevelopments can be found in places like El Monte. Historically, these redevelopments have been mostly 1-2 story low-rise, but there should be no harm in letting them go to 3-4 stories and do apartments.

Where should they be built? Any place that has the requisite lot type. This includes Sylmar, Avocado Heights, Fontana, several parts of San Bernardino, Jurupa Valley, parts of the Antelope Valley, and the remaining lots in Cudahy and El Monte.

Podiums

You know podiums – they’re those mid-rises with up to 7 stories of wood-frame construction sitting on top of a story or two of concrete base. The height limitations are due to seismic code and fire code requirements, which in LA essentially mandate steel and concrete construction for anything over 75’ tall.

photo (5)

Podiums often draw a lot of architectural criticism (first law of affordable housing – the more reviled it is, the better the job it’s doing at being affordable, right down to the ultimate rural affordable housing, the universally despised trailer park). As I’ve said before, this blog isn’t in the business of worrying about architecture. Podiums are great as a building form, and like any, they can be executed well or not so well.

In the scheme of housing, podiums are the last gasp of cost-effective wood-frame construction before you’re forced to incur the costs of steel and concrete frames. The first three options in this post can be constructed for around $60-$100 per square foot. With podiums, cost rise up to around $200/SF, so they’ll always be more expensive to build. The trade-off is usually taking a smaller unit, and perhaps being able to save on transportation. Of course, after the building capital costs have been paid off and the units start to filter, rents can fall in older buildings.

High-rises cost considerably more, around $400-$500/SF, which is why affordable housing solutions that depend on them are a bad idea when there’s enough room for the four cheaper options presented here. High-rises still play an important role, though, because they satisfy luxury demand and prevent it from bidding up prices for low-rise and mid-rise construction. That’s why we should allow construction of (unsubsidized) market-rate high-rises.

Fortunately, LA is a huge region, and we have plenty of space to grow. We can build all the housing we need without needing high-rises for a long, long time.

Where should they be built? Anywhere on the Westside, much of Southbay, parts of the Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, San Bernardino, and Riverside.

Do the Math

Recent estimates have put LA County’s deficit of affordable housing units at about 500,000. Population growth probably requires somewhere around 30,000 units per year, so let’s round that up to 50,000 per year (on the assumption that more affordable housing would increase population growth).

So, if we could build 100,000 housing units per year for the next 10 years, we’d be getting back on track. That may seem like a daunting task, but if you break it down, I think it’s achievable. Maybe it looks something like this, every year:

  • 10,000 SFRs (basically Antelope Valley & Santa Clarita)
  • 20,000 ADUs
  • 30,000 dingbat units (or 3,750 8-unit buildings per year)
  • 35,000 podium units (or 350 100-unit buildings per year)
  • 5,000 Cudahy lot units (or 333 15-unit buildings per year)

Aren’t these numbers a little audacious? Not really. This boils down to building 27 SFRs and 55 ADUs per day, along with about 10 dingbats, 1 podium, and 1 Cudahy lot redevelopment. This amount of construction might be a little jarring at first, just because we’ve adjusted to a slow growth level of construction. But technically, it’s trivial – does anyone really think it’s hard to find the capital, materials, and labor to build one podium per day? These targets are the equivalent of building about 275 housing units per day.

Realistically, you probably wouldn’t even have to hit those targets, because market-rate high-rises, non-profit developers, and institutional builders (like universities) will also be building units.

As with any product, the way you reduce costs is by standardizing the plans and the procedures for putting them together. In some future posts, we’ll take a look at how that can be done in the case of these housing types.

LA Needs A Housing Boom

Stephen J. Smith of Next City and Market Urbanism recently published some great visualizations of growth in American cities since 1940, using animated GIFs created by Ian Rees (@woolie).

These graphics make the need for a large increase in housing supply abundantly clear, and I want to look at the LA images in more detail.

1950s

Growth between 1940 and 1950 was somewhat muted by World War 2, but in the 1950s, the suburban boom really took off.

la.density_1950_1960-mod

There’s growth all over the Valley, South Bay, and the Gateway Cities. The initial wave of suburbanization takes off in Orange County, and advances into the San Gabriel Valley as well.

Counter to the “LA is sprawl” narrative, there’s also a considerable amount of growth in built-up areas like Santa Monica, Venice, Long Beach, Hollywood, and what’s now Koreatown.

1960s

Here’s the graphic for the 1960s.

la.density_1960_1970-mod

Suburbanization in the Valley advances to Santa Clarita and Simi Valley, while construction in the Valley falls off. However, there’s still a considerable amount of apartment growth in places like Reseda, Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood, Van Nuys, and Panorama City.

Construction in southeast LA County tails off, while suburbanization in Orange County pushes south.

Note that there’s still a ton of construction in Koreatown, Hollywood, Sunset Strip, Santa Monica, and Venice, and a continuing boom in Inglewood and Hawthorne.

1970s

The same trend continues into the 1970s.

la.density_1970_1980-mod

Notice that in the 1970s, there’s actually an intensification of growth in the Valley, especially in Warner Center and the previously mentioned areas. Growth in Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena also occurs.

Further east, the southern San Gabriel Valley and Pomona Valley start to grow.

Santa Monica and Venice continue to boom, and Palms is on an absolute tear, as are the beach cities of South Bay and Long Beach. Koreatown, Hollywood, and Sunset Strip all keep seeing a lot of construction.

In Orange County, suburbanization advances into Tustin and Irvine, but previously built-up areas continue to grow too.

1980s

In the 1980s, there’s still a lot of building going on, but you can start to see the wheels coming off, thanks to widespread downzonings.

la.density_1980_1990-mod

The Valley and Santa Clarita keep growing much as they did in the 1970s, as do Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena. In the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, Diamond Bar and Chino Hills start to grow.

Thing start to quiet off on the Westside, but Santa Monica, Venice, West LA, and Palms still see growth. Koreatown keeps growing, but Hollywood and Sunset Strip decline noticeably.

Similarly, Long Beach and the South Bay beach cities see some growth, but a noticeable drop off. Meanwhile Hawthorne keeps growing.

With the exception of Irvine, things get much quieter in Orange County.

1990s

The 1990s are sort of LA’s lost decade, thanks to a punishing recession from 1990-1994 associated with defense spending cutbacks. The lackluster growth is somewhat forgivable in that regard.

la.density_1990_2000-mod

Koreatown, Hollywood, and North Hollywood see growth, but at a much lower level, as does Panorama City. Irvine and Tustin are about the only thing going on in Orange County. In the San Gabriel Valley and South Bay, it’s crickets. On the Westside, only West LA, Palms, and downtown Santa Monica see noticeable growth.

2000s

In contrast to the 1990s, the 2000s were a time of prosperity and rising prices. There’s no excuse for construction to be this low.

la.density_2000_2010-mod

There’s a little pick up in Warner Center, Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood, Burbank, and Pasadena. Koreatown and Downtown grow, but Hollywood construction falls off. On the Westside, there’s West LA, Palms, Marina del Rey, and Playa del Ray, but that’s it. There’s a suffocating lack of growth in southeastern LA County and the San Gabriel Valley, and except Irvine, Orange County isn’t much better.

Here’s the animated graphic with neighborhood overlays. (Update: to get the animated gif to display in the post, I had to rescale it to a smaller size. Drop me an email if you want the original size.)

la.densit.overlay-reduce2

LA Needs a Housing Boom Everywhere

This is why we’re in the hole we’re in on affordability. And when you’re in a hole, one of the first things you can do to help yourself is stop digging. We have a 20 year deficit of construction to try to make up. Increasing supply isn’t a cure for all our housing issues, but I don’t see how we have a chance of solving other issues without it.

This growth can’t be only in a few favored neighborhoods like Downtown and Hollywood. We need new housing everywhere – the Valley, the Westside, South Bay, southeastern LA County, Orange County, the San Gabriel Valley – everywhere.

The Lamborghini and The Dingbat

One of the protests against allowing more housing construction is that supply and demand has failed – that developers only want to build luxury units or that the global elite will invariably buy all the new supply anyway.

This is based on the misconception that we’re having a housing boom. But that’s not the case; LA, and California in general, haven’t had anything resembling a construction boom since about 1990. In reality, housing construction is very limited; it’s being restricted by zoning and permitting laws. Because developers can only build a few new units, they’re building luxury, since that’s the most profitable.

Consider, for example, that luxury cars account for 12% of vehicle production, but 50% of auto manufacturer profits. There’s no limit on vehicle production, so automakers produce a lot of cheaper low-margin cars too. But if auto production was capped at, say, 15% of what was produced last year, they’d only produce luxury cars.

chris_brown_jetfighter_lamborghini

One of these vehicles offers the possibility of huge profits off rich d-bags.

One of these vehicles offers the possibility of huge profits off rich d-bags. The other one, not so much.

A person looking at such an auto market might conclude that the problem is that Lamborghinis are too expensive for ordinary people to afford. But really, the problem isn’t that Lamborghinis are too expensive, it’s that not enough Honda Civics are being produced.

Current affordable housing policy is akin to requiring that a certain percentage of Lamborghinis be sold to a lucky few people at a huge discount. It should be obvious that we can’t solve society’s mobility problems by trying to ensure that everyone gets a $250,000 car. We don’t need subsidized Lamborghinis, we need Honda Civics. Trying to give everyone a Lamborghini would cost way too much. (And if Chris Brown is in your Lamborghini, that’s another major problem.)

centurycity

One of these views is from Century City and worth millions. The other one, not so much.

One of these views is from Century City and worth millions. The other one, not so much.

The global elite argument really falls apart here. The global elite might buy a lot of luxury apartments and Maseratis, but they’re not going to buy Honda Civics or new dingbat construction in Pacoima.

Now, maybe you genuinely don’t think the market can produce enough Honda Civics for everyone. Fair enough, we can argue that point. If you don’t think the market can produce enough housing for everyone, we can debate that too. But you need an alternate solution: massive government housing construction, housing societies like Hong Kong, something. Otherwise you’re just arguing to save the privilege of those lucky enough to already live in LA (or SF, or NYC) at the expense of people living in Lagos or rural Appalachia or San Salvador, who would very much like to take advantage of the opportunity for a better life offered by the city.

‘Round Palms – Hannum Drive

Way overdue for another look at land development patterns in Palms. As we’ve seen before, Palms isn’t just dingbats – there’s a healthy proportion of newer buildings along with some original single-family houses. Busier streets like Motor, Clarington, and Palms Boulevard itself have transitioned to apartment houses almost entirely. However, today’s tour takes us down Hannum Drive, a quiet side street that runs for just one block between Hughes and Feris, and still has a cluster of SFRs.

Hannum starts at Hughes, across the street from this construction site, which was SFRs as recently as last fall, when I did my tour of Hughes.

01-HughesConstr

The south side of Hannum starts out in typical Palms style, with two small 6-unit apartment buildings (1963 on the right, 1973 on the left).

02-SouthApts

Same story on the north side, with three small apartment buildings (a 1954 6-unit building just out of frame to the left, a 1963 fourplex, and a 5-unit building of unknown).

03-NorthApts

And then, just like that, you’re in SFR heaven the rest of the way to Faris. Here’s the south side, with a string of seven SFRs all dating to 1925-1926.

04-SouthHouses

The blue one even has a sizable yard made out of a vacant lot (I’m inferring same ownership by same last date sold).

05-SouthVacant

The north side has five SFRs in a row, all dating to 1925.

06-NorthHouses

Here’s another shot of the north side. The apartments in the background are on Faris and date to the 1980s.

07-NorthHouses2

South side. Cute!

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A parting shot back up towards Hughes

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Now, you might wonder if this little cluster of SFRs is protected by R1 zoning. Nope, it’s all R3.

ZIMAS-Hannum

This is how neighborhoods grow when you let them. This group of single-family homes is thriving, despite over six decades of apartment construction in Palms. No one is being forced to give up their home. There’s no “incompatible” development – new apartment buildings pop up every now and then, and everything works fine together.

This is also how neighborhoods grow when you don’t abuse eminent domain to assemble full blocks of property for redevelopment. Go back to the top and check out the new apartment building under construction on Hughes. It abuts a solitary SFR. You think the apartment developers didn’t try to buy that lot too? They probably did, but the SFR owners decided they didn’t want to sell. The result is that sometimes a new building is put up on several parcels assembled together, sometimes on two parcels, and sometimes just a single parcel, like a classic dingbat. This produces a variety of building sizes, structure heights, street frontages, and architecture that you just don’t get when you redevelop an entire block. Nobody would ever plan to put one SFR by itself on Hughes; it just happened.

Next time you’re around Palms, pay attention to this. It’s a great, positive example of how single-family houses and apartment buildings of different sizes and ages can coexist – the perfect antidote to whatever you’re hearing from your local NIMBYs.

Metrolink Ridership Update – December 2013

Note: the graphs in this post are incorrect due a data entry error on my part. The trends and conclusions are the same; however, for accurate data, please use the June 2014 ridership update.

I’ve been trying, and struggling, to write a post about Metrolink for a while. I just couldn’t put anything together that I thought might add to the conversation. It finally dawned on me that I was putting the cart before the horse (and horses don’t run in push-pull operation). The first thing to do is just watch, listen, and learn about the existing state of affairs. So, here’s the first installment of looking at Metrolink ridership. Let’s see what’s going on.

Metrolink publishes quarterly ridership data, with the quarter ending in December 2013 being the most recently available data. The data is broken down by station, so we can see which stations generate the most ridership.

stations-20140602

The highest ridership stations are dominated by the OC Line, Riverside Line, and San Bernardino Line. As you’d expect, Glendale and Burbank make a good showing as well, though maybe not as good as you’d think considering how well Irvine and Tustin perform. What surprised me the most? Industry! Though in hindsight, a ride from the big honkin’ park-and-ride in Industry to Downtown LA, with only one stop in between, is probably not a bad deal compared to the 60. Oceanside also surprises to the high side.

At the other end, the Ventura Line and Antelope Valley Line perform poorly – perhaps shockingly poorly in the case of the stations in the Valley. Van Nuys doesn’t even hit 200 boardings, and Sun Valley not even 100. The Ventura County stations beyond Moorpark (Camarillo, Oxnard, and East Ventura) generate very low ridership that calls the benefit of those far-flung stations into question. The distant Orange County stations (Laguna Niguel, San Juan Capistrano, and San Clemente) similarly disappoint. Commerce is comically low, since there’s little parking and the surrounding area is thoroughly industrial.

The data available on Metrolink’s website stretches back to July 2009, which lets us construct a rolling 12-month average for all stations starting in June 2010. Here’s the time series data, broken down by line.

Ventura-20140602

AV-20140602

BG-20140602

SB-20140602

Riverside-20140602

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There’s a disturbing downward trend on many of the lines, especially the Antelope Valley Line and San Bernardino Line. On the other hand: Tustin and Irvine!

Here’s a look at the top 10 and bottom 10 stations for ridership gained (or lost) over the period.

10top-20140602

abstop-20140602

Other than Downtown Pomona sneaking in at number 10, the top ten is all the Orange County Line and the 91 Line. And again: Tustin and Irvine! Who says Orange County can’t generate any transit ridership? (Note: I used absolute change rather than percentage change, since percentage favors the low ridership stations. If you used percentage, Orange would drop out, and Commerce – which picked up all of 8 riders – would be in.)

Now the bad news.

10bottom-20140602

absbottom-20140602

No two ways about it, that’s ugly. Five stations have shed over 20% of their ridership, with three more not far behind.

The silver lining is that there’s a pattern to ridership changes. The Orange County Line and the 91 Line have been the big winners, and the San Bernardino Line and Antelope Valley Line have been the big losers. There should be an opportunity to figure out what’s going right down in OC, and what’s going wrong on the AV & SB Lines. It could be as simple as the fact that OC & Riverside are doing a little better economically than LA & SB. But it should be explored.

For one thing, there’s a bunch of new riders in Orange & Riverside Counties. Somebody ought to ask them what they were doing before and why they decided to take the train. On the flip side, there’s a bunch of people who used to ride the AV Line and SB Line, or board at Industry, but aren’t doing that anymore. Obviously, they’re a little harder to find than the folks who are on the train, but it’s worth trying to figure out why they stopped riding.

From there, we can start to think about how to capitalize on the momentum on the Orange County Line and 91 Line to keep increasing ridership. And we can try to figure out why three lines that serve the densely populated San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys aren’t serving people as well as they should, and what we might do to make those lines more useful.

What do you think? What trends do you see in the ridership, and what challenges and opportunities are there?