Rumor has it that there’s interest in LA’s courtyard apartment buildings, and in why you don’t see many of them built anymore. As you might guess, my suspicion is that zoning and parking requirements, along with availability of land with the needed zoning, are the primary causes. So, let’s take a closer look at this common Los Angeles building typology.
Low-rise courtyard apartment buildings are as much a part of the Angeleno vernacular as the dingbat, found all across LA’s multi-family neighborhoods. Typically, they consist of a roughly donut-shaped building, with a rectangular courtyard having its long side perpendicular to the street forming the donut hole. Entrance to the courtyard is through an open or gated breezeway through the first floor. The apartments ring the courtyard, usually only a couple stories high, but occasionally more. Parking is tucked underneath the sides and rear along the outside of the building.
Palms (where else) is a great neighborhood for looking at examples of courtyard apartments. I once wrote a post where I pretty much called Clarington Avenue dingbat heaven; head just one block west to Jasmine Avenue and you’re in courtyard central.
As is so often the case, this now-beloved building type was an unintended consequence of planning and zoning regulations, and courtyard apartments were maligned in the era of their construction. In 1974, during contentious public hearings for the Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey Neighborhood Plan, LA City Planning Commissioner David Roper stated that the city’s open space ordinance “had failed because developers put the space in the middle of the apartment buildings, the so-called hole in the donut, out of view of the public.” (Likewise, in the early 1970s, City Councilor Louis Nowell was being maligned for approving the construction of corner gas stations – which, by the early 1980s, were being replaced by mini-malls at such a furious pace that the fusspots were worried about them. Notice a pattern?)
As you can see in the aerial, a courtyard apartment building is really just two dingbats that teamed up to increase the overall value of the project. Single-lot dingbat projects penciled out, and many were built, but given setback and parking requirements, the parking and apartments were about all you could fit on the lot. You’ll rarely, if ever, find a single-lot dingbat with a courtyard or pool. By putting two lots together, you eliminate 10’ of side setback requirements for an R3 or R4 zone, and make it easier to configure the parking. The skinnier courtyards aren’t much more than 10’ wide, though current zoning requires them to be 15’ to count towards open space requirements.
Revisiting some proposed prototype projects from the dingbat post, here’s what we had for R3 density (top) and R4 density (bottom) projects. The R3 project meets current parking and setback requirements; you could meet open space requirements if you reconfigured the parking. The R4 project meets setback requirements but not parking requirements. It would meet R3 open space requirements, but not R4.
As an aside, I’m not sure why the zoning code should specify open space requirements beyond what it already has for setbacks. The code claims it’s for children’s play space and outdoor recreation, though no one seems to know if it’s used as such. Like parking requirements (1 spot for a studio, 1.5 spots for a 1BR, and 2 spots for anything bigger), open space requirements increase steeply with apartment size (100 SF for a studio, 125 SF for a 1BR, and 175 SF for anything bigger), thereby greatly punishing development of larger apartments and helping to ensure there won’t be any children in the development.
However, it’s certainly easier to meet parking and open space requirements when you put two lots together. Here’s a look at two similar prototypes, using the same development concept but with two 50’ by 100’ lots instead of one.
In the concepts above, the top option, providing 12 1BR apartments, meets parking and open space requirements. And indeed, this is pretty much what you see in later stage developments all over Palms. The parking is usually depressed below street level as much as reasonable to improve aesthetics, putting what I’ve called “Floor 2” closer to being the ground floor, with parking in the basement.
The bottom option, providing 8 studio/1BR, 12 2BR, and 4 3BR apartments, does not meet current parking or open space requirements. By avoiding a basement parking level, the need for a concrete podium is avoided, significantly driving down costs. Putting parking right out front isn’t very aesthetically pleasing, but it would provide some spots that could be rented separately from the apartments, keeping rents lower. In many neighborhoods in LA, there are lots of people who don’t own cars, and making them pay for a parking spot or podium construction would put this new construction out of their reach. If an alley is available, parking could be flipped to the back, and the yard to the front, for a considerable improvement. Open space requirements could theoretically be met by adding a roof deck, though this would increase costs.
Clearly, combining two lots creates the opportunity to provide more amenities. The courtyard creates a semi-private space and the sides of the apartments facing the courtyard feel more protected from the rest of the city. Nevertheless, as stated in the dingbat post, I think it’s important to make sure that single-lot projects pencil out. If two or more lots are needed, one owner can have undue leverage to block housing development. If single-lot developments work, owners are given a positive incentive to work together to create higher value projects.
As for getting more of these projects built, there’s really no secret: we need less land zoned R1 and RD, and more land zoned R3 and R4. If we want more affordable projects, like the second option, we’ll need to ease up on parking and maybe open space requirements. It’s really that simple.