Daily Archives: May 12, 2015

Dingbat City

Long time readers know that this blog holds the dingbat in high regard, perhaps not for its architectural styling, but as a symbol of a development process that allowed natural evolution of neighborhoods and created tons of instantly affordable housing at a time of rapid growth in LA. Indeed, we’ve gone so far as to suggest that if we want to increase affordability in LA, we need to figure out how to resurrect the spirit of the dingbat.

Dingbats, like any mass-produced building type, have their shortcomings. These are mostly related to use of cheap construction materials for things like windows, poor insulation and soundproofing, and seismic issues stemming from their iconic open carports (which were poorly understood at the time). However, a recent opinion column in the Santa Monica Daily Press tries to conflate these fixable problems with fatal, but fictional, flaws related to density and design, and then conflate dingbats with the five-story podium buildings that, thanks to a recent downzoning, won’t be built on Santa Monica’s commercial boulevards.

After lampooning an architect who improved many people’s lives by making possible for them to move to Los Angeles instead of trying to keep them out, the column reaches the crux of its anti-dingbat argument by asking:

“Don’t most people want. . . elements missing from the dingbats. . . light, openness, blue sky, scale and proportion, privacy, sustainability, and amenities such as courtyards, with trees and landscaping, that enhance one’s quality of life?”

You know what else enhances one’s quality of life? Not having to spend an exorbitant portion of one’s income on housing! Maybe you want trees and landscaping, or the light that so many buildings are said to lack, though I’ve never heard of a dingbat denizen dying from lack of sunlight. On the other hand, maybe you’re working two jobs, or both working and attending school. You need a low-cost apartment, and the “scale and proportion” is the last thing on your mind. Why should a bunch of NIMBYs decide what type of housing you can have? Shouldn’t you get to choose?

In an effort to get you to think that no, you shouldn’t, the column pivots to a discussion of the need to trim one’s wish list when building a dream home, likening it to trimming the development density allowed in Santa Monica’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE). But of course, a downzoning isn’t about NIMBYs trimming their wish lists, it’s about everyone else – young people, low income residents, recent arrivals – making sacrifices for the NIMBYs.

In trying to make that leap from two-story dingbats to five-story podiums, the column falls flat. Modern podium buildings are much better buildings than dingbats thanks to advancements in construction technology, improvements in building codes and design, and the state energy code. Many of the new podium buildings recently constructed in Santa Monica – the kind the column’s author doesn’t want any more of – include the amenities whose absence in dingbats the column bemoans. In fact, the downzonings favored by NIMBYs will help to ensure that many people have no affordable housing option other than the dingbats. It’s kind of strange to slag the dingbats, and then oppose the construction of modern housing too. If you want people to have options other than dingbats, you might want to advocate for those options to be built.

The truth is that NIMBYs don’t really care about building design that much; they just don’t like any density. Likewise, they will pretend to care about affordable housing to the extent needed to align politically with people who oppose development for other reasons, like displacement. For example, a previous column in the Santa Monica Daily Press called for increasing housing affordability by converting office space to residential, a plan that could only have an impact on housing prices if it drove up commercial rents and started forcing small businesses out of Santa Monica. NIMBYs don’t have to care about design or affordability, but they should be called on it when they pretend they do.

As for the stucco box vernacular, you don’t have to love it, but until you have a plan to mass produce higher-quality affordable housing, you should at least respect it.