Monthly Archives: May 2016

‘Round Glendale: One Block on Elk

In our first tour of Glendale, we took a long walk down W Wilson Ave, from the city center on Brand Blvd to the industrial edge at San Fernando.

Today, we’re going to go seven blocks south and look at a short block on W Elk Ave, between the end of the ramps from the 5 and Pacific Ave. This stretch is barely 700’ long, but has a remarkable diversity of buildings.

From the freeway off-ramp, the view is at first dominated by Brio, a large apartment complex that was finished in 2012-2013. The left side is large apartment house with three wings; the right side of the street is a set of 14 townhouse-style units built as part of the same project. The 186-unit apartment building has a Colorado St address but takes up the whole block, with the wings opening up towards Elk.

Like most large new construction apartment buildings with boatloads of on-site amenities in LA, rents aren’t exactly cheap. Studios start around $1,800/month and a 2BR will run you over $3,000/month. The side facing Colorado has first floor retail.

The apartment portion of the project is zoned SFMU, which is Glendale’s basic mixed-use zone, allowing up to 100 du/acre and 75’/6 stories height. (These are slightly reduced when abutting other multi-family zones and significantly reduced when abutting single-family zones.) This is more or less equivalent to the RAS4-1L zone in Los Angeles. On some streets (San Fernando, Colorado, & Broadway), commercial uses are required on the street frontage. The townhouse portion of the project is zoned IMU-R, which is Glendale’s most generous mixed-use zone, allowing everything up to heavy manufacturing. (Multi-family requires an administrative use permit and mixed-use requires a conditional use permit.)

Moving beyond Brio on the right, there are three single family homes.

Well, there were three single family homes. Now there’s one and a hole in the ground.

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The demo permit for this job was just issued at the end of March. Soon, a 6-unit townhouse will be rising on the site. This is going to leave on SFR in between Brio & the townhouses, for some infill developer in the future to tackle. The south side of Elk from Brio to Pacific is zoned R-2250, one of Glendale’s basic multi-family zones. As the name suggests, this allows one unit per 2250 SF of lot area, or 19 du/acre, similar to the RD2 zone in LA.

The next building up looks like an SFR at first, but is at least a duplex and maybe a triplex, and it might even have a backyard cottage too. Walk around this part of Glendale, and you’ll notice the density is often hidden; it’s nearly impossible to tell how many units a property has from the street. This is classic missing middle affordable housing, which we ought to be building in spades all over the region, especially towards the edges of the city where there’s housing demand but apartments might not pencil out.

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Then we have a newer development with two houses on one lottwo houses on one lot, but who knows, maybe one is a duplex.

After that, we have two classic 1980s buildings. The building on the right was finished in 1988 and is built on two lots, just like the new 6-unit townhouse project being built. However, it has 15 units. So unfortunately, the permitted density here has been reduced by more than half since the 1980s, making it impossible to construct smaller, more affordable units. If you can only put 3 units on a lot, you need to make them pretty big to make it worthwhile. The building on the left was finished in 1989 and has 5 units.

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Three small structures take us to the corner of Pacific. The one on the right is a duplex; the middle is single-family. The last is two units on one lot and actually has a Pacific Ave address.

The north side of Elk is still zoned SFMU all the way to Pacific, so eventually we may see another mixed-use development pop up here. For now, most of the north side between Brio and Pacific is occupied by a generic light industrial building, mysteriously and awesomely named “Promoting Growth AWAP”. A little digging reveals this to be an auto parts wholesaler.

The last building, a set of twin apartment buildings at the corner of Pacific, was built so long ago they actually got away with a surface parking lot. It has a Pacific Ave address, and provides 16 apartments.

This little block on Elk displays a lot of the different types of housing you’ll find in Glendale. It’s providing a variety of housing for a variety of people, but it’s also a warning about what we’re at risk of losing the LA region. New buildings like Brio are great; new townhouses are great. But we’re not building the small duplexes, the small apartment buildings, or the medium size apartment buildings that fit in many small, but affordable, apartment units.

If we want to maintain the dynamism that makes LA such a great city, we’ve got to be building those missing middle housing types. Land costs are such that it might not make sense to build them in this particular neighborhood today, but there are places where it would – if we only allowed it.

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The Housing Crisis & Wages in Tight Labor Markets

A short note on the impact of the housing crisis on wages in tight labor submarkets, as a follow up to a Twitter conversation about the impact that moving to an expensive city has on disposable income.

In The Rent is Too Damn High, Matthew Yglesias argues that you can’t command higher wages to live in a high-cost city, even if your skills are relatively scarce, because employers roughly “pay workers according to how valuable their work is… nobody is going to offer you a higher salary to offset your high cost of living just to be nice.”

Anecdotally, I can tell you this is not true. Working in an industry where there is currently high demand for certain niche skills and limited supply of workers, we have to offer substantial pay raises to get workers to relocate to LA. My engineering skills are not particularly specialized, but you’d still have to pay me more if you wanted me to relocate to SF or NYC or some other place more expensive than LA. We’re not offering higher salaries to be nice; we’re doing it because the high cost of housing gives workers the ability to cut into our producer surplus.

The reason is that labor has a supply curve too, and the cost of housing is an input into the cost of supplying labor. If housing is more expensive, less people are going to be willing to relocate to the city. Obviously, the amount of money it would take to convince a worker to move will vary – some people don’t want to move to LA for reasons other than cost, some people really want to move to LA despite the cost – but overall, workers will demand higher compensation to relocate to higher cost cities.

The increase in pay that workers can demand depends on the number of potential workers and the demand for their skills. For jobs that many people can perform, modest increases in wages should bring about a decent increase in the number of workers. On the other hand, for niche skills, the supply curve might be pretty steep, and workers may be able to command substantially higher wages. On the demand side, if employers can easily automate work or move it to another city, they may not offer much in the way of wage increases. But if the work cannot easily be moved elsewhere, demand will be less sensitive to wages and workers can again demand substantially more money.

Employers almost always have some alternatives to raising wages. They can try to have the work performed remotely; the reduced productivity of remote work may be more than offset by wage savings. They can forgo the work entirely; in some cases it might be impossible to do the work profitably.

All of this implies that high housing costs will be borne jointly by workers and employers. Higher paid workers with niche skills will be able to force more of this cost onto their employers, though by no means all of it. The cost to employers becomes a deadweight loss, money that could have been otherwise invested in expanding a business and employing more people. Lower income workers are affected worse than higher income workers, making solving the housing crisis even more important.

Jane Jacobs at 100

May 4th was the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, whose works certainly need no introduction here. Rightly revered for successfully blocking Robert Moses’ plans to build freeways across Lower Manhattan and her works that helped redefined urban planning, Jacobs has become the patron saint of urbanism, however loosely defined that term may be. Her 100th birthday has prompted many retrospectives and celebrations of her work, with the Toronto Star calling her more relevant than ever.

Recently, though, some of her writing in The Death and Life of Great American Cities has come under fire. Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism sees the seeds of NIMBYism and gentrification in her opposition to dense construction being proposed in Greenwich Village and other parts of Manhattan in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Jacobs’ writing is extensive, spanning over four decades, and even within Death and Life itself there are many different concepts that can be examined on their own merits rather than as a portion of the whole.

When I first read Death and Life many moons ago, I was living in Boston’s North End, which is cited frequently in the book as an example of a neighborhood that, by virtue of its built environment – mixed uses, small blocks, aged buildings, & density – had produced a successful urban community. Young and smug, I wallowed in the self-satisfaction of having chosen to live in the right kind of neighborhood and built environment.

Over time, though, it became impossible to pretend that I was living in Jane Jacobs’ North End. The neighborhood had already undergone tremendous change since 1961, when Death and Life was published. Gone were the noxious waterfront industries and the surface-running freight railroad, and the Central Artery’s days were numbered. Many Italians had long since decamped for the suburban dream on the North Shore. My North End was not that of former Boston City Councilor Paul Scapicchio, who described the eyes on the street of his childhood as “like having a thousand grandmothers” ready to tell your mom if you were up to no good. In fact, a nice feature for some of us living there was not having eyes watching all the time.

I had friends there and knew some business owners, but had nowhere near the extent of social interaction described in Death and Life. I certainly wasn’t assimilating anyone’s kids; even in those days, disciplining someone else’s children would get you long looks, if not a tongue lashing. Entire blocks that would have had ground-level retail in 1961 had been converted to exclusively residential use, their shopfronts replaced with small windows set high in the wall for the privacy of the occupants, who certainly didn’t want to be interacting with anyone on the sidewalk. Yet these streets had not been doomed; rather, they were more desirable because they were likely to be quiet at night. In years, I never really knew anyone else who lived in my building.

What’s going on? Like many questions on urban development, the answer can be found in Palms.

Palms is neighborhood that, according to Death and Life, should fail. The definitive dwelling type of Palms, the dingbat, built on the definitive zoning of Palms, R3, produces residential densities of about 50 dwelling units per net residential acre (du/ac). This is half the density that Death and Life speculates is the bare minimum for urban neighborhoods, but more than twice the posited maximum density for a suburb. Palms should be a “gray area” under the great blight of dullness. It’s not. Palms is one of LA’s most diverse neighborhoods, attracts new investment, and offers a wide variety of commercial amenities.

The neighborhood I live in now in Glendale is zoned for 19 du/ac, but has higher density in reality due to a significant amount of legacy development built when the zoning allowed more. It doesn’t suffer from the issues ascribed to middle densities either. I know more people in my building here than I did in the North End. This isn’t a reflection of the neighborhood’s design; it’s a reflection on people, myself included, being in different places in life.

Jacobs was badly needed in 1961, when American cities were being sacked on a scale that is almost unimaginable now. Nothing today comes close to the wholesale destruction of urban renewal and freeway construction; no one wields concentrated power of the magnitude Robert Moses had then. We should be thankful that the Lower Manhattan Expressway wasn’t built, and that the tide of public opinion turned against demolishing entire neighborhoods and towards respecting communities.

However, it seems to me that two things have gone wrong. One, we have underestimated the ability of people to form communities in different ways and flourish in different environments. Two, we have taken the lessons on urban aesthetics too close to heart.

On the first point, consider that people use and need cities in many different ways. For some, the ability to form a tight knit community is essential to survival because of the need for support; this is frequently the case with immigrant communities, like the North End when it was home to new Italian immigrants. Others are looking for social and cultural community; artists and writers are the stereotypical examples here. Still others might be trying to escape bad situations elsewhere, looking for new friendships and opportunity, but wanting or needing the anonymity that only a city can afford. People can successfully do these things in many different types of built environments. If you’re a recent Chinese immigrant to SoCal, you might end up in pretty suburban Monterey Park – not because of how it looks, but because that’s where the community you need is located.

On the second point, we have become focused on programming the details of new buildings – materials, interaction with the street, unit sizes, mandatory mixed use in some places, and mandatory single use in others. We obsess over design while much larger market forces are reshaping cities. We let our cities become cartoons of themselves – maintaining the same appearance while serving a smaller portion of the people who need them. It’s the urban answer to Disney’s Main Street USA – looks and feels like a real city neighborhood, if you can afford the price of admission.

This is not to say that Death and Life is irrelevant or dated. But for many cities, the problems that it discusses are. There are cities that are struggling the way New York was in 1961 – places like Detroit, Cleveland, St Louis – and they really do still face plans for extensive demolition of old neighborhoods, new roadways through the urban core, and urban renewal schemes. But no one is trying to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway anymore, and no one is trying to demolish the North End and replace it with another West End. People talk about the need for aged buildings as if Robert Moses were still lurking around the corner, as if places like LA weren’t largely comprised of old buildings. We have lots of old buildings, what we need now is some new ones. On my entire street in Glendale, you could probably count the buildings finished in this century on two hands; on my street in Palms, in four long blocks, there were probably three or four. And of course, many of LA’s single-family zones have functionally added no new dwelling units in decades.

If we are to use the lessons of Death and Life to help address the challenges many cities face today, we have to start with the recognition that neighborhood character comes from people, not buildings. The buildings don’t make the community; they just make it possible for the people who make the community to live there. Design matters and can make a difference, but only if you have enough buildings for all the people who want to be a part of the city.

Greenwich Village today is not what it was in 1961. Do we like how Greenwich Village, and countless other neighborhoods in coastal cities, are actually functioning today, with rising rents and reduced access to the city for those who need it most? Or do we just like how they look?

I tried to look up rents in my old building in the North End, but it’s been condo converted. A mortgage on the cheapest unit would be at least two and a half times my rent. Are we really willing to pay such a price just to look good?

Culver City Cluster

The intersection of Venice & Robertson near the Culver City Expo Line stop holds a special place in many pedestrians’ hearts, but not in a good way. It dwells in that special place where existential fears reside – will I survive crossing 8 lanes of Venice Blvd and a the goofy one-way pair that is Robertson, full of impatient drivers trying to get to the 10?

There is no love for this intersection among drivers either, as it is reliably snarled for much of the day, causing major delays to Metro bus routes 33 and 733. The exhaust of so many idling cars doesn’t lend much to the ambience of the Venice Blvd bike lanes either. It’s pretty much an unmitigated multi-modal disaster. With Expo Line construction complete, we are at least done with lane closures and pedestrian detours, but that’s not saying much, especially since the final configuration still has no crosswalk on the west side of Robertson.

To see why this area is such a mess, let’s zoom out a little and look at the arterial grid in the region.

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In addition to the oddly-configured interchange with the 10, arterial roads around downtown Culver City are very disjointed, with Venice being the only continuous one. Culver ends at Venice. Washington is interrupted in a way that forces travel on Culver. Robertson, for all purposes, ends at Washington, because traffic controls on Higuera St make it impossible to link Robertson, Higuera, and Rodeo as a continuous arterial. National and Hughes/Duquesne are only one lane each way, reducing their utility as routes around Venice/Robertson. The result is that traffic is funneled to Venice/Robertson, creating misery for everyone involved (except Expo Line riders sailing overhead).

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What could be done?

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The most ambitious plan (which many readers aren’t going to like) would be an underpass from Culver to Robertson and reconfiguring the offramp from the 10 eastbound. This would require tunneling under Venice, the shopping center, and a retained fill section on the Expo Line. It would create a continuous arterial out of Culver & Robertson, and remove this traffic from the existing Venice/Robertson intersection. It would also turn the intersection into a conventional four-legged junction. The carrot to this stick would be crosswalks on all four sides of Venice/Robertson with lower traffic volumes, and, by virtue of removing the worst bottleneck on Venice, a center running BRT on Venice from Crenshaw Blvd to the Pacific Ocean. I don’t have time to properly CAD this up at the moment, but here, have a crappy MS Paint rendering.

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A less ambitious plan would be to eliminate Culver Blvd between Washington and Venice, reconfigure downtown Culver City to make Washington continuous, and still reconfigure the offramp from the 10 eastbound. This would still reduce the traffic volume on Venice, and reduce left-turn volumes from Venice eastbound to Robertson northbound by forcing Culver/Washington traffic to turn at Washington/Robertson instead.

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There are probably other options too. The absence of the crosswalk at Venice/Robertson is really inexcusable in any case, and that at least should be fixed immediately.