Tag Archives: Downtown Los Angeles

Downtown LA is Responsible for 20% of Housing Built Since 1999, and That’s Terrible News

Shane Phillips has a post over at Better Institutions looking at the proportion of housing built in LA since 1999 that’s located downtown. He calculates it to be about 20%, based on state data and a Downtown Center Business Improvement District Report. The report is generous in its definition of downtown, including Skid Row and the Fashion, Arts, & Industrial Districts, and stretching well into Westlake and Chinatown. Nevertheless, by any standard the amount of development in downtown is impressive. About 20,000 units have been built in the last 15 years, with another 20,000 in the pipeline for the next 5-10 years.

A pro-growth stance from the city has resulted in mid-rise buildings and towers popping up all over the place on top of former parking lots, putting the land to much more productive use. Meanwhile, the adaptive reuse ordinance (ARO) has allowed once-vacant historic office buildings to find new live as apartments, condos, and hotels. Michael Manville writes in UCTC Access that the ARO alone was responsible for 6,500 units of housing in the historic core between 1999 and 2008.

All of this is good. Turning parking lots into higher value land uses is good; putting abandoned buildings back to use is good. The neighborhoods around downtown are in danger of being victims of its success when it comes to gentrification, but more on that later.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that percentages have numerators and denominators. And in this case, the downtown boom is making the numerator bigger, but a severe lack of housing production citywide has made the denominator much smaller. In fact, based on the same state data, all of LA County added about 215,000 housing units between 1999 and 2014. In other words, in a county of 10 million people, a neighborhood of just 50,000 has been responsible for over 9% of new residential construction.

In short, the problem is that other neighborhoods across LA have not seen nearly as much growth. As Shane correctly points out, one neighborhood can do only so much. Read the USC Casden Multifamily Forecast and you’ll see neighborhood after neighborhood with almost no new inventory added from 2009 to 2013. East LA, Alhambra, Montebello, & Pico Rivera, zero. El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, & Redondo Beach, zero. Granada Hills, Northridge, & Reseda, zero. Paramount, Downey, Bellflower, & Norwalk, zero. The list goes on and on.

Housing prices are largely determined regionally, which makes it impossible for one neighborhood to upzone its way out of price increases. If you’re near desirable neighborhood XYZ that has very little new construction, it doesn’t matter what you do, eventually you’ll be “XYZ-adjacent” and it’s game over. On the Westside, you have to wonder how long places like Palms and Pico-Robertson can last with demand radiating east and south from Santa Monica and Venice, despite Palms being relatively friendly to new construction.

Even in cities with a strong traditional form like NYC, with a huge CBD dominating regional employment, concentrating all housing development near the core is a mistake. New York YIMBY recently chronicled the woes of NYC’s small builders, who have been driven out of business by downzoning in the outer boroughs. That has resulted in a decrease in the amount of market-rate housing being built for middle income earners, making the city’s affordability problems worse.

In a city like LA, with highly decentralized employment, concentrating housing development in the core makes no sense at all. The hottest office markets in LA are on the Westside, where the tech industry is concentrated in Santa Monica and Venice. Growth in that market has spread south to Playa Vista and the Howard Hughes Center. Century City office developers hope to capitalize on it as well, while others in commercial real estate expect growth to continue moving south to El Segundo. Whatever the reasons, the office market in Downtown LA remains weak, with plenty of vacancy and virtually no new construction.

The lack of a corresponding residential boom on the Westside exacerbates existing imbalances. The pull of Westside employment long ago made the “reverse” commute direction on the 10 freeway the peak direction (traffic is worse going away from downtown in the morning, and towards it in the afternoon). It would not be surprising at all if the peak travel direction on the Expo Line and Westside Subway ends up following a similar pattern.

Beyond the local issues of the Westside, there are job centers scattered all over LA County. Employment growth is not going to be concentrated in downtown, so why should housing growth? Distributed housing growth spreads out the impacts as well as the benefits, and helps prevent gentrification and development from flooding into a localized area.

Why Is Downtown Booming?

To be sure, Downtown LA has become a desirable place to live. It’s walkable, has good access to freeways and transit, and offers an increasingly diverse mix of restaurants, bars, and retail. It’s centrally located, making it (relatively) easy to live there and commute to the Westside, Hollywood, and parts of the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. The architecture, especially the historic office and hotel buildings, is unparalleled in the region. That explains the demand side.

The supply side is explained by the factors mentioned before – the adaptive reuse ordinance and a strong (sometimes, maybe a little too strong) pro-growth stance from the city. As Manville writes, the conversions of historic buildings would have been impossible without the ARO, so it’s worth recapping the significant relaxation of land use regulations that the ARO provides:

  • No restriction on density based on lot size (though minimum apartment sizes apply)
  • Existing non-conforming FAR, setbacks, and heights do not require a variance
  • No new parking spaces required (existing parking must be maintained, but is not required to be bundled with dwelling units)
  • Automatic “by-right” entitlement for rental units in commercial or R5 zoning in buildings constructed before 1974
  • No environmental clearance for projects constructed “by-right”

This allows adaptive reuse projects to avoid almost all the NIMBY bugaboos, and deprives opponents of the leverage provided by the need to obtain discretionary approvals. It also allows projects to avoid the need to build expensive parking; as Manville writes, many developers have chosen to provide none or to offer it off-site.

The city has also facilitated growth downtown by other means, for example, selling the air rights above the convention center.

Why Are Other Neighborhoods Not Growing?

For most of the city, though, development doesn’t come so easy. Increasing demand has not been met by a boom in supply. Most neighborhoods don’t have a large supply of parking lots or vacant buildings to be redeveloped, and the city has been very reluctant to try to buck NIMBYism in the R1 zoned single-family residential (SFR) neighborhoods.

As a case study, consider the draft rezoning plans being developed for the five Expo Line Phase 2 stations that are within the City of LA (Culver City, Palms, Expo/Westwood, Expo/Sepulveda, and Expo/Bundy).

At Expo/Bundy and Expo/Sepulveda, there are significant amounts of land currently zoned M2 (light industrial). The plans propose maintaining some of that zoning, while converting other areas to new industrial zones including “New Industry”, “Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential)”, and “Hybrid Industrial (Min 30% Job-Generating)”. The “industrial” classification is a little deceiving, since it allows office, R&D, media, and technology developments. Nevertheless, the New Industry zone precludes residential development entirely and only permits retail and restaurants as ancillary uses, and this is the most prevalent new zone. At Sepulveda, only two blocks are zoned Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential), while at Bundy, four blocks are given that designation and three are given Hybrid Industrial (Min 30% Job-Generating). At Expo/Sepulveda, R1 zoning less than 0.25 miles from the station will remain. To the city’s credit, at Expo/Bundy planners did at least propose upzoning the R1 properties between the Expo Line and Pico, as potential options on the base plan.

At Expo/Westwood, almost the entire 0.25-mile radius around the station is currently zoned R1, even on the arterials (Overland and Westwood). The plans goal is to “preserve character of existing SFR neighborhoods”  and that’s what we’ll get, because all the R1 zoning is proposed to remain. The plan calls for upzoning a few R2 properties to R3, a largely symbolic gesture because that only increases density from 2 du/lot to 6 du/lot (assuming 5,000 SF lots). The lone bright spot for development is an upzoning of Pico between Sepulveda and Westwood to RAS4 (12 units per 5,000 SF lot with ground floor retail), but this amounts to only small portions of nine blocks fronting Pico.

The Palms plan might appear to be better, because it rezones Venice Blvd and Motor Av for a new “Mixed-Use (Min 20% Job-Generating)” zone with FAR of 2.0-3.6. However, Venice and Motor are currently zoned C2, which under the current zoning scheme already allows purely residential projects at R4 density. The Mixed-Use (Min 20% Job-Generating) zone therefore reduces some flexibility by requiring a commercial component. The small-scale residential and commercial developments that line Motor today couldn’t be built under that zone.

At Culver City, it’s more of the same industrial zoning, with three large blocks directly across Venice zoned New Industry and one further west, currently the site of a commercial plaza, for Hybrid Industrial (Max 30% Residential).

The plan also calls for current parking requirements to apply, except in “limited circumstances”.

The limited zoning changes produce the results you’d expect. The Spring 2014 outreach presentation projects that the plan will allow the construction of 4,422 new housing units by 2035, satisfying market demand of 3,800 to 6,400 units. So while downtown booms, under this plan, the Expo Line corridor won’t, because you can’t build a ton of housing if your zoning doesn’t allow for it. On the demand side, I submit that it is simply beyond belief that there will only be demand for 6,400 housing units within walking distance of those five transit stops in the next 20 years.

Conclusion

The downtown boom is great for LA, and it shows that when we want to, we can be pro-growth and get a lot of development built. But when growth is restricted across so much of the rest of the city, there will still be pressure on regional housing prices, and gentrification will continue. Downtown’s growth is remarkable, but we still need to figure out how to increase housing production elsewhere, so that the city can make space for all Angelenos, current and future.

Downtown in a Polycentric Region

This Joel Kotkin piece on downtown LA is about a month old, but I missed it and @720thruLA pointed it out recently.

Joel Kotkin’s latest dispatch pitches SoCal’s regional decline as the counternarrative to downtown LA’s renaissance, and posits that the regional story is more important.

To be honest, I agree with some of Kotkin’s writing about LA; my only major point of contention is that I’m much more optimistic about the value of our public transit investments. I’ve never met Kotkin, but in his writing he seems to genuinely care about the success of the LA region, which is obviously a primary concern of this blog. I think he raises interesting points, and want to explore some of the themes of the article in a little more detail.

Regional Decline or Regional Reorganization?

Economically, LA is somewhat unique among US cities – it’s partly coastal “knowledge” city, partly Rust Belt city, and of course partly the prototype Sunbelt city. LA isn’t as big as NYC, but it’s too big for a tech boom to have the same impact as it does in a boutique city like Boston or Seattle. LA’s manufacturing economy has suffered just as badly as any Midwestern city, but LA’s economy is much more diverse. Sunbelt cities have emulated LA’s growth, but none of them have reached the geographic extent where commuting across the entire metro region is impractical.

The result is a befuddling mix of high cost of living despite stubbornly high unemployment. One of the most troubling things about the LA metro area is that there has been zero net job growth for almost 25 years. Now, I’m no economist, but I think the use of 1990 as a benchmark coincidentally makes things look really bad for LA. In 1990, employment had just peaked from the 80s defense boom, and LA was about to take a double body blow from big cuts to defense spending followed by the enactment of NAFTA and other free trade agreements which, whatever you think about their macro impacts, have undeniably eviscerated US manufacturing.

Let’s go to the tape. If we index metro employment to January 1990, LA clearly looks worse than NYC, SF, and Chicago, and was even getting outclassed by the likes of Detroit until the financial crisis.

1990

Ok, but here’s what happens if you net out manufacturing employment.

1990exmfg

In that case, LA and NYC are basically on the same track, with SF and Chicago doing only a little better.

Now here’s what happen if you index to January 1994, when LA employment bottomed out from the early 90s recession.

1994recenter

How do you like them apples?

That’s not to excuse us from trying to address our economic problems like high unemployment, but it does provide some perspective. One interpretation is that LA is a region in decline compared to other major US cities. Another interpretation is that LA is dealing with the structural changes that those cities faced a few decades ago, but doing a better job of it than they ever did.

But Back to Downtown

In the context of those regional challenges, Kotkin frames residential growth in downtown LA as a footnote, since thanks to LA’s polycentric nature, the fate of downtown is not very relevant. He notes that despite the increase in people living downtown, surrounding neighborhoods lost more population, and office vacancies remain high. On Twitter, there was some pushback, saying that downtown is only in its infancy, while Kotkin treats it as an adult.

I sort of agree with both points of view. Downtown’s emergence as a desirable neighborhood is very recent, and rising residential rents and the boom of mid-rise and high-rise construction show that there’s still quite a bit of unmet demand. I also think that the “creative office space” market will eventually head east to downtown, where office rents are a little lower than West LA and firms can be in proximity to the urban amenities their young employees want, the same way that Silicon Valley’s boom has swept up the peninsula into San Francisco.

I will also note that while office vacancy downtown is high, it’s not atypical of the current office market in greater LA.

officevacancy

Now who thought Gateway Cities would come out on top!?

On the other hand, even if downtown’s population increases by an order of magnitude, it will still only be about 1% of LA County population. Current mainstays of the downtown office market, like the finance industry, have been reducing headcounts and office lease sizes. The most desirable office space in LA is Avenue of the Stars in Century City and Newport Center Drive in Newport Beach.

So in that sense, I agree with Kotkin that no matter what happens downtown, it won’t matter that much for the region. We already have over 13 million people in LA County and Orange County living and working with our current distribution of housing and employment. If you’re expecting the changes downtown to fundamentally alter the urban geography of Los Angeles, I suspect you’re going to be disappointed.

I also agree with Kotkin that subsidies for downtown hotels and the convention center are foolish – but that’s a general observation, not anything specific to Downtown LA. You can’t walk fifty feet in the halls of US city governance without tripping over someone who wants to dole out public funds to questionable projects like convention centers and stadiums. If you look for lodging downtown, you’ll find reputable places going for $150-$250 a night, with the chains, especially near the convention center, starting at $300 and up. If the market can’t build profitable hotels in a place where a new projects command $300/night with reliable occupancy, there’s bound to be some regulatory impediment in the way that could be removed. In fact, much of downtown’s boom is based on precisely that – eliminating regulatory boundaries through the adaptive reuse ordinance.

About That Transit Network

Unsurprisingly, my biggest disagreement with Kotkin is on transportation. He throws investment in public transit in the same boat as subsidies to private developers, and submits that a downtown-centered rail network is going to be ineffective in a polycentric region like LA.

On the funding side, self-help sales taxes have proven to be the only reliable way to get new infrastructure funded in California. It’s worth noting that over 2/3 of LA County voters have staked themselves to these projects being worthwhile for the future growth of the region. It’s also worth noting that 35% of Measure R funds go to highway infrastructure (20% for freeways and 15% local return to cities, which can use all of it on roads if they want). The major expansions on Kotkin’s beloved freeways, from the 5 in Norwalk Narrows to the 405 carpool lane to improvements on the 710, are all getting subsidized by sales tax money too.

On the rail network side, a downtown-centered system would be ineffective, but fortunately, that’s not what we’re going to get. There are major projects underway that don’t go downtown, like the Crenshaw Line, which will serve other important centers like El Segundo, LAX, and Hollywood (when it is inevitably extended north). Projects that are high priority for “Measure R2”, like a Sepulveda Pass/Westside transit line, will serve major destinations even further from downtown. And you could probably argue that two projects under construction that do go downtown – Expo Line Phase 2 and Westside Subway – bring more employment access benefits at their west ends in Santa Monica, Century City, and Westwood than they do downtown.

Downtown the Redeemer

A final point on which I completely agree with Kotkin is the uselessness of the East Coast journalist redemption narrative, where LA “unlearns the mistakes of its past”, builds a radial transit network, stops turning its back on downtown, and finally becomes a place that they deem worthy of calling a city.

I’m happy to see downtown’s growth, but it makes the lack of growth in other important regional centers that much more apparent. We do, as Kotkin says, need to boost jobs “from Studio City and Sherman Oaks to Boyle Heights, Leimart Park and Silver Lake”, and to do that we need to remove the regulatory barriers like residential downzonings and Prop U that stunted LA’s polycentric growth.

People have always refused to try to understand LA on its own terms, from HL Mencken calling it “Los Angeles the damned” to James Howard Kunstler writing about “its pervasive aura of doom”. Screw them. LA’s land use patterns already work pretty well, and Angelenos should be proud of their city. If we can overcome the challenges on land use, transit and polycentrism are going to work together better than post people expect. The challenges facing us are large, but there is tremendous potential in our region. Let’s get to work so that I can look forward to being able to say that all of LA’s centers, from Warner Center to El Segundo, Glendale to Long Beach, are creating opportunity for everyone.

What Defines LA?

Los Angeles defies normal urban analysis. A city with no center. Amorphous urbanism. Density that doesn’t feel dense. An entire urban area existing at a density that Jane Jacobs believed would fail, functioning as one of America’s most dynamic cities. A place built for cars, but where people drive less than most US cities. The reluctant metropolis, but a metropolis nonetheless.

Faced with the apparent contradictions of Los Angeles, many observers simply throw up their hands and declare that the city must be a failure, or a success, depending on the observer’s preexisting frame of analysis. A famous example would be James Howard Kunstler devoting an entire chapter of The Geography of Nowhere to ranting about Los Angeles, and failing entirely to understand the city’s structure.

This is a shame. Like all cities, LA succeeds in many ways and fails in many ways. Like any city, there is much to be learned from LA, and many ways to make the city a better place. But if we hope to do so, we have to understand, appreciate, and analyze LA on its own terms. If you approach LA with the analytical framework of Manhattan, for example, you are going to learn little and have little to contribute. So what is Los Angeles? How does it work, and how can it work better?

In one of his better pieces, Joel Kotkin waxes philosophical about LA as a city of villages:

But to those of us who inhabit this expansive and varied place, the lack of conventional urbanity is exactly what makes Los Angeles so interesting. My adopted hometown is the exemplar of the modern multipolar metropolis: less a conscious city than a series of alternatives created by its climate, its diversity, and a congested but still-functional system of freeways that historian Kevin Starr calls “absolute masterpieces of engineering.”

. . .

Los Angeles may lack the kind of dynamic urban core that we associate with traditional great cities. But to most of its residents, the city is an urban feast on a gourmet scale. We wouldn’t trade it for the world.

This isn’t enough, though. Every city is a city of neighborhoods; go to Boston and they’ll tell you the same thing about their city, but Boston is a very different place than LA.

I think to achieve a better working definition of Los Angeles, we need to go further in our understanding of what makes the city unique. To me, LA’s distinctive character springs from the combination of relatively high density and strong polycentrism, something found no other US city. There are other cities with higher density, like San Francisco and New York, but they have a strong central city. There are other cities with polycentric nature, like Houston and Atlanta, but they’re nowhere near as dense as LA.

That unique structure is why many observers misinterpret LA as a city where every place is no place. I prefer to think of LA as a city where any place can be anything.

That’s what allows Kotkin’s ethnic neighborhoods to flourish, and it’s a wonderful thing, because it allows the whole region to fulfill the role of the city. That’s why you can find great Korean food in low-key strip malls in places like Gardena and Torrance. It’s why everyone knows that if you want really good Chinese food, you go to the decidedly suburban San Gabriel Valley. As the core cities of East Coast metro areas get more expensive, you can see this happening to some extent there too, e.g. the emergence of Quincy as the new Chinatown in Boston. The difference is that in LA, the penalty you pay for not being downtown is basically non-existent, while in Boston or New York, it’s considerable.

Oddly enough, the Kotkin/O’Toole framework comes up short at understanding Los Angeles for the same reason that the urbanist framework comes up short – they misunderestimate the importance of agglomeration and matching as essential urban functions, and fail to understand how LA accomplishes those functions.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the limit of O’Toole-onomics in a place like LA is that preventing construction of multi-family housing prevents people from capitalizing on agglomeration effects. It is easy to build SFRs (and offices) in the Inland Empire and Antelope Valley, but the booming economic sectors are currently concentrated on the Westside, which makes it hard for workers to take advantage of that opportunity without paying very high housing or transportation costs. So when one of Kotkin’s villages acts to restrict development through repressive zoning, it has negative effects on the city at large.

On the other hand, the traditional urbanist framework of central business district (CBD) oriented transit serving a satellite network of small high-density nodes (TOD or urban villages) doesn’t work either. Our transpo network needs to serve the city as it exists and build on that, not try to remake LA in the shape of Chicago or Manhattan – a hopeless endeavor when 18 million people have already organized their lives around the city’s current form. The development that’s happening downtown is almost all residential, and many of those people will commute elsewhere – increasing LA’s polycentric nature rather than reducing it.

A large city must have effective transportation if it is to allow people to capitalize on opportunities for economic specialization. For example, maybe you can’t afford to live close to where you work. Or maybe, like me, you work in one place (downtown), have a bunch of stuff to do in another place (Westwood), and live in a third place that fits your lifestyle and price point better (Palms). All three of those places are pretty walkable in and of themselves, but quality transportation between them is critical.

Thanks to LA’s density, its polycentric nature isn’t as much of an impediment to transit as one might otherwise think. LA can continue to grow in its current form as its transit network expands, but LA is going to need a different kind of transit network than most cities, and will have different challenges and opportunities. For example, the lack of a dominant core makes it very difficult to operate a traditional commuter rail network, but it also means travel demand is more directionally balanced. You can already see this in travel patterns on the Blue Line and Expo Line, where the “reverse” direction is just as strong, if not stronger, than the peak.

Mix all of this together and you can see where I’m coming from on this blog. I’m down with allowing more development all over LA, because LA could use more neighborhoods like Palms, and I’m down with SFRs in Fontana, because the IE needs to become more like LA, and that’s the first step. When folks like Kotkin say that tall buildings don’t define LA, I pretty much agree – if developers want to build tall buildings it’s cool with me, but building them isn’t the defining challenge facing LA. And when folks argue for high quality transit projects and better bike/ped infrastructure, I pretty much agree with that too, since they’re important for helping people access opportunity and helping the city keep reinventing itself.

LA is a wonderful place, and it’s big enough to contain diverse and varied neighborhoods to suit just about anyone’s tastes, from Joel Kotkin to Latino immigrants to Chinese investors to whoever. That’s pretty awesome, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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.)

If Jose Huizar Wants More Skyscrapers Downtown, He Should Make It Easier to Build Mid-Rises

One of the more frustrating things about land use and transportation in LA is that we don’t even realize what we’ve done right. Because of that, lately we’ve started to get dangerously close to getting things wrong, as some people are promoting adoption of the worst policies from other cities. See, for example, the current fixation on getting rail into LAX. I’ll have more to say about that soon, but today’s issue is City Councilor Jose Huizar worrying yet again about the supposedly insufficient number of high-rises being constructed downtown.

I’ve written about this issue before, and everything I said then is still true. But today, we have a motion proposed by Huizar to look at in detail. The motion calls everything up to 75’ tall “low-rise”, but by any rational definition 7 stories is mid-rise – especially in LA. “Type III construction” refers to wood-frame construction, the only type of construction economically feasible for mid-rises given the seismic loads that structures in LA must endure. As has been written elsewhere, developers say that due to the cost premium of concrete/steel construction, buildings between 8 and 15 stories tall don’t make sense in LA – once you go to concrete/steel, you need to go to at least 15 stories to be profitable.

I’m in favor of everything on the first page of the motion: getting rid of parking minimums, making permitting much easier, eliminating restrictions on density, and removing limitations on reusing existing buildings as hotels. But on the second page, Huizar proposes prohibiting mid-rise construction in “Zone 1” (roughly everything from the 110 to Flower, from 7th to the 10) and curtailing mid-rise construction in “Zone 2” (roughly everything from Flower to Olive, from 7th to the 10, or within 1000’ of Pershing Square station). I’ve sketched these zones in Google Earth – Zone 1 in red, Zone 2 in yellow – excluding the Pershing Square area.

Huizar

Now the first thing you might notice in that graphic is that there is a ton of surface parking in the area. If I have time, I’ll update the post with a more accurate calculation, but I feel comfortable saying at least 30% of the parcels in the area are surface parking lots. On top of that, there’s a lot of older, truly low-rise construction, 1-2 stories tall. There’s no reason at all to worry about running out of space for redevelopment, even if you restrict tall building to this area, which you shouldn’t.

Prohibiting mid-rise construction will slow down development in one of the few areas in LA that’s growing as fast as it should. That will drive up housing prices in the area and reduce employment in construction.

But even worse, the motion will fail at its own purpose – prohibiting mid-rise construction will make high-rise construction less likely. Why? Well, if you’re going to build high-rises, you need to attract the kind of people who can afford high-rises. And the kind of people who can afford high-rises expect a lot of amenities in the neighborhood like shopping and restaurants. The easiest and fastest way to increase the amenities of the neighborhood is to make it easy for developers to construct the kind of buildings they want – in this case, a lot of mid-rises.

The high-rises? They’ll come naturally when the neighborhood becomes more desirable. We’re already seeing that in the more established parts of downtown. So if Huizar wants more skyscrapers downtown, he should make it easier to build mid-rises.

When Do Pedestrian Grade Separations Make Sense?

Metro just approved a budget increase for the proposed pedestrian bridge across Lankershim and Universal Hollywood Drive at the Universal City Red Line station, bringing the total to $27.3 million (including $1.4 million diverted from Rail Preventative Maintenance – nice touch). Now to be fair, a lot of the cost of the pedestrian bridge is going to be in the three elevators. This is machinery that has to (a) cycle reliably hundreds of times every day, (b) hold up under exposure to the weather and the, um, indiscretions of the public, and (c) incorporate transparent materials so that it doesn’t attract crime.

But that’s not really the point. The bridge, or an equivalent tunnel, is a questionable expenditure because many people aren’t going to want to use it anyway. I’ll outsource that argument to Damien Newton over at Streetsblog, and move on to the general question of when pedestrian grade separations make sense.

It’s All About Destinations

Fundamentally, a pedestrian grade separation makes sense if it connects to strong destinations on both sides at the same elevation as the grade separation.

When I lived in Boston, I explained this using a simple comparison of three pedestrian grade separations in the city. The first is the bridge between the Prudential Center and Copley Place, crossing Huntington Av:

Everybody in Boston knows this bridge. On the left is the Prudential Center mall, office towers, and residences. On the right is the Copley Place mall and hotels. The main levels of these malls are at the same elevation as the pedestrian bridge, so if you’re crossing, the bridge is actually more convenient than going down to street level and back up. Note, though, that this doesn’t alleviate the need for crosswalks at street level, because it’s still unreasonable to expect people on the street to go up, over, and down to cross, so there are still crosswalks on Huntington.

The second is the underpass from Back Bay Station on the Orange Line to Copley Place, going under Dartmouth St. Most people know this underpass and have used it. It’s at the same elevation as the Back Bay Station subway platform, so it’s useful to connect to that. On the Copley Place side, there’s nothing that low; everything is at least one floor up. If you’re just crossing Dartmouth St, or going from Copley Place to the commuter rail, you’re not going to use this underpass.

The last location is the underpass at Mass Av Station on the Orange Line. Many people, even those who live or work in the area, don’t even know this underpass exists. On the south side, it connects to the subway mezzanine. On the north side, it connects to nothing; you have to go up to the street. The result is that no one uses this grade separation. As a result, at both Dartmouth St and Mass Av, the city ended up going back 20 years later and putting in crosswalks at the street level anyway.

Mass Av:

Dartmouth St:

Crosswalks Make Sense, Even at High Traffic Locations

If you want a comparison to Lankershim, Universal Hollywood Drive, and Campo de Cahuenga, you could take the case of the Leverett Circle pedestrian bridge in Boston. This bridge connected the sidewalks on opposite sides of O’Brien Highway and Storrow Drive, and the mezzanine of the elevated Science Park Green Line Station. These are high volume roadways (Storrow is almost a freeway), and there are ramps to the 93 freeway at this intersection – not unlike the heavy traffic on Lankershim and Campo de Cahuenga, and the ramps to the 101.

During construction for the Big Dig, parts of the bridge had to be demolished and replaced with temporary structures, and some pedestrian movements were provided with crosswalks. The plan was that when construction was complete, the pedestrian bridge would be rebuilt and the crosswalks eliminated. However, walking advocates in the city gained strength, and the Big Dig went ruinously and comically over budget. The reconstruction of the bridge was therefore cut from the project – it was a pedestrian facility that walking advocates didn’t want, and the project couldn’t afford to build.

Today, all legs of the intersection have crosswalks, and it’s a much more pleasant environment without the overhead bridges. This area gets a ton of pedestrian traffic, since it’s part of the recreation paths along the Charles River.

Back to Universal

With these lessons in mind, it’s pretty easy to see that Damien Newton is spot-on about the Universal City pedestrian bridge. No one is going to want to go up, over, and down. A tunnel would be a little better, because at least it would attract people going to or from the subway station, but it wouldn’t obviate the need for crosswalks on all legs of the intersection. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic about the rationality of the players involved, but hopefully the city can sit down with NBC Universal, explain these things, and figure out a better way to spend money on improvements here.

Downtown LA Skyways

We can also see the same factors in play in downtown LA, with the pedestrian bridges built along with all the “new downtown” skyscrapers like the Bonaventure. Since many of the buildings have active uses on the same levels as the bridges, they do see a reasonable amount of use, but they obviously don’t eliminate the need for crosswalks at street level. They’re also pretty cool for filming Batman scenes, so they have that going for them.

Downtown LA Pedestrian Tunnels?

One place I do think we have some potential for pedestrian grade separations is for pedestrian tunnels in downtown LA. For example, the owners of Macy’s Plaza recently announced their intent to connect the underground mall in their building directly to the 7th/Flower subway station. This is a new concept for LA, but it’s common in places like Seoul, where developers seem to really understand the value in having a direct connection from a busy subway station to their retail areas.

At 7th/Flower, I can think of two additional potential connections that might make sense.

The first is a no brainer. There’s a big hole in the ground right now at 7th and Figueroa, literally right across the street from the Figueroa entrance to 7th/Flower station. I’m not sure exactly what Korean Air has in mind for their subterranean levels, but if you’re building a 70-story building, the cost to build a hallway underneath Figueroa to connect to the subway station isn’t that bad. If they’re considering street level or underground retail, this would add value to their project.

The second is a little tougher, and might require cooperation among public agencies and several different private owners. Thomas Properties, which owns the block bounded by 5th, Flower, 6th, and Figueroa, is currently sitting on some vacant space in their underground mall. This retail center might benefit from a direct connection to 7th/Flower too. (Earlier concepts for the Regional Connector had a station right at the mall at 5th and Flower, but that’s just way too close to 7th/Flower and 2nd/Hope.)

Getting to that property would be considerably more difficult. The existing Blue Line tunnel, to be extended by the Regional Connector, ends just south of 6th. Building a separate walkway would probably be cheaper than rebuilding and widening the Blue Line tunnel here. Going under the sidewalk would mean interfering with a lot of utilities and foundation tiebacks.

7th-Flower-area

Maybe – and it’s a big maybe – you could do something by redeveloping the two-story building on the NW corner of 7th and Flower, and providing an integral headhouse that would connect to the existing Flower St mezzanine level. From there north to 5th, you’d go through the basements of the existing buildings, which could be redeveloped. A concept like this would depend enormously on the types of foundations, relative elevations of basement levels, location of underground parking ramps and building machinery, and so on, not to mention the willingness of different private property owners to cooperate with each other. But it’s an intriguing concept to have in the back of your head, anyway.

Back to Universal Part II

Idle speculation about downtown aside, I just don’t see the point of a bridge at Lankershim. Prohibiting people from crossing the street at-grade, as was suggested at the Metro board meeting, is even worse. In general, people are going to walk where they need to walk – they’re not going to make huge detours like going over ped bridges or taking three crosswalks because you avoided putting one in so that you could gap out a signal phase a few seconds earlier. Design that doesn’t address the city the way people actually use it is bound to result in unpleasant streets and dangerous conditions.

The 101 – San Bernardino Split to the Four-Level

In a previous post, I provided some setup for studying the area between 2nd and Union Station. In this post, let’s look at the 101. In another post, I set some ground rules for improving urban freeways, the main gist being that freeway projects and urban improvement are not necessarily mutually exclusive goals. So let’s see those principles in use on the 101.

There’s a lot of attention focused on the area between Union Station and 2nd St lately, and why not? With the development boom downtown, the popularity of Little Tokyo, Grand Park, and transit improvements all over the place, there’s a lot to be excited about. Slicing through the area, first west by north, then northwest, is the iconic 101 freeway – symbol of LA freeways, of LA traffic, of LA growth and sprawl, of LA in general. The Four-Level Interchange even appears on book covers and postcards.

The 101 is the prototypical 1950s freeway, showing the lessons that highway engineers learned from their first attempts. The 101 wasn’t even in the same class as freeways like the 110 north of downtown, which was (and is) a disaster of sharp curves and contorted 5 mph ramps. However, the 101 shows typical 1950s flaws, the biggest being interchanges that are too close together. Engineers eventually figured that out too – check out the 210 between the 57 and the 15 for example.

The 101 between the San Bernardino Split and the Four-Level (i.e. from the 10 to the 110) is one of the most congested freeways in the city. I’m writing this at about 10:30pm and I just opened Google Maps and – yep – it’s yellow. It’s also a considerable barrier between Union Station and downtown. So it’s the perfect place to demonstrate these principles. Let’s run through an option for making things better here, from south to north.

Note: you might want to open up Google Earth or another tab to look at how the images below compare to today. The biggest benefits, from an urban form perspective, are on the north side of the freeway between Alameda and Broadway, on Grand on the north side of the freeway, and at Temple and Hope.

San Bernardino Split

This interchange has undergone modifications in the past. There used to be a ramp from the 10 west to the 101 south, which made redundant when the 5 was constructed, because the ramp from the 10 west to the 5 south serves the same movement. This ramp was removed when the El Monte Busway was built. However, the opposite move, from the 101 north to the 10 east, still has a ramp, and it’s just as redundant.

This ramp should be repurposed into an exit from the 101 north to Chavez and an entrance from Chavez to the 10 east. The utility of this interchange will become apparent shortly. Concurrently, the slip ramps to and from Kearney St should be eliminated, removing freeway traffic from local streets in Boyle Heights.  These ramps would also give traffic coming east on Chavez an entrance to the 10 east without going through Boyle Heights.

101-Chavez-Kearney

Mission Interchange

The ramp from the 10 west, to the 10 east, and to the 101 south are relatively benign, so they should be left alone. The ramps from the 101 south to Mission and from Mission to the 101 north are theoretically too close to interchanges to the north. However, they should also be retained, since they provide access to and from industry on the east bank of the river without sending traffic through Boyle Heights. (Issues on the 101 between the 10 and the East LA Interchange will be addressed in a separate post.) Considering the congestion on the 101 north here, you’d be a fool to get on at Mission anyway, and I don’t think many people do so.

Vignes/Garey Interchange

I like to call this style of interchange a “kiss interchange” since the ramp termini look like puckered lips in plan view, making it look like the freeway is kissing the other road. Since they’re cheap to build, these are plunked down all over the place on 50s-era freeways. The ramps at Vignes and Garey are all much too close to the preceding and following interchanges, and they’re redundant anyway, so they should all go. Northbound traffic would get off at the new Chavez ramp I mentioned above or at Alameda; southbound traffic would get off at Los Angeles. Traffic entering northbound should enter further north; traffic entering southbound should enter at Los Angeles or from Mission.

101-Vignes-Garey

Alameda/Los Angeles Interchange

The ramp from the 101 north to Alameda should be retained and become one of the primary exits to the downtown area. It takes up little ROW, provides access to Alameda and Union Station, and provides access to other north-south arterials via Arcadia.

The ramp from the 101 south to Los Angeles should be retained and reconfigured to also provide access to Aliso eastbound. Access to Los Angeles northbound is not critical because there is a left from Aliso to Alameda northbound. This allows this ramp to serve the functions of the eliminated Garey St offramp.

The ramp from Los Angeles to the 101 south should be retained and lefts should be permitted from Los Angeles southbound onto this ramp. This ramp becomes one of the main southbound entrance points and assumes the functions of the eliminated Garey St onramp.

The ramp from Los Angeles and Alameda to the 101 north takes up an entire city block, directly across from Union Station. This ramp should be configured as a slip ramp from the intersection of Aliso and Alameda onto the 101 north.

101-Alameda-LA

Spring/Broadway Interchange

The ramp from the 101 south to Broadway is way too close to the onramp from the Four-Level. It should be eliminated and replaced by an extension of Aliso north to Grand and improvements further north. Due to the crazy grade changes in this area, it’s not possible to have the extension of Aliso intersect Hill – it’s too high up.

The ramps from the 101 north to Spring and from Broadway to the 101 north take up an entire city block, have terrible geometry, and are too close to adjacent interchanges. These ramps? Gone. Arcadia should then be extended north to Grand. Again, the grade differences make it impossible for the extension of Arcadia to intersect Hill.

101-Spring-Broadway

Grand/Hope Interchange

It would be nice to turn the loop ramp from the 101 north to Grand into a slip ramp on the south side of Grand, but the severity of the topography in that area would push the ramp too far south, close to the Alameda onramp. Instead, the ramp should duck under the onramps  and in a slightly larger loop and terminate at Grand where the onramps currently start. The onramps to the 101 north should be moved to the west and square up with the extension of Arcadia. I considered sending the offramp to turn right onto Bunker Hill and come out at the intersection with Chavez, but that would add a ton of traffic turning right from Bunker Hill to Chavez and then Chavez to Grand, so I nixed that. I also thought about sending this ramp to the left under the 101 to come out at the intersection of Hope and Temple, where the ramp from the 101 south currently ends, but I don’t think that grading would work.

The 101 south ramp that currently goes to the intersection of Temple and Hope should be reconfigured to square up with the extension of Aliso, and Hope should be extended to that intersection. The offramp to Temple from the Four-Level ramp that heads to the 101 south should be reconfigured to square up with the intersection of Hope and Temple (taking the place of the current ramp from the 101 south).

101-Grand-FL

Another option would be to get rid of the fork of the onramp from Grand that goes to the Four-Level and just let that traffic use Figueroa to the 110. The offramp to Temple and Hope from the Four-Level ramp could be eliminated too, and replaced by a better configuration of the offramp from the 110 south to Figueroa. However, I decided against this option because the ramp from Figueroa to the 110 north and from the 110 south to Figueroa should probably be eliminated as part of rationalizing the ramps on the 110 (more on that another time).

Four-Level Interchange

I’m a little gunshy about going after the Four-Level. After all, it’s basically where freeway engineering was born – the  first high-speed semi-direct interchange ever. But LA ain’t a museum, just ask the people in Beverly Hills buying $10m teardowns. Nostalgia is for chumps. The Four-Level was fully opened in 1953, before the 10 and the 5 were complete. At that time, it was necessary to provide all the movements. But at this point all four movements to the 101 south and from the 101 north may be redundant.

I started looking at options for eliminating and reconfiguring ramps at the Four-Level, but you know what? Any changes to the Four-Level are only about eliminating short weaving distances and redundant ramps on the 101 and the 110. They’re not about improving the streets downtown for pedestrians or cyclists, and they’re not about reducing ROW footprints and opening up land for redevelopment. Now, maybe it’s worth doing some improvements at the Four-Level, but they’re a separate issue from what I’m trying to get with this series of posts, which is better connections from the Union Station area to downtown. So let’s leave the Four-Level alone for the time being.

Other Options Abound

This is, of course, just one option, and there are plenty of other ways you could configure things. Come up with your own, and let’s get to work on convincing the city and Caltrans to do an analysis.

Now We Have Real Estate to Work With

The land vacated by these ramps should be redeveloped. And instead of doing the normal deal where we have a design competition, give the developer unreasonable subsidies, and end up with vacant lots for years, how ‘bout this: zone the land for any residential or commercial use (and industrial for the piece on Commercial St), no parking minimums, no tax abatements or subsidies, no FAR/height limits, no nothing. We just auction it off to the highest bidder with two conditions: no surface parking, and you gotta build something there within 5 years. We should also break up some of the larger blocks into a few different parcels and auction them off separately. You want to buy the whole block, ok, but you have to win the bid for each piece.  It’ll be a fun experiment.

This project really is an all-around win. It opens up new land for urban development, which unlike any of the proposed parks in the area, actually helps connect Union Station and downtown. It fixes dangerous conditions on the freeway that waste capacity. It makes things better for pedestrians and bikes by getting rid of loop ramps and improving the street grid. And the ROW sale would help fund the project. What’s not to like?

Note: you used to be able to import Google Earth images and topographic data into AutoCAD, which was pretty sweet, because you could draw real engineering stuff and then export it back to Google Earth. As part of Google’s continuing campaign to make its products worse, this feature is no longer available. This leaves several crappy options for trying to share this kind of work:

  • Find the best aerial you can get in AutoCAD (often way out of date) and work with that (but then it’s a static picture other people can’t look at in Google Earth).
  • Draw with polygons in Google Earth and hope that the geometry isn’t insane.
  • Draw it in SketchUp, which is basically like trying to cut down a tree with a jackhammer: it’s not that it’s a bad tool, but it’s clearly not designed for this type of work. I could write an entire post on how bad SketchUp is for civil engineering, if I was looking for exercises in futility.

Therefore, for now, I’ve gone for the fast route with questionable accuracy – drawing Google Earth polygons. I’m going to try to update this using SketchUp to verify the geometry and give others the ability to edit, but I’m not making any promises.

Contact me if you want the Google Earth shape files.

Update

At Kenny Easwaran’s suggestion, here is an image of the whole corridor. Click to enlarge. Again, apologies for the low quality, but Google Earth and MS Paint is the fastest way to get it done.

101-all2Going north on the 101, after First St, your exits would be Chavez, Alameda, Grand and the Four-Level. Going south on the 101, after the Four-Level, your exits would be Grand, Los Angeles, and Mission. Your entrances to the 101 north would be Mission, Alameda, and Grand; to the 101 south, Temple/Hope, Los Angeles, and Mission.

Downtown Wanderings

This is a short setup post with some background ideas and information that will be useful for a few posts that I have on my mind.

Jane Jacobs wrote about the forces that cause downtowns to drift, like self-destruction of diversity, and offered some ideas on how city planners could work to stop those forces. Lately, I’m not entirely sure that it’s a bad thing for downtown to wander as economic agglomerations come and go. When downtown shifts, it leaves behind an interest and coherent, and perhaps most importantly, cheap district that will eventually be discovered and put to use in ways no one thought of before. See, for example, the industrial buildings of Soho that became artist spaces, or the SROs and boarded-up hotels of Downtown LA that are turning into fancy lofts.

The original Downtown LA was, of course, the pueblo. By the late 1800s, it migrated south to the area around First and Broadway, though the vestiges of this downtown are basically gone. In the early 1900s, downtown was centered between Main and Hope, from maybe 3rd to 7th. This area has been booming recently; old-timers will tell you about people living in tents on the sidewalk on Spring St and long vacant buildings, but now Skid Row has moved east and the empty buildings are being renovated. LA’s first skyscraper boom moved things west, to the “new downtown” between 1st and 7th, from the 110 to Grand. Now that area seems a little tired, and all the action has moved south again, from Wilshire to Pico, the 110 to Broadway. But who knows, in 20 years, we could be talking about unforeseen redevelopment and action springing up in what used to be the “new downtown”. Predicting the future is hard!

For the most part, we shouldn’t worry too much about downtown wandering. The goal of public policy is to create a solid framework for the city (transpo, utilities, schools, public safety, recreation, etc.) and let the private sector figure out the rest. Sometimes, though, we need to dig a little deeper and figure out what might be holding back the development of a neighborhood. Right now, we have a lot of transportation money being invested in the area between 2nd and Union Station, to the north of downtown, but downtown keeps shifting south. Why?

Union Station already has the Red/Purple Lines, the Gold Line, Metrolink, and Amtrak. It’s got a lot of Metro bus routes and LAX Flyaway. Before long, Regional Connector will bring the Blue/Expo Lines in to connect, and drop three new stations along 2nd at Hope, Broadway, and Central. Metrolink may build through-running tracks, and hopefully before too much longer CAHSR will come to Union Station. Despite the “7th/Metro Center” moniker (a confusing name that should be replaced with “7th/Flower” anyway), Union Station is pretty clearly the transportation hub. But downtown keeps shifting south. Why?

The appeal of the area between Wilshire and Pico is pretty obvious. It’s got a good mix of old buildings that can be renovated, new construction, and parking lots that are cheap to redevelop. It’s close to many restaurants, bars, and LA Live, and it’s got a Ralph’s on 9th, a Target on Figueroa, and a Walgreens and a Rite-Aid on 7th. It’s pretty close to the Blue/Expo Lines and it’s easier to get to the 10 west and the 110 south. I don’t want to suggest taking anything away from this area; its development should be promoted too.

However, given all the money going into transportation between 2nd and Union Station, we ought to take a hard look at why development there has been somewhat muted. Focus on the framework or “bones” of the city, and I see three main issues:

  • The 101, which creates an unpleasant traffic corridor that separates Union Station from downtown.
  • An excessive amount of park space that increases the distance between different land uses.
  • Zoning and an associated concentration of government buildings filled with people who have pretty much the same schedules and types of trips, which impedes the formation of a customer base large and diverse enough to support a wide range of business establishments.

I’ll explore each of these in a more detailed post.