Tag Archives: Glendale

Zoning Constraints & Housing Types

We all know zoning restricts housing supply in cities. However, the type of housing produced will be different for different kinds of zoning regulations. In this post, we’ll explore the impact of three common kinds of zoning regulations: density controls (number of units), height and setback requirements, and floor area ratio (FAR maximums). As we’ll see, while variety of housing is often a stated goal of planning, zoning regulations and market conditions often work to the contrary. Height and setbacks work in the same way as FAR, with one always being more constraining than the other for a given lot.

Method of Analysis

To simplify things, we’ll look at the impact of these three types of regulations on a 50’x150’ (7,500 square foot) lot, which can be found all over LA and Glendale. For LA, we’ll consider the R1, RD3, RD2, RD1.5, R3, R4, and R5 zones as defined by the city of LA. For Glendale, we’ll consider the R1, R3050, R2250, R1650, R1250, and SFMU zones (which roughly correspond to R1, RD3, RD2, RD1.5, RD1.5, and R4). We will look at the number of units and size of building possible on a 50’x150’ lot in each zone, and see the impact on the type of housing produced.

In general, we will see that the lower density zones are constrained by permitted density, which tends to result in the production of only large, expensive housing units. High density zones are constrained by height & setbacks or FAR, which tends to result in the production of only one bedroom (1BR) and two bedroom (2BR) units, leading to the charge that apartment developers don’t build for families.

Los Angeles

The table below summarizes the maximum permitted density, setbacks, and FAR in common residential zones in LA, assuming height district 1L, except for R5 where we assume height district 2, for reasons explained below.

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Again, assuming a 50’x150’ lot, the maximum number of units, maximum floor area, and average floor area per unit are as follows. Assumed efficiency means the percentage of building floor area that’s actually usable for apartments. For single-family structures, it can be assumed to be 1.00. For apartments we assume 0.80 for a low-rise apartment in the R3 zone, and 0.70 for mid-rise apartments in the R4 and R5 zones. Efficiency for apartments is less than 1.00 because of space lost to hallways, elevators, common areas, trash rooms, and so on.

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LA’s FAR is very generous for low density zones, so height & setbacks rather than FAR end up constraining maximum floor area for all zones except R4. If we had used height district 1L for R5, it would also be constrained by FAR instead of height & setbacks, and would only have an average unit size of 425 SF.

As a practical matter, in the R1, RD3, and RD2 zones, actual building size will be constrained by market conditions. There just isn’t that much demand for houses over about 3,500-4,000 SF. These zones are purely constrained by density, meaning that developers will max out the number of units possible and build the largest units they think the market will accept. Purple City once ran the numbers to show you why developers won’t put small houses on big lots.

The RD1.5 and R3 zones are more or less equally constrained by density and building height & setbacks. For R3, density has increased to the point that average unit sizes have been driven down to about 2,000 SF for a small lot subdivision of free-standing houses and about 1,600 SF for apartments, housing unit sizes that are in high demand. This is probably one reason the R3 zone is popular with small lot developers; the combination of permitted density and floor area doesn’t force the units to be smaller than people want, nor does it force much of the lot to remain as open space.

The R4 and R5 zones are constrained by floor area, whether in the form of maximum FAR or height & setback requirements. If the developer maxes out the number of units, they will only be able to get about 800-900 SF average unit size. This is why large apartment buildings in LA are almost all studios, 1BRs, and 2BRs. If you tried to make a decently-sized 3BR unit, say 1,400 SF, it would have to offset by two units of only 500 SF, or a reduction in total units.

Note that if a development is FAR constrained, parcel assembly doesn’t help with unit size at all, only with making it easier to configure parking ramps, elevators, and other common spaces. If a development is height & setback constrained, parcel assembly will help with unit size by eliminating setbacks between lots, until the point FAR constraints take over.

Glendale

The analysis is similar for Glendale, but maximum FAR in Glendale is much less, and setbacks and heights are more restrictive. The table below summarizes the maximum permitted density, setbacks, and FAR in common residential zones in Glendale. Setbacks are averages because Glendale has step back requirements for second and third floors.

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Again, assuming a 50’x150’ lot, the maximum number of units, maximum floor area, and average floor area per unit are as follows. I’m assuming 0.90 efficiency for townhouses.

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Except for R1250, the multi-family residential zones in Glendale are in the sweet spot for townhouses (1,500 SF to 2,000 SF). The R1250 zone would work for small townhouses or 2BR apartments.

For lots over 90’ wide, Glendale allows additional density and another story of height in the R2250, R1650, and R1250 zones. There’s also a mixed-use zone, SFMU, that requires 100’ wide lots. Therefore, the analysis is modified if you assemble two lots. The SFMU zone has maximum height of 60’/4 stories and density 87 units/acre when abutting another multi-family zone, and 75’/6 stories and 100 units/acre when not, so results are presented for both cases. In practice, it is very rare for an SFMU zone to not abut another multi-family zone. The given story heights for SFMU assume half of the first floor is retail space and while max FAR is not specified it can be inferred from story height multiplied by 0.9, since 10% of the lot must be landscaped.

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Because density is increased but FAR is not, the average unit size is actually driven down, despite being allowed to make the building one story taller. Of the few multi-lot townhouse projects I’ve followed in Glendale, many of them have not maxed out the density in these situations, electing to build fewer, but larger units. A motivating decision here is probably Glendale’s requirements for 2 subterranean parking spaces per unit, so density may actually be maxed out based on the number of parking spaces you can build in one underground level.

The SFMU zone ends up with larger average unit size than LA’s R4 and R5 zones, and sure enough, you do see some 3BRs in new developments in downtown Glendale. (While not actually in the SFMU zone, most of these buildings are in zones that allow 90-100 units/acre and up to 6 stories by right, so they’re a reasonable proxy.)

Encouraging Housing Diversity

Certainly, cities could increase the diversity of housing production by liberalizing zoning. Increasing allowable density and FAR, and eliminating minimum unit sizes, would allow different developers to try more different kinds of projects. After all, it was more liberal zoning regimes that produced neighborhoods that have a wide variety of housing types, like South Glendale.

Failing that, there are some other policies that might help. The primary concerns seem to be that apartment builders do not build enough family-sized apartments, while townhouse and small-lot builders do not build enough small homes. Some possibilities:

  • Give apartment developers free FAR for every bedroom beyond the second, for a certain percentage of units. Height and setbacks would have to be generous enough to make the extra FAR usable.
  • Add a density bonus for providing 3BR or 4BR apartments; for example, allow 0.20 additional units for every 3BR and 0.30 additional units for every 4BR, up to a maximum. FAR, height, and setbacks would have to be generous enough to make the extra FAR usable.
  • For townhouses and small-lot subdivisions, rezone outlying R1 areas as RD1.5 or R1250. Land in outlying areas is cheaper, reducing the need to max out FAR.
  • Add a density bonus for building small townhouses or small lots; for example, in the RD1.5 zone, allow 1000 SF lot area per unit up to certain percentage of units if they are smaller units.

 

‘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.

Housing Affordability: Using the Buildings You’ve Got

Residents of cities like New York are familiar with the flexibility of interior spaces. Townhouses built for the rich become working class apartments when a neighborhood loses its luster, or even single-room occupancies. Units in tenements get combined into larger apartments. More recently, and less fortunately, apartments have been getting turned back into townhouses in places like the Upper West Side.

Early residents of LA would have recognized the same patterns. Bunker Hill began as grand Victorian mansions and ended with the mansions carved up into low-cost lodging houses, before the whole area was demolished in an urban renewal scheme. Recent experience in LA is largely limited to the adaptive reuse ordinance (ARO), which resulted in the beneficial conversion of many vacant commercial buildings downtown to residential use. The ARO should be commended and expanded, but the need for it is indicative of how little appreciation we have for how cities once developed.

Residential zoning in LA, like most California cities, separates single-family residences and multi-family buildings, whose density is in turn regulated by a minimum lot area per dwelling unit. Zones are also controlled by a maximum floor-to-area (FAR, floor space of the dwelling units to area of the lot). For example, in LA, the primary single family zone is R1, and two of the main multi-family zones, R3 and R4, require 800 SF and 400 SF of lot area per dwelling unit, respectively. In Glendale, R1 is the most common single-family zone, and there are four main multi-family zones, R-3050, R-2250, R-1650, and R-1250, with the number indicating the required lot area.

Since the demand for housing is high, and many areas have been downzoned, many buildings already have the maximum number of units allowed by the zoning, if not more. In addition, some cities have minimum square footages for apartments, and few buildings have excess parking spaces beyond what’s required by high parking minimums.

As a result, one of the most cost-effective ways of increasing housing supply – remodeling existing buildings to increase the number of units or convert underused spaces into apartments – practically never happens. This is unfortunate, because you really can’t build new housing units at lower costs. The owner already owns the land, and the building is already there; financing costs for both may have already been fully paid off. All you have to do is remodel the interior.

Compare the strict controls of California to Japanese zoning. Japan has exclusively low-rise residential zones, where FAR is 0.3-0.5 and height limits are also not drastically different than in California’s R1 zones. However, unlike California, Japan does not prohibit multi-family development in these zones, and it doesn’t have minimum unit sizes or lot areas. The result is a healthy mix of housing options for people from all walks of life, from students to families to retirees.

We can see a mix of housing options in some places in California; for example, last week’s look at West Wilson Ave in Glendale shows that a mix of housing types can work just as well in California as elsewhere. It’s no coincidence that, if you spend some time walking on W Wilson, you’ll see everyone from retired couples to families with kids, singles to extended families.

Regrettably, LA’s mixed housing neighborhoods are going to be coming under increasing pressure from rising rents. Last week, we mentioned the possibility of a small SFR with a few ADUs being torn down and replaced with a smaller number of larger housing units. But we could also see existing duplexes converted into single-family homes, just like New York’s apartments being turned back into row houses.

Solving LA’s housing crisis is going to require a lot of new construction. But every solution that could help should be on the table. That means we should consider using existing buildings to their best potential too, by giving people the flexibility to create more housing units in existing structures. Zoning changes to allow more units in existing buildings could be designed to serve other goals as well.

For example, the LA region has many older apartment buildings that do not meet current requirements for seismic design. Allowing the building to be remodeled to increase the number of units could be tied to a requirement for seismic retrofitting. Increasing the number of units would help owners cover the cost of retrofits, reducing the need for cash-strapped cities to try to provide tax subsidies. Another option would be to require a few of the new units to be deeded affordable.

LA needs a housing boom, but that doesn’t just mean new construction. Existing buildings can help contribute to meeting our housing needs, and provide some of the best opportunities for affordable units.

‘Round Glendale: West Wilson Ave

Our inaugural look at development patterns in Glendale starts with W Wilson Ave, which runs from Brand Blvd, Glendale’s main street, to San Fernando Rd, which forms the border with Los Angeles and has a decidedly more industrial aesthetic.

For readers outside SoCal, Brand Blvd is Glendale’s main commercial street, home to everything from Glendale’s small skyscraper district to car dealerships to Rick Caruso’s wildly successful Americana at Brand, along with a wide variety of local businesses. Glendale’s early planners put a stunning view of the Verdugo Mountains to the north, and later planners in Los Angeles anchored the view to the south with the Library Tower. Brand serves as the west-east dividing line in the city, and it’s here we’ll start our journey down W Wilson Ave – down indeed, as this entire part of Glendale slopes gently west towards the LA River.

Downtown Glendale

Well, we’ll almost start at Brand. I’m going to cheat, and start one block east at Maryland, in order to offer up a couple more buildings. First up is the Maryland Hotel, one of only a few pre-war (World War 2, that is) multifamily buildings we’ll see. How do we know it’s pre-war? Fire escapes and no parking!

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Kitty corner to that is a construction site, future home of the Laemmle Lofts – a mixed-use development of 42 apartments, a restaurant, and a 5-screen movie theater.

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Across from that on the south side, there’s a one-story commercial building housing some restaurants and medical offices.

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This side of the block has a nice mid-block pedestrian court leading to The Exchange, one of the oldest developments of the “new” downtown.

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On the northeast corner of Brand and Wilson, there’s a Jewelry Mart in an older one-story commercial building, fitting since Glendale is the Jewel City.

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There’s another set of older one-story buildings across Brand, on the north side of Wilson, with small retail spaces that are the perfect fit for local and niche businesses. Los Angeles in general has a wealth of this type of space; let’s hope the commercial construction market picks up so that rents don’t start to rise too much.

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The building at far right is currently vacant; it used to be a Staples but apparently before that it was a Woolworth’s.

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On the south side of Wilson, stretching from Brand to Orange, is a big, bold symbol of the new downtown Glendale: The Brand Apartments.

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There’s a lot to talk about here, so let’s take a closer look. First off, let me say that I love this building. I think it looks great. Since it’s got frontage on Brand, which is by far Glendale’s highest-demand retail street, the retail filled up almost instantly with a Chipotle and a Tender Greens. They may not be your cup of tea but established brands that can pay higher rents are what you’re gonna get in new retail more often than not. The mix of businesses in the older building across the street is a reminder of the importance of having some old buildings. Of course, let’s not forget that if you don’t have any new buildings today, you won’t have any old buildings tomorrow.

Here’s a shot of The Brand showing its neighbor to the south, the 20-story Glendale City Center office building. I’m told the zoning at The Brand would have allowed for another 20-story building, but the market for high-rise residential just isn’t there.

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Here it is looking southeast back towards Brand.

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The next block west is the second part of the same development, and again, I think they did a fantastic job.

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The horizontal elements break up the façade nicely, the vertical stone-faced element is a beautiful accent, and the orange support is a nod to the first building that ties things together without being repetitive. The orange accents are also a nod to Orange St, which runs between the two buildings, and now has one of the more urban vistas in Glendale.

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Note how the second floor is cantilevered out over the sidewalk, with the balconies projecting further. Here’s another shot showing the second building doing that.

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A reliable source tells me that the edge of the second floor projection is at the property line. I like the effect; it creates a wider sidewalk at street level, but doesn’t make the street room feel any wider, so it still feels like a downtown.

The north side of the street here is another block of small, older one-story commercial buildings, home to a mix of small restaurants and retail.

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A Big 5, super convenient if you’re in need of outdoor supplies, takes us to Central on the south side, with the north side being a parking lot.

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The northwest corner of Wilson and Central is another strip mall, while the southwest corner is currently under construction with another mixed-use development.

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Development in this area is governed by the Glendale Downtown Specific Plan, designed to encourage mixed-use development – the “18-hour city” as official plans call it. The zoning for this area is shown below.

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The zoning regulations of interest to readers are summarized below:

DSPchart

Note that the zones with the highest density, DSP/BC-B and DSP/BC-C, are occupied by The Brand apartments and Glendale City Center, but there’s a lot of area with 4-6 stories by right still available. Parking requirements are one spot for singles and 1-bedroom units, two spots for all others, and one guest spot for every 10 units for projects of 10 or more units. This probably sounds like a lot to many readers, though it’s less than required elsewhere.

Vineyard – Central to Columbus

Past here, we’re out of the Downtown Glendale Specific Plan and into West Glendale, or Vineyard if you want to get particular about it, and development changes to smaller scale, all residential buildings. If you haven’t already, you’ll want to open up Google Earth and turn on 3D buildings so you can see what’s really going on; it’s totally impossible to figure it out from the street! Development here offers a lot of inspiration for how to densify existing single-family neighborhoods, but wily West Wilson hides a lot of its tricks from view.

First up, this handsome pre-war apartment block called Canterbury Court. Note its size relative to its neighbor! The Tudor-ish façade is interesting too, since that style enjoyed a renaissance during the 1980s apartment boom, as we’ll see later. The age of many buildings on Wilson is missing in this handy database, but it does have data for Canterbury Court – 1928.

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The first building on the south side of the street is this single-family house, with an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) behind it not shown.

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West of that is our first trick building. From the street, it looks like a simple fourplex, with numbering (330, 330 ½, 332, 332 ½) that evokes prewar patterns.

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Check it out in Google Earth, though, and this fourplex has a hidden ADU building (can we call it a rear house!?) that looks like it has another four units! This unimposing lot appears to be developed at close to dingbat density.

On the north side, we have three larger 1980s apartment blocks (the underground parking is a dead giveaway as to the era of construction).

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This one is harder to place (it’s 1975), but I really like the twin chimneys and peaked roof.

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Back to the south side, we’ve got a classic dingbat (1961) and a building that I’m guessing is from the 1980s just because it looks like boatloads of unprofitable condos built around Lake Tahoe at the same time (and indeed, it’s 1987).

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The next building west puts on the front of a single-family residence (SFR), but it’s got an ADU out back and it’s actually a duplex itself.

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Moving back to the north side, we’ve got an SFR and a dingbat, built in 1962.

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Well, at least that’s what we have in front! The dingbat’s got a rear house that appears to be two more units, and the SFR has an ADU building.

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West of that, there are three buildings that genuinely appear to be SFRs.

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Back to the south side again, there’s another classic dingbat, and an older SFR.

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We’ve then got another dingbat with a rear house (built 1963) just peeking out into view.

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A newer single-lot apartment building (built 2005) and two large dingbat-like buildings (1986 and missing) take us to the corner of Columbus on the south side.

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On the north side, three SFRs take us to Columbus. The first has a couple units over a carport in the back, and the second has a single ADU. The houses all date to the 1910s and 1920s.

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Vineyard – Columbus to Pacific

This block starts with a bang, with dueling dingbats on the corners, both built in 1963.

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After that, on the north, we have an SFR with a four-unit rear house behind it, and a large 1984 building.

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On the south side, we have a single SFR (just visible on the left), and an SFR with a multi-unit ADU behind it.

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This is one of the trickiest blocks on W Wilson; housing units are everywhere – blink and you’ll miss them. Fortunately we have an alley between Wilson and Broadway to help us get a little better view on the south side. The next two buildings on the south side are what looks like an SFR and, um, what?

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Maybe we can get a better view from the back.

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Yep, that’s three cottages with a two-unit rear house over a carport. And surprise: totally invisible from Wilson, there are two little buildings behind the SFR

Next up is another larger structure, dating to 1991, the very tail end of the 1980s boom.

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This is followed by another SFR with a four-unit rear house.

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Note that there is a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but the size isn’t necessarily a good proxy for number of units! In fact, the adjacent building to the west is a newer project, taking up 4 lots, but appearing to only have 18 units (4.5 units per lot, the maximum allowed by the current zoning). They’re certainly larger units, but on a dwelling unit basis, this building is less dense.

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Back on the north side, we have two SFRs, but they both have ADUs, hidden but for the subtle house number that can be seen at the edge of the yellow house.

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There are also two SFRs across the street on the south side, and the one on the right looks to be the only unit on the lot. The one on the left has a second house in the back, hidden from view on Wilson.

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There are two more SFRs to the west on the south side, with the left one harboring a four-unit rear house, and the right one harboring a small parking lot for, um, what? The buildings across the alley?

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The north side of the street is much more straight-forward: several 1980s apartment buildings and then two SFRs to take us to the corner of Pacific. The apartment building on the right is from 2002.

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The south side finishes up with two SFRs that, of course, have ADUs out of sight. They’re actually big enough to be called houses in their own right.

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Vineyard – Pacific to Concord

Ok, ready to push through the last block? Well, plus a little coda, and a zoning discussion?

As we’ll see, the further we get from downtown Glendale, the less dense the development gets. The southwest corner of Pacific and Wilson is the last big pre-war multi-family building we’ll see. The architecture, lack of parking, and numbering scheme (500, 500 ½, 502, 502 ½) are the giveaway.

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Next, there’s a few SFRs; the one on the left has an ADU in the back. With only a few exceptions, the SFRs on this block date to the early 1920s.

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The north side of the block starts out with SFRs as well; I think the center one in the first picture has an ADU but it’s hard to tell from the street. The house in the center of the second picture definitely does, but it’s not easy to see. The one on the right in the last picture also has an ADU, which can be seen in Google Earth.

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On the south side, we have the first large apartment building on the block, taking up two lots. This building was built in 1979, before any downzoning, at the head end of the 1980s boom.

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Two true SFRs with no ADUs on the south side take us to Kenilworth Ave, a small local street.

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Next, on the north side, we have a single SFR, followed by a large 1985 apartment building that takes up four lots and appears to have about 20 units. The landscaping on the street makes it almost impossible to see all four buildings at once.

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On the south side, there’s a 1987 building and a 1963 building, both typical for their time.

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This is followed by a small SFR set so far back on the lot that one might conclude this was originally an ADU to a dearly departed main dwelling. However, if that’s the case, the original house has been gone since at least 1989, Google’s oldest aerial image for the region. The sign out front announces a proposed triplex on the site, the greatest number of units allowed by the current zoning.

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Next to that is a 1980s-looking building that shows how much more density was previously allowed.

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Back on the north side, there’s an SFR with an ADU peeking out; in Google Earth, it looks like the rear building actually has two units.

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The next house west straight up has a second house in the back yard.

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On the south side, there are two handsome SFRs; at left, an ADU can be seen, and there is a third unit totally hidden from view.

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Next to that is a large apartment block on two lots – two buildings, not identical but fraternal twins, dating to 1983 and 1985.

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Further down, a classic modern stucco apartment house from 1963 (hey, didn’t we see you on dingbats dingbats dingbats?) and a Tudor-ish 1974 building on four lots.

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Across from that, on the north side, are several SFRs; all but one have ADUs, but you’ll have to look in Google Earth to see them.

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The north side of the block continues to stretch west with SFRs; some have ADUs, while others are actually duplexes, a type we haven’t yet seen much of on Wilson.

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You’ll really have to look closely in Google Earth and Street View to try to see what’s what. Here’s a few where you can catch a glimpse of the ADU.

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Here’s one of the more obvious duplexes.

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Rounding out the residential units on the south side, we have an SFR (with an ADU not shown) and a dingbat with a rear house.

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There’s a large one-lot 1973 building and then two true SFRs without ADUs.

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The south side then goes industrial, with some single story office/warehouse type buildings.

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Vineyard – Concord to San Fernando

The last little block takes us down to San Fernando Rd, which runs next to the Metrolink tracks that form the boundary with Los Angeles. This block is made up of one-story industrial uses.

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At the corner of San Fernando, there’s a small local hangout.

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Vineyard – Zoning

Zoning west of Central is covered by Glendale’s general zoning plan.

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From east to west, the blocks of W Wilson are zoned R-1250, R-1650, R-2250, and IMU. The R zones are residential multi-family zones, where the number indicates the required lot area in square feet per unit. IMU is industrial/commercial mixed use. Parking requirements are 2 spots per unit, except 2.5 spots for 3-bedroom units and 3 spots for 4-bedroom units.

Thus, the permitted residential density on W Wilson steps down as you head west towards San Fernando Rd. Lots on the north side of Wilson appear to be about 50’ x 140’ lot, which translates to 5, 4, and 3 units per lot; on the south side, lots appear to be about 50’ x 175’, which translates to 7, 5, and 3 units per lot.

Which Way, W Wilson?

West Wilson Ave presents an interesting variety of residential housing types, from single-family houses to large apartment buildings, backyard cottages to dingbats with rear houses. In these few blocks, it captures both the opportunities and challenges for housing in greater LA in general.

The housing types of W Wilson point the way forward for natural growth of less dense neighborhoods, such as centrally located single-family areas. These options – ADUs, rear houses, small apartment buildings – are some of the best ways to improve housing affordability. They’re lower cost to construct, and don’t result in the loss of a lot of existing units. They allow for an evolution of building types rather than a sudden change. There are still development opportunities on Wilson; you could buy one of the remaining SFRs and built townhouses or put up some ADUs in the back. We would do well to allow other neighborhoods to grow the way Wilson did.

On the other hand, this area was clearly downzoned in the 1980s. There are lots occupied by SFRs where you can only build 3 or 4 units, despite the adjacent lots having 7 to 10 units. If housing prices in LA continue to rise, there will be pressure to redevelop lots that are currently occupied by a SFR and a few ADUs. Under the current zoning, we won’t end up with more housing units, just larger, newer, more expensive units. In some cases, redevelopment might result in a net reduction of units. It shouldn’t be a radical idea that new development be permitted to be at least as dense as its neighbors. Would a few 5-story buildings really make a big difference in how the street feels?

The foot of Wilson Ave, along with San Fernando Rd itself, is worth looking at in more detail, in a future post. For now, development patterns on Wilson Ave stand as proof that we do know how to do mixed-use projects and residential density in the LA region, when we let ourselves do them.

From Glendale to Downtown LA and Back

Consider this post to be, um, sorbet, a palate cleanser before the long-promised meatier course – a course for which your impatience with the chef is no doubt growing.

Living in Palms, commuting to downtown was easy: I could take my early af carpool, or I could walk to Culver City station and take the Expo Line. Driving to downtown that early, there’s practically no traffic on the 10. But did I mention it was really early? The Expo Line, with 10-12 minute headways all day long, about a mile from my apartment, was the natural transit choice, unaffected by the whims of the traffic deities. If something disrupted rail service, like drivers behaving badly, the Venice bus routes (33/733) were a solid backup, even if the lack of bus lanes on that wide ROW west of Crenshaw got frustrating.

In Glendale, the length of my commute is the same, within less than a mile. I still have the option of the crazy early carpool, the one that lets me start tweeting when the rest of the West Coast is still dreaming. There’s still no delay driving at that time of day, but the background traffic on the 5 is significantly larger; on the 10, there’s nothing but ocean to the west, while on the 5, there’s a lot of long distance north-south traffic.

On the other hand, there’s no rapid transit to Glendale, so the transit options aren’t as good. The closest Metro bus route to me is the 94/794 on San Fernando Rd. As has been discussed on Twitter, the split between a local and rapid here is not particularly helpful, because the headways on both are large enough that you’re better off just taking whatever comes first. The 94/794 is nearly 30 miles long, about twice as long as many Westside bus routes, which makes it even harder to regulate headways. Lastly, the 94/794 uses Hill St downtown, which adds a lot of delay when traffic is stacked up getting on the 110.

You can try to skip past downtown congestion by taking the Gold Line to Lincoln Heights/Cypress Park, and taking a short walk to the 94/794 stop at Ave 26 and Figueroa. However, if Union Station isn’t one end of your trip, that means two transfers, and two transfers can add a ton of delay. Odds are, of course, that Union Station is not one of the ends of your trip.

Today, I finally tried taking Metrolink from LA Union Station to Glendale. The train left on time and it was a fast 10-minute ride to Glendale Station, which is near the southern end of the city by Los Feliz Blvd and San Fernando Rd. Even with zero traffic, you’d be hard-pressed to compete with that time by car. Thanks to Art Leahy and Mike Antonovich, the fare currently sits at a very reasonable $2; before the Antelope Valley Line pilot program, it was $5.50. Honestly, that kind of speed is probably worth $5.50 and I’m just a cheapskate.

Again, though, if you have to transfer, that advantage starts to rapidly dissipate. I happened to be at Union Station today; for most people a Red/Purple Line ride would be tacked onto the end, but service there is frequent enough that it’s not a big deal. At the Glendale end, I had to wait for the 94/794, and the last 2 miles of my trip ended up taking more than twice the time that the first 8 miles took. Glendale runs a bus, route 12, from the Metrolink station up San Fernando Rd; Glendale routes 1, 2, and 11 would also arguably be viable for my trip. The overarching problems with any of these transfer options are the potential for a long transfer delay and infrequent or non-existent service during off-hours.

Two final options that would serve my commute would be Metro bus route 92, and Metro bus 180/181/780 to a transfer to the Red Line. I haven’t had occasion to try these; to be honest, the traffic on Los Feliz Blvd scares me a little bit regarding the latter.

Meanwhile, the Metrolink tracks paralleling San Fernando Rd offer an intriguing possibility. But more on that another time.

‘Round Glendale: Dingbat Quartet

Now that blog headquarters is in Glendale, it’s time to reboot the ‘Round Palms department to take a closer look at housing and development patterns in the Jewel City. There will be some more detailed posts coming up, but for now, an appetizer: this four-pack of dingbats located on Chester St just south of the 134 freeway.

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These four buildings are all built from the same plan, with two being mirror images of the other two. This lends some variability to the view from the street but also creates a pleasing symmetry. The southernmost building fronts on Doran St as well as Chester St.

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The matching staircases, one rotated at 90 degrees to the other, is a nice touch. Here’s the skinny end of the next building north, fronting on Chester St only.

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The next building north is a carbon copy of the southernmost building. Note that while these buildings started the same, over time they’ve acquired some individuality. While the first building has original construction and the second hasn’t even managed to lose its window bars, this one has managed to acquire some new windows.

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As any dingbat resident can tell you, that’s a major improvement: the original construction featured drafty, rattling, leaky single-pane windows that do almost nothing to stop the transmission of sound. The denizens of this building are enjoying better climate control and more respite from the sounds of the street and the nearby freeway.

By using mirror images of the plan, the designers created a little open space between the second and third buildings, pleasant enough to support a few large trees and children’s swing.

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It’s perhaps a little surprising that the architect didn’t flip all four buildings, creating two courtyards, but apparently they wanted to have the open side of the southernmost and northernmost buildings fronting the street.

The northernmost building, fronting on Pioneer Dr, appears to have received the most love through the years, receiving not only new windows, but fresher paint and, if you look closely, some reinforcement for the railings on its exterior walkways

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In addition to providing some courtyard space, a nice feature of these buildings is that, unlike most dingbats, the parking is not featured front and center, but rather tucked around the back off of a small alley.

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This appears to have been accomplished by assembling several lots and adding an alley where none existed before. If you go back and look at the first image, you’ll note that these buildings are oriented perpendicular to all the other lots on Doran and Pioneer. These lots are about 50’ wide and 115’ deep, and the dingbat quartet was constructed on six lots put together. Putting the parking in back, off-street, is a nice design feature that improves the final result. As we’ll see in future posts, this seems to be more common in Glendale apartment buildings from the 1960s boom than in places like Palms.

Let’s Go Glendale!

Having bid a fond “see ya around” to Palms, we turn our eyes to observing Glendale and getting to know this part of the LA region better. An outcome of LA’s legendary traffic and underpowered transit is that it can be punishing to try to experience parts of the region far from where you live. The Valley isn’t that far from the Westside, but the 405 makes it seem far. That problem certainly applies to travel between Palms (the Westside) and the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena area, which stands out even among the many difficult trips in the region.

For readers outside Los Angeles and not familiar with its confusing municipal boundaries, we should perhaps first explain where Glendale is located. Glendale is a separate incorporated city, not part of the City of Los Angeles. Downtown Glendale is about 8-9 miles due north of downtown Los Angeles, though the city’s northern reaches extend over 15 miles from downtown LA. Glendale borders the cities of Burbank, Pasadena, and La Canada-Flintridge, along with an unincorporated neighborhood of LA County known as La Crescenta-Montrose. Glendale also shares two borders with the City of LA – Sunland-Tujunga to the northwest, and Atwater Village, Glassell Park, and Eagle Rock to the south. Lastly, Glendale’s northern limits extend up to the Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains. The Verdugo Mountains separate downtown and the southern part of the city from the northern part, located in the Crescenta Valley, a narrow valley between the Verdugos and the San Gabriels.

An unconventional way to define Glendale might be as the valley of the Verdugo Wash. This is a short tributary of the LA River that joins the river near where it takes a sharp right turn from running west to east through the SF Valley and heads south to downtown LA. Like the LA River, it is fully contained in a concrete flood control channel. The Verdugo Wash runs east to the north of downtown Glendale, then gradually turns northeast, north, and northwest as it wraps around the mountains of the same name into the Crescenta Valley. Everything south of the 134 – all of downtown Glendale and many residential areas – actually drains away from the Verdugo Wash, but topography makes one suspect that this area is sort of an alluvial fan deposited by the stream. There might be potential for improvements to the Verdugo Wash like those proposed for the LA River.

Freeways

The primary freeways serving Glendale are the 5, the 2, and the 134, which roughly form an upside down triangle around downtown Glendale. Despite serving Glendale, these portions of the 5 and the 2 are almost entirely in Los Angeles. North of the 134, the 2 continues north through the more mountainous portions of the city, ending at the 210, which serves the Crescenta Valley.

Traffic on the 5 is perhaps not quite as bad as the 10 and the 405 on the Westside, but it’s bad enough. Since the 5 runs the full length of the Golden State, it seems to have a larger volume of background traffic, and a notably higher amount of truck traffic – even if your carpool, like mine, leaves at 5 am. Truck traffic is probably increased by the gap in the 710, which eliminates a potential route around downtown LA between the ports and destinations to the north.

The 134, together with the 101 in the Valley and the 210 east of Pasadena, forms a long, continuous east-west freeway stretching from Ventura to San Bernardino, another heavily used corridor in a region with no shortage of well-used freeways. While the 101 and the 134 in the Valley and the 210 east of Pasadena get heavily congested during peak periods, the 134 between Glendale and Pasadena seems to escape the worst traffic. Astute eyes will note that the short Colorado Street freeway, connecting the 5 to San Fernando Rd and Colorado St in Glendale, looks like an abandoned attempt at routing the 134 through the heart of downtown Glendale. In fact, Caltrans’ small white bridge identifying signs still mark these structures as being located on the 134, so there’s potentially a companion post to Walk Eagle Rock’s post on the 134 being rerouted to avoid downtown Eagle Rock. The selected route for the 134 is not only better for downtown Glendale, but much better for a freeway network than the puzzling location of the Colorado St freeway’s end at Griffith Park.

The 2 is perhaps best known for the portion of the freeway that wasn’t built – the portion from the existing end in Echo Park to the west, through Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Century City to the Westside. This leaves the extant part in Northeast LA and Glendale as one of the more lightly used parts of LA’s network, though congestion on connecting freeways like the 5 can turn parts of it into a giant queue. It’s also the reason it’s hard to get to the Westside from Glendale in the absence of good transit options.

Transit

Ok, enough about freeways, let’s get on to the things that will really interest readers here: transit. At first glance, your LA Metro map makes things look pretty good.

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However, what we have here is a classic case of wide coverage with relatively poor frequency. Here’s a look at some important routes serving Glendale.

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Routes 90 & 91 serve Glendale Ave, which runs to the east side of downtown and the Crescenta Valley. Route 92 serves Brand Blvd, which is Glendale’s main commercial street. Route 94 & Rapid 794 form a very long route from downtown LA to the independent City of San Fernando, near the northern end of the eponymous Valley. This serves only the western edges of Glendale, but it’s the closest route to me. Finally, Routes 180 & 181, & Rapid 780, serve east-west travel between Pasadena, Glendale, & Hollywood.

Evening and late night headways fall off pretty quickly, making it tough to depend on these routes if you want to do anything other than work your 8 to 5. The two Rapid routes, 780 & 794, don’t run at all late nights or on weekends. Rapid 780 runs with good peak frequencies, and because it’s through-routed as the Rapid for both Routes 180/181 and Route 217 (Fairfax), it sort of functions as the transit route doing what the 2 freeway was supposed to do. (Don’t bother with Route 201, which only runs hourly.) Therefore, when Rapid 780 isn’t running, riders face an additional transfer between Routes 180/191 and Route 217. On top of that; there are the usual reliability issues; on a recent weekday morning my Next Trip app promised 794 service in 42 minutes and 57 minutes. You can sort of see why the BRU complains about this when rail riders get 10-12 minute headways all day, every day.

On the rail side, Metrolink offers a Glendale station at the very southern edge of the city, adjacent to Atwater Village. Frequencies during peak periods are pretty good – there are 30 trains per day – but service ends early, going to hourly or worse at about 6:30pm and ending altogether at 9:30pm. The worst feature of Metrolink is the absurd pricing; a one way ticket from Glendale to Downtown LA is $5.50 to travel a distance of 6 miles, a distance you can double or triple on Metro rail lines for $1.75.

The upside of all of this is that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for transit improvements in the area – things that don’t involve, say, building an expensive underperforming light rail line to bridge the gap in the 710 freeway.

As a first take, transit improvements should include improving frequency and spans of service. Options to improve reliability, such as bus lanes and signal priority, should also be explored. On the rail side, Measure R2 plans should explore upgrading these Metrolink Lines to rapid transit frequencies, though that should probably be contingent on upzoning some of the land near the rail corridors.

Development Patterns

Speaking of development, let’s talk a little bit about the built environment in Glendale. As mentioned before, Brand Blvd serves as the heart of downtown, with Glendale’s small skyscraper district (five buildings of 20+ stories, six more of 15-19 stories, almost all outcomes of the late 80s boom) centered on Brand and the 134 freeway. Downtown Glendale has been undergoing a residential and mixed-use mini-boom, with Americana at Brand being the best known development. Since there are many projects in progress or recently completed, it’s probably worth doing two separate posts, one on the commercial projects built in the 1980s and early 1990s, one on the ongoing residential projects. Some people deride Glendale as boring, but having spent a couple evenings on Brand Blvd, I’m willing to say they either don’t know what they’re talking about or are using “boring” as code for “full of retail establishments but not the kind that I like”.

Outside of downtown, there are residential neighborhoods that are actually somewhat similar to, well, to Palms. The residential density of the Census tract I moved to is only a little bit lower than that of the tract I moved from. The biggest difference is that the percentage of single-family residences (SFRs) in my new neighborhood is higher than in Palms, where you might miss the remaining SFRs if you didn’t know where to look. The apartment building stock in Glendale also appears to be newer, with few dingbats and more apartments dating to the 1980s boom, something supported by a casual look at Property Shark. Nevertheless, I’ve done the math, and my apartment building’s 9 units on a 50’x150’ lot are exactly classic R3 dingbat density. When I walk around, though, none of the remaining SFRs are being replaced by apartments, and at first glance the zoning appears to make even existing apartments non-conforming. I’m sure there’s a fascinating story behind that, one we’ll no doubt have to explore in more detail in a future post. . .

A Farewell to Palms

A Farewell to Palms

For those who missed it on Twitter, home base for this blog recently relocated from Palms to Glendale. While I’m excited to get to know another part of the LA region much more closely, I won’t lie: I’m really going to miss Palms.

Palms is one of LA’s most low-key neighborhoods. Instead of calling to mind stereotypes, like places as varied as Beverly Hills, Compton, Venice, and Silver Lake do, mentioning Palms is likely to elicit a puzzled expression, even from longer-term LA residents. We’d occasionally joke that when you say you live in Palms, people would think of Palm Springs or Palmdale.

In a way, flying under the radar is one of the greatest strengths of Palms. Rather than getting downzoned in the firestorm of NIMBYism that exploded over so much of the Westside in the early 1970s, Palms remained zoned R3 and R4. This has led to a natural, gradual evolution of the neighborhood’s housing stock, with single-family residences (SFRs) being replaced by dingbats in the 1960s, early-style podiums in the 1980s, and modern podiums in the 2000s to the present. This pattern of development is unavailable today in many LA neighborhoods, because after decades of zoning restraints, land prices are too high for the first stages to pencil out.

Meanwhile, the commercial boulevards of Palms – Motor and Overland Avenues – have grown into a wonderfully chaotic mix of apartments, retail, industry, and even a few holdout SFRs. You might even call this the “C2 development pattern”, which emerges all over LA in C2 zones. You really can’t plan that diversity of use at such detail; you have to enable it and let it happen.

It’s no coincidence that Palms became one of the most affordable areas on the Westside, and one of the most diverse neighborhoods in LA. Palms isn’t a destination; it’s just an ordinary dense urban neighborhood that gets the job done for its residents – a vale of humility among hills of conceit. It’s the kind of place that politicians and planners should facilitate more development of, rather than trying to create headline destination districts.

Change is never easy. With growth strangled across most Westside neighborhoods, Palms is one of the few outlets for the market to provide new housing supply to meet surging demand. Inevitably, that has meant that newer projects in Palms have a more upscale flair, and rents for existing buildings have been creeping up. The g-word has been thrown around, though I wouldn’t call it that, since Palms has been undergoing continual redevelopment and change for decades.

Sometimes, you change neighborhoods. And sometimes, neighborhood change comes to you. I’m fortunate enough for it to be the former, and for change to be an opportunity. Palms has been, and will continue to be, an important part of this blog. But be prepared for some in depth posts on Glendale. Change isn’t easy, but it’s often necessary for us to evolve and grow, precisely because we’re not quite sure where it will lead. Let’s go, Glendale!