Tag Archives: Low-rise

A Short High-Rise Editorial

First, many thanks are owed to this week’s guest author, Tom Steidl, for producing such a great, detailed post about the impact of building codes on high-rise development in Los Angeles. A few follow up thoughts:

Long-time readers will know that this blog has strongly advocated for low-rise and mid-rise density as the key to affordability in LA, since these types of construction can take advantage of lower costs of construction and will pencil out all over the city. However, there clearly is demand for high-rise living in some neighborhoods in LA, and we ought to allow and encourage it in those areas. The more efficient we can make these developments, the more units will pencil out, and the more demand can be accommodated by these projects. That’s a good thing all around: it gives more people the opportunity to live in a high-rise, and it reduces rent pressures on existing low-rise and mid-rise apartments.

The post also serves as a great example of the complexity of land use regulations and of the decisions that private sector actors make. Too often, the popular narrative about development holds that developers build the projects they build because they are excessively greedy, or excessively stupid. This is poor analysis and it leads to poor policy. Solutions that seek to mandate certain actions by developers, without understanding why developers do what they do today, run a large risk of having unexpected effects and exacerbating existing problems. As the post says, developers build chunkier towers in LA due to specific regulatory causes that encourage them to do so. Additional regulation that says “thou shalt build Vancouver-style towers,” without understanding what motivates developers to build the types of projects they do today, might result in no towers being built, rather than Vancouver-style towers.

To give an analogy, mandating that developers build certain types of projects, without addressing the zoning and building code regulatory regime, is like putting up a 25 mph speed limit sign on a road designed for 50 mph, without changing the design of the road. If you design a road for 50 mph and sign it for 25 mph, the drivers who go 50 mph are not foolish, you are. If you want a road where drivers go 25 mph, you need to understand what motivates their decisions and design accordingly.

Likewise, land use planning needs to look beyond the concept of simply mandating what development should be built. We need to look at all the elements of the process, and design the process so that all elements are contributing to making the desired results be the ones that make the most sense to develop.

A Modest Zoning Proposal

There’s a rezoning effort underway in Los Angeles, branded as recode:LA, that’s going to rewrite the city’s entire zoning regulation. This is a huge opportunity to make it easier to build in LA, restoring affordability and capitalizing on infrastructure investments. I’m planning to get involved and start attending meetings, and I encourage everyone interested in seeing LA flourish to do the same.

Where Are We Today?

First, a quick summary of where we are. Typically in LA, the arterials on the grid are zoned for commercial uses, and the area between the arterials is zoned for residential. For example, here’s the general zoning for Palms and Cheviot Hills.

Palms-CH-RP legend

To simplify things, there are 10 major residential zoning groups in LA, designated A through R5. Note that the default zoning in many New England suburbs equates to the lowest density zones available in LA, which explains why LA isn’t sprawl and is denser than everyone thinks. Here’s a summary of the major residential zoning requirements:


There’s also RAS3 and RAS4, which are basically R3 and R4 with ground-level retail permitted, and slightly less restrictive setbacks.

Where Do We Want to Go?

Now, before we start rezoning, we have to ask ourselves what we’re trying to do here. What goals are we trying to achieve? What do we hope LA will become?

For me, as I have said before, my main goals are affordability and opportunity. I want LA to be a place where low-income people can afford a roof over their heads, and where all people have the opportunity to pursue their goals in education, starting a business, etc. In my mind, that should be LA’s raison d’etre. Better infrastructure, including transit, is not a goal unto itself, but a means of achieving those two cardinal goals. Achieving these two goals would help address many other social concerns. Other benefits that might flow out of that, such as reduced per capita energy use, would be nice, but they’re not my main concern.

Part of my project here is to try to convince you that affordability and opportunity are the two best goals for improving LA. But obviously, not everyone is going to share my goals, and that’s ok. I don’t expect people in Rolling Hills or Calabasas to give a rat’s ass about affordability in their cities, because that’s not the reason those cities exist. The important thing is to recognize and be honest about your goals. If you say you’re in favor of affordability but also want to protect SFRs, you’re lying about one of them.

Of course, there’s a huge social justice and equity component to affordability and opportunity that I haven’t addressed on this blog yet, mainly because I know planning/engineering much better, and planning/engineering challenges are much easier to solve.

Back to the zoning.

How Do We Get There?

If I had my way, we’d just let people build however many apartments they want wherever they want. The collective knowledge of the market is almost certain to be better than anything planners could devise, not because planners are no good but because of the inherent complexity of the system. It would be like trying to do an analysis to figure out how many trees there should be in the forest and where they should grow.

It’s easy to sit around, say “upzone everything”, and then hit the bar and start pounding beers, but that’s ultimately an academic exercise. Any proposal to just upzone everything is probably dead in the water. It’s much harder to come up with a plausible plan that has a chance of being implemented. So here’s my attempt at a plan that I hope could win some public support. As with everything here, consider this a starting point; comments and suggestions for improvement are encouraged.

So, here’s the basic idea. The following rules would apply to areas currently zoned R1 through R5:

Pace of Redevelopment

  • In any neighborhood, 4% of lots will be permitted for redevelopment each year.
  • If a developer consolidates lots, the project requires a number of permits equal to the original number of lots. Future redevelopment of the consolidated lot would need only one permit. This encourages small-scale development.
  • The neighborhood council can decide to permit more than 4% at its discretion.
  • Permits are auctioned off to the highest bidder. This will encourage the best projects to be built first. It also gives opponents of development the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are – if they don’t want new development, they can buy all the permits.
  • Revenue from permit auctions to be invested in neighborhood improvements by the neighborhood council.
  • Permits expire 18 months after sale if no construction initiated – i.e. no permit hording, and opponents can’t foreclose on redevelopment forever by buying up permits for a few years.

Permitted Development

  • Any structure of up to 3 stories and up to 6 units per 5,000 SF lot is automatically permitted.
  • Any structure of equal in height to the 85th percentile height, plus one story, is automatically permitted.
  • Where automatically permitted, 4-story structures may have 10 units, 5-story structures may have 16 units, and 6-story structures may have 25 units, per 5,000 SF lot.
  • Mixed use development up to 6 stories and 200 SF lot area per unit automatically permitted on arterials (e.g. Venice, Western, Pico). Mixed use includes light industry that does not produce noise or odors. Commercial uses not restricted to ground floor.
  • Setbacks per current R4 standards, except arterials, to be per RAS4.
  • Nothing in these rules shall be interpreted as making existing zoning more restrictive.
  • Rules become effective 15 years after initial subdivision is recorded. This would allow owners in new subdivisions some certainty that property won’t immediately be redeveloped in newly established neighborhoods. This provision would have little effect in LA, where most neighborhoods are long established.

When it comes to the large lot zones – A, RA, RE – I would propose allowing them to be subdivided per current R1 zoning standards. After 15 years, the subdivided lots could be developed according to the above standards. But really, A/RA/RE are a small component of the plan. The major benefit is the above rules applied to zones R1 through R5.

In neighborhoods where these rules would result in buildings up to 75’ – the maximum for Type 3 construction – being automatically permitted, the neighborhood council and city could begin to consider allowing high-rises. I’m mostly ignoring high-rises in this proposal, because we don’t need a single high-rise in LA to make the city more affordable and welcome many more future Angelenos to our city.

Parking would be handled like Donald Shoup says it should.

How Does This Work?

Perhaps the best way to explain this concept would be by example. Take an existing R1-zoned neighborhood. In the first year, up to 4% of properties could get permits to be redeveloped into 3-story 6-unit apartment buildings – assuming, of course, that 4% of owners want to redevelop their property, and they don’t get outbid for the permits by opponents. Replacing 1 out of every 25 SFRs with a 3-story duplex where every floor is an apartment isn’t going to change the character of the neighborhood much. Under this plan, it would take at least 25 years for all structures to be replaced – a low rate of change.

In the second, third, and fourth years, the same thing would happen. Assuming 4% of lots are redeveloped every year for the first four years, by year five, 16% of the lots in the neighborhood would have 3-story buildings. Therefore, the 85th percentile height would be 3 stories, and 4-story buildings would become automatically permitted. Again assuming 4% of lots are redeveloped every year after that, in year nine, 5-story buildings would become automatically permitted, and so on.

Starting Points

Again, this proposal is just a starting point. I’d expect a healthy debate about the percentage of lots that can be redeveloped every year, the number of units allowed, and the percentile trigger that permits another story. We could also define a few different zones with different rates and triggers, some more permissive and some less permissive.

I will also note again that this is not necessarily my preferred solution; I’d rather leave more up to market forces. But this is a proposal that can hopefully accommodate a significant amount of new development to improve affordability, spread out the development so that no one area is overwhelmed, and still provide property owners with the certainty they desire.

So, what do you think? Is this a viable proposal? And what would make it better?

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.


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.

Palms Power

As I’ve said before, the affordability of Los Angeles for people and businesses is one of the greatest challenges facing the city. If we don’t want LA to become a boutique town like San Francisco or Boston, we need to make it easy to produce cheap apartments and workspaces. By definition, affordable development does not include any space that is produced by giving developers subsidies or forcing developers to sell or rent at below market rates. Those strategies are not scalable in a meaningful way.

To that end, I’ve defended and promoted the LA pattern of low-rise and mid-rise development, contrasting it with some architects’ and planners’ preference for high-rise towers near transit hubs, surrounded by single-family neighborhoods with restrictive zoning. In previous posts, I’ve called this “Vancouverism”, since this is the strategy pursued by Vancouver. This strategy is often more politically palatable because it aligns the preferences of architects and planners with the belief of NIMBYs in single-family neighborhoods that the city should protect them from change.

However, Vancouverism can never produce affordable development at the same scale that the LA pattern can, because the construction costs are so much higher. As the LA Downtown News reported, high-rise construction costs 1.5 times to 2.5 times as much per square foot as low-rise and mid-rise construction – about $200/SF for low-rise and mid-rise buildings, and $400/SF for high-rise buildings.

Example: at a 10% rate of return and a 30 year term, you need to collect about $1,250/month in rent to cover the cost of building a 700 SF low-rise apartment. High-rise, you need to collect at least $2,500/month. This doesn’t include the cost of maintenance and management, but $1,250/month is down into the realm of affordability. And anyway, the point of new construction is often not to build new cheap apartments, but new upscale apartments for people with more money.

The key thing to realize here is that the cost of new construction sets a reference price for existing apartments that have already had their capital costs paid off and just need to cover maintenance. If new apartments are going for $2,500/month, then you can charge up to $2,499/month for an old apartment. But if new apartments are only $1,250/month, you can never charge more than $1,249/month for an old apartment. So, the less costly the new construction, the larger the market segment that can be targeted with new construction, and the less price pressure on existing apartments.

In other words, if we really care about affordability, we need the traditional LA pattern of development. And since I live in Palms, I’m going to frequently use Palms as a good case study. I’m planning to do some more detailed research, but for now let’s trust Wikipedia and assume Palms was upzoned in the 1960s. At a glance, Palms might look like it’s all apartment buildings of the same size and vintage, but that’s not the case – there’s a variety of building types, sizes, and ages. This includes a considerable number of remaining single-family houses. In a few upcoming posts, I’m going to take a closer look at selected streets in Palms, including the types and ages of buildings, with an eye on the fact that none of the single-family houses have been ruined by the nasties that are supposed to come with apartment buildings.