Tag Archives: Palms

Jane Jacobs at 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culver City Cluster

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

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

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

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

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What could be done?

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

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

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

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.

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!

Gentrification Watch: Palms Edition?

Gentrification is a tricky concept: not easy to define, but people know it when they see it.

If you ask me, I wouldn’t say Palms is gentrifying. As of 2000, median incomes in Palms were similar to some other neighborhoods you might consider to be under gentrification pressures, like Leimert Park and Highland Park. However, Palms lacks what I’d consider one of the definitive markers of gentrification: a cycle of decades of public and private disinvestment followed by a boom. Palms has always been one of the Westside’s outlets for growth; apartment construction has been robust since the 1950s. In the last 15 years, the pace of development in Palms has slowed, simply because the neighborhood is running out of easily developable sites.

Still, a few recent anecdotal incidents got me thinking about neighborhood changes on the Westside, what that means in Palms, and how it relates to the city as a whole.

First, as part of its Micro Week series, Curbed LA ran a story about a small apartment in Palms, whose renter described the neighborhood as “rapidly gentrifying”. Second, a current resident had recently been looking for a new place in the neighborhood, and found the available apartments at about the same rent to offer a lower level of amenities. (If you live in a rent-stabilized apartment, it’s easy to lose all perception of the current state of the rental market.) Third, while walking down Motor Ave recently, a friend described disliking the new buildings there (Palms Point and M Lofts) for “all they represent”.

Well, what do the new buildings in Palms represent? They’re called luxury, but that’s a slippery term; property managers in Palms call their 1980s podium buildings luxury too. Certainly the M Lofts includes a level of amenities not found in older buildings, but the same could be said of new cars compared to old cars. Anyway, that’s partly a function of needing to secure higher market rents for the market-rate units, as some of the units are reserved affordable units.

A change in our environment is often hard. Perhaps new construction makes people feel like the neighborhood is shifting, away from a place that has the kind of amenities we like, towards a place that has the kind of amenities someone else likes. And it’s possible that the new amenities will appeal to people with more money, who will bid up rents.

This isn’t a plea for sympathy. These anecdotes refer to people who are not without means. People like me certainly don’t deserve any sort of housing subsidy, direct or indirect through regulatory policies.

The important thing to see is how all these housing markets are connected. New construction in wealthy areas of the Westside is prohibited by zoning, so new buildings are only put up in places like Palms. As demand to live on the Westside keeps growing, this development starts to skew towards the high end. Some residents of Palms will move to other neighborhoods, either to find the amenities they like or to keep housing costs down. That, in turn, will start putting upward pressure on rents in those neighborhoods.

We don’t call it gentrification until we get three or four moves down the chain, in places like Boyle Heights. If you want to live in Venice but can’t afford to do so, it’s unlikely you’ll go directly to Highland Park as the alternative. But the connections are real. The process starts with the lack of construction in wealthy areas on the Westside, and that’s where it needs to be attacked.

Courtyard Buildings

Rumor has it that there’s interest in LA’s courtyard apartment buildings, and in why you don’t see many of them built anymore. As you might guess, my suspicion is that zoning and parking requirements, along with availability of land with the needed zoning, are the primary causes. So, let’s take a closer look at this common Los Angeles building typology.

Low-rise courtyard apartment buildings are as much a part of the Angeleno vernacular as the dingbat, found all across LA’s multi-family neighborhoods. Typically, they consist of a roughly donut-shaped building, with a rectangular courtyard having its long side perpendicular to the street forming the donut hole. Entrance to the courtyard is through an open or gated breezeway through the first floor. The apartments ring the courtyard, usually only a couple stories high, but occasionally more. Parking is tucked underneath the sides and rear along the outside of the building.

Palms (where else) is a great neighborhood for looking at examples of courtyard apartments. I once wrote a post where I pretty much called Clarington Avenue dingbat heaven; head just one block west to Jasmine Avenue and you’re in courtyard central.

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As is so often the case, this now-beloved building type was an unintended consequence of planning and zoning regulations, and courtyard apartments were maligned in the era of their construction. In 1974, during contentious public hearings for the Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey Neighborhood Plan, LA City Planning Commissioner David Roper stated that the city’s open space ordinance “had failed because developers put the space in the middle of the apartment buildings, the so-called hole in the donut, out of view of the public.” (Likewise, in the early 1970s, City Councilor Louis Nowell was being maligned for approving the construction of corner gas stations – which, by the early 1980s, were being replaced by mini-malls at such a furious pace that the fusspots were worried about them. Notice a pattern?)

As you can see in the aerial, a courtyard apartment building is really just two dingbats that teamed up to increase the overall value of the project. Single-lot dingbat projects penciled out, and many were built, but given setback and parking requirements, the parking and apartments were about all you could fit on the lot. You’ll rarely, if ever, find a single-lot dingbat with a courtyard or pool. By putting two lots together, you eliminate 10’ of side setback requirements for an R3 or R4 zone, and make it easier to configure the parking. The skinnier courtyards aren’t much more than 10’ wide, though current zoning requires them to be 15’ to count towards open space requirements.

Revisiting some proposed prototype projects from the dingbat post, here’s what we had for R3 density (top) and R4 density (bottom) projects. The R3 project meets current parking and setback requirements; you could meet open space requirements if you reconfigured the parking. The R4 project meets setback requirements but not parking requirements. It would meet R3 open space requirements, but not R4.

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As an aside, I’m not sure why the zoning code should specify open space requirements beyond what it already has for setbacks. The code claims it’s for children’s play space and outdoor recreation, though no one seems to know if it’s used as such. Like parking requirements (1 spot for a studio, 1.5 spots for a 1BR, and 2 spots for anything bigger), open space requirements increase steeply with apartment size (100 SF for a studio, 125 SF for a 1BR, and 175 SF for anything bigger), thereby greatly punishing development of larger apartments and helping to ensure there won’t be any children in the development.

However, it’s certainly easier to meet parking and open space requirements when you put two lots together. Here’s a look at two similar prototypes, using the same development concept but with two 50’ by 100’ lots instead of one.

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In the concepts above, the top option, providing 12 1BR apartments, meets parking and open space requirements. And indeed, this is pretty much what you see in later stage developments all over Palms. The parking is usually depressed below street level as much as reasonable to improve aesthetics, putting what I’ve called “Floor 2” closer to being the ground floor, with parking in the basement.

The bottom option, providing 8 studio/1BR, 12 2BR, and 4 3BR apartments, does not meet current parking or open space requirements. By avoiding a basement parking level, the need for a concrete podium is avoided, significantly driving down costs. Putting parking right out front isn’t very aesthetically pleasing, but it would provide some spots that could be rented separately from the apartments, keeping rents lower. In many neighborhoods in LA, there are lots of people who don’t own cars, and making them pay for a parking spot or podium construction would put this new construction out of their reach. If an alley is available, parking could be flipped to the back, and the yard to the front, for a considerable improvement. Open space requirements could theoretically be met by adding a roof deck, though this would increase costs.

Clearly, combining two lots creates the opportunity to provide more amenities. The courtyard creates a semi-private space and the sides of the apartments facing the courtyard feel more protected from the rest of the city. Nevertheless, as stated in the dingbat post, I think it’s important to make sure that single-lot projects pencil out. If two or more lots are needed, one owner can have undue leverage to block housing development. If single-lot developments work, owners are given a positive incentive to work together to create higher value projects.

As for getting more of these projects built, there’s really no secret: we need less land zoned R1 and RD, and more land zoned R3 and R4. If we want more affordable projects, like the second option, we’ll need to ease up on parking and maybe open space requirements. It’s really that simple.

Sepulveda/LAX Transit Part 4: Arrested Arterials, Arrested Development

Los Angeles has a great arterial grid. Almost.

As Jarrett Walker says, grids are great for transit, because they let you efficiently serve a large geographic area with high-frequency service, while avoiding the problems of branching. In that post, Walker calls Los Angeles and Vancouver “two of the most perfect transit cities I’ve ever seen, in their underlying geography.”

Well, almost.

Aside from the obvious topographical barriers like the Santa Monica Mountains, there’s a weakness in LA’s arterial grid: on the Westside, practically nothing west of La Cienega is worthy of being called a north-south arterial. East-west movement is another story, an embarrassment of riches: Pico, Olympic, Santa Monica, Wilshire, and Venice. There’s not one north-south arterial that’s as good as any of those east-west boulevards. This is part of why the 405 is so horrendous and traffic on the Westside in general, the largest bugaboo of Westside NIMBYs, is terrible. Most importantly, it has significant implications for what high quality north-south transit on the Westside will look like.

Let’s take a closer look. The map below shows how many lanes each Westside arterial has in each direction. It also shows peak-hour only lanes (created by parking restrictions) with dashed lines. I realize many readers may not be particularly worried about auto capacity, but the number of traffic lanes is a reasonable proxy for both the technical and political challenges to creating a dedicated right-of-way (ROW) for transit.

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How Did We Get Here? Or, A Boulevard for Our Kingdom

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Believe it or not, parts of the Westside were undeveloped as recently as the end of World War 2. Older urban nodes, like Palms, Santa Monica, Westwood, Venice, and Beverly Hills, were scattered among farmers’ fields and country clubs. After the war, with construction of the 405 and UCLA, the areas in between these nodes rapidly developed as single-family neighborhoods. Partly due to preexisting development, and partly due to poor planning foresight, adequate ROWs for north-south arterials were not reserved. (Note that this mistake is rarely repeated nowadays; suburban sprawl is planned with ridiculously wide ROWs saved for arterial roads.)

Despite having been developed with single-family residences (SFRs), at that time much of the Westside was zoned for multiple-family development. As discussed previously, by the 1950s, low-rise apartments known as dingbats were popping up in the more established neighborhoods, such as Palms, and in the area near UCLA.

By the early 1960s, high-rise residential towers were sprouting up along Wilshire Blvd, as detailed in the city’s 1963 Westwood Economic Study. By the city’s generous standard of high-rise (4+ stories), there were 19 buildings in this class completed or under construction. The study noted that “rents in the newer high-density apartments [were] considerably higher”. The average monthly rental for a one-bedroom in a high-rise in 1963 was $2,370/month; compare this to one-bedroom dingbat apartments in Oakland, renting for $820/month at the same time, or in Palms, renting for $610-$820/month in 1970. (All values 2014 dollars.)

However, the study went on to note that there was no reason to worry about these expensive rentals, because “increasing demand for apartments on the part of the lower-middle and low income groups. . . can be satisfied in part by the older portions of the existing housing supply, and in part through new smaller apartment structures which could be built at lower cost. Such structures are being built in quantity throughout the city and metropolitan area. . .” Yep, you know who that is.

The rapid changes on the Westside came with growing pains. For example, the Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey Socioeconomic Study (1970) found that population increased from 19,399 in 1940 to 78,134 by 1956, after which time further growth required replacement of SFRs, some scarcely more than a decade old, with multi-family developments. In 1950, Palms-Mar Vista had 2,361 apartments and 11,859 SFRs; by 1970, 15,883 apartments and 13,100 SFRs, with the number of SFRs having peaked in 1960 and by then declining as they were replaced by apartments.

Probably the biggest change, though, was Century City bursting onto the scene in 1963, rising from a former Fox studio backlot. Along with continued growth at UCLA, Westwood, and Santa Monica, the Westside was becoming one of the most important business districts in Los Angeles. The Westside’s boom strained the area’s underpowered road and transit network, resulting in worsening traffic congestion. In particular, Century City is poorly located and laid out with respect to north-south traffic movement. (Perhaps its developers quite logically expected redevelopment of adjacent golf courses, allowing Avenue of the Stars to be extended north and south.)

The city did not sit idle in the face of this congestion. While the need for rapid transit along the Wilshire Corridor was already well-recognized by the early 1970s, the plans drawn up for north-south movement reflected that auto-centric era. City traffic engineers proposed widening many north-south roadways, including every one shown on the map above between La Cienega and Lincoln (except Sepulveda, which presumably was already an arterial). These plans were backed by City Councilman Louis Nowell, a notoriously pro-growth politician who, in addition to greater urban density, also supported questionable amenities like the Laurel Canyon and Beverly Hills Freeways, and oil drilling in Pacific Palisades.

Westside SFR owners, having bought into the suburban dream only to find themselves in the midst of a booming metropolis, understandably did not share Nowell’s vision. By November 1972, the LA Times reported that opponents of density and street widening, dubbed “environmentalists”, had succeeded in getting the city to cancel plans for Castle Heights-Beverwil and Motor in the West LA plan area. The West LA plan was approved in December 1973. Further west, the Times reported that by early 1974, Mar Vista residents were protesting street widening in their neighborhood. By December 1974, city planners had relented, only proposing to widen Bundy-Inglewood and Barrington-McLaughlin-Slauson. Unsatisfied, voters elected a slate of “environmentalist” candidates to the city council, which proceeded to eliminate all north-south improvements save Centinela in early 1975.

Nowell complained bitterly, arguing that the West LA Plan would “[turn] this city back into a bike and horse economy, like some cruddy little town” and predicting that the Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey Plan would turn LA into a “cow town because you can’t get around”. The city traffic engineer warned that “if people think traffic in the area is bad now, they ain’t seen nothing yet”. City Councilor Marvin Braude, one of the “environmentalist” councilors, argued that they had shifted the planning process on the Westside “to such things as car pools and rapid transit”, a claim that the last 40 years of history has proven dubious under the most generous definition of the word. Other opponents of development posited more metaphysical arguments, such as “suppose they widened the streets and no cars came”.

Ultimately, widening was restricted to Robertson, Overland, and Bundy-Centinela, though vestiges of the planned wider roads can still be found from Beverwil to Barrington. This requires the city to try to coerce Century City traffic into traveling over a mile east or west before heading south to access the 10.

Opponents of development also secured significant downzonings with the West LA Plan and Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey Plan. The latter plan, calling for preservation of SFRs, restricted zoning for apartments to areas where they were already being developed, primarily the area of Palms east of Overland with a few tendrils extending to the west. This was expected to reduce the population at build-out from 168,000 to 130,000. (Unfortunately, the articles don’t say how many units this represented; obviously, regional prices and rents will have an impact on household size, and consequently on population.)

The West LA Plan likewise downzoned areas that had been zoned for multi-family development, and expected to reduce population at build-out from 135,000 to 106,000. Around the same time, the permissible density of Century City was reduced, including a reduction in commercial space as well as slashing the number of residential units allowed from 8,000 to 4,000. The density allowed on Wilshire Blvd was also reduced.

By 1975, a new plan was in place for the Westside, one that envisioned a future of lower density and less traffic, but would only deliver on one of those promises.

Fast Forward to Today

There would be further challenges to urban density in the intervening years. For example, the Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky-backed Prop U (1986), reduced allowable FAR in most of the city’s commercial zones from 3 to 1.5. While Prop U targeted commercial development, C1 & C2 zones allow R3 & R4 uses by default, so Prop U effectively reduces residential development opportunity as well.

Century City commuters stubbornly refused to use Overland and Robertson, leading to further resident outcry over “cut through” traffic. But despite the promises of shifting planning away from the automobile, rapid transit and pedestrian/bicycle plans have also been stymied since that time. Plans for a subway on Wilshire were delayed for years by Henry Waxman’s 1985 ban on federal funds for subway construction on the Westside, and Zev Yaroslavsky’s 1998 ballot measure that precluded use of Measure A and Measure C funds for such purposes. The Expo Line will open soon, but only after overcoming several lawsuits from Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park residents. Westside streets remain auto-oriented, with some lacking sidewalks, and bike lanes being opposed by resident groups like the Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners’ Association.

Where Do We Go From Here? Or, Our Kingdom for a Boulevard

It should be clear that, in the modern framework of thinking about cities, there are no clean heroes or villains in this story. On one side, you had support for greater urban density, to be enabled by widening streets all over the place and hacking the Laurel Canyon, Beverly Hills, and Slauson Freeways into existence. On the other side, you had strong “environmentalist” support for eternal SFR neighborhoods without any meaningful support for rapid transit, resulting in innumerable hours of traffic misery for people forced to commute on the 10 and the 405.

For our purpose here – north-south transit on the Westside – we need to understand this history, and how it affects the transit options that are available. Congestion and the uneven street grid make it difficult to lay out effective, efficient transit lines on surface routes, but the low density neighborhoods call the practicality of fully grade-separated transit into question. From a transit perspective, the two biggest gaps in the arterial network are probably the lack of a direct north-south connection from Century City to points south, and the incomplete Barrington-McLaughlin-Slauson arterial. The former makes it difficult to plan any north-south transit service to Century City, including connection to the Expo Line, the only high-quality rapid transit service in the near term. The latter would allow for a nice surface BRT route from the Slauson Corridor to West LA along roads with no ramps to the 10 or the 405, avoiding the congestion caused by such facilities.

This post is not to say that all these street widening projects should be resurrected. US cities seem to be unusually adept at destroying themselves that way, though other cities since the time of Haussmann have shown you can have wide boulevards that are an urban amenity, and arterials that will hopefully have high-quality transit someday, like La Cienega, came into existence that way. The takeaway here is that the north-south roads, as they exist today, are the reality we have to work with, and they are going to make it difficult to get exclusive or semi-exclusive ROW. It’d be convenient if we had an Olympic Blvd, but we don’t. More on the potential north-south transit services next time.

For opponents of development on the Westside, the question is more philosophical, and I’d put it like this: you’ve been tilting at the windmills of traffic and density for 50 years now. But no neighborhood is an island. Century City can’t be unbuilt. UCLA and LAX aren’t going anywhere. Santa Monica, Venice, and Playa Vista are some of the hottest commercial markets in the region. People living in the Valley and South Bay are always going to have reasons to travel to the Westside; service industry workers are always going to need a place to live and a way to get to work. How much longer are you going to keep fighting a battle that can’t be won the way you’re fighting it?

Sources

Westwood Economic Study, City of Los Angeles (1963)

The Low-Rise Speculative Apartment, Wallace Francis Smith (1964)

Palms-Mar Vista-Del Rey Socioeconomic Study, City of Los Angeles (1970)

“Palms-Mar Vista Preliminary Plan Calls for Apartment Zone Rollback”, LA Times (January 23, 1972)

“West LA Plan Proposals Face Bitter Opposition”, LA Times (June 29, 1972)

“Resident, Developers Angered by Proposed Plans for Century City”, LA Times (August 13, 1972)

“Planners Will Tackle WLA Traffic Problems”, LA Times (November 12, 1972)

“Traffic Fears Delay WLA Plan’s Approval”, LA Times (November 19, 1972)

“West LA Plan Foretells Severe Traffic Congestion”, LA Times (March 11, 1973)

“West LA Plan Approved Over Protests Noise Was Ignored”, LA Times (November 15, 1973)

“West LA Plan OKd, Called Move Away From Autos”, LA Times (December 20, 1973)

“Mar Vista Resident Group Hits City Plan”, LA Times (February 24, 1974)

“Palms-Mar Vista Plan Approved”, LA Times (December 26, 1974)

“Environmentalists ‘Sweep’, Community Plan Wins Approval”, LA Times (April 24, 1975)

Let LA Be LA

Curbed LA has a nice feature profiling three ex-San Franciscans who’ve found themselves in Los Angeles. The comparison is perhaps a little unfair, because LA is so much larger geographically. SF’s 47 square miles would fit comfortably on LA’s Westside with room to spare, so we could just as well ask about people who moved from SF to Oakland, or Santa Monica to Highland Park. And before you pop the champagne to celebrate LA’s relatively easy life, remember that a much larger group of people could be profiled in an article titled “Former Californians Explain Why They Moved to Texas”.

The stories relate familiar problems of SF’s affordability crisis – steep rent increases, landlords unmoved to put derelict buildings in order, restaurants that look like iPads. And the qualities of LA mentioned – lower rent, ability to pursue other goals and get by on part time work, “room for mediocrity” – share a common theme. Lower residential and commercial rents increase opportunity, both economic and personal.

“Room for mediocrity” isn’t a great way to put it. What LA has is plenty of ordinary buildings, like dingbats and commercial strips, and that creates a lot of room different people and enterprises. That, in turn, allows for both ordinary and eclectic experiences, because people don’t have to focus on solely profitability. If you’re paying thousands a month for a residential studio and top rents for commercial space, you can’t afford to screw around with oddball ideas, at least not without an investment from the likes of Marc Andreessen. Venture capitalists might salivate over your questionable startup idea, but they’re not going to bankroll your pupuseria or specialty book store.

The troubling thing is that the Los Angeles that creates these opportunities is in jeopardy too. Increasing rents are pushing out lower income residents and marginally profitable businesses here as well.

The upside is that we don’t have to look far for inspiration. The building types and development patterns that helped create affordability and diversity of urban experience in Los Angeles are everywhere around us; all we have to do is decide to put them back to work for us. There’s no need to try to be Manhattan; all we need to do is be more like LA. Palms might need to be a little more like K-town, and neighborhoods in the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys might need to be a little more like Palms. If single-family is more your style, there’s plenty of room for more of that in places like Irvine and Ontario. Growth like this was an integral part of LA’s post-war boom, and it will be part of LA’s affordable future if there is one.

The hard part, of course, is that this would require entrenched interests to surrender a lot of control for an idea that’s not easy to articulate. It’s easy to pitch someone the Pearl District, not so easy when your goal is a city that offers everyone the opportunity to build an enjoyable life, whatever that might be.

Dingbat Renaissance

Note: for ease of understanding, all costs, prices, rents, and so on are presented in 2014 dollars, adjusted from 1964 dollars per the BLS inflation calculator.

Discussions on affordable housing in Los Angeles, and California in general, often include debate on how to maintain existing affordable housing stock. These buildings, constructed mainly in the 1950s and 1960s, are referred to as dingbats. They are invariably low-rise wood-frame and stucco construction, though there’s some variability in scale, from the classic single-lot six-unit dingbat to larger buildings constructed on several assembled single-family lots.

While there’s a lot of interest in preserving the affordable housing units in these buildings, there’s a curious lack of interest in how dingbats came to exist. Despite the fact that many were speculative, they were purpose-built affordable housing, and they were built in mass for decades. It stands to reason that a city facing a huge shortage of affordable housing should want to understand how the dingbats were built, and if we might build large amounts of affordable housing by the same process today.

Fortunately, the dingbats are not a mystery. In The Low-Rise Speculative Apartment, published in 1964, Wallace Francis Smith offers a detailed analysis of the dingbat construction boom then taking place in Oakland. Presciently, Smith concluded that dingbats were serving a useful function in society, and that their construction ought to be encouraged. As we will see, the opposite happened, but to start, let’s consider the factors that, per Smith, enabled construction of dingbats:

  • Savings looking for investment, and thus lending institutions with excess lending capacity.
  • Investors looking to buy small residential properties upon completion.
  • Depreciation tax incentives that made the properties attractive investments for high-income individuals, even if the nominal net cash flow from operations was very small.
  • Low cost of land per dwelling unit (du), median $10,700.
  • Low cost of construction per du, median $47,185.
  • Short duration of construction, median 7-9 months but as little as 3 months.
  • Zoning that allowed single-family residences (SFRs) to be replaced by dingbat apartment construction.

Parking requirements, as enacted by Oakland in 1961, were determined to increase construction costs, but not to the extent that they stopped construction altogether. Rather, marginal projects (which logically include the most affordable dwelling units) became impossible to build profitably.

These conditions produced a large quantity of affordable units. One bedroom units, averaging 635 SF, rented for an average of $820/month. Two bedroom units, averaging 835 SF, rented for an average $1,055/month. You can scarcely rent something in the oldest buildings in the cheapest neighborhoods in LA today, let alone new construction.

Dingbat Factors Today

Ok, all of that is great for people in 1964. What about 2014? Could the same combination of factors allow for a boom in affordable housing construction in Los Angeles today?

The first three factors relate to availability of financing and willing investors. This is not the area of expertise for this blog, but lending capacity does not seem to be an issue. Neither does the ability to find investors; consider the current level of foreign interest in owning real estate in US cities. Tax structures relating to depreciation are not something that can be addressed at the city level, and would require federal action.

The next three factors concern the costs of planning, permitting, and building the project. Cost of land per dwelling unit was very low for the dingbats. Assuming R4 zoning, which allows 12 du on a 5,000 SF lot, you’d have to be able to buy such a lot for $125,000 to get similar land costs per unit. You simply cannot find buildable lots that cheaply in LA today.

Construction costs were also very low, with the figures above equating to about $75/SF for building a dingbat. This is not out of line for construction of SFRs today; you can buy new SFR construction for as little as $85/SF in places like Adelanto. Perhaps it’s possible to see classic dingbats as big SFRs. On the other hand, dingbat construction is universally considered to be low quality, good enough only to meet the building codes of the time, lacking in amenities like, say, soundproofing between apartments. In addition, changes in seismic building codes in response to the 1970 Sylmar earthquake and the 1994 Northridge earthquake have undoubtedly increased construction costs for structures with open stories on the ground floor, like the classic dingbat carport. Today’s multifamily construction costs are much higher, often over $200/SF.

Duration of construction indirectly impacts construction costs, because carrying costs are increased when the duration of construction is longer. Much construction, including many of the original dingbats, is financed by a construction loan, which is paid off and replaced by a permanent loan when the building is complete (or when the speculative builder sells the completed building to an investor). Construction loans usually have higher interest rates than permanent loans. The faster construction can be completed, the faster the building can be put into revenue use and the construction loan retired. The city can reduce duration of construction by facilitating permitting and working to schedule building inspections so that they minimize downtime on the jobsite.

Lastly, there’s the need for zoning that allows dingbat construction. In LA, this generally means R3 or R4, which allow 6 du and 12 du on a typical 5,000 SF (50’ by 100’) lot, with R3 corresponding to the classic image of a dingbat. R5 zoning allows 25 du on such a lot, but this can’t practically be accomplished with wood-frame construction given setback, height, and floor-to-area (FAR) zoning requirements. Since 1970, zoning changes have significantly reduced the amount of R3 and R4 zoned land, especially in areas like the Westside. While small apartment buildings are still built in neighborhoods like Palms, in most places, they are precluded by zoning.

Parking requirements are part of zoning; in LA, zoning stipulates 1 spot per studio, 1.5 spots per 1 bedroom apartment, and 2 spots per 2+ bedroom apartment. As we shall see shortly, they have a major impact on the cost and feasibility of small apartment building construction, particularly on small lots.

Let a Thousand Dingbats Bloom

Given these parameters, let’s try to make dingbat construction work today, and see what cost inputs we might be able to change.

Dingbat, 1964

Now, what do good engineers do before performing tests? They calibrate their equipment! So first, here’s a shot at analysis of dingbat construction in 1964.

dingbat costs

The columns on the left present a breakdown of total costs and costs per unit. “Soft costs” refers to things like design and permitting; other cost categories are hopefully self-explanatory. At center, you can see we are assuming a classic 6-unit dingbat, the typical 635 SF 1-BR apartment size, and construction costs of $75/SF. “Efficiency” refers to the ratio of usable apartment space to total building size, which includes unproductive areas like stairwells. At right are assumptions for several cost categories: soft costs are assumed to be 10% of construction, marketing 1% of construction, carrying costs 8% of land plus demolition plus construction, and profit 6% of land plus demolition plus construction.

To convert this to a monthly rent, we first calculate a monthly mortgage payment by taking the cost per unit and amortizing it out over 30 years, at an assumed loan rate of 6%. Since rents must also cover building operating costs and unit vacancies between tenants, we divide the mortgage payment by 70% and then 95%, thereby accounting for 5% vacancy and operating costs equal to 30% of gross rents. Operating costs of 30% are a little on the lean side for LA apartment buildings, but not unreasonable.

And, voila! We get a monthly rent in the vicinity of the rents reported by Smith in 1964. Note two things here. First, a rough guess of monthly rent is about 0.90% of total costs. This is a little higher than some other estimates I found (0.75% to 0.80%), but let’s err on the side of caution. (If you assume an equity investment of 20%, you could cover the mortgage and operating costs with monthly rent of 0.73%.) Second, we can assess the contribution of each cost category to monthly rent. As you’d expect, construction costs dominate, followed by land costs.

Palms West, 2014

Back to the present. What would a small development look like on the Westside? Fire up ZIMAS and look to the north and west of Palms, and you’ll see large areas in yellow, which indicates R1 single-family zoning.

ZIMAS

Looking at some of the less expensive areas, you can find an SFR in for something like $800,000. Let’s assume it’s upzoned to R3, which would allow six units. I know a lot of readers don’t like bundled parking, but for the sake of argument, assume it’s hard to sell condos in these neighborhoods without parking. Since they’re primarily single-family, there’s not a lot in walking distance and it might be a hike to decent transit. Yes, condos. Not your parents’ dingbats, but when you’re paying that much for land, it’s probably the way to go. Here’s one possible configuration, meeting city parking and setback requirements.

WV1

Four stories, parking on the ground level, and two units per floor above that. I assumed elevators would be required for all buildings. This gives you as simple a design as possible for the podium, which would probably have to be concrete. Costs are presented below.

Westside 1 costs

Soft costs were increased to 15%, to account for increased permitting and design costs, and marketing to 8%. Construction costs were assumed to be $225/SF, a rough estimate based on a variety of sources for podium type construction. Could you sell these generously sized 1-BR condos for about $525,000 on the Westside today? I think so.

Here’s another option for Westside development, with a three-story building that has four small units and two large units. I bumped construction costs up to $250/SF to account for the higher proportion of concrete.

WV2

Westside 2 costs

For this option, I split all costs except construction equally among the units. This gives some units just under $400,000. Distributing costs differently would decrease the price for the small units, but increase it for the large ones.

Vermont Knolls, 2014

Fine, you say, but wasn’t the point of this post to look at affordable housing? Let’s take this model to Vermont Knolls, a part of South LA bounded by the 110, Normandie, Manchester, and Florence. Some areas are zoned R3, but most are zoned for less density (RD, R2, or R1). Here, the cost of a single-family lot is something like $300,000.

To drive down the cost of land per unit, let’s assume it’s upzoned to R4, which again allows 12 du on a normal lot. Here, we can really see the impact of parking requirements. Even if all 12 units are nominally studios, the zoning requires 12 parking spaces, which would be nearly impossible to configure on a 5,000 SF lot with only 50’ of street frontage. Let’s assume the city eliminates parking requirements; we’ll still throw in a few parking spaces out front – they’re nearly free and would generate some additional revenue.

SLA1

Three stories, four apartments each floor. Construction costs were assumed to be $140/SF, on the low end of what I’ve seen for low-rise construction in LA. Soft costs were dropped back to 10%, on the assumptions that design costs would be reduced by working from a cookie cutter plan and that the city would facilitate permitting and inspection. Marketing was dropped to 1%; affordable apartments rent themselves.

South LA 1 costs

Hitting rents under $1,300/month is a big deal. Why? Well, if we raise the minimum wage to $13/hr, a full-time minimum wage worker would make about $26,000/year. A two-worker household would earn about $52,000/year. Using the 30% of income standard, a brand new $1,300/month apartment is affordable for such a household. If construction costs could be driven down more, all the better; for example, at $100/SF, the rent would be about $1,000/month.

Here’s another option, going with four stories and a mix of studio/1BR (ground floor), 2BR (floors 2-3), and small 3BR apartments (floor 4). Costs were apportioned the same way as the Westside plan.

SLA2 South LA 2 costs

I’m not sure if these larger size apartments would be competitive with existing rental stock. Again, driving construction costs down would make a big difference; at $100/SF, the 1BRs would be about $1,000/month, the 2BRs around $1,200/month, and the 3BRs $1,550/month.

ADU Sidebar

What’s even more affordable than dingbats? Accessory dwelling units. These can be very basic one-story wood-frame projects. If the property owner does the development, there’s no land or demolition cost, and we can safely assume true SFR construction costs, say $80/SF. For a 700 SF ADU, we get the following costs.

ADU costs

Importance of Single Lot Projects

Readers have probably noticed that all the development concepts in this post are based on single lot projects. Lot assembly greatly facilitates things; for example, by putting two lots together, you eliminate the lost space of the side setbacks between them, which lets you offer larger apartments. This will also drive down costs per square foot, because larger apartments usually include more cheaply built living space, rather than more expensive kitchen and bathroom space.

However, I think the ability to profitably develop a single lot is crucial, because it eliminates the potential for adjacent owners to hold out for huge payouts. Indeed, as Smith notes, most of the original dingbats were built without even considering lot assembly, which was deemed to add too much time to the process. If a single lot can be developed profitably, it’s mutually beneficial if adjoining owners decide to consolidate and develop a larger building. This also eliminates the need for city planning agencies to go down into the weeds and use eminent domain to assemble lots large enough to be feasible. The city could facilitate single lot projects by reducing or eliminating parking requirements and reducing setbacks.

Be Proactive, Not Reactive

An approach to affordable housing that strives to enable market-rate construction of projects like these all over the city is a more proactive policy. Trying to save existing affordable units, while necessary in the short run due to California’s terrible housing situation, can only slow down, but never reverse, the worsening affordability problem. Note that projects like the Westside condo examples presented are critical to this approach to housing, because they alleviate market demand for upscale neighborhoods. If development is strangled on the Westside, gentrification elsewhere is almost inevitable.

This approach isn’t available to every city. LA is large city, and have a variety of neighborhoods, including some where land costs are not prohibitively high. This may not be true for a place like San Francisco, where it seems improbable that $1,500/month 2BRs could be built in the city under current conditions. Because counties and municipalities are smaller in the Bay Area, there will likely need to be more cooperation between jurisdictions.

In LA, though, we should be able to permit and encourage construction of a variety of housing. We ought to do so while we have the chance.

This post owes a debt of gratitude to this post on costs in SF by Mark Hogan, and helpful interaction from @markasaurus, @eparillon, and @mottsmith on Twitter.

*Smith gives $44,315 as the permit construction cost. In Appendix A, this is estimated to represent 82% of total development costs, which included lending and marketing costs. Actual construction costs were estimated as 87.31% of total development costs. Therefore, I assumed actual construction cost per unit was 0.8731 * ($44,315 / 0.82) = $47,185.

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.