Tag Archives: Podium

Dingbat City

Long time readers know that this blog holds the dingbat in high regard, perhaps not for its architectural styling, but as a symbol of a development process that allowed natural evolution of neighborhoods and created tons of instantly affordable housing at a time of rapid growth in LA. Indeed, we’ve gone so far as to suggest that if we want to increase affordability in LA, we need to figure out how to resurrect the spirit of the dingbat.

Dingbats, like any mass-produced building type, have their shortcomings. These are mostly related to use of cheap construction materials for things like windows, poor insulation and soundproofing, and seismic issues stemming from their iconic open carports (which were poorly understood at the time). However, a recent opinion column in the Santa Monica Daily Press tries to conflate these fixable problems with fatal, but fictional, flaws related to density and design, and then conflate dingbats with the five-story podium buildings that, thanks to a recent downzoning, won’t be built on Santa Monica’s commercial boulevards.

After lampooning an architect who improved many people’s lives by making possible for them to move to Los Angeles instead of trying to keep them out, the column reaches the crux of its anti-dingbat argument by asking:

“Don’t most people want. . . elements missing from the dingbats. . . light, openness, blue sky, scale and proportion, privacy, sustainability, and amenities such as courtyards, with trees and landscaping, that enhance one’s quality of life?”

You know what else enhances one’s quality of life? Not having to spend an exorbitant portion of one’s income on housing! Maybe you want trees and landscaping, or the light that so many buildings are said to lack, though I’ve never heard of a dingbat denizen dying from lack of sunlight. On the other hand, maybe you’re working two jobs, or both working and attending school. You need a low-cost apartment, and the “scale and proportion” is the last thing on your mind. Why should a bunch of NIMBYs decide what type of housing you can have? Shouldn’t you get to choose?

In an effort to get you to think that no, you shouldn’t, the column pivots to a discussion of the need to trim one’s wish list when building a dream home, likening it to trimming the development density allowed in Santa Monica’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE). But of course, a downzoning isn’t about NIMBYs trimming their wish lists, it’s about everyone else – young people, low income residents, recent arrivals – making sacrifices for the NIMBYs.

In trying to make that leap from two-story dingbats to five-story podiums, the column falls flat. Modern podium buildings are much better buildings than dingbats thanks to advancements in construction technology, improvements in building codes and design, and the state energy code. Many of the new podium buildings recently constructed in Santa Monica – the kind the column’s author doesn’t want any more of – include the amenities whose absence in dingbats the column bemoans. In fact, the downzonings favored by NIMBYs will help to ensure that many people have no affordable housing option other than the dingbats. It’s kind of strange to slag the dingbats, and then oppose the construction of modern housing too. If you want people to have options other than dingbats, you might want to advocate for those options to be built.

The truth is that NIMBYs don’t really care about building design that much; they just don’t like any density. Likewise, they will pretend to care about affordable housing to the extent needed to align politically with people who oppose development for other reasons, like displacement. For example, a previous column in the Santa Monica Daily Press called for increasing housing affordability by converting office space to residential, a plan that could only have an impact on housing prices if it drove up commercial rents and started forcing small businesses out of Santa Monica. NIMBYs don’t have to care about design or affordability, but they should be called on it when they pretend they do.

As for the stucco box vernacular, you don’t have to love it, but until you have a plan to mass produce higher-quality affordable housing, you should at least respect it.

Four LA-Native Housing Types that are Ready to go to Work Solving Our Affordable Housing Problem

LA needs a housing boom. Not just in downtown or Hollywood or Santa Monica, but everywhere. From Reseda to Harbor Gateway, Palms to Fontana, Bellflower to Mar Vista. It can’t be just a few enormous projects; we need thousands and thousands of small projects all of the region. To paraphrase Mao, let a thousand dingbats bloom, let a thousand accessory dwelling units contend.

In that spirit, here’s four housing types already found all over LA that are good to go. All we gotta do is let them do their thing.

Dingbats

We sort of have to start here, don’t we? The dingbat is probably the definitive LA apartment type. Reviled by architecture critics and urbanists for their style, doubted by structural engineers for their seismic stability, lived in by hundreds of thousands for their undeniable functionality and cost effectiveness.

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On the style count, well, everyone can’t be as beautiful as Andres Duany. If you care about architecture, worry about making sure that architectural variety and experimentation aren’t being sacrificed at the altar of neighborhood character. Most of us can’t afford Hermès, but we’ll happily take Forever XXI.

On the seismic count, the problem with dingbats is the open nature of the first level caused by parking bays. (In engineering parlance, it’s a soft story because it has much less shear strength than the solid-wall apartments above.) This can be fixed pretty easily by (1) reducing parking requirements and eliminating the problem in the first place and (2) engineering better connections between the steel supports and the wood above. It’s a trivial problem – really.

Where should they be built? Just about anywhere in LA County. In the City of LA, the sweet spot for dingbats is probably neighborhoods that are currently zoned for minimal multiple-family (RD or R2) where dingbats could probably be built under R3 or R4.

Attached Apartments

Regardless of the zoning code’s approval or lack thereof, accessory dwelling units and attached apartments abound across the city. It’s a win-win-win: the region gets a bunch of apartments supervised by someone who’s bound to really give a crap about the impact of their tenants (i.e. an on-site owner), owners get some bonus income from renting the units, and renters get, you know, a place to call their own.

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You see these here and there in places like Palms and Torrance, sometimes even purpose-built as SFRs with apartments in back. In a few places, like Hawthorne, you see them all over the place. It’s a really natural addition to neighborhoods.

Where should they be built? Any single-family neighborhood that hasn’t seen an increase in supply in about 50 years. In the City of LA, this is everything R1 and below.

Cudahy Lots

Way back at the turn of the last century, LA was seeing a large number of immigrants from the Midwest, looking for better weather and better work. Michael Cudahy enticed a bunch of them to buy long, skinny lots (50’-100’ wide by 600’-800’ long) in his eponymous city, with the idea being that you could build a house and have a huge back yard for a garden or orchard.

As the population of LA County boomed, these lots were redeveloped into apartment complexes that are sort of like the megafauna of railroad flats.

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The resulting urban form looks like low-rise suburbia, but creates surprisingly high densities: Cudahy is the second-densest city in California (after Maywood).

In addition to their namesake city, Cudahy lot redevelopments can be found in places like El Monte. Historically, these redevelopments have been mostly 1-2 story low-rise, but there should be no harm in letting them go to 3-4 stories and do apartments.

Where should they be built? Any place that has the requisite lot type. This includes Sylmar, Avocado Heights, Fontana, several parts of San Bernardino, Jurupa Valley, parts of the Antelope Valley, and the remaining lots in Cudahy and El Monte.

Podiums

You know podiums – they’re those mid-rises with up to 7 stories of wood-frame construction sitting on top of a story or two of concrete base. The height limitations are due to seismic code and fire code requirements, which in LA essentially mandate steel and concrete construction for anything over 75’ tall.

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Podiums often draw a lot of architectural criticism (first law of affordable housing – the more reviled it is, the better the job it’s doing at being affordable, right down to the ultimate rural affordable housing, the universally despised trailer park). As I’ve said before, this blog isn’t in the business of worrying about architecture. Podiums are great as a building form, and like any, they can be executed well or not so well.

In the scheme of housing, podiums are the last gasp of cost-effective wood-frame construction before you’re forced to incur the costs of steel and concrete frames. The first three options in this post can be constructed for around $60-$100 per square foot. With podiums, cost rise up to around $200/SF, so they’ll always be more expensive to build. The trade-off is usually taking a smaller unit, and perhaps being able to save on transportation. Of course, after the building capital costs have been paid off and the units start to filter, rents can fall in older buildings.

High-rises cost considerably more, around $400-$500/SF, which is why affordable housing solutions that depend on them are a bad idea when there’s enough room for the four cheaper options presented here. High-rises still play an important role, though, because they satisfy luxury demand and prevent it from bidding up prices for low-rise and mid-rise construction. That’s why we should allow construction of (unsubsidized) market-rate high-rises.

Fortunately, LA is a huge region, and we have plenty of space to grow. We can build all the housing we need without needing high-rises for a long, long time.

Where should they be built? Anywhere on the Westside, much of Southbay, parts of the Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, San Bernardino, and Riverside.

Do the Math

Recent estimates have put LA County’s deficit of affordable housing units at about 500,000. Population growth probably requires somewhere around 30,000 units per year, so let’s round that up to 50,000 per year (on the assumption that more affordable housing would increase population growth).

So, if we could build 100,000 housing units per year for the next 10 years, we’d be getting back on track. That may seem like a daunting task, but if you break it down, I think it’s achievable. Maybe it looks something like this, every year:

  • 10,000 SFRs (basically Antelope Valley & Santa Clarita)
  • 20,000 ADUs
  • 30,000 dingbat units (or 3,750 8-unit buildings per year)
  • 35,000 podium units (or 350 100-unit buildings per year)
  • 5,000 Cudahy lot units (or 333 15-unit buildings per year)

Aren’t these numbers a little audacious? Not really. This boils down to building 27 SFRs and 55 ADUs per day, along with about 10 dingbats, 1 podium, and 1 Cudahy lot redevelopment. This amount of construction might be a little jarring at first, just because we’ve adjusted to a slow growth level of construction. But technically, it’s trivial – does anyone really think it’s hard to find the capital, materials, and labor to build one podium per day? These targets are the equivalent of building about 275 housing units per day.

Realistically, you probably wouldn’t even have to hit those targets, because market-rate high-rises, non-profit developers, and institutional builders (like universities) will also be building units.

As with any product, the way you reduce costs is by standardizing the plans and the procedures for putting them together. In some future posts, we’ll take a look at how that can be done in the case of these housing types.

People Move to Suburbs Because They’re Cheap, Volume 1

As part of trying to keep track of larger trends, I’m following the suburban development homes being offered by the major builders. Partly, this is because others (like Curbed) are already keeping good tabs on development in LA County. But also, urban redevelopment projects tend to be more unique, depending on the specific developer goals, location, land costs, difficulty of permitting, and so on. In the suburbs, we can look at projects in different communities by the same developer, which makes it easier to compare costs across communities, or we can look at projects in the same community by different developers, which makes it easier to compare developers.

In this post, I’m going to take a quick look at some different developments by D.R. Horton, which as of late February has 33 developments in some stage of progress in LA, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial Counties. Of these, 19 were in Riverside County, highlighting the uneven nature of the recovery. Note, D.R. Horton doesn’t put prices for all models on their website, so I’m making some reasonable assumptions indicated by with a ~, e.g. assuming that “high 200s” is about $290,000.

Now, you can get different customizations and finishes, but the big home builders are basically working off a few common plans they’ve developed. Peruse D.R. Horton and you’ll see a 2,798 SF option pop up regularly, priced as follows:

  • Indio (Mountain Estates): ~$315,000
  • Murrieta (Iris): ~$385,000
  • Temecula (Morgan Heights): ~$500,000
  • Eastvale (Noble): $550,400

Those are all in Riverside County.

Nothing too surprising here. Temecula is closer to San Diego County than Murrieta. Eastvale is one of the closest Riverside County cities to Orange County. Indio is the suburban fringe of the Coachella Valley. In other words, location matters, just like you’d expect.

There’s a common thread of urbanist thought that goes something like “operating a car costs about $8,000/yr, so you can afford to pay more for housing if you live in a place where you don’t need a car”. This has been extended to suggest that banks should consider household transportation costs when deciding if they should make loans, i.e. if household needs one less car, they can afford a larger loan. And indeed, the difference between Murrieta and Temecula at current 30-year fixed rates (4.35%) is about $6,950 per year – about the same as the cost of operating a car.

So let’s say that living in Temecula instead of Murrieta would let one person in the family bike to work instead of drive, allowing the family to get rid of a car. Why wouldn’t a bank give the family a larger mortgage to buy the same house in that case?

Because it’s a 30-year loan, and few people work in the same place for 30 years. If the person working in Temecula in the family living in Temecula loses his/her job and finds a new one in Menifee, now the family needs another car. Or, if the person loses his/her job and can’t find a new one, there’s no way for the family to quickly reduce its fixed expenses. If the person working in Temecula in the family living Murrieta loses his/her job and can’t find a new one, the family could reduce fixed expenses pretty quickly by selling a car. Simply put, it would be crazy for a bank to make a 30-year loan that depends on transportation costs being stable.

To finally reach my point, the real tradeoff that you make when you decide to live closer to the city is housing size: you accept a smaller dwelling in order to be closer. For example, you could get a 2,414 SF house in Fontana for around $390,000, or you could get an 1,851 SF townhouse in Rancho Cucamonga for about the same price. Of course, this pattern is distorted by zoning and other things like Prop 13, which encourages communities to try to drive up housing prices.

If you look at things on a per SF basis, prices increase as you move towards the more desirable areas, and there will be thresholds at which more expensive types of construction become feasible. While prowling around Save Marinwood and Quiet and Safe San Rafael, I found a presentation by John Burns that gives relative costs of construction: about $60/SF for SFR, about $90/SF for garden apartments, and about $200/SF for podium construction.

D.R. Horton’s most affordable properties, in Adelanto and Imperial, are selling for about $100/SF, around 165% of construction costs. Assuming that zoning allows for it, and market conditions and regulation don’t favor buying over renting, that means garden apartments become economic when prices hit about $150/SF, and podiums when prices hit about $330/SF.

The threshold for garden apartments is pretty low; based on D.R. Horton’s SFR pricing, they already make sense in places like Fontana and Murrieta. Podium construction has a higher threshold; Santa Clarita is getting close, but only LA and Orange County pencil out. Note that this is a gross simplification. Small (1-2 person) households often don’t want dwellings as large as SFRs. In a place like Adelanto, a lot of single people could be accommodated in things like garage apartments, let rooms, and so on, if permitted. At small dwelling unit sizes, prices don’t scale linearly because of fixed costs like bathrooms and kitchens, which are more expensive per SF than bedrooms or living rooms.

However crude it is, this analysis is consistent with the expectation that there is a logical progression of densities as you approach more desirable areas: SFRs to garden apartments to podiums.

I should point out that by this logic, high-rise construction doesn’t make sense until prices go above about $500-$600/SF – a level that only some places in LA have reached. Not to beat a dead horse, but I feel compelled to again emphasize that the debate is not about the aesthetics of mid-rise versus high-rise construction. It is affordability versus unaffordability. If your vision is high-rises instead of mid-rises, your vision is an unaffordable Los Angeles. There’s no two ways about it.

When Does More Expensive Construction Make Sense?

One of the most common criticisms of things like Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary is that they increase housing costs. This is undeniably true, at least on a per SF basis, because denser construction costs more. While prowling around Save Marinwood and Quiet and Safe San Rafael, I found a presentation by John Burns that gives relative costs of construction: about $60/SF for SFR, about $90/SF for garden apartments, and about $200/SF for podium construction. While you might be able to save on transportation costs by living closer to your job, in general the tradeoff you make is accepting a smaller dwelling in exchange for living in a more desirable area.

Still, even with no urban growth boundary to speak of, at some point, agglomeration effects cause prices to rise to the point where more expensive types of construction make sense. See, for example, Los Angeles. When does that happen?

As part of trying to keep track of larger trends, I’ve started following the suburban development homes being offered by the major builders. Partly, this is because others (like Curbed) are already keeping good tabs on development in LA and Orange County. But also, urban redevelopment projects tend to be more unique, depending on the specific developer goals, location, land costs, difficulty of permitting, and so on. In the suburbs, we can look at projects in different communities by the same developer, which makes it easier to compare costs across communities, or we can look at projects in the same community by different developers, which makes it easier to compare developers.

D.R. Horton is a major builder in the region, as of early November it had 25 developments in progress in LA, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial Counties. Of these, 14 were in Riverside County, highlighting the uneven nature of the recovery. D.R. Horton’s most affordable properties, in Adelanto and Imperial, are selling for about $100/SF, around 165% of construction costs.

Therefore, assuming that zoning allows for it, and market conditions and regulation don’t favor buying over renting, that means garden apartments become economic when prices hit about $150/SF, and podiums when prices hit about $330/SF.

The threshold for garden apartments is pretty low; based on D.R. Horton’s SFR pricing, they already make sense in places like Fontana and Murrieta. Podium construction has a higher threshold; Santa Clarita is getting close, and LA and Orange County pencil out. Note that this is a gross simplification. Small (1-2 person) households often don’t want dwellings as large as SFRs. In a place like Adelanto, a lot of single people could be accommodated in things like garage apartments, let rooms, and so on, if permitted. At small sizes, prices don’t scale linearly because of fixed costs like bathrooms and kitchens, which are more expensive per SF than bedrooms or living rooms.

However crude it is, this analysis is consistent with the expectation that there is a logical progression of densities as you approach more desirable areas: SFRs to garden apartments to podiums.

I should point out that by this logic, high-rise construction doesn’t make sense until prices go above about $700/SF – a level that almost nowhere in Los Angeles has reached. Not to beat a dead horse, but I feel compelled to again emphasize that the debate is not about the aesthetics of mid-rise versus high-rise construction. It is affordability versus unaffordability. If your vision is high-rises instead of mid-rises, your vision is an unaffordable Los Angeles. There’s no two ways about it.

Podiums Are the New Dingbats

Apologies for light posting lately; hopefully things will be back to normal soon. I’m working on some longer items, but in the meantime, just a quick post to build on a few things I’ve written about before.

Last weekend, I checked out some new apartments that were opened a few months ago at the corner of Palms and Motor. They’re renting for about $2.50-$3.00/SF, with the cheapest 1BR checking in at $1,775. That’s not exactly cheap, but it isn’t terrible for new construction, especially considering that the building must have had higher construction costs due to building a couple levels of parking. With new true podiums nearby on Motor and Palms coming online soon, we’ll see how they’re priced. I’m paying much less, but I’m in a considerably older building.

Dingbats were the prototypical affordable housing in built-up areas of LA. They feature efficient parking design, with parking tucked underneath on a lower level, and the wood-frame apartments above. However, the open nature of the lower level means it has less shear strength, so if a big earthquake hits my apartment might be going for a short but spicy ride that ends on top of those cars. To avoid this design flaw, you need to beef up the performance of the lower level, which usually means podium style construction: reinforced concrete columns and deck for the lower level, wood-frame construction above.

Once you’ve triggered the expense of  concrete construction on the lower level, you might as well go as tall as you can with the wood-frame above, to  distribute the costs of the high-cost portion over more units. That’s generally about five or six stories, provided the zoning allow you to do so and you can meet the parking requirements with only one level. In other words, podiums are the new dingbats – the best way to max out a site with low-cost housing.

Of course, if you can avoid the need for the podium through something like reduced parking requirements, you can keep housing costs even lower.