Tag Archives: Skyscraper

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Skyscraper Sueños

Here we go again with the skyscrapers. This time, it’s an editorial in the LA Downtown News worrying about the lost opportunity of the current spate of mid-rise construction. The basic thought process behind these pieces is “I really like skyscrapers” and from there, proceeding to come up with reasons for their construction. Kind of like the streetcar fad.

I’ve said before that I have no opposition to skyscrapers. I think they’re cool. I’m pretty excited to see the new Wilshire Grand go up. If developers want to build skyscrapers, more power to them!

However, the editorial is wrong on just about every count. Here’s a rundown:

  • This is a once-in a generation opportunity to go tall. It doesn’t matter. In 1983, how many people thought Downtown LA would be the way it is today? Anybody telling you that they know what downtown will or should be like in 2043 is overconfident in their ability to predict the future.
  • Once the parking lots disappear, so does the opportunity to go tall. Not really. Towers going up in places like New York are replacing mid-rise construction. If the market for skyscrapers exists and they are not precluded by foolish zoning and permitting laws, they will be constructed.
  • We’ll run out of sites to redevelop. LA is an enormous city. The idea that we are going to run out of parking lots and low-rise buildings that could be redeveloped any time in near future just doesn’t pass the laugh test.
  • Downtown is the center of the region. LA is the prototype of polycentrism. There are job centers all over the place. It makes just as much sense to have more residential development in Burbank, in El Segundo, in Long Beach, on the Westside, in the Valley – basically, everywhere – as it does downtown.
  • Downtown has the region’s best public transportation. This is true to some extent, though it sort of equates “public transportation” with “rail transportation”. But even if you ignore the possibility for easy improvements to bus service, which we obviously shouldn’t, rail lines are going to be coming to other places with projects like Crenshaw/LAX, Sepulveda Pass, and so on.
  • Downtown can and should support more density. This is true, but it implies that other areas can’t and shouldn’t support more density, which is false. The editorial cites the battle against Millennium Towers in Hollywood, but that project is more symbolic density than anything else. We could get more density more quickly by allowing mid-rise construction in a larger part of the city than we could by encouraging skyscrapers downtown.
  • We need to go tall close to Metro stops. I have written before that TOD plans are an oversimplification of how cities work, and presume a level of knowledge no one has, so I’ll refer you to those posts.

Thankfully, the conclusion is pretty accurate: it recommends against ill-advised policies like minimum density zoning, and suggests that we need to make the permitting process easier. I’m in complete agreement there. But we shouldn’t be spending limited public resources on subsidizing developers. The idea that urban planners or city officials know what type of development is appropriate better than the market is just wrong.