Tag Archives: urban planning

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.

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Torre David: What is an Informal Community?

Almost a year ago, Torre David briefly flashed through the US city planning universe, thanks to an article on Atlas Obscura that linked to a short film.

Torre David refers to a complex of high-rise buildings in Caracas that were abandoned in the middle of construction in 1994 when the Venezuelan financial sector collapsed. By historical accident, the project was suspended at a point where the buildings were substantially complete. The structural frames and floor slabs were done, stairs (but not stairwells) were finished, and portions of the curtain wall had been attached. The site sat in suspended animation for 13 years until a rainy night in 2007, when people evicted from another squat converged on the tower. The guards relented and allowed them in.

Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities (Lars Muller Publishers) by Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, with photos by Iwan Baan, offers an attempt at the detailed study warranted by this unusual community. The book is split into four main parts: Past, Present, Possibility, and Potential, including a graphic novella in the first part.

Past and Present

Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of the book is dedicated to the past and present of Torre David, allowing the community’s history and present condition to speak for itself. The authors also provide geographic and social context for Torre David – its place in Caracas, the geography and growth of Caracas, the impact of political upheavals such as the policies of Hugo Chavez. The photographs, for their part, are simply stunning.

The authors are the cofounders of Urban-Think Tank, and Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, lending a heavy architectural influence to the analysis. In this regard, the book truly shines. Crisp graphics paint a clear, detailed spatial picture of the buildings. The researchers have surveyed every occupied floor of each building in the complex, including the ingeniously improvised electrical and water systems. Flipping back and forth through these graphics, one can’t help but lament that similar respect wasn’t shown to that other famous informal vertical settlement, the Kowloon Walled City, before it was demolished.

Physically, the complex consists of a ten-story parking garage, an atrium intended to be the main entrance, and three buildings. The buildings are known as Edificio A (the 45-story high rise most often referred to as Torre David), Edificio B (19 stories), and Edificio K (19 stories, connecting the parking garage to Edificios A and B on floors 6-17). Access is via the parking garage, where residents can hire taxis or motorbikes to take them up to the tenth floor, then through Edificio K and across vertiginous 12-inch gap in the floor to Edificios A and B.

The initial occupation focused on Edificio A, now occupied up through the 28th floor, which offers a gym and children’s play space with an airy view. Vertical circulation is through only one staircase, with the other staircase having been converted to a shaft for utilities. Recently, apartment construction has been focused on Edificio B and the Atrium (imagine building an apartment on one of the upper levels of your local indoor mall). In addition to apartments, there are also several small stores, a hair salon, and a church.

Most media refers to Torre David as a vertical slum, but the photographs reveal a wide size and variety of housing. Apartments near the edge of the structure are more desirable, since they offer better natural light and ventilation relative to those near the building core. Apartments range from several bedrooms down to what US city dwellers would know as singles, bachelors, and studios. As time passes, apartments are upgraded with amenities like bathrooms, kitchen sinks, dishwashers, and clothes washers.

Some apartments are undeniably spartan, with minimal furnishings, unfinished concrete floors, walls of large red clay bricks, and no ceiling other than the preexisting steel trusses and concrete deck. However, other residents have invested a significant amount of time and money into their dwellings, installing linoleum floors, floor or wall tiles, and drop ceilings. You could post these places on Craigslist in New York or San Francisco at normal rents and have a lot of interested inquiries. (Actually, how many people in New York or San Francisco would like the opportunity to get an unimproved space and turn it into an apartment over time?) And in any case, however improvised the tenant improvements might be, residents of Torre David have a solid roof over their heads and solid floor under their feet, something not enjoyed by all barrio dwellers.

Converging on Formality

The authors call Torre David an informal vertical community, but it’s an interesting question to ask what we mean by formality in the first place. Certainly, the residents of Torre David do not submit plans to the Department of Building and Safety and dial them up for shower pan inspection when building a bathroom. Yet it would also be inaccurate to describe Torre David as chaotic or anarchical. Far from it.

From the very beginning, the viability of the occupation of the complex depended on social networks. On the day it was initiated, it depended on the ability of squatters to muster a large enough crowd that the complex guards assigned to keep people out would be overwhelmed by the volume of human desperation confronting them.

Torre David also has its own bureaucratic structure, which the authors describe as an authoritarian democracy. The governing cooperative, the Asociasion Cooperativa de Vivienda “Casiques de Venizuela” RL, was officially registered in 2009. Most residents are Evangelical Pentecostal Christians and attend services in the complex church, presided over by Alexander Daza, who is also the president of the cooperative. (The book is notably silent on Daza; perhaps this is the price of access, perhaps he is simply not that interesting.) An inner circle around Daza makes decisions, and then lower level of leadership and floor coordinators work with residents to maintain space and utilities.

Each family pays $15 per month to the cooperative for services including electricity, water, and security. Utilities were pirated at first, but the cooperative now purchases them and employs its own crews to maintain the electrical and water systems of the buildings. The cooperative also employs its own security guards to control access to the compound. Residents can be evicted if they accrue enough violations of a general code of conduct.

The cooperative has guided development of the complex – for example, it has decided that no space above the 28th floor of Edificio A will be occupied. In the beginning, anyone could apply for occupancy every Monday from 5pm to 8pm; now, few new residents are admitted unless there is a vacancy. When the first residents moved in, they lived in tents while they outfitted new apartment space, but that practice was ended in 2012.

The development of social and bureaucratic networks is fascinating, and makes one wonder how we, as a society, decide what is and what isn’t a formal community. The cooperative exists in a very strange place, as a legally recognized entity that does not officially own the property it manages. Yet the increasing formality with which the cooperative approaches development suggests that if the government doesn’t exist, you have to invent one. Torre David may be called an informal squat, but the cooperative provides services in exchange for mandatory fees, enforces socially accepted laws, provides security, and considers resident input. Is that not a formal community? Is that not a government?

Possibilities and Potential

The analysis of possibilities and potential is notably weaker, but overall still interesting and well-done. Happily, the authors largely avoid the impulse to shoot the moon with big, costly design-based solutions, instead focusing on incremental improvements to residents’ lives.

For example, the construction of a dumbwaiter system  in the existing elevator shafts offers great potential. They are mechanically simple, low-cost mechanisms that the cooperative could afford to maintain. They would alleviate the significant burden of climbing and transporting all goods up the stairs from the top of the parking garage on the 10th floor to the 28th floor. This would allow the cooperative to make use of the higher floors of the building for new apartments.

Incremental improvements to water and wastewater systems would also be beneficial. The lower levels of the parking structure often flood during rain storms, and the wastewater system was never finished properly.

However, for better or for worse, we are all captives of the age we live in. While the book does have a  beneficial focus on working with residents to improve the complex, it also incorporates some of the questionable trends in modern planning.

For example, the authors note the unreliability of electric supply in Caracas, and in the name of sustainability suggest that the upper portion of Edificio A be outfitted with an array of small windmills that would provide power and run a pumped hydro energy storage facility. I’m not sure residents need to be dealing with construction and maintenance of wind-generation equipment on the side of their building. I’m also not sure why this is a sustainable solution, since it’s not available to the much larger portion of low-income Caracas residents that live in low rises. And I fail to see why sustainability should entail generating all of a building’s energy on-site. Why not generate it wherever it can be most efficiently generated? (The pumped hydro is pretty basic and could be used without the wind generation.)

I’m also not crazy about the aerial tramway concept. This technology has a place where topography and existing development make bus or rail transit impractical. However, the capacity of an aerial tram system is smaller and its geographic scope is going to be more limited.

Still, on the whole, the authors do a decent job with these sections. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m far more fascinated by how communities evolve on their own terms.

The Human Touch

If there’s anything missing from the book, it’s the human touch. Whereas City of Darkness tells the story of Kowloon Walled City through stories and interviews with former residents, leaving one to wish for better spatial understanding, Torre David provides a complete spatial analysis and a summary of the social structure, without much in the way of personal stories.

Perhaps, as a more complete social and economic unit than Torre David, Kowloon Walled City lends itself to a greater diversity of stories. Torre David is essentially just a residential building, with a few small retail establishments serving residents, while Kowloon Walled City was home to an astonishing variety of retail shops, noodle and fishball producers, metallurgists, dentists and doctors, and small factories.

But even at that, there are thousands of people living in Torre David, and it would have been nice to hear some of their personal stories – where they came from, why they chose to move to Torre David, how they view the community, their hopes for the future. It may be that it was easier to get Kowloon Walled City residents to open up, since the city’s fate had already been determined when City of Darkness was written. Residents of Torre David hope to stay in their adopted home, to which many view their claim as tenuous at best. Marginalized communities – or communities that have been labeled informal – are rightly suspicious when those who determine what is formal show up.

Buy This Book

If you’re interested in how urban communities emerge and evolve, spatially and socially, I recommend buying this book. When I got it last year, you had to order it through the Swiss publisher, but it looks like it’s available on Amazon now (and if the going price for City of Darkness is any indication, you might as well buy it as an investment). It’s a fascinating look at both an architectural anomaly and a developing urban community.

Note: for a substantially contrasting analysis of the tower, see this Jean M. Caldieron article.

What Are City Planning’s Goals?

In Chapter 10 of Human Transit, Jarrett Walker writes about the contradictory missions faced by many transit agencies:

Coverage: serve all parts of our community.

Ridership: maximize ridership with our fixed service budget.

It is one of the most fundamental insights of Human Transit that, while reasonable and achievable when stated separately, these goals cannot be executed simultaneously. Thus, agencies usually face criticism on both counts: that they are not serving low-demand parts of the city well enough, and that they require too much subsidy per rider. Note that, all other things being equal, it is impossible to improve on both measures at the same time – doing one works against the other.

City planning, as we have currently constructed it, also faces contradictory missions – an urbanism equivalent of “fast, cheap, or good – pick two”. In coastal regions of the US, we have assigned city planners with three primary missions:

  • Stop sprawl: slow the conversion of rural land into suburban developments of single-family homes and low-rise commercial.
  • Protect existing neighborhoods: prevent changes that current residents find discomforting, such as construction of apartment buildings or “McMansions” in single-family neighborhoods.
  • Affordability: ensure that a variety of housing types are available so that everyone can find a place to live without spending a burdensome part of their income.

Any two of these goals can be executed well together:

  • Stop sprawl and affordability: you can do this if you increase density in the existing built-up city. Who does this well? Tokyo. And Toronto! You can buy a brand new condo in a high-rise in downtown Toronto for barely $200,000. Read it & weep, coastal elites.
  • Protect existing neighborhoods and affordability: you can do this if you unabashedly sprawl out. Who does this well? Sunbelt cities, like Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, and any place in North Carolina.
  • Stop sprawl and protect existing neighborhoods: you can do this if you don’t give a crap about how expensive your city gets. Who does this well? San Francisco, obviously. London, again obviously. This is where Boston might end up, too.

Notice that I didn’t throw LA, or Houston, into any of these bins. LA’s development pattern until 1990 allowed both sprawl and densification of existing neighborhoods, much like Houston does today. And while “neighborhood protection” has become the NIMBY rallying cry in LA, and some inland cities like Norco and Redlands have “slow growth” regulations, the sprawl outlet is still very much available in Southern California. There’s not much stopping suburban development in places like the Victor Valley or the Antelope Valley – in fact, people like Lancaster Mayor R Rex Perris are out there trying to encourage it. The problem in LA is that the land where it’s easy to sprawl is too far from the locations with high job growth – even given LA’s polycentrism.

Walker writes in Human Transit that “eventually… the reality of the contradiction overwhelms the best rhetorical efforts”.

This is where we are with land use planning in California. Every city general plan, and every politician, will tell you that affordability is important. But when the steel hits the rails, that piece of land is too special to develop, that neighborhood can’t possibly support any redevelopment, and that building is too unique to be demolished. For a while, the terrible economy of the early 1990s and pre-existing housing slack masked the problem in LA, but no more.

Actions speak louder than words. No matter how loudly they claim to care – if they think Expo/Westwood and Expo/Western should stay SFRs forever, if they support the proposed downzoning in Echo Park, if they opposed the seven years and 8,000 page EIR in the making Bergamot Station plan – they don’t care about affordability in a meaningful way. The real world outcomes confirm that: the sprawl gets stopped, and the neighborhoods get protected, but housing prices and rents continue to rise.

Our current policies prioritize stopping sprawl and neighborhood preservation, with little regard for affordability. It’s important that we realize this and have this conversation. If you’re a renter in LA, you need to ask yourself how important it is to you that SFR owners are protected from change. Are you willing to pay higher rents for that? Because that’s the option you’re being presented. If that doesn’t sound like a great tradeoff, we need to do something about it.

How to Write Your Very Own Pro-Sprawl Trend Piece

If you’re sitting around reading pro-sprawl opinion pieces by the likes of Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin thinking, “sounds good, how can I get in on this action”, not to worry. There’s a simple template to follow, as demonstrated yesterday by an article in that venerable institution of urban research, Politico. This one was written by Robert Bruegmann, but it doesn’t really matter. Like 80s hair band power ballads, if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all.

Anyway, here we go. Items to include:

Generic comparison of cities that, in real life, have remarkably different urban forms: “Atlanta has wrested away from Los Angeles the distinction of serving as the poster child for sprawl.” Bonus points if you use two cities that I chose to demonstrate different types of suburbia.

Everything since 2007? Ignore ignore ignore: “Atlanta, over the last half century, has obviously seen its population and its economy grow faster than most of the older, higher-density, more transit-oriented cities of the United States or Europe.”

Talk about congestion but never mention VMT or transportation energy use per capita: “the greatest congestion and longest commuting times in this country. . . tend to occur in the largest and densest urban areas.”

Assert that transit doesn’t help the poor: “a major expansion of the transit system wouldn’t even benefit most people who can’t drive because the jobs are already so scattered around the metropolitan area, and the poorest people can’t afford the fares.” Oh, you can’t afford a car either? Welp.

Imply or state that expensive cities all have the same land use policies: “it is certainly not true of many of the highest-density places in North America – urban areas such as San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto or even Los Angeles—where public policies aimed at curbing sprawl have led to sharply higher housing prices.” In fact, these four places have important differences in land use policy. Vancouver and Toronto are building new towers like crazy, and, especially in the case of Toronto, are cheaper than SF or LA. Vancouver, Toronto, and SF all have significant controls on suburban growth at the fringe, but in LA, you can build all the sprawl you want in the Antelope Valley, the Victor Valley, and Riverside County. I’m still waiting for someone to show me the policies in LA that are “aimed at curbing sprawl” other than maybe these things. Show me! SHOW ME!

Equate today’s dense first world cities with Third World slums and old law tenements: “every poor urban area in the world continues to have very high densities by historic standards, usually more than 50,000 people per square mile. On the other hand, every affluent urban area in the world. . . where urban densities often topped 100,000 people per square mile in 1900, in the Atlanta today the figure currently stands at an exceptionally low 1,800 people per square mile.”

Decry anti-sprawl efforts as unnecessary interference in free markets, while ignoring the reams and reams of regulation that enforce suburban development patterns: “as people have become richer they have demanded more space, and they have gotten it everywhere there has been a truly democratic government and anything resembling a free market in land.”

Studiously avoid mention of any other “historical background” that might explain why US cities started decentralizing in 1950 and why Southern cities in particular are very spread out: “this historical background helps explain why Atlanta, as a city in the affluent world that has done most of its major expansion fairly recently, is such a sprawling place.” You don’t need me to spell this one out for you, right? Wink, wink.

Notably on-point critique of a lot of anti-sprawl activism: “it has been a conspicuous fact of urban life that many of the same people who deplore sprawl at the edge are also determined to preserve the character of their existing neighborhoods in the center.” Credit where credit is due, right? We’re looking at you, Westside, Marin County, San Francisco, and Peninsula.

Ignore international examples like Japan when they might be inconvenient for your narrative: “strident efforts to reverse the course of urban history and push these places back into the mold of dense 19th-century cities heavily dependent on public transportation risk destroying the very things that have made them such magnets for population and economic growth in the first place.”

Easy, right? Crank out a few of these and see if you can’t get a job at Reason or Cato.

To be honest, I wish the criticism of anti-sprawl activism and smart growth was, well, smarter. If you read O’Toole, Kotkin, and Cox regularly, you’ll find that they do make good points. But you have to sort through a lot of junk to find them. In a way, the criticisms of dense development are a lot like the “pop urbanist” analysis of cities – unwilling to understand and think about each city on its own terms. One side will tell you that you need more freeways and subdivisions. The other side will tell you that you need streetcars and high-rise development to attract the creative class or Millennials or whatever we’re calling young people with money now. If they say anything helpful, it’s almost coincidental.

Cities are complex. To have any chance of understanding them, we have to be willing to set aside any worries about what a city should look like, and study how they work (or don’t work). And we should be willing to learn from anywhere, but also willing to accept some lessons may not apply. Assuming that all cities have the same problems which have the same solutions is bound to result in recommendations that are embarrassing – or at least should be.

LA Land Use Patterns Help Reduce VMT

Sometimes you find things in the darnedest places. While reading Randal O’Toole’s testimony on Washington’s Growth Management Act (spoiler: he’s opposed), I see he references work by David Brownstone down at UC Irvine:

As University of California (Irvine) economist David Brownstone concluded after thoroughly studying this issue, the link between land uses and driving is ‘too small to be useful’ in attempting to save energy or reduce emissions.

Hmm, as someone they tell me was a Great Communicator used to say: trust, but verify. So let’s see what Brownstone has to say in his most recent paper:

The estimation results indicate that residential density has a statistically significant but economically modest influence on vehicle usage, which is similar to that in previous studies. However, the joint effect of the contextual density measure (density in the context of its surrounding area) and residential density on vehicle usage is quantitatively larger than the sole effect of residential density. Moving a household from a suburban to an urban area reduces household annual mileage by 18%.

I’ll leave you to speculate as to why O’Toole would cite authoritative sounding sources that, on closer review, clearly do not say what he would like you to think.

Nevertheless, the result of the Brownstone paper is very important: density on the census block level has a relatively small impact on vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Regional effects dominate. In other words, density is much more important on the regional scale than the local scale. If you want to decrease VMT, you need to increase regional density, not just build TOD projects at transit stations.

This study lends support to things we’ve explored from an intuitive perspective before (and data is almost always better than intuition). It explains how places like LA and Orange County can show up in lists of lowest household gasoline use* – even if you have to drive, you never have to drive very far. And it also shows a possible way forward for a region that shows up on lists of highest household gasoline use – the IE. Rather than focus on building TOD projects near transit stations, officials in the IE should upzone everywhere. They should allow things like Palms-style apartments and redevelopment of Cudahy-style lots the way they’ve been redeveloped in their namesake city. Because while the IE will probably never be able to emulate New York City’s travel patterns, it could certainly emulate LA’s.

*Note: 7 of the 10 worst gas guzzling cities are in the South (excluding Texas), which also makes sense in the context of my post on suburb types.

A Modest Zoning Proposal

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

Where Are We Today?

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

Palms-CH-RP legend

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

LAzoning

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

Where Do We Want to Go?

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

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

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

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

Back to the zoning.

How Do We Get There?

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

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

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

Pace of Redevelopment

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

Permitted Development

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

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

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

Parking would be handled like Donald Shoup says it should.

How Does This Work?

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

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

Starting Points

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

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

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

The Limits of O’Toole-onomics

Update: Randal O’Toole was kind enough to respond via email. I’ve updated the post to reflect those corrections, and added his full comment and my reply at the bottom of the post.

This thought has been kicking around in my head for a while, but this Next City – The Works post by Stephen J. Smith on commute times in cities finally motivated to me to hash it out.

It’s long been noted that, super commuters aside, human beings tend to have a fairly constant travel time budget. This means that increases in the average speeds of transportation facilities often result in people traveling further distances in the same amount of time, rather than the same distances in less time. It also means that, given an average speed for a mode of transportation, there’s a practical limit to the size of city you can serve primarily with that mode.

For example, in a rural town that predates cars, you can access everything in the town by walking. No matter where you are, nothing would be more than a mile or two away. People might bike or drive to save time out of convenience or to avoid unpleasant weather, but functionally, the town can work without cars. For example, if you’re in Lone Pine, you can get to anything else in Lone Pine just by walking.

Biking expands your reach, and in a small city – say the size of Merced or Santa Maria, maybe even Santa Barbara or Ventura – could provide you access to everything the city has to offer. Now, maybe bicycle facilities in some of those places are sadly lacking, but that doesn’t mean the concept is technically unsound. We could make it work if we wanted to.

If your city gets much bigger than that, though, you need some type of higher speed transportation. There are many possible combinations that work. For example, New York and Boston provide rapid transit to move you quickly across parts of the city, depending on you to walk the last bits of your trip. Places with huge bike usage, like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, provide transit and plenty of bike parking. Phoenix and Houston give you freeways and craploads of car parking. Ignoring environmental, aesthetic, and efficiency concerns, the only requirement is that you increase the amount of distance people can cover in the same amount of time.

In very large metro areas, it’s hard for even freeways and rapid transit to overcome the distances, and as a result, new nodes of development start to spring up – places like Irvine and Tysons Corner – to keep commuting times down to what people will tolerate. And in fact, despite the perception of Orange County as a suburb of LA, 85% of people who live there work there as well. Cross county flows are about the same in each direction – 180,000 live in Orange County and work in LA County, with a similar number doing the opposite.

Okay, we have the technology to build lots of freeways, transit, whatever – so why don’t metro areas just sprawl out into infinity to keep land costs down? Well, working in opposition to things that tend to decentralize cities, like quality transportation and communications, we have agglomeration economies. Basically, people and businesses want to be located as close as possible to the people and businesses that they interact with. If you want to start a movie studio, it makes sense to do it in Los Angeles, where there are lots of people you need like actors, grips, gaffers, show runners, and so on. If you know how to write smartphone apps, it makes sense for you to move a place like San Francisco where there are lots of jobs for people with that skill.

And that brings us to today’s question: what is Randal O’Toole’s answer for a place like Los Angeles, that has grown out to the practical limits of presently available transportation technologies?

First, let me define what I see as the essential points of the Randal O’Toole plan:

  • Public transit can’t compete with the car in modern cities. It’s cheaper to build more roads and use things like congestion pricing. Bus transit is cheaper than rail transit.
  • Centralized land use planning is inherently less efficient than the free market.
  • Things like urban growth boundaries drive up the cost of housing by limiting the amount of developable land and forcing multi-family construction that is more expensive per square foot than single-family residential (SFR).

For the sake of argument, let’s accept these points. In this framework, places like the Bay Area and Portland are unquestionably making bad decisions that will cost a lot of money, hurt their economies, and make the regions less affordable.

And hey, he’s got a point. Throwing open West Marin and all of Clackamas County to master planned suburban development like Clark County would enable you to build a lot of housing relatively close to the centers of San Francisco and Portland. You might not like the idea of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area turning into Daly City, but technically, it would work. In his critique of Plan Bay Area (PBA), O’Toole calculates that currently, 21% of the land area is developed, and by increasing it to 44%, growth could be accommodated by SFR development. Again, that might seem like an unacceptable change to a lot of people in the Bay Area – including, ironically, a lot of the NIMBYs who cited O’Toole’s analysis when fighting PBA – but it would work.

But what about LA?

Other than Ventura County, LA doesn’t have any urban growth boundaries. The developable areas that are protected – the Santa Monica Mountains, the Chino Hills, the San Joaquin Hills – are small in the scheme of the region, and would end up being luxury housing anyway. The boundaries we’re pushing up against, like the San Gabriel Mountains, have topography that is simply too insane for development on a meaningful scale, along with having challenges like insufficient water supply.

Meanwhile, on the fringes of the LA region, the suburban development machine is coming back to life in places like Temecula, Beaumont, and Rialto, and the folks up in the Antelope Valley and the Victor Valley are waiting for their turn. They don’t have any urban growth boundaries, and they’re eager to see your subdivision or industrial park get up off the mat and start growing again. Their problem isn’t controls on land use, it’s slow growth in manufacturing, construction, trade, and logistics.

You know what could help those industries? More construction in the Los Angeles Basin. The parts of the LA economy that are doing well are centered in places like the Westside, and due to agglomeration effects, they want to expand on the Westside, not in Palmdale. But the places where suburban development is happening – Porter Ranch, Santa Clarita – are really far from the Westside. Housing isn’t expensive on the Westside because land use controls are preventing construction of SFRs; the problem is that the undeveloped land where you can build SFRs for under $200k is 90 miles away in Beaumont. What we need is construction of more apartment buildings on the Westside, construction that would almost certainly happen if it wasn’t prohibited by zoning laws and discouraged by onerous permitting requirements.*

To his credit, O’Toole is generally against zoning restrictions as a form of central planning. But his substitute, deed covenants, is even worse. Zoning, at least, can be changed by democratically elected officials, for better or worse. A homeowners association with deed covenants seems to me like a horizontal condo – a neighborhood that has no hope of being redeveloped, no matter how high property values go, because it’s just about impossible to get 100% of that many people to agree on anything. If you believe in letting the market guide development of cities, things like deed covenants are right out. Update: Mr. O’Toole corrects me on the issue of deed covenants. In many areas, deed covenants automatically renew unless 51% of owners vote to get rid of them, which is obviously an easier threshold to reach than 100%. If that’s the case, developers could conceivably buy 51% of the lots and vote to eliminate the restrictions. That still seems like a hard way to do things, and it will prevent the market from responding to demand.

So, what would Randal O’Toole suggest that we do?

*Note that if you follow this logic through, I’m saying that allowing more urban development in LA will encourage more suburban residential, commercial, and industrial development on the edges of the region. I think this is true: construction in the LA Basin will cause growth of construction-related industries, which are the kinds of the uses that need a bunch of cheap land. Contrary to the way many people on both sides of land use debates see it, regional growth is not zero-sum.

Update: here’s his full comment.

You raise a lot of issues. First, LA may not have formal urban-growth boundaries. But LAFCos effectively prevent extension of urban development. Under California law, developers cannot create the special districts needed to support development of unincorporated land without approval from the LAFCos. Under CEQA, such approval would almost certainly require an EIR, whose cost of $15 million or more must be paid by the developer. As a result, development is pretty much restricted to existing incorporated areas. Cities can’t annex without LAFCo approval either. This explains why the L.A. urban area has become the densest urbanized area in the U.S.

Congestion can be fixed through congestion pricing. If the toll revenues generated from congestion pricing are more than needed to operate the roads, then that is a signal that more roads should be built. If not, no need to build more roads.

You misunderstand how covenants work, at least in Texas, Kansas, and many other areas. These covenants typically renew periodically unless 51 percent of lot owners in the neighborhood decide not to renew them. It doesn’t take 100 percent. Developers have been known to persuade homeowners in some Houston neighborhoods to change their covenants to allow different kinds of development.

My thoughts: first, I appreciate the correction on deed covenants.

On the issue of LAFCos (Local Agency Formation Commissions): In California, counties have LAFCos, which can approve or deny applications to incorporate new cities or annex territory to existing cities. For example, not long ago, the LA County LAFCo turned down an application to incorporate East Los Angeles, on the grounds that the city would not be able to raise sufficient revenue to fund its operations. LAFCos also approve or deny applications to add territory to service districts like water and sanitation.

While you theoretically could use a LAFCo to stymie suburban growth by denying all incorporations, annexations, service districts, and so on, that doesn’t seem to happen in practice. LALAFCo recently approved annexations to Santa Clarita and Glendora. Riverside LAFCo has approved four incorporations in the last five years (Wildomar, Eastvale, Menifee, & Jurupa Valley). LAFCOs will naturally reflect the development climate of the county; I’d guess that no one at San Bernardino LAFCo or Riverside LAFCo is that worried about confining development to existing urbanized areas. On top of that, the cities in the Antelope Valley and Victor Valley have already annexed huge swaths of undeveloped desert.

Antelope Valley:

AntelopeValley

Victor Valley:

VictorValley

Also, let’s not forget that sometimes cities incorporate to prevent more development, like say Malibu or Rolling Hills.

You could write a book about California municipal finances, and I’m no fan of CEQA requiring people to analyze things that can’t be predicted anyway, but that’s a topic for another time!