Tag Archives: Zoning

Zoning Capacity Needs to Be Much, Much Higher

If you follow on Twitter, you’ve probably seen the graph below showing how much building capacity was lost due to downzoning in Los Angeles. The number of people that could be reasonably accommodated was reduced by more than half.

FrameWORK_Housing_ZoningCapacity-1024x748

When pro-housing advocates talk about the need to upzone, one common response from opponents of development is that there already are underutilized parcels that have fewer housing units than permitted by zoning. Why, they ask, is upzoning needed if developers aren’t even using existing parcels to their full potential.

It’s not hard to understand why upzoning is still necessary on a technical level. The microeconomic decisions of many actors will mean that a city is always below its zoned housing capacity. In many instances, owners are satisfied with the buildings already on their property, and don’t want to rebuild. In many other instances, there may be available zoning capacity, but not enough to make it profitable to reconstruct. For example, a lot might have 4 units on it and be zoned for up to 5 units. That property will not be redeveloped until prices get extremely high. Similarly, LA has many one-story retail buildings on C2 commercial zones, that could be redeveloped to R4 density (1 unit per 400 SF lot area) but with a max FAR of 1.5. It’s not worth it to demolish a rent-paying commercial structure for so meager a residential FAR.

Applying this logic to other common human necessities reveals on a much more fundamental level how weak the arguments against upzoning due to available capacity are.

For example, when you go to the supermarket looking for bananas, you don’t expect to be told that they have plenty of canned soup and won’t be ordering any more food until those are used up. People like to cook and eat many different things, and reasonably expect the supermarket to offer a wide variety of things to buy. How dull a culinary world would it be if we produced just enough food for people to survive and nothing more? If a farmer goes to plant kale, we don’t stop them from doing it because we’ve already got plenty of soybeans.

When you go to buy clothes, you don’t expect the retailer to have only one outfit, and told to take it or leave it. People like to wear lots of different kinds of clothes. How dull would the world be if everyone had to wear the same thing? Or consider a bookstore. Would you be satisfied if you went to Amazon and they only had 100 books, and weren’t planning to order any more until those were gone?

Likewise, people need a huge variety of buildings in cities to thrive. Providing people with more options creates greater opportunity for them to live their lives and pursue their dreams. A city that is zoned to allow barely enough housing is going to forfeit an enormous amount of human spirit and dynamism, in addition to burdening many of its residents with high housing costs. Zoning needs to allow people the flexibility to grow and try new ideas. In SoCal that means we need our zoning capacity to be much higher than it is today.

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Zoning Constraints & Housing Types

We all know zoning restricts housing supply in cities. However, the type of housing produced will be different for different kinds of zoning regulations. In this post, we’ll explore the impact of three common kinds of zoning regulations: density controls (number of units), height and setback requirements, and floor area ratio (FAR maximums). As we’ll see, while variety of housing is often a stated goal of planning, zoning regulations and market conditions often work to the contrary. Height and setbacks work in the same way as FAR, with one always being more constraining than the other for a given lot.

Method of Analysis

To simplify things, we’ll look at the impact of these three types of regulations on a 50’x150’ (7,500 square foot) lot, which can be found all over LA and Glendale. For LA, we’ll consider the R1, RD3, RD2, RD1.5, R3, R4, and R5 zones as defined by the city of LA. For Glendale, we’ll consider the R1, R3050, R2250, R1650, R1250, and SFMU zones (which roughly correspond to R1, RD3, RD2, RD1.5, RD1.5, and R4). We will look at the number of units and size of building possible on a 50’x150’ lot in each zone, and see the impact on the type of housing produced.

In general, we will see that the lower density zones are constrained by permitted density, which tends to result in the production of only large, expensive housing units. High density zones are constrained by height & setbacks or FAR, which tends to result in the production of only one bedroom (1BR) and two bedroom (2BR) units, leading to the charge that apartment developers don’t build for families.

Los Angeles

The table below summarizes the maximum permitted density, setbacks, and FAR in common residential zones in LA, assuming height district 1L, except for R5 where we assume height district 2, for reasons explained below.

zoning-la

Again, assuming a 50’x150’ lot, the maximum number of units, maximum floor area, and average floor area per unit are as follows. Assumed efficiency means the percentage of building floor area that’s actually usable for apartments. For single-family structures, it can be assumed to be 1.00. For apartments we assume 0.80 for a low-rise apartment in the R3 zone, and 0.70 for mid-rise apartments in the R4 and R5 zones. Efficiency for apartments is less than 1.00 because of space lost to hallways, elevators, common areas, trash rooms, and so on.

units-la

LA’s FAR is very generous for low density zones, so height & setbacks rather than FAR end up constraining maximum floor area for all zones except R4. If we had used height district 1L for R5, it would also be constrained by FAR instead of height & setbacks, and would only have an average unit size of 425 SF.

As a practical matter, in the R1, RD3, and RD2 zones, actual building size will be constrained by market conditions. There just isn’t that much demand for houses over about 3,500-4,000 SF. These zones are purely constrained by density, meaning that developers will max out the number of units possible and build the largest units they think the market will accept. Purple City once ran the numbers to show you why developers won’t put small houses on big lots.

The RD1.5 and R3 zones are more or less equally constrained by density and building height & setbacks. For R3, density has increased to the point that average unit sizes have been driven down to about 2,000 SF for a small lot subdivision of free-standing houses and about 1,600 SF for apartments, housing unit sizes that are in high demand. This is probably one reason the R3 zone is popular with small lot developers; the combination of permitted density and floor area doesn’t force the units to be smaller than people want, nor does it force much of the lot to remain as open space.

The R4 and R5 zones are constrained by floor area, whether in the form of maximum FAR or height & setback requirements. If the developer maxes out the number of units, they will only be able to get about 800-900 SF average unit size. This is why large apartment buildings in LA are almost all studios, 1BRs, and 2BRs. If you tried to make a decently-sized 3BR unit, say 1,400 SF, it would have to offset by two units of only 500 SF, or a reduction in total units.

Note that if a development is FAR constrained, parcel assembly doesn’t help with unit size at all, only with making it easier to configure parking ramps, elevators, and other common spaces. If a development is height & setback constrained, parcel assembly will help with unit size by eliminating setbacks between lots, until the point FAR constraints take over.

Glendale

The analysis is similar for Glendale, but maximum FAR in Glendale is much less, and setbacks and heights are more restrictive. The table below summarizes the maximum permitted density, setbacks, and FAR in common residential zones in Glendale. Setbacks are averages because Glendale has step back requirements for second and third floors.

zoning-glendale-single

Again, assuming a 50’x150’ lot, the maximum number of units, maximum floor area, and average floor area per unit are as follows. I’m assuming 0.90 efficiency for townhouses.

units-glendale-single

Except for R1250, the multi-family residential zones in Glendale are in the sweet spot for townhouses (1,500 SF to 2,000 SF). The R1250 zone would work for small townhouses or 2BR apartments.

For lots over 90’ wide, Glendale allows additional density and another story of height in the R2250, R1650, and R1250 zones. There’s also a mixed-use zone, SFMU, that requires 100’ wide lots. Therefore, the analysis is modified if you assemble two lots. The SFMU zone has maximum height of 60’/4 stories and density 87 units/acre when abutting another multi-family zone, and 75’/6 stories and 100 units/acre when not, so results are presented for both cases. In practice, it is very rare for an SFMU zone to not abut another multi-family zone. The given story heights for SFMU assume half of the first floor is retail space and while max FAR is not specified it can be inferred from story height multiplied by 0.9, since 10% of the lot must be landscaped.

zoning-glendale-doubleunits-glendale-double

Because density is increased but FAR is not, the average unit size is actually driven down, despite being allowed to make the building one story taller. Of the few multi-lot townhouse projects I’ve followed in Glendale, many of them have not maxed out the density in these situations, electing to build fewer, but larger units. A motivating decision here is probably Glendale’s requirements for 2 subterranean parking spaces per unit, so density may actually be maxed out based on the number of parking spaces you can build in one underground level.

The SFMU zone ends up with larger average unit size than LA’s R4 and R5 zones, and sure enough, you do see some 3BRs in new developments in downtown Glendale. (While not actually in the SFMU zone, most of these buildings are in zones that allow 90-100 units/acre and up to 6 stories by right, so they’re a reasonable proxy.)

Encouraging Housing Diversity

Certainly, cities could increase the diversity of housing production by liberalizing zoning. Increasing allowable density and FAR, and eliminating minimum unit sizes, would allow different developers to try more different kinds of projects. After all, it was more liberal zoning regimes that produced neighborhoods that have a wide variety of housing types, like South Glendale.

Failing that, there are some other policies that might help. The primary concerns seem to be that apartment builders do not build enough family-sized apartments, while townhouse and small-lot builders do not build enough small homes. Some possibilities:

  • Give apartment developers free FAR for every bedroom beyond the second, for a certain percentage of units. Height and setbacks would have to be generous enough to make the extra FAR usable.
  • Add a density bonus for providing 3BR or 4BR apartments; for example, allow 0.20 additional units for every 3BR and 0.30 additional units for every 4BR, up to a maximum. FAR, height, and setbacks would have to be generous enough to make the extra FAR usable.
  • For townhouses and small-lot subdivisions, rezone outlying R1 areas as RD1.5 or R1250. Land in outlying areas is cheaper, reducing the need to max out FAR.
  • Add a density bonus for building small townhouses or small lots; for example, in the RD1.5 zone, allow 1000 SF lot area per unit up to certain percentage of units if they are smaller units.

 

A Short Introduction to Zoning in Los Angeles

Zoning that does not allow enough new housing construction is one of the biggest causes of the housing crisis in Los Angeles. So, it’s important to understand what zoning is, how it works, and how it’s been applied across LA. This post provides a summary of what zoning does, what the main zones in LA are, and where these zones are applied in the city. For more detailed information on zoning and parking requirements in LA, see the city’s summary of zoning and summary of parking requirements.

At its most basic, zoning is the idea that there can be different regulations on the built environment in different places within a jurisdiction.  As the name suggests, it divides places into different zones on a map. Depending on what zone a piece of land is located in, there are different rules for what types of structures and activities are allowed on the property. The major things controlled by zoning are:

  • Use type: controls what type of uses can be built on a lot. The main uses are residential (such as houses & apartments), commercial (such as stores & restaurants), and industrial (such as factories).
  • Density: mainly applied to residential uses. Controls how many houses & apartments can be built on the lot.
  • Floor-area ratio: controls how large a building can be, based on how large the property is. The floor-area ratio (FAR) is the size of the building divided by the size of the lot. For example, a 2,500 square foot house on a 5,000 square foot lot has an FAR of 0.50 (2,500 divided by 5,000).
  • Height: controls how tall a building can be. Height is usually controlled in terms of both the number of floors a building can have and its height in feet.
  • Setbacks: controls how much space must be left between the building and the property line. There are usually front setbacks, side setbacks, and rear setbacks. For example, the zoning might specify a minimum of 15 feet from the street to the front of the building, 5 feet from the property line to the sides of the building, and 20 feet from the property line to the back of the building.
  • Parking: controls how many parking spaces the developer must provide as part of the project. For residential uses, it is based on the number of houses or apartments. For commercial and industrial uses, it is based on the size of the building in square feet.

As you can see, zoning controls many aspects of development. Regulation of the type of uses is the least controversial, which is why people who oppose more housing often rely on absurd arguments about uses to make their point. Obviously no one here is arguing to allow new chemical refineries to be built next to schools and apartments. And obviously there is a large difference between that and allowing the construction of 12 apartments where the zoning currently only allows one house.

Zoning in Los Angeles evolved over the past 100 plus years, incorporating a series of societal goals and trends that may or may not make sense in 2016. LA was a pioneer in zoning for uses, adopting the nation’s first citywide zoning code (separating residential uses from other activities) in 1908. LA later borrowed zoning for ‘bulk’ (height, density, etc) from New York City and single family only zones from Berkeley. In 1930, as the region’s streetcar system was giving way to automobiles, LA began requiring some new building to provide off street parking spaces. LA’s current zoning code was last substantially updated in 1946 (though new zones and rules changes have been added in the subsequent 70 years). The City is currently revising the code through the re:code LA process.

Los Angeles began zoning before it had a formal process for urban planning. In 1974, LA adopted its first general plan, with land use and zoning set by 35 community plans. Under state law, zoning in LA is supposed to implement the general and community plans. The current zoning code has almost 2000 uses, everything from frog keeping to phonograph record blank manufacturing to wine bars.

In the city of Los Angeles, the main types of zones are R, C, and M, which correspond to residential, commercial, and industrial uses (the M is for manufacturing). Each zone is also assigned a height district which controls how large and how tall the building can be. For example, a zoning designation of R3-1 indicates that the lot is in the R3 zone and height district 1.

Residential Zones in LA

There are two main types of residential zones in Los Angeles: single-family zones and multi-family zones.

In single-family zones, you can only build one house on the lot, no matter how big the lot is. If you have a very large lot, you may be able to subdivide it into smaller pieces and build a house on each, so long as each lot meets the minimum lot size required in that zone. This is how the suburban areas of LA were developed, by taking large pieces of property, dividing them, and putting one house on each piece – this is why new housing developments are called subdivisions.

Single-family zoning is by far the most common zone of any kind in Los Angeles. The most common single-family zone is R1, which requires a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet (SF). Almost all of the single-family neighborhoods in LA that are not in the hills are zoned R1.

The other two common single-family zones in LA are RA (residential agriculture) and RE (residential estate). The RA zone requires 17,500 SF lots and allows limited agriculture – this is often called “horse property”. There are 5 RE zones, RE9, RE11, RE15, RE20, and RE40, with the number corresponding to the minimum lot size in thousands of square feet. For example, RE11 requires 11,000 SF minimum lots. All of the single-family zones in LA require a minimum of 2 covered parking spaces.

The map below shows generalized zoning in Los Angeles – click to embiggen. Anything in yellow is an R1 or an RE zone, and anything in light green is an RA zone.

LAzones-small

As you can see, the map is dominated by single-family zones, especially on the Westside, in the Valley, and in Northeast LA. The fight about development and displacement is being fought entirely outside these zones. There’s practically no rent stabilized housing anywhere in the yellow and light green areas. These neighborhoods have been let off the hook for their role in causing the housing crisis, despite the fact that they occupy most of the city’s land. If we are going to fix LA’s housing shortage, these neighborhoods should do their part.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the multi-family zones in LA, shown in orange on the map. These are the zones where you can build apartments. The main multi-family zones are RD, R3, R4, and R5, in order of increasing density. For these zones, density is controlled by requiring a minimum lot area per apartment. There are six levels of RD, which stands for restricted density, RD6, RD5, RD4, RD3, RD2, and RD1.5, with the number corresponding to the minimum lot area per apartment in thousands of square feet. For example, RD2 requires 2,000 SF of lot area per apartment. R3 requires 800 SF per apartment, R4 requires 400 SF, and R5 requires 200 SF.

The RD zones are the most common multi-family zones in LA, followed by R3. That’s mostly what you’re seeing in orange on the map. R4 is found mainly in places like Koreatown, Hollywood, North Hollywood, and Palms. R5 is found almost exclusively downtown and along Condo Canyon on Wilshire. All multi-family zones require parking at a rate of 1 space per studio, 1.5 spaces per 1 bedroom unit, and 2 spaces per 2+ bedroom unit.

To help visualize what these zones look like, RD zones usually look like very small apartment buildings or small lot subdivisions. R3 zones look like dingbats. R4 zones look like podiums. R5 allows for high-rises.

The lack of developable R3 and R4 zones in LA is one of the biggest roadblocks to constructing new apartments for ordinary people. Looking back at the map with that in mind, you can see why the large area of the city devoted to single-family zoning is such a problem.

Most of the residential zones in the city are in height districts 1, 1L, 1VL, and 1XL, where L stands for low, VL for very low, and XL for extra low (see a pattern?). For all zones, this means a maximum FAR of 3. For the single family zones, RD, and R3, these areas allow heights varying from 30’ in height district 1XL to 45’ in height district 1. R4 and R5 vary from 30’ in 1XL to unlimited in 1.

Height districts 2, 3, and 4 allow more height and more FAR, but not more density in terms of the number of apartments. These districts are generally restricted to places like Downtown and Hollywood.

For different places, different factors will limit the amount of development. For example, a 5,000 SF lot in an R4-1 zone theoretically has no limit on how tall the building can be. However, it’s only possible to put 12 apartments on this lot, and with a maximum FAR of 3.0. Therefore, the maximum size of the building would be 15,000 SF, equal to twelve 1,250 SF apartments. It would be impractical to build anything taller than about 5 stories on such a lot. This lot would be constrained by FAR and density, but not height.

On the other hand, a 6,000 SF lot in the RD2-1 zone can have an FAR of 3.0, which would allow up to 18,000 SF of building space. However, only 3 apartments would be allowed on such a lot, and you don’t see many 6,000 SF apartments. If the lot were 50’ wide by 120’ deep, the building footprint available after removing setbacks would be only about 3,000 SF. To get an 18,000 SF building, you’d have to build 6 stories tall, but the maximum height allowed is 45’ – only enough for about 4 stories. This lot is constrained by density and height, but not by FAR.

Commercial Zones in LA

Commercial zones are where businesses like restaurants, shops, and offices are located. They are shown in pink on the above map. As you can see, commercial zoning is located in strips along LA’s major boulevards, and in larger areas of business districts such as Downtown, Hollywood, Century City, and Playa Vista.

There are seven commercial zones in LA (CR, C1, C1.5, C2, C4, C5, and CM), but C2 is by far the most common. In addition to allowing commercial uses, C2 allows R4 uses by default, meaning that on LA’s commercial boulevards, you can build apartments at a density of 400 SF of lot area per apartment.

This was a great way to allow denser residential development along commercial boulevards, which are also often good transit corridors. However, in the 1980s, a ballot initiative known as Prop U cut the allowable FAR in the C2 zone from 3.0 to 1.5. Since many of these properties are already developed with commercial uses and FAR between 0.5 and 1.0, it is not profitable to build apartments in the C2 zone anymore. Thus, these lots are constrained by FAR.

The city has created two new zones, RAS3 and RAS4, that can be applied on commercial boulevards and help solve the problems caused by Prop U. These zones correspond to the same density allowed by R3 and R4, and have maximum FAR 3.0, but allow for mixed-use development by permitting commercial uses on the first floor. However, the RAS3 and RAS4 zones are very rare.

Manufacturing Zones in LA

Manufacturing zones are where industry is located. They are shown in grey on the above map, and are mainly located in the industrial district near downtown and along freight rail lines. As heavy industry has become less important to LA, these zones have become occupied by light industrial uses and commercial uses. The common M zones, M1 and M2, allow for C2 uses, meaning that offices and shops can be constructed there. However, residential uses are prohibited in M zones. For example, the Warner Center is in an M zone.

Occasionally, some people have expressed concern that allowing commercial development in M zones is going to erode the city’s industrial job base. This gets the analysis backwards; the existence of M zones does not create industrial jobs. Many M zone uses, such as warehouses, have low job density compared to commercial uses. In addition, it is worth remembering that because most of the city is zoned residential, commercial and industrial uses are competing for a very small portion of the city’s land. Allowing commercial development in more areas would decrease the development pressure on M zones.

More to Come

This post has hopefully provided an understandable overview of the main zoning regulations in LA. In a future post, we’ll look at the process that developers must go through if they want to get permission to do something differently. Since the housing crisis is a regional problem, future posts will also look at the zoning in other cities in the region.

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.

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.

Upzone El Segundo

About a month or so back, Market Urbanism posted some information on office rents and vacancies. I noted that El Segundo was renting for about the same price as downtown LA, and joked that we should upzone El Segundo.

Except, I wasn’t really joking. There’s about 2 square miles of El Segundo just begging to be upzoned. The area bounded by Imperial, Sepulveda, Rosecrans, and Aviation is ripe for upzoning. In my post on Sepulveda/LAX transit, I offered the following suggestion for the El Segundo area:

ElSegundo-original

An even better option would cross the Sepulveda Line and Crenshaw Line south of El Segundo Blvd, so that all three lines in the area would have a direct transfer to each other. Note that the graphic has been redrawn to be a little more geographically accurate:

ElSegundo-option1

That’s really got too many stations, but many of them already exist, and the stations that are located ideally for transfers (on the arterial grid) don’t necessarily provide good interior access to the area. Nevertheless, 10 stations in 2 square miles is just ridiculous. Maple can be eliminated, and Sepulveda/Mariposa and Sepulveda/El Segundo can be combined into one station at Sepulveda/Grand. El Segundo is the natural arterial for high quality bus service, but if you look at the city west of Sepulveda, there’s no problem routing a future high quality bus line on Grand west of Nash.

ElSegundo-option2

That reduces it to 8 stations. We could reduce it to 7 stations by rerouting the Sepulveda Line to run with the Crenshaw Line from Mariposa to Douglas. This would have some minor impact to speeds on the Sepulveda Line and worsen access to the city west of Sepulveda Blvd.

ElSegundo-option3

Personally I like option 2 the best, but the specifics can be ironed out later.

Three LRT lines, direct access to the 405 and the 105, a short ride to LAX, close to the beach… what else could you possibly want? And just look at all the space that could be built up.

ElSegundo-aerial

But best of all, that part of El Segundo has what is perhaps the most crucial feature of any upzoning plan: the people who will allegedly suffer have no say in local politics, because they happen to be in a different jurisdiction.

As an analogy, consider Marina del Rey, which is a small unincorporated enclave of LA County surrounded by the City of LA. If Marina del Rey were part of the City of LA, people in Venice would be complaining to the normally excellent Mike Bonin, and he’d be trying to stop the development. But all of the development there is approved by the county, and four of the five county supervisors, representing 8 million people, don’t have to worry about the local NIMBYs.

Back to El Segundo. The perceived impacts of upzoning the area bounded by Imperial, Sepulveda, Rosecrans, and Aviation would all be to the north, east, and south – in places outside El Segundo, populated by people who can’t vote for El Segundo city council members. So there you go, El Segundo City Council. Rezone the whole thing for mixed use, smaller setbacks, and higher FAR, and let’s go.

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?