Tag Archives: Zoning

‘Round Palms: Hughes Av

In a previous post, I explained why the low-rise and mid-rise development of neighborhoods like Palms is the best development pattern to promote affordability, and a recent article in Design Intelligence confirms that three-to-four story buildings are the most cost efficient. Today we’re going to take a closer look at Hughes Av, which runs from Venice to the intersection of Palms, National, and Exposition.

It’s important to highlight places like Palms as examples of LA density, because this is the way neighborhoods grow when they’re allowed to do so organically. Unlike the contrived density of modern planned districts, high-rises don’t spring up everywhere all at once. Single-family houses and small buildings are gradually replaced with larger structures, resulting in a neighborhood with a wide variety of buildings sizes, types, styles, and ages. This is the natural way that cities develop.

Alright, off we go. Characteristic of Palms diversity, there’s a Korean church (built 1937) just north of Venice.

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This four-story block (built 1981) is one of the taller structures on Hughes, and in Palms in general.

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This block (built 1988) is only three stories tall, but has a larger footprint.

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As you work your way up towards Palms/National/Exposition, single-family residences (SFRs) start to pop up (this one built 1939).

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Here’s another SFR (built 1923), holding its own next to a three-story apartment building (built 1991) with a small footprint.

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And on the other side, there’s an apartment block (built 1986) with a footprint twice the size.

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A couple older style SFRs (built 1924 and 1925).

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Two SFRs (built 1925 and 1931) with three-story apartment building (built 1987) in the background.

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Now, Hughes Av isn’t going to capture many urbanist imaginations. It doesn’t present the uniformity that gives so many old frozen-in-time districts or contrived modern districts immediate curb appeal. But dig out your Jane Jacobs on diversity of buildings, and you’ll find her extolling the virtues of a street that features everything from a one-story Laundromat to a fourteen-story apartment building.

From a more political and pragmatic perspective, Hughes Av should be an easier sell than skyscrapers. So much of the debate about density in the US has been fouled by the equation of density with Manhattan-style development. And as much as I rip on NIMBYs, they do have a point about skyscrapers. Dropping a twenty-story building into a neighborhood of SFRs is going to create a lot of localized impacts. That’s why the headline contrived urban districts, from the Pearl District to the South Boston Waterfront, are all built on former industrial land.

And that’s the real beauty of Palms. No one is being forced out of their SFR, and even decades after upzoning, there are still many SFRs available in Palms. If you want a condo or to rent an apartment, there’s plenty of those too. People who own SFRs didn’t have their property values ruined, because the ability to build an apartment building creates value. Every year, many owners choose to keep their SFR, while others decide to build apartments. In other words, the city is growing and providing people with a  variety of economic opportunities and choices. As it should be.

Note: the buildings I selected on Hughes Av date to two eras (20s-30s, 80s-90s) but as we’ll see in future posts, other decades are well represented in Palms as well.

Downtown Wanderings

This is a short setup post with some background ideas and information that will be useful for a few posts that I have on my mind.

Jane Jacobs wrote about the forces that cause downtowns to drift, like self-destruction of diversity, and offered some ideas on how city planners could work to stop those forces. Lately, I’m not entirely sure that it’s a bad thing for downtown to wander as economic agglomerations come and go. When downtown shifts, it leaves behind an interest and coherent, and perhaps most importantly, cheap district that will eventually be discovered and put to use in ways no one thought of before. See, for example, the industrial buildings of Soho that became artist spaces, or the SROs and boarded-up hotels of Downtown LA that are turning into fancy lofts.

The original Downtown LA was, of course, the pueblo. By the late 1800s, it migrated south to the area around First and Broadway, though the vestiges of this downtown are basically gone. In the early 1900s, downtown was centered between Main and Hope, from maybe 3rd to 7th. This area has been booming recently; old-timers will tell you about people living in tents on the sidewalk on Spring St and long vacant buildings, but now Skid Row has moved east and the empty buildings are being renovated. LA’s first skyscraper boom moved things west, to the “new downtown” between 1st and 7th, from the 110 to Grand. Now that area seems a little tired, and all the action has moved south again, from Wilshire to Pico, the 110 to Broadway. But who knows, in 20 years, we could be talking about unforeseen redevelopment and action springing up in what used to be the “new downtown”. Predicting the future is hard!

For the most part, we shouldn’t worry too much about downtown wandering. The goal of public policy is to create a solid framework for the city (transpo, utilities, schools, public safety, recreation, etc.) and let the private sector figure out the rest. Sometimes, though, we need to dig a little deeper and figure out what might be holding back the development of a neighborhood. Right now, we have a lot of transportation money being invested in the area between 2nd and Union Station, to the north of downtown, but downtown keeps shifting south. Why?

Union Station already has the Red/Purple Lines, the Gold Line, Metrolink, and Amtrak. It’s got a lot of Metro bus routes and LAX Flyaway. Before long, Regional Connector will bring the Blue/Expo Lines in to connect, and drop three new stations along 2nd at Hope, Broadway, and Central. Metrolink may build through-running tracks, and hopefully before too much longer CAHSR will come to Union Station. Despite the “7th/Metro Center” moniker (a confusing name that should be replaced with “7th/Flower” anyway), Union Station is pretty clearly the transportation hub. But downtown keeps shifting south. Why?

The appeal of the area between Wilshire and Pico is pretty obvious. It’s got a good mix of old buildings that can be renovated, new construction, and parking lots that are cheap to redevelop. It’s close to many restaurants, bars, and LA Live, and it’s got a Ralph’s on 9th, a Target on Figueroa, and a Walgreens and a Rite-Aid on 7th. It’s pretty close to the Blue/Expo Lines and it’s easier to get to the 10 west and the 110 south. I don’t want to suggest taking anything away from this area; its development should be promoted too.

However, given all the money going into transportation between 2nd and Union Station, we ought to take a hard look at why development there has been somewhat muted. Focus on the framework or “bones” of the city, and I see three main issues:

  • The 101, which creates an unpleasant traffic corridor that separates Union Station from downtown.
  • An excessive amount of park space that increases the distance between different land uses.
  • Zoning and an associated concentration of government buildings filled with people who have pretty much the same schedules and types of trips, which impedes the formation of a customer base large and diverse enough to support a wide range of business establishments.

I’ll explore each of these in a more detailed post.