High-rises or bungalows? The battle to define L.A.'s character goes to the ballot

To better understand the battle for the future of Los Angeles, start with a long walk down a dim tunnel beneath the Hall of Administration. In a storage room under Grand Park where the county assessor keeps its map books, the clamor over Measure S — the March 7 ballot initiative aimed at regulating development in the city — seems far away.

Computers upstairs record recent transactions, but in these books — in the pencil, ink and stenciled lettering — is a glimpse of the forces that shaped this metropolis as it slowly spread across a dusty floodplain through cycles of boom and bust.

The pages are tattered and dog-eared, and each parcel is neatly ruled and numbered as if the power of geometry could forestall the rancorous debates over development that have divided communities, pitted opportunists against idealists and seen landmarks and monstrosities rise and fall.

The single-family home was the signature of the region. With its frontyard and backyard, it came to represent paradise for anyone with good credit.

As Herbert Pierce, the ruined home builder in James M. Cain’s 1941 novel “Mildred Pierce,” told his architect, “Pierce Homes are for folks” — a line that captures the egalitarian ideal and the fledgling market that inspired so many developers to divide and conquer this new frontier.

The message spread in movies and on television, and homeownership became a popular stage for aspirations and satire. Neighborhoods had fictionalized names — Mayfield, Springfield, Wisteria Lane — and each belonged to the sprawl that defined the region.

Today that dream, both in suburbs and city centers, has grown cluttered. Mid-rise apartments with adjacent retail attract renters tired of traffic and long commutes to downtowns where bikes compete with cars, brewpubs crowd sidewalks and dogs have their own parks.

And developers, sensing another bonanza, are eager to build for this market, reshaping skylines with multistory towers.

There have been many efforts to slow the builders down. The latest, Measure S, calls for a pause, a two-year moratorium on projects that require Los Angeles City Council approval.

Only now the argument seems more urgent as the city, pushing against the San Gabriels and Pacific, nears what some see as logistical and environmental critical mass. Since the 1990s, according to one survey, Los Angeles’ population has grown nearly 20% faster than its housing supply has, a prescription for the construction boom that has created such acrimony.

Organized to stop the “reckless approval of outsized development practices,” the Measure S campaign has identified more than 50 projects from West Hills to Boyle Heights, pinning them with labels such as “instant ghetto,” “vulgar stucco pile” and “black-lung lofts.”

Its opponents take a familiar line: Stalling development will kill jobs, exacerbate the housing shortage and drive up rents.  

Behind either side’s rhetoric, however, is a trickier question: How will Southern Californians adapt as their cities become more crowded, traffic-clogged and expensive? 

“Longtime residents of Los Angeles have in their collective imagination an image of what the city should look like and how they should live in it,” said writer D.J. Waldie, “and it’s that image that is being interfered with as the city becomes more dense. What kind of city will they see in five, 10 or 15 years?”

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Downtown Los Angeles is in the midst of a vertical renaissance. Construction cranes are perched above apartment complexes that are drawing new residents into a city center once known only to commuters and the indigent.

Architect David Martin watched this transformation from his office overlooking the Central Library. As the key designer of the new Wilshire Grand hotel complex, he believes the city is just now stepping onto a broader stage.

“Los Angeles is starting to feel like a great world city,” he said. “To stop growth is to return to another era, and I’m not so sure we can do that.”

Writer and urban scholar Joel Kotkin has reservations. From his perspective, downtown Los Angeles will remain a minor player in the region’s economy, a bigger version of “downtown Indianapolis or Dallas.”

Kotkin worries that development, as it is being proposed and administered throughout Los Angeles, puts the region at risk for losing the qualities that once made it so attractive: lower-density neighborhoods clustered around town centers.

Former county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who also served on the L.A. City Council, has long fought for a more thoughtful approach to development and criticizes City Hall for not providing more oversight.

The city’s General Plan, a state-mandated blueprint for development in the city, means nothing, he said, if a developer can negotiate a deal to double or triple allowable building sizes on a lot and get those changes approved 90% of the time, as The Times recently reported.

“The city has to have the capacity and the backbone to stand up to developers,” he said.

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Chicago was lucky. San Francisco was lucky. One had a fire, the other an earthquake, each triggering a makeover, allowing each city to rethink its layout and identity.

Los Angeles did not have an act of God, but it did have its mortals — its Henry Huntington, its William Mulholland, its Harry Chandler.

Each saw in the expanse of land lying in the shadow of the San Gabriels an opportunity to create a city unlike any other, a decentralized city defined by islands of development that would in time merge and blend. Builders, more than planners, facilitated the city’s growth spurts, driven by one singular vision: Los Angeles would be a city of small houses on small lots.

One of the most celebrated observers of this boom was Reyner Banham, for whom Los Angeles in the late 1960s was an enigma that demanded explanation.

“Los Angeles breaks all the rules which have been deduced by town planners over the years,” the British architectural historian told a class at USC. “Yet I would maintain that it is still in spite of that a great and a significant city.”

The city’s energy, freedom and unruly design made it attractive and inspired imitation, Banham thought: “It takes a very great city indeed to impose that kind of style on the rest of the world.”

But Banham’s city was dependent on the automobile and the single-family home. Remove one or the other, and does Los Angeles lose its signature identity?

Artist Ed Ruscha was sold on Los Angeles from the time he first saw the city as a teenager from Oklahoma visiting with his parents in 1951. Five years later, he moved here when the city was, in his words, “swank and twinkly” and bungalows came with an orange tree in the backyard.

Ruscha knows that nostalgia is generational. When he moved to Echo Park in the 1950s he met an old man who reminisced about the city, circa 1942, calling it paradise.

“Find your old man today,” said Ruscha, “and he might say this place was paradise in 1980.”

Still, from his Culver City studio with its orchard of oranges, limes, lemons and mandarins, Ruscha, 79, questions the ambitions of developers who seem intent on building what he calls super cubes and sky malls, creating a more shadowy place.

“It is all so Rambo.”

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Fluorescent lights cast a shadowless glow on Page 7 of Book No. 220, where the assessor more than 100 years ago lined a foursquare parcel lying between Sunset Boulevard and Selma Avenue, just east of Vine Street in Hollywood.

In delicate script on the opposite page is the name Ida W. Beveridge, known in society as Daeida Beveridge. She and her husband developed this tract, in what was then called the Cahuenga Valley, for Christians — a community absent gambling halls, billiard dens and saloons.

Their dream was short-lived. Los Angeles annexed Hollywood in 1910, and the Beveridges’ claim was erased, forgotten and recast over the decades.

“I see the history of Los Angeles,” said author William McClung, “as one of constant negotiations between the given environment and the impulse to develop. At every key stage, voices were raised against innovation, in the interests of what was felt to be an already achieved balance between the terrain and incipient development.”

Today roadies and vendors use the Beveridge land to unload equipment and beer for the latest show at the Palladium, and developers hope one day to turn this parking lot, a block away from the congestion of Vine Street, into two 28-story towers for 731 apartments.

For the champions of Measure S, these towers, approved by the City Council last year, are ground zero in their fight, inspiration not just for the initiative but also a lawsuit against the city that goes to court this spring.

Thirty years ago, a similar fight focused on the newly completed Encino Terrace Center on Ventura Boulevard. The commercial complex had only six stories, but it was nearly two football fields long and pushed up against a residential neighborhood.

This “ugly white elephant” drew attention to the shopping malls, high-rises, and apartment and condominium complexes that had proliferated throughout the city, clogging freeways and streets, overloading sewers and spoiling paradise.

At the time, Yaroslavsky and fellow Councilman Marvin Braude wrote Proposition U, which would cut in half the size of new buildings proposed for most of the city’s commercial and industrial zones.

The initiative passed in 1986, and in the succeeding years, slow-growth initiatives cropped up on city ballots from Santa Clarita to San Diego.

Proposition U moderated growth in the city for almost 20 years until 2005, when the state passed a statute — offering incentives for developers to increase the supply of affordable housing — that forced the city to overhaul its existing residential building ordinances.

Dick Platkin, a city planning consultant and spokesman for the Measure S campaign, points to the General Plan — written in 1970 and revised in 1996 — for providing a clear vision for future growth in Los Angeles. Its population forecasts, key to understanding housing requirements in the city, are still valid, he maintains, adding that it mostly needs to be updated to address climate change and housing inequity.

But the real issue, he said, is whether developers should have a voice in the city’s planning process.

“If you have a city whose land-use policies are determined by the roller coaster of real estate speculation, you will have a city that looks like ‘Blade Runner,’ ” he said.

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In “Her,” director Spike Jonze imagines a Los Angeles in some not-so-far-off future where trains whisk residents to a crowded beach and skyscrapers — with digital help from the skyline of Shanghai — poke into the sky beyond the pinpoints of downtown and Century City.

“There are as many possible cities as there are possible forms of human society,” Banham, the architectural historian, wrote in “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.”

Today gridlock and soaring housing costs are forcing residents to see Los Angeles differently. The future imagined by one generation is not necessarily the future wanted by another.

Much as the drought changed the city’s perception of its green space, the debate over density is challenging popular presumptions of the single-family home. Like the car, it has become a symbol of urban unsustainability.

Yaroslavsky, for one, doesn’t believe that the future of Los Angeles is an either-or proposition — horizontal or vertical, sprawling or dense.

“The suburbs aren’t going anywhere. There is not going to be an eviction notice given to Chatsworth or Granada Hills,” he said. “I look at the changes ahead of us as additive. You now have a more urban dimension to the city of L.A.” 

With some young couples snapping up Highland Park bungalows and others eager to sell their cars and move within earshot of L.A. Live, such a synthesis just may be happening.

thomas.curwen@latimes.com

Twitter: @tcurwen

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