Opinion

Meet the architectural menace threatening to ruin downtown L.A.'s rebirth

For decades, Angelenos complained about downtown L.A.’s uninspired skyline, which was shaped by an ordinance that required all skyscrapers to remain flat-topped to accommodate a rooftop helipad. In 2014, that ordinance was rescinded to much applause, and downtown’s skyline has become far more dramatic as a consequence.

Yet while L.A.’s new graceful spires make for a better postcard image, few people outside of airline passengers interact with the top floors of a skyscraper. The vast majority of us experience a tower from the ground level. There’s no small irony, then, that as L.A. pats itself on the back for its freshly angular skyline, a new architectural trend — enabled by another city ordinance — threatens to turn the beating heart of modern Los Angeles into a cold, lifeless and unwalkable place.

The culprit is something called a “parking podium.”

Here’s what’s happening: L.A. has minimum parking requirements that vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, due to the city’s patchwork of community plans and zoning overlays. However, the baseline established by the zoning code calls for multifamily buildings to have one parking space per unit with less than three habitable rooms, 1.5 spaces per unit with three habitable rooms and two spaces per unit with more than three habitable rooms. While this ratio may not seem that imposing for a small apartment building, when applied to a development with 100 or more residential units, it translates into a tremendous amount of parking. Underground lots are often cost-prohibitive, while surface parking is prohibited by the Downtown Design Guide. The result is that many developers have resorted to dedicating the street-level floors of their buildings to garage space.

This design is known as a parking podium.

While some architects are able to thoughtfully incorporate these podiums into their structures, more often than not, the results are disjointed, ugly and terrible for downtown street life.

Several high-rise buildings in downtown suffer from this ailment.

Watermarke, one of the first residential towers built after downtown’s post-millennium rebirth, is a frequent nominee for the title of “ugliest podium.” The 30-story tower of aqua-colored glass is cut off from the ground plane by an unobscured concrete parking garage. Meanwhile, the 37-story condo tower at 1100 Wilshire Boulevard contains what may be the city’s largest parking podium, a hulking 15-level fortress that constitutes over half of the building’s total mass.

The problems with parking podiums such as these go beyond aesthetics. They stand in direct confrontation with the city’s changing attitudes toward mobility.

Renowned urban theorist Jane Jacobs often spoke of a need to maintain “eyes upon the street.” This meant that buildings in urban environments need active ground-floor uses to stimulate pedestrian traffic. Those buildings should also contain habitable spaces directly above, to make sure pedestrians don’t feel isolated and unsafe on the streets down below. This interplay is only possible at the lower floors of a building, as occupants at higher levels are too geographically distant from the street. Podiums interfere with this relationship by setting aside those lower levels for vehicle storage, rather than commercial and living space.

Furthermore, Los Angeles is embracing the ambitious Vision Zero plan, which calls for eliminating pedestrian deaths citywide. However, the driveways that access these garages often cross through city sidewalks, creating opportunities for further collisions. L.A. can’t claim to take pedestrian safety seriously while going out of its way to accommodate parking in this fashion.

How can we reclaim the streets for pedestrians if we give away our sidewalks?

Perhaps in response to criticism, the Los Angeles Planning Department recently recommended policy changes that could reduce the proliferation of parking podiums in downtown. Potential strategies include mandatory underground parking, and a requirement to wrap above-ground parking with habitable spaces.

Both of these ideas have merit, but in a city that’s struggling to contain the rising costs of housing, placing another burden on developers isn’t the ideal solution.

City-mandated subterranean garages will simply bloat project budgets and pass the bill to consumers in the form of higher rents. And while several recent towers have successfully masked parking garages by wrapping them with residential construction, this option is only possible for extremely large properties.

Another option, robotic parking garages, which use 50% less space by stacking cars vertically, shows promise. The most progressive tactic, however, is to eliminate mandatory parking minimums altogether, allowing market conditions to dictate exactly how much parking is needed on a project-to-project basis.

City planners could also pursue the creation of large, centralized parking garages that serve multiple buildings and area businesses. Developers who wish to forego building on-site parking within their own projects could pay an in-lieu-of fee to contribute to the construction and maintenance of these garages. Revenue from these parking structures could then be returned to the neighborhood in the form of public realm improvements such as protected bike lanes, transit, landscaping and other features that make downtown a more pleasant place to live, work and play.

There’s reason to believe this strategy could be successful. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, developers successfully converted a host of vacant office towers into residential units without dedicated on-site parking. Why couldn’t this practice also work for ground-up apartment and condo buildings?

The ongoing rewrite of the city’s archaic zoning code, as well as the updates to the Central City and Central City North community plans — which will guide downtown’s growth over the next two decades — are a chance to end the podium proliferation before it permanently scars our urban landscape.

Do we want to spend the next 20 years tethered to our cars, driving past ugly buildings with little street life? Our do we want a vibrant urban atmosphere worthy of our newfound postcard skyline?

Steven Sharp is the co-founder and editor of Urbanize.LA, where he covers real estate development, architecture and urban planning. Follow him on Twitter @UrbanizeLA.

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