L.A. aims for a more urbanized downtown

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday approved sweeping changes in zoning rules that allow larger and more dense developments downtown in the city’s biggest effort yet to embrace urban-style planning principles.

The zoning changes are similar to those in more urbanized city centers like those of New York and Chicago. But critics have pointed out that L.A. doesn’t have the vast mass transit system that each of those cities has, saying the tighter zoning could result in more traffic congestion.

The new rules encourage developers to build high-rises without leaving space between the buildings, allow them to reduce the size of lobbies and other communal areas, let them build closer to sidewalks and make it legal to build extremely small units.


Developers who reserve 15% of their units for low-income residents are now exempt from some open-space requirements and can make their buildings 35% larger than current zoning codes allow.

The vote is a victory for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and others who have argued that Los Angeles needs significantly denser zoning to keep up with the rapidly rising demand for housing.

The city is in the midst of a building boom that has seen high-density housing projects rise in downtown as well as Century City, Mid-Wilshire, the Westside and pockets of the San Fernando Valley. But these projects have also sparked a backlash from some residents, who say the new housing is worsening traffic and eroding the low-rise, suburban quality that has defined much of Los Angeles for decades.

Downtown business interests and others said they hoped the ordinance would help sustain the residential boom that has helped transform downtown in the last five years, and at the same time would bring more affordable housing to an area that has seen the construction of mostly luxury units.

The new rules could also push the boom farther south, because they extend the zoning past the traditional boundaries of downtown all the way to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, south of the 10 Freeway near Exposition Park.

“This is an important step in the continued reinvention of downtown Los Angeles,” said Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn. “We will finally have an urban planning code similar to what you have in Portland, Seattle and New York.”

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents much of downtown and the area south of the 10 that is included in the ordinance, said the changes would encourage developers to build more affordable units so the very poor as well as those who work downtown would be able to afford to live there.

But some affordable-housing advocates were skeptical that developers would provide much affordable housing, noting that the downtown real estate market is heavily focused on luxury development.

Beth Steckler of the housing advocacy group Livable Places said the new rules give developers leeway to increase the size of projects without providing more affordable housing.

“It’s a giveaway to developers to build luxury housing,” she said.

There is particular concern in the neighborhoods south of downtown, where some residents fear the luxury tower boom will spread and price them out of their apartments.

Lucia Carinio said she worries that after 35 years, her 82-year-old mother may one day be forced out of her $500-a-month apartment situated hard against the 110 Freeway.

“That’s my question: How’s housing in this area going to be affected?” said Carinio, 42, looking out at the single row of pastel apartment buildings off 39th Street. “They may have no immediate plans. My fear is, without notice, developers will purchase the property. These are the last apartments in this neighborhood. We’ve seen a lot of change here. Most people here are elderly couples on fixed incomes.”

Experts differ over how much the zoning rules on their own will boost development in downtown.

There are now several dozen residential projects big and small under construction or proposed in downtown. They include high-end developments like the Frank Gehry-designed Grand Avenue complex, a scattering of mid-rise projects in Little Tokyo and even a planned 76-story tower across from Pershing Square. The Downtown L.A. Business Improvement District estimates that downtown’s population could jump in the next year from 30,000 to nearly 40,000.

Some real estate experts have warned that the downtown real estate market could slow -- particularly if the region’s overall housing market does.

Still, planning experts said there was no doubt the City Council was sending a message with its vote Tuesday.

“It’s definitely a clear statement by the city that they want more urban development in the downtown zone,” said Raphael Bostic, associate director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate.

The ordinance will most likely succeed in creating greater density downtown and along the Figueroa corridor, Bostic said. But it’s unclear whether the incentives meant to entice developers to build affordable housing along with the luxury condos will work, he said.

“The question is: Who’s living in that development? Is it all upper- income people or to what extent are we going to mandate that there’s lower-income as well?” he said.

Some people downtown cheered the prospects of more residential development -- even if it is mostly upscale.

Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising students Holley Ruiz and Sal Garcia say the residential housing boom has transformed downtown, bringing more restaurants, stores and other amenities to an area long neglected.

“Like with the new Ralphs, I don’t have to eat junk food anymore,” said Garcia, 20, referring to the recent opening of the first chain supermarket downtown in generations. “I can eat healthy. Downtown is becoming more cultural.”

Ruiz, whose stepfather lives downtown and who has been coming into the neighborhood for more than 10 years, said she enjoyed the change.

“With the new buildings, there’s fewer bums,” she said. “It’s just going to get cleaner and cleaner.”

Jane Blumenfeld, principal planner for the city, said the ordinance includes safeguards designed to prevent poor downtown residents from being pushed out by new development. Under the rules, developers must replace lost housing for the very poor -- those who make less than 50% of the area’s median wage -- with new units.

The council also voted Tuesday to closely track the number of affordable units built by developers taking advantage of the incentives. Proposed by Councilman Ed Reyes, the study will keep count of the new affordable units and provide a report to the council.

Planners did not examine exactly how the new rules would affect already heavy traffic in and around downtown L.A. Backers argue that there is perhaps nowhere in L.A. more suited to high-density living because the area is served by the subway and two light rail lines, as well as numerous bus lines. But a study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments found that downtown residents use public transportation for less than 10% of their work, shopping and other trips. (The vast majority used their cars.)

For some of downtown’s poorest residents, traffic is not as big an issue as gentrification.

Linda Valverde, who lived on skid row while homeless and later had a tiny place downtown thanks to a sober-living program, said she has watched with sadness as some of the older apartment buildings and residential hotels have been refurbished for upscale residents, pushing out the poor.

“I would like to be one of the working-class people who live and work downtown,” she said.