Don’t be dense
The debate about the availability of housing in Los Angeles and the city’s development policies has been testy but long overdue. Fueling public outrage over growth policies that would significantly increase density are well-grounded fears that, in the clash between overdevelopment and neighborhood preservation, the developers will prevail.
Urged on by some elected officials, city planners have decided that the “smart” and “elegant” way to grow the city’s housing stock is to double the allowable size of new buildings, bust through established height limits and reduce parking-space requirements -- effectively rolling back more than two decades of neighborhood-protection laws.
There is nothing smart or elegant about such growth. On the contrary. It’s development run amok and with an utter disregard for how it affects the livability of the city’s neighborhoods. Should these efforts -- the city’s version of a state law encouraging greater density; ad hoc zoning changes to double the size of residential development on commercial property to facilitate more density; widespread approval of zoning variances for parking, height and property-line setbacks -- succeed, they will irreparably harm some of our most cherished neighborhoods and diminish our traditional sense of place.
As residents of Los Angeles, we need answers to some fundamental questions:
* Does the city need to weaken its zoning laws to build housing?
Absolutely not. As of 2005, the city had nearly 1.4 million apartment, condominium, single-family and other residential units. Under the general plan that was readopted by the City Council in 2001, that number could increase by nearly 60%, to 2.4 million units. Existing zoning law has accommodated considerable housing growth in recent years, allowing more than 76,000 new units between 2001 and 2007. Before zoning is changed to give the real estate industry special concessions on height, density, parking and building size, developers should exhaust their substantial underutilized capacity for growth.
* Can more housing be built without destroying neighborhoods?
Absolutely. Housing development should be encouraged on the thousands of properties throughout the city that have sufficient lot size and depth relative to surrounding neighborhoods. Such properties can accommodate well-designed, denser and even taller buildings without the collateral damage of traffic congestion, loss of privacy and other community effects often associated with such development. In some cases, these projects would even enhance commercial thoroughfares -- such as the Figueroa corridor near USC -- that are in desperate need of revitalization. At short, larger housing projects should be built where they fit.
* Where can this housing be built?
It belongs in the city’s many employment and residential centers -- downtown, Hollywood, Wilshire Center, Harbor Gateway, Warner Center and the Van Nuys Civic Center. These and similar areas can absorb more housing under current zoning laws. In Century City, for instance, developers are converting traffic-generating commercial buildings to residential uses, resulting in more housing and a net reduction in peak-hour traffic.
Housing should also be built around subway, bus and light-rail stations. Many of these transit stops -- Warner Center, where the Orange Line busway ends in Woodland Hills, is one -- are already employment magnets, and they would be appropriate sites for additional housing as well. But it makes no sense to reflexively boost residential density and building size along every Metro Rapid bus route, as the city’s version of the state’s density-bonus law allows, when the streets that the buses travel often cross low-density, pedestrian-friendly commercial districts serving some of the city’s most charming neighborhoods. The city should be guided by one principle: The scale of development should be informed by the character of its surrounding neighborhood. The one-size-fits-all approach embodied in the density-bonus law and the indiscriminate approval of denser residential housing on commercial property is not an appropriate growth strategy for Los Angeles.
* What can the city do to provide more affordable housing?
It can require developers as a matter of city policy to set aside a certain percentage of units in new buildings for people with low-to-moderate incomes. L.A. doesn’t need to offer development bonuses allowing taller and bigger buildings to achieve this. In 1988, while I was serving on the City Council, we approved such a policy for a new residential development adjacent to UCLA and where 20% of its units were made affordable for university housing. Los Angeles County and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have required similar set-asides in some development projects they have approved, including the Grand Avenue project across from Walt Disney Concert Hall and at several stations along the region’s rail-transit system.
The city also owns a considerable amount of underutilized real estate on which affordable housing could be built. As a council member, I pioneered the creation of several housing developments above city-owned parking lots that were 100% affordable, a policy that should be applied more widely. The county has also made surplus property available to nonprofit developers to build affordable family and senior housing. The office building formerly housing the Department of Public Social Services, at Pico Boulevard and Veteran Avenue in West Los Angeles, is one example.
In all these projects, existing zoning laws, height limits, parking requirements and, above all, the sensibilities and concerns of neighbors were respected. More of these projects should be built.
It’s noteworthy that a major contributing factor to the loss of our affordable housing stock is the demolition and conversion of apartments to make way for condominiums and other luxury housing. Accommodating renters displaced by such developments must be one of the city’s top housing priorities.
Finally, the federal government must reverse its decade-long failure to adequately fund affordable housing for seniors and other renters of low and moderate income. The city and county of Los Angeles should vigorously ratchet up efforts to secure more housing funds when a new administration takes office in Washington next year.
The burgeoning neighborhood rebellion we are witnessing throughout the city is the predictable consequence of an increasingly insular and exclusionary planning process. City officials and developers are being shortsighted when they keep neighborhoods and citizens in the dark. Real estate development is a charged and complex issue, and all those affected by it deserve a seat at the table. The city needs to grow its housing stock, but it must also devise more effective ways to protect the unique attributes of its neighborhoods. These should be complementary, not contradictory, objectives.