We’re ‘Pasadena-izing’

New York is not Tokyoizing. Chicago is not Shanghaizing. And Los Angeles is not Manhattanizing.

True, the density of L.A.'s population is increasing, especially downtown, in the Mid-Wilshire district and in Hollywood. But carving out a few thousand condos in old downtown buildings is hardly proof that L.A. is “Manhattanizing.” If anything, the city overall is “Pasadena-izing” -- becoming more of a collection of centers around which new housing (condos and apartments) and commercial spaces are being built.

Los Angeles ran out of raw land more than 20 years ago and therefore had to move beyond the traditional suburban ideal of single-family homes on tree-lined streets. So it, along with older suburbs stretching from San Fernando to Westminster, is doing what cities have done throughout history -- building up instead of out to accommodate the housing needs of a growing population and an ever-changing set of construction and space requirements for businesses.


This isn’t always pretty. But the end result is what L.A. needs to be -- a more urban city.

Some critics, however, contend that development in L.A. is more out of control than ever. The opposite is the case: New real estate development is not dispersed around the city but is largely concentrated near rail transit lines and busway stations. The resulting centers vary in size and scale: Some are like villages -- as along Ventura Boulevard throughout the San Fernando Valley -- while a few -- downtown and Century City -- are taking on Manhattan-like densities. But together they add up to a Los Angeles-style approach to urbanism, one in line with the basic concepts of L.A.'s planning policies adopted more than 30 years ago.

In the 1970s, when L.A.'s suburbs began sprouting, the city adopted, in 1974, an innovative general zoning plan that called for high-density development around 38 centers in the city, connected by transit, that would absorb most of the growing population. These centers would allow permanent preservation of the vast fields of single-family houses located between them.

The “centers concept,” as it was called, was the brainchild of Calvin Hamilton, city planning director from 1964 to 1986. At a time when planning orthodoxy argued that cities had to be “mono-nuclear” -- built around one extremely dense center, like Manhattan -- L.A.'s plan was nothing less than revolutionary. Hamilton’s visionary plan acknowledged that L.A. was “poly-nuclear” -- a place with many centers, of varying sizes, all of which had to be strengthened for the city to accommodate new growth.

Over time, L.A. has become more dense. But this hasn’t always happened around the centers identified in Hamilton’s plan -- Westwood, Century City, Warner Center in Woodland Hills, among them. Oftentimes, developers had the political juice to build tall buildings wherever they wanted, whether their ideas followed the city plan or not, in large part because of the size of the city’s 15 councilmanic districts. Each council member effectively serves as the mayor of a city with a population of close to 300,000. Running in that kind of district requires a lot of campaign money, which developers are more than happy to provide.

The growth around the Beverly Center is a good example of what developers used to get away with, general plan or no general plan. The area is not one of the city centers named in Hamilton’s scheme. It wasn’t targeted for a rail transit station -- and still isn’t today, even in the most pie-in-the-sky long-range plans. Yet once construction of the Beverly Center began in the early 1980s, the surrounding area built up with other high-density retail and housing development

This kind of rogue development happens far less today. That’s not because L.A.'s politicians have had a spine implant. Rather, it’s happening because the construction of L.A.'s rail transit lines has made Hamilton’s designated city centers far more attractive places to build. Indeed, in the last decade, more and more large-scale development in L.A. has occurred around rail transit -- especially the Red Line, Los Angeles’ subway.

“Manhattanization” is occurring where it can -- mostly downtown and to a lesser extent in Mid-Wilshire and Hollywood -- because these locations can absorb greater density. They are transit-rich and already have a strong backbone of jobs, housing and services. This makes them more attractive to politically powerful developers.

The rest of the metropolitan constellation is densifying too, but at a much different scale. The prototype for most of this growth in Los Angeles and Orange counties is Pasadena, which has a texture of three- to five-story buildings, a fabulous mix of housing, retail, office buildings and cultural institutions, a lot of parking garages and great “walkability.” The result, citywide and regionwide, is a rich urban mosaic, with a few extremely dense centers, dozens of smaller-scale downtowns, hundreds of villages and vast swaths of single-family neighborhoods that are unlikely to change.

William Fulton is the publisher of the California Planning & Development Report, the president of Solimar Research Group and a senior scholar at the School of Planning, Policy and Development at USC.