Later this month, the city of Los Angeles is planning to announce a new initiative on the future of low-rise neighborhoods. Part of that initiative will be a design challenge for architects, who will be asked to imagine the kinds of housing, density, technology, green spaces and more that can make our neighborhoods more livable and more sustainable into the future.
Recently, to help prepare for the new programs, the city held a series of “listening sessions” for involved grass-roots and professional groups. The events weren’t debates or policy presentations, but simply brainstorming opportunities, at which participants were invited to contribute a wide variety of thoughts, ideas and concerns about the future of our residential neighborhoods. Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles’ official Chief Design Officer, acted as the city’s eyes and ears for the sessions, taking notes and collecting ideas to use in the city’s introductory materials for the new initiative.
On Saturday, October 3, we dropped in on one of the sessions, hosted by the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance; The online event attracted more than 60 participants, including several from our local Mid City West and Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Councils. And we found the number and scope of ideas generated both interesting and worth sharing.
Although there were three formal questions posed to the audience to help shape the discussion, responses to all of the questions seemed to coalesce around several specific themes:
The session’s participants were, overall, quite vocal about preferring smaller, less-dense housing to large mega-developments and high-rise buildings. But they also included many specific ideas for increasing housing density and liveability, especially for working families. Here were some of the raw suggestions:
- New housing should be more aesthetically appropriate to the older neighborhoods it’s in or adjacent to, in addition to meeting newer technical thresholds.
- Bungalow courts are a great model, naturally cooler, with yard space for residents.
- No more huge Transit Oriented Communities/Transit Oriented Development projects. Instead of “high-rise mega buildings,” we need healthier homes and communities for families.
- Preserve historic neighborhoods instead of destroying them for high-rises.
- There are many vacant lots in residential areas, which could be filled with simple, durable, and faster housing construction options, especially for the homeless. These include tiny homes, mobile home communities, container homes, and cooperative living options.
- There are many options for “missing middle” housing – you don’t just have to build upward, with tall buildings, and you shouldn’t keep building ever-denser buildings in neighborhoods that are already fully built up and don’t have room for more new buildings.
- There are also many vacant commercial lots, where zoning could be changed to allow residential construction.
- There needs to be a balance between denser and less dense housing. Preserve lower-height buildings. People need room – and clean air – to breathe.
- Bungalow courts are great in many ways, but they’re also very small, so new ones should include things older models didn’t have, like bike storage, laundry, solar panels, car chargers, etc.
- We need some increase in density, but the “missing middle” is 3-4 story buildings. The ideal would be buildings high enough to optimize solar exposure, and just large enough for the roof to hold enough solar panels to fully power the whole building.
- Unbundle parking from housing units – if people don’t want parking, they shouldn’t have to pay for it.
- Too many vacant homes are sold to corporations, which keep them vacant if they can’t get rents as high as they want.
- Rehabilitate and preserve affordable units that already exist. (An idea, this participant contended, that seems to have gained “no traction” with the city so far.)
- Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are the way to go for increasing density without hurting neighborhood character.
- Think about building micro neighborhoods within neighborhoods. For example, look at the mid-century housing tracts designed by architect Gregory Ain.
- We need to look at older concepts that worked well (bungalow courts, garden apartments, etc.). But instead of keeping them “locked in time,” add on new ideas to adapt them for today’s needs.
- LA tends to be too “black or white — it’s either TOD or nothing.” We need more hybrid density options, and we might need to sacrifice some extra units in large developments for the health of the community.
- We need to create opportunities for tenants to purchase their homes, perhaps by offering individuals or groups of tenants the right to make the first offer on an available property.
- We discriminate against the working class. They need new affordable units, too, and no one is even thinking about home ownership for this group right now.
In the area of forward-looking technology for housing, building in things like solar power, electric car chargers, and gray water systems were among the most frequently suggested by the attendees. The ideas included:
- Encourage new homes to be built to the “passive house” standard – roughly, the lowest-energy-use house you can build without increasing the overall construction cost.
- Include induction cooktops and heat pumps in all new construction.
- Encourage new homes to have solar power, with battery storage to keep refrigerators cool even if power stays out overnight.
- We need a good gray water system. There’s no reason to use potable water for toilets.
- Because fossil fuels are going away, and renewable energy sources (like sun and wind) are not always present, we need to develop a different energy model for the future.
- Stop all large development projects until they can be “reimagined” as 21st century buildings with things like gray water systems, lower heat island effects and more green space.
- There are lots of ways to increase modern technology in older building forms such as bungalow courts.
- Provide more electric vehicle charging in new construction.
- Take advantage of opportunities for passive and natural ventilation.
- Buildings should not be so tall they can’t fit enough solar panels to fully power the building.
- Rooftop patios / gardens can use partly clear glass solar panels for shade.
- You can also get more creative with things like building orientation on each lot, to maximize solar exposure.
Participants also expressed lots of enthusiasm for trees – both preserving existing trees, and adding trees to increase the overall tree canopy in our neighborhoods. Comments included:
- Developers are not designing around trees. That’s backwards. We need trees first. The LAX people mover project, in particular, has been “disastrous” in the number of trees removed.
- The city has been planting a lot of small trees, such as crepe myrtles, which don’t provide much shade or reduce the heat island effect.
- The desire for both more trees and more solar panels is sometimes difficult, because taller, denser trees can block the light necessary for solar panels.
- We need to rethink our 3-5 foot parkways. Currently, that’s where we put big trees. But if we put sidewalks closer to the street, there would be more room in front yards to put larger trees that would shade houses better. Or, if there are two homes side by side, eliminate side setback requirements on one side of each, so the houses could be closer together on one side, but would have larger setbacks on the other sides, to would make it possible to plant larger trees on the sides with the wider setbacks.
- Plant more trees in the public right of way, to offset those lost to construction.
The need for green space, both private green space for families, and public green space, to benefit all residents, was enthusiastically voiced by everyone who spoke. Among the comments:
- Redesigning parking requirements for missing middle housing could provide a lot more private green space for families. Currently, Miracle Mile is home to a large number of Spanish-style four-plexes which have large garages and no yard space. But if they didn’t have those garages, there would be usable back yards, and we could “get some of that California living into the multifamily world.”
- We should also leave open space in the neighborhood for growing food (shared gardens) and community building, composting, etc.
- Green spaces on development roofs do nothing to benefit the neighborhood or the children and elderly people who walk in the area.
- Roof gardens are not public space and don’t benefit the community. The space should be used for solar power instead.
- Pay more attention to green ground cover. Old-fashioned driveways had strips of green grass between two concrete strips for the car wheels. Today’s driveways are all concrete. More green ground cover provides a better walking envirnoment and cooler temperatures.
- Dr. Lucy Jones’ book, “The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them),” talks about how current building codes are intended merely to “keep buildings from killing us,” but we could do much more with codes to promote healthier buildings.
The need to reimagine our car-centric streets and encourage other modes of mobility was also firmly supported by the participants, but they also cautioned about over-densifying housing along transportation corridors.
- In the Valley, they’re building dense new housing near the Orange Line, but the Orange Line is already at ridership capacity.
- No one talks about monorails, but they’re clean, flexible, and cost effective.
- We need car-sharing systems and “universal basic mobility,” including a fare-free Metro system.
- Repurpose some car lanes for biking, parklets, etc.
- “The whole city is in a state of desperation and fear about traffic.” We need bike and bus lanes, but how do we bring bike lanes to the community when there’s opposition to losing car lanes and increasing congestion?
- We need more car-sharing systems like BlueLA (an electric car sharing service). Also more software solutions for people who share cars. We need to let go of the idea of car ownership.
- China has a $3,000 electric car, which would be a great solution for many people, but not if they don’t have access to parking or charging. We need to do smart vehicle manufacturing for new communities.
- We need to do better with streetscapes. The recent Uplift Melrose project was killed, and we lost a chance at major grant funding, because of traffic concerns. “The tyranny of the automobile is killing the city.”
Finally, there were a number of comments and suggestions that didn’t quite fit into the other major themes, but which were definitely related. They included:
- We need a vacancy tax, especially in the Larchmont area, where there are a lot of vacant stores and lots.
- Sustainability has to balance with safety. For example, the current environmentally-friendly street lights are too dim. People in my neighborhood don’t know where to turn at night, because you can’t read the street signs.
- Walkability is very important, and we need to preserve places people already walk to, such as corner grocery stores.
- YES to more small-scale retail. There are lots of new commercial spaces in big new developments that aren’t rented because they’re too expensive for small merchants.
- Retail stores don’t have to be as large as they have been in the past. “We’re so over that.”
- Many neighborhoods are becoming more exclusive and keeping people out because potential new residents can’t afford to live there. How can we bring this into the conversation, or are neighborhoods only for the people who are there now? Is our system designed just for people who are keeping other people out?
- Who gets a say about what happens in the neighborhood? The Crenshaw Corridor is starting to feel like neighbors have no say in what happens. Neighbors aren’t telling developers, “Don’t come,” but instead just, “Don’t come so much that we lose the beautiful character of the neighborhood.”
While the purpose of the session wan’t to adopt or promote any specific plans, Hawthorne said the participants’ input was “hugely helpful.”
He also reported that he has worked on a book on this topic, “The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture,” so has been thinking about these issues for a long time. He said Los Angeles actually has several good architectural models in its history, including both garden apartments and bungalow courts, one of the housing types many participants extolled. And Hawthorne said he, too, has lived in a bungalow court, so he knows both their advantages and their space limitations. “It’s all about arranging space on the site,” he said.
Hawthorne said that while this particular upcoming design challenge will focus on low-rise neighborhoods, he is aware that the city has pushed a lot of density to transit corridors, and that we “do hear that it’s out of scale to adjacent neighborhoods…but there’s lots of range in between.” The question, he said is how to “layer” in new housing to fit with the scale and density of existing adjacent neighborhoods.
Finally, Hawthorne said he would share more details when the city’s design challenge launches later this month. Whatever happens, however, he said he realizes that from a land use and sustainability perspective, we can’t just keep building the way we have in the past. We need to fold new development into the city near jobs and transportation, but we also have to figure out how it affects our existing communities, and especially our communities of color.
About Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
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