A few months ago, the Department of City Planning released its new Plan to House LA, a restructuring of the city’s Housing Element of its General Plan, which is intended to help the city meet a state-mandated total of 450,000 new housing units by 2029.
The Plan to House LA takes a two-pronged approach to incentivizing new housing construction – re-zoning many parts of the city to allow more housing, and a new Citywide Housing Incentive Program, which includes six distinct strategies to create new housing units:
- Adaptive Reuse
- Updates to Affordable Housing Incentive Programs
- Opportunity Corridors
- Affordable Housing Overlay Zones
- Missing Middle Housing
- Process Streamlining
This spring, the city has been focusing on the first of these strategies – Adaptive Reuse – and introduced a draft of a new Citywide Adaptive Re-Use Ordinance (ARO) that would take guidelines for converting non-residential buildings to housing, originally developed for Downtown LA, and make them available throughout Los Angeles.
Origins of the Citywide Adaptive Reuse Ordinance
Introducing the draft of the new Adaptive Reuse Ordinance at a public webinar on June 6, Principal City Planner Ken Bernstein said that when people think about reusing old buildings to create new housing, they most often think about the many conversions of old warehouse and office buildings in Downtown Los Angeles, which is where the city’s first adaptive use rules were created in 1999. That original ordinance was later expanded, in 2003, to include four other incentive zones – Hollywood, Wilshire Center/Koreatown, Chinatown/Lincoln Heights, and the Figueroa Corridor.
At that time the original downtown ordinance was created, Bernstein said, many people were skeptical that anyone would want to live in either old buildings or in Downtown itself. But the naysayers were wrong, Bernstein said, and the program turned out to be a “tremendous success,” helping to create 12,000 new housing units since it was adopted.
Bernstein and Planning Assistant Holly Harper said that because of “three intersecting crises” today – the current housing shortage (especially the shortage of truly affordable housing), our post-pandemic recovery (which has left us with too much empty office space and not enough housing), and the climate crisis (which has created a much larger push to reduce, reuse, and recycle whenever possible), we are now at an “opportune moment” to expand and update the original adaptive reuse rules for use throughout the city.
After all, Bernstein said, converting existing buildings to housing is both less disruptive to the community and more environmentally friendly than building from the ground up. “The greenest building is the one that’s already built,” he said.
Specifics of the Proposed New Ordinance
The new ARO would retain the current adaptive reuse incentives in their original areas – via the new Downtown Community Plan – and then expand them citywide through updated Zoning Codes that would allow housing in certain kinds of places (such as commercial corridors) and in certain kinds of structures (such as office buildings and parking structures) where it wasn’t previously allowed.
In general, said the presenters, the new citywide Adaptive Reuse Ordinance would:
- Allow adaptive reuse in buildings built as recently as five years ago, instead of just those built before 1974 (as the current ordinance allows).
- Create a faster, more streamlined administrative and “by right” review process for adaptive reuse projects in buildings at least 15 years old.
- Create a more detailed discretionary approval process for projects in buildings 5-15 years old, for projects requesting additional incentives, and for those using floor area-averaging for projects that contain both adaptive reuse units and new construction.
- Provide an administrative review by the Office of Historic Resources to ensure that “significant historic or cultural resources” are protected…and that “buildings identified in HistoricPlacesLA would be eligible to use standards in the California Historic Building Code.
- Allow more flexible unit sizes and spatial organization than would be allowed in new construction.
Overall, said Harper, this means more buildings would be eligible for adaptive reuse projects, and applications for those projects would receive faster, more streamlined reviews and approvals from the Department of Building and Safety, the Office of Historic Resources, and the Zoning Administrator.
Proposed Incentives for Adaptive Reuse Projects
According to Harper the proposed ordinance will also contain a number of additional incentives to “allow flexible changes within the existing building volume.” These new incentives include:
- Exemption from more restrictive standards in Specific Plan areas, areas with [Q] or [D] conditions, other kinds of overlay zones, and both Site Plan Review and Commercial Corner requirements.
- Permission to add rooftop structures up to one story (16 feet) high, as long as they include amenities, such as a pool deck, that are available to all residents.
- Elimination of zoning code requirements for minimum unit sizes. (In other words, instead of the current 450 square foot minimum unit size, ARO projects would default to LADBS’ minimum habitability size of 250 square feet.)
- Reduced parking areas (and conversion of at least some parking to other uses) if the new housing requires fewer parking spaces than the building’s previous use. There would also be a total exemption from parking requirements if the project qualifies under AB 2097.
- Maintenance of existing loading areas, but no requirement for new ones.
- No requirements for additional open space or landscaping.
- No need to comply with building step-backs or transitional height provisions.
On the other hand, though, despite the long list of potential incentives, new units created under the ARO would still be subject to development fees, including the Affordable Housing Linkage Fee. And they may also be subject to other affordable housing requirements currently being studied.
Although not included in the main presentation at the June webinars on the draft ARO, answers to additional questions from stakeholders at the webinar provided some additional information:
- The Adaptive Reuse Ordinance will be used only to create permanent housing (occupancy of more than 30 days at a time); it does not apply to the creation of “transient housing” such as hotels.
- The new ordinance will apply ONLY to areas outside the incentive areas currently covered by the old adaptive reuse standards.
- Adaptive reuse conversions can be very costly, so the city is currently conducting market studies to help figure out how to create new affordable units, either on site or through linkage fees (though about 95% of developers do choose to include those units on site, said Senior City Planner Blair Smith).
- According to a study done in 2021, the new Adaptive Reuse Ordinance could potentially produce up to 40,000 new housing units, and maybe more.
- According to the New York Times, Los Angeles’ commercial building vacancy rate is about 27% right now, which is the highest ever. But the rate varies in different places around the city, depending on land uses in various areas. (For example, there isn’t as much vacant office space in the North Valley as there is downtown because there aren’t as many office buildings there.) So the number of potential adaptive reuse projects will also vary from area to area.
- Partial adaptive reuse projects (e.g. converting only 50% of a building’s space to housing) would be allowed under the new ordinance.
- All or part of existing parking structures could also be converted to housing under the new ARO.
- Housing developed under the ARO would not be subject to the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, because that law requires that a building received its housing habitability permit before 1978, and these units would be newer (even though they’re newly created in an older building).
- Housing units created under the new ARO could be made available either as rental units or for sale.
Timeline and Next Steps
The draft Adaptive Reuse Ordinance was released in May, and the city held its initial webinars on the draft in June (a webinar recording is available here, and slides from the program are available here).
In July and August, the presenters said, officials will be conducting CEQA and economic analyses of the proposal, holding more “focused” stakeholder meetings, releasing a new draft of the ordinance, and then holding public hearings on and revising the second draft. Hearings and approval votes from the City Planning Commission, City Council PLUM Committee, and then full City Council, are expected by the end of the year.
If you have questions or comments about the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, see the webinar link above, contact [email protected], and/or see the full Housing Element Rezoning Program page and the more specific Adaptive Reuse Ordinance Fact Sheet.