July 29, 2017 - From the July, 2017 issue

'DTLA 2040' to Recode & Guide Growth for LA City's Urban Core

In the push for new community plans that reflect the rapid evolution of Los Angeles, the DTLA 2040 plan represents the forward-thinking and innovative approach the Planning Department is bringing to the task. Covering both the Central City and Central City North planning areas, the document debuts an entirely new city code and zoning types customized specifically for the area. TPR sat down with Planning Director Vince Bertoni and Central City Association Director Jessica Lall to hear how the plan accommodates the immense development pressure in LA’s booming urban core—from the expanding Metro system to the transition of industrial land. 


Jessica Lall

"We're seeing an evolution in how industrial land is used—a real mixture of uses that wasn't possible 50 or even 20 years ago. The community plan calls for a new type of zone in those areas called 'hybrid-industrial.'" —Vince Bertoni

Vince, the Planning Department recently released Part 1 of DTLA 2040, the community plan and rezoning document for Downtown Los Angeles. What is the significance of this plan—not only for downtown, but for all community planning going forward? 

Vince Bertoni: In the past, Los Angeles’ community plans have largely reflected the post-World War II evolution of the city, when we were abandoning our Downtown for places like the San Fernando Valley. This plan, DTLA 2040, is about the future. It looks forward to reestablishing Downtown Los Angeles as the center of the city.

To do that, we’re not just updating the community plan, but also integrating brand new zoning. This is the first time Los Angeles has comprehensively revisited our zoning since 1946, and the Downtown plans will have this integrated zoning code as part of the community plan. We’re really excited by how this could help transform Downtown.

Elaborate on the rezoning advanced in DTLA 2040, and explain the new terminology of “place types.”

Vince Bertoni: As forward-thinking as our past community plans have been, we couldn’t truly realize their visions because our World War II-era zoning just didn’t allow for it. Now, we are providing zoning that treats Downtown as a vital place where we’re going to focus much of our activity—like housing and jobs—and allow for the things that are necessary to make that happen.

Downtown isn’t all about tall skyscrapers and the skyline. We also need to maintain and nurture places that may require more diligence. Walk around Little Tokyo or Chinatown, and it has a very different feel than Bunker Hill. Place types are tools that enable us to look at Downtown as not just one large, homogenous area. They help reflect what’s there and create more unique neighborhoods. We want to maintain the urban variety of Downtown.

Jessica, SCAG projects that Downtown will gain 125,000 residents by the year 2040. In your opinion, how well does the new plan anticipate and manage that growth?

Jessica Lall: Downtown represents 1 percent of the city’s land, but is projected to hold 20 percent of its population growth. The Central City Association is very welcoming of that growth and density. Downtown is the most transit-accessible location in the county, with the highest concentration of jobs; there’s no better place for new housing and commercial space.

But in order to make this work, we need to enhance the quality of life downtown and build the infrastructure to support that growth. We need significant improvements to our transportation infrastructure—especially in the Fashion District and the Arts District, where car-free options are more limited. We also need parks and open space throughout Downtown. And CCA is working on finding affordability solutions to make our neighborhoods accessible and available to residents of all income levels. 

Jessica, as the new CEO of the Central City Association following a successful tenure managing the South Park BID, share what you believe is the promise of the Planning Department’s updated Downtown Community Plan. 

Jessica Lall: After overcoming Measure S, the real opportunity of the community plan is to get it right—to show the rest of the city that density is not a scary thing, but can create a vibrant, activated area that people want to live in. LA has all the assets to show what a great urban city looks like.

We see Downtown as the heart of our city. The heart pumps nutrients to the rest of the body, and it is critical for our city and region that we have a successful, vibrant, thriving Downtown LA. We can achieve that if we make progress on five key objective areas: mobility, livability, housing, homelessness, and jobs (both retaining jobs in industries that are already here, and attracting new ones).

The role of CCA in the past has been to attract investment downtown—to put it back on the map. My predecessor Carol Schatz did that very successfully. Now we’re in a period where residents and industries are moving here, and we need to synthesize these elements so they can reach their full potential. The community plan and the zoning are foundational, key components of that, and I’m really excited for our organization to help make them work.

Included in DTLA 2040 is the transition of some industrial-zoned land to residential. How does rezoning industrial land support economic growth downtown and the creation of good-paying jobs? What is gained, and what is lost, in transitioning industrial land to residential?

Vince Bertoni: We’re looking at jobs, including industrial jobs, in a more nuanced way. Considering the automation of so many industries, industrial land doesn’t always equate to jobs the way it did in the past. One of our greater job generators right now is creative office space, which can locate, not just in industrial areas—although they do tend to like the feel of an old industrial building—but in other areas, too.

We’re also seeing an evolution in how industrial land is used. Today, you can produce goods in a much cleaner and non-polluting way than you could in the past. That means that you can have manufacturing in an area and yet still have viable housing, retail and restaurants nearby. As a result, we’re seeing a real mixture of uses in industrial areas that wasn’t possible 50, or even 20, years ago. Reflecting this new reality, the community plan calls for a new type of zone in those areas called “hybrid-industrial.”

But we are not allowing housing everywhere in Downtown, nor are we are allowing hybrid-industrial everywhere. For example, the southern part of Downtown is a large area that has very good freeway and heavy rail access, as well as large properties. We are preserving this area for industrial use because we think it is viable long term.

Jessica Lall: We have approximately 70,000 residents and 500,000 jobs in Downtown LA. We need to do more on housing to reach a true jobs/housing balance. It’s a delicate balance, but it’s necessary to make Downtown sustainable. There are a lot of opportunities to utilize industrial-zoned land going forward, and I think the Planning Department has done a great job of thinking through how to create flexible spaces to make sure that we don’t limit the types of jobs that can be created downtown.

There is a facility in the Arts District that is 3.5 million cubic square feet and only employs 25 people. It’s not that those 25 jobs are not important, but when we think about how to use land for housing and jobs, it’s important to keep scale in mind. There’s a balance to be struck, and we have to think about how we’re using the tools we have to incentivize things we know we need.

We also believe that accommodating educational resources and open space is a critical issue for Downtown, especially in order to attract and retain families. I’ve been on the board of the Metro Charter Elementary School for four years, and with all the development that’s going on, we have not been able to find a permanent facility. That kind of use is difficult to accommodate with the strict, inflexible rules we have right now.

With the new plan, there’s an opportunity to allow a developer to bring in a school and, for example, not have that count toward their FAR calculations, or use it as a different way to activate ground floors besides traditional retail, especially since retail is changing so much and so rapidly.

Today, one of the hottest areas in the city in terms of development pressure and growth is Downtown LA’s Arts District, and curiously, it really doesn’t have a plan reflective of what’s happening there. How will DTLA 2040 encourage different results for the Arts District than what we’ve seen there over the last five years?

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Vince Bertoni: The previous community plan didn’t envision the evolution of the Arts District into what it has now become. In the new plan, our goal is to combine the creative office and industry jobs with the shopping and dining destinations that are coming, while maintaining a place where people can live. We looked at the characteristics of individual areas within the Arts District—how the streets are designed and laid out, where we should keep buildings at a lower scale, and which areas can handle taller buildings.

We’re also looking very carefully at reconnecting the Arts District to the LA River. This relationship has been very industrial. Now, like many parts of America that have started to transition their riverfronts away from those uses and into more mixed-use, modern areas, we’re looking to integrate the river into the Arts District.

There is also a tremendous amount of investment in transportation infrastructure occurring in the area. The extension of Metro rail, especially the West Santa Ana branch, is going to be very important. I also wouldn’t underestimate the impact of the Sixth Street Bridge—it is going to be a monumental piece of architecture, as well as a linear park. This plan will build upon these exciting investments in the Arts District. 

Jessica Lall: The fact that we never envisioned the Arts District becoming what it is today just points to the how critical it is to have a plan that’s flexible and allows for change over time. That is a core objective of this plan.

How is the build-out of Metro’s rail system changing Downtown and its integration with the rest of Los Angeles? 

Vince Bertoni: Individual spaces throughout Downtown are starting to be connected to a rail system that is becoming regional. It’s not just Metro rail, which already goes west to the beach in Santa Monica and will eventually connect eastward to the Ontario Airport, northward, and southward to LAX. It’s also Metrolink, which is a much greater regional system, as well as Amtrak and inter-city rail. When you pull all of that together, what you start to see, for the first time, is the ability to get all over LA by rail or by rapid bus.

Combined with first mile/last mile solutions for pedestrians and bicyclists, there’s tremendous opportunity for Los Angeles, especially around the river. The bike-share system that we rolled out with Metro downtown has also been very successful. 

Jessica Lall: Downtown is as at the center of Metro’s evolution. The more that Metro bus and rail brings people downtown, and the easier we make it to access the neighborhoods here, the more Downtown becomes a desirable place to live and work.

The tech company Gimbal was the latest to announce it was moving from Santa Monica to Downtown. Transit plays a critical role in that trend. And as things like car-share and automated vehicles continue to develop thanks to LA DOT and Metro, Downtown will be the place to try pilots on the forefront of innovative technologies.

How inclusive has the civic outreach been on behalf of the Downtown plan? Do you feel that it reflects most stakeholders’ concerns?

Vince Bertoni: No matter how much outreach you do, at the end of the process, there’s always going to be someone who comes out and says, “You didn’t do enough.” We understand that, and we are getting the word out in all types of ways.

One thing we did for the Downtown plan was a weeklong pop-up store at the Bradbury Building. It was open all day long for people to come in, look at the plan, and give us their thoughts. There were also curated events in the evenings where people could give additional input. More than 1,000 people visited us that week alone. This was in addition to all the kinds of outreach that we usually do, like going to business organizations and neighborhood groups. 

Jessica Lall: In my mind, from my time both at the South Park BID and at the CCA, the Planning Department should be commended for engaging with the community. Bryan Eck and other planners have met with us several times and included us in important policy discussions. The Planning Department is inclusive and values different ideas.

That being said, it is impossible to touch everyone, but I think Planning is doing a great job reaching different communities and the different stakeholders within each community, whether they be residents, businesses, or business advocacy groups.

What is the timeline for consideration and adoption of the DTLA 2040 plan?

Vince Bertoni: Planning is somewhat of an iterative process: We shape the plan, we work with community groups to get input, and then we go back and rethink parts of it. We’re expecting to release the draft plan for public input this summer and start the EIR process in spring 2018.

Along with the Downtown plan, we’re updating the community plan for Boyle Heights. In our next round, we’ll look at the Southwest Valley, which is very different from either Downtown or Boyle Heights. But we’re going to take what we’ve learned about carefully crafting something unique to a community or neighborhood to other parts of the city.

Lastly, after the failure of Measure S, the question remains whether the city of LA is committed to integrated planning. Is the DTLA 2040 plan and zoning evidence of such a commitment? 

Vince Bertoni: The City has a firm commitment, not just to Downtown Los Angeles, but to updating all its community plans by 2024. Not only that, but we’re also updating the overarching General Plan, as well as the zoning that implements the plans. This is a comprehensive approach.

Moreover, these are not one-size-fits-all solutions. We’re going to be crafting all our plans with new zones that will be specifically customized to reflect the character of individual communities. We’ll be looking at the relationship between form and use—what the building looks like and what’s going to be in it.

Angelenos are looking for the ability to shape these plans in a meaningful way, and I think we’ve really provided that. We’ve worked hand-in-hand with everyone in Downtown Los Angeles. And I can tell you: In Downtown—and in any neighborhood in the city—the viewpoints are not homogenous. They are incredibly varied. Some are different but compatible; some are completely at cross-purposes. It’s our job to listen to all the different thoughts about how Los Angeles should move forward, and bring together a plan that best represents that rich variety of ideas.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.