May 30, 1989 - From the May, 1989 issue

Mayor's Group Studies Mixed-Use Policy and its Implementation

Robert Harris, Dean of Architecture at the University of Southern California, speaks on the potential solutions and pitfalls that mixed-use policy can bring to a city's job/housing balance. 


"This brings us back to the question of why anyone would want mixed-use in the first place: job/housing balance."—Robert Harris

In the recent Air Quality Management Plan and the consultant's report of L.A. 's Sewer Hook-Up, both reports discussed mixed-use development and an improved jobs/housing balance as one solution to our environmental woes. Similarly, the recent Design Action Planning Team's study of Olive Hill suggested mixed-use development on the commercial strips of Vermont and Hillhurst. More frequently, mixed-use development is mentioned as a possible panacea to many planning ills. Ironically, a mixed-use policy in the city of Los Angeles does not exist.

A “study group” is currently meeting informally to brainstorm ideas and solutions for mixed-use policy. This group has been brought together by the Mayor's Office, which is enthusiastically supporting our mixed-use efforts. The group includes homeowners, developers, consultants, and departmental personnel from several city departments including Planning, Building and Safety, and the Zoning Administrator. One of our central interests has been to pursue plausible alternatives for the City in order to build mixed-use projects.

There are two central reasons why mixed-use development is not undertaken in Los Angeles. First, the financial community is nervous about the idea of mixed-use development because it is not familiar with it. The questions and concerns involved with mixed-use are perceived by the financial community to be doubled or tripled because of the additional uses involved.

Other cities are able to finance mixed-use because there is a tradition in those cities for higher density and mixed-use development. In Los Angeles, such a tradition once existed; mixed-use projects were built throughout the city in places where density existed. However, that tradition died out and is only now being rediscovered. Therefore, until the viability of mixed-use projects can be demonstrated once again, the financial community should be expected to continue to be nervous.

Additionally, the building code does not recognize buildings which have three contiguous occupancies—parking, commercial, and residential. In order to build mixed-use, therefore, developers have to go to the Board of Building and Safety Commissioners to get a modification to the building code. This not only adds a minimum of two months to the approval process, but it also adds a greater dimension of complexity and uncertainty to the project. The Building Department is willing to pursue amending the code, but any amendments need state approval.

The demise of mixed-use was related to the idea of zoning, which was to keep unlike uses apart. While it is easy now to scoff at the City's general plan and its zoning and say how shortsighted the planning of the city has been, it does make a certain kind of sense. The suburbanization of our city separates housing and commerce. This reflects the sensible desire for people to have quiet places that are allowed to stay quiet and busy places which are encouraged to be busy. That idea is simple, compelling, and has been taken to an unfortunate extreme. On the other hand, if you take the idea of mixed-use development and exaggerate it so that it is everywhere, you create a sameness everywhere and lose the possibilities for quiet enclaves. We need to find an appropriate balance.

With the idea of balance in mind, the study group is directly attempting to create the possibility of mixed-use projects and to explore their feasibility. We are trying to discover the means to amend the zoning ordinance and the specific plans to allow mixed-use, and we are asking what kind of form the enabling legislation will take. The study group also believes the City should go beyond the role of passive facilitator and to encourage mixed-use projects with incentives.

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This brings us back to the question of why anyone would want mixed-use in the first place: job/housing balance. However the territory in which to accomplish a job/housing balance is a difficult one to define. Mixed-use is one way that we can begin to implement a job/housing balance project by project. Mixed-use is the most direct way to directly create more opportunities for employment coexisting with residence and will subsequently have an impact upon traffic and congestion, on air quality, and on quality of life issues.

As to the concern about how extensive the mixed-use would be, it should be restricted to areas that are already busy streets, such as the defining streets which serve the neighborhoods. In these scenarios, the presence of mixed-use is not so disturbing. And where it is built, it would enrich the life of the street and provide additional opportunities for the neighborhood.

Of course, we realize that higher density and mixed-use are controversial propositions. One question that needs to be resolved is which projects are appropriate for density bonuses. Some feel that it only makes sense for larger projects of 25 units or more. Others would like to see it in smaller projects such as the comer store with housing above it; a density bonus in that case would make even a smaller project more attractive for both investment and for use.

Further, community resistance to any added density is often well-founded. So many projects are poorly planned and designed that new projects in neighborhoods are generally quite objectionable. Therefore, what is especially needed for community groups, as well as the financial community, is good design examples. Johannes Van Tilburg's project on Rose and Main Streets in Santa Monica serves as one example, as does the Mrs. Gooch's mixed-use project on Cannon Drive in Beverly Hills.

Through careful design, we can have increased density and increased amenities; we can have our cake and eat it too. After all, from a developer's perspective, if you are forced to decrease density, then the potential return on investment is decreased as well. The result is a reduction of amenities until a project becomes the least possible thing that can be built.

We need, then, to develop designs and projects to test the influence and the quality that mixed-use can have. We will need to go beyond historic precedents because of new conditions including new parking and other access and safety requirements. It has been understandable that people have felt uneasy about mixed-use and higher-density projects. We intend to demonstrate, however, that these projects can and will add to the quality of our neighborhoods and the life of our City.

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