December 30, 1991 - From the December, 1991 issue

Mixed-Use: Maguire Thomas Recounts Obstacles and Challenges

On November 19th, the Los Ange­les City Council passed its long-awaited “mixed-use ordinance.” The ordinance provides a density bonus for mixed-use development, provided that the extra density is used for hous­ing, with a portion set aside for affordable housing. 

But will this ordinance provide the stimulus for mixed-use develop­ment once the economy recovers? The Planning Report this month explores the challenges of mixed-use develop­ment with Nelson Rising, Senior Partner at Maguire Thomas Partners, which is developing the mixed-use Playa Vista project, and David P. Gay, AICP, Vice-President and Project Director of Government Relations for Psomas and Associates.

Complaints about the City of Los Angeles’ lack of vision on mixed use development have been common for a long time. Now, with a “mixed-use ordinance” recently passed by the L.A. City Council, does the City fi­nally have it right? 

Gay: I don’t think so. The citywide ordinance provides too many condi­tions rather than incentives. There’s a conditional use process and a housing requirement, a portion of which has to be low- and moderate-income hous­ing. The City hasn’t said that mixed-use in itself is desirable and should be promoted for traffic and air quality reasons — no strings attached. 

I don’t think the ordinance has addressed all of the zoning, fire and building code issues that make it pos­sible to build economically. Also, providing a single, citywide ordinance creates problems — it isn’t going to work everywhere. We need to allow flexibility for the special needs of each community. 

I don’t mean to sound negative. What the City has done is a very good first step. This is an evolutionary process that will require amendments and fine tuning, so we shouldn’t just say, “We’ve got an ordinance now” and stop, thinking that we have the perfect solution and that the problem is over. 

Rising: The conventional wisdom is to put retail on the busiest streets. But that is not neighborhood-serving re­tail — it’s subregional or community serving retail. In Playa Vista, we have not put retail on Jefferson and Lincoln Boulevards. We have put our retail in with the housing, so that the thrust of it will be to service the site. 

When people say mixed use won’t work, they’re visualizing a strip center with large amounts of parking. But if you have a mixed-use project where the retail is servicing the residential or office needs, then you have a real chance to minimize the impacts of that project. In Playa Vista, we’re talking about a mixed-use product that services the community. 

Nelson, as a developer with multiple projects, what would you be looking for in a regulatory structure to en­courage mixed uses? 

Rising: We need a regulatory structure where impact fees imposed on mixed-use projects can be offset by credits. You need the maximum incentives to encourage the developer to have more residential in “commer­cial” zones. That would likely reduce commercial intensity in favor of residential and put housing into what is likely a job-rich area. So the major thing to look for is the maximum credit for TRIP fees and housing linkage fees. We should also look carefully at the building codes and fire codes to see if they are making mixed-use only a theoretical possibility. There are also physical concerns — setbacks, for example — which also have public policy implications.

David, what other obstacles to mixed use have you experienced? 

Gay: Some City departments are still viewing mixed-use as a privilege rather than saying, “We want this, and here are some incentives.” Certain departments within the City lack an understanding of the overall picture. 

Some of the specific constraints on mixed-use include height limitations, setbacks, sprinklers, building materi­als, and state density bonus provisions. Shared parking concepts and parking management concepts are also impor­tant — some agencies don't have the concept of shared parking in the codes. There are other practical concerns — loading areas, noise, how you service the structure. Architects and planners are looking at these issues in Playa Vista, and I think our Specific Plan process will be valuable. 

But does the Specific Plan process usually work in favor of mixed-use? There have been criticisms that, de­spite the city’s stated commitment to mixed-use, that commitment doesn’t get pushed down to the Specific Plan level in places such as Ventura Bou­levard or Warner Center. 

Rising: This is an evolutionary pro­cess. The recognition that we should encourage a mixture of uses is a big step in itself. We in the Los Angeles area have our housing and land use patterns because it was perceived that we had an “unlimited” amount of land. Now we have to infill, and develop a set of codes that work. 

In Playa Vista, our task is some­what easier than in the communities you cited because we’re starting with a clean slate. We can design this community where the kinds of neigh­borhood-serving retail that we want can be compatible in a residential zone. Even in Playa Vista, it will be dependent on some kind of compro­mise or consensus, a recognition that this City’s single-issue approach needs to be compromised 


Gay: On Ventura Boulevard, even though the Specific Plan addresses it, many developers don’t feel that projects can pencil out given the Plan’s height limits, setbacks, and so on. There has been discussion in the Cen­ters Concept of taking all zoning limitations off housing in the centers. That would be a real incentive to concentrate housing inside centers. So when you talk about mixed-use, we need to consider that centers are supposed to be mixed-use nodes. Mixed use operates on these two lev­els: within a single building, and within an entire area that can be mixed-use.

Rising: But creating that second type of mixed use is what’s so difficult. When you look at mixed use within an area, you have problems with, for example, truck service. To have truck service with a commercial building that has a residential component is very difficult if the block was origi­nally designed without an alley. 

I’m very sympathetic to creating a universally applicable mixed-use ordinance in a city as diverse as Los Angeles — it’s a good first step. The next step is to devise a process that allows deviations from the norm — that allows a series of creative, ad hoc solutions. 

Are you concerned that the City lacks the capacity to encourage mixed use? 

Rising: I see it happening. The Downtown Strategic Plan discussions are very encouraging. On the mixed­-use ordinance, obviously the political compromise was to keep it out of residential zones. Maybe it’s wise to get something rather than nothing. 

Once we see that the mixed-use process works in residential neigh­borhoods like Playa Vista, maybe we'll be ready for the next step. A classic case is the Third Street Prom­enade in Santa Monica. Where a single building — the Janss project — pro­vides an interesting example of the compatibility of retail, office and residential. 

If the mixed-use ordinance represents the first wave of addressing the issue, what do you think the second wave is going to look like, in 1992 or beyond? 

Gay: Now that an ordinance has been written, you’re going to see a series of amendments over time as people find particular portions of the ordinance that don’t work. The way a lot of the code functions is that the develop­ment community and residents sug­gest modifications over time. Getting this ordinance approved is a big step, simply to have a basis to amend 

You’ll also see a greater under­standing of mixed-use and why it is important for the city. Different agencies will begin to remove roadblocks. This ordinance,in essence, represents the City Council and Mayor stating, “This is a desirable use and we want the departments to get your act together.” 

Rising: Now that we have this ordi­nance, mixed use will be allowed. But what kind of mixed use we get will be determined by the code process, and whether people will build it will be determined by incentives. 

It’s easy to throw stones and say this ordinance has problems, but it is such a big step forward that we want to see it evolve. I ultimately hope that Playa Vista will demonstrate it is compatible to have a mix in residential areas, as well. 

The rest of the world looks at Los Angeles as very different from a tra­ditional city because we had so much developable land that we could, at one time, afford suburban sprawl. I think mixed use is a natural part of our evolution to a more urbanized area.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.