April 30, 1995 - From the April, 1995 issue

What’s Needed in LA’s Plans: Transit Oriented Districts

By Irving Taylor, Transportation Project Manager, Los Angeles MTA 

There are very few opportunities for development on vacant land in the City of Los Angeles. Because Los Angeles has run out of cheap, vacant land, most future development will be in the form of in-fill opportunities, land recycling and re­use of existing buildings. The City's regulatory process should be re-organized lo support this type of development. 

The issue of the City's future, however, is larger than the degree of "friendliness" of its regulatory process as manifested by the current debate over the Mayor's Development Reform Committee recommendations. In the long run, the City's hostile and discretionary land use development process won't produce stable communities let alone protect property values if it is not re-focused to encourage in-fill and re-use projects. The City's approach to this challenge has particular ramifications for communities undergoing decline.

City departments do not appear to use land use regulation in a comprehensive manner that could influence location decisions or the type of property investment to build communities. The lack of internal coordination among City departments makes it questionable whether the City can successfully deal with creating opportunity in the local economy. Merely removing some of the existing impediments to development will not adequately deal with substantive economic development issues, organize land uses for future recycling and development, or link private property investment to themulti-billion dollar public transportation network.

The New Los Angeles

Los Angeles bas a unique opportunity to determine the context and pattern of future development by putting in place a development process designed to achieve a new Los Angeles. It is fortuitous the City finds itself in the middle of three major efforts that, if they can be coordinated, could establish this context. The General Plan Framework (Framework) sets a tone for the whole City. Without implementing tools, however, it cannot achieve its stated goals. The Land Use Transportation Policy (Policy) attempts to link development and transportation through focused incentives for development in transit areas, but its objectives will not be accomplished if strong messages are not sent to the development community about the City's commitment to reshape itself around its transportation system. And, finally, Mayor Riordan's Development Reform Committee recommendations to streamline the permit processing system attempt to bring some certainty to the development approval process. It is up to the City's political leaders to recognize the interrelationship between these initiatives and, once perceived, to develop a comprehensive implementation program to carry out these efforts.

The Framework is based on a year 2010 projected population increase of more than 800,000, concluding there are "insufficient vacant properties" to accommodate this growth. It also suggests the supply of land zoned for residential development is constrained. Despite correctly identifying the need to recycle and intensify existing uses in designated growth corridors, the Framework complains "the intensification of both commercial and residential property, which has occurred in the City, has been at the expense of the integrity and character of existing residential neighborhoods." How should we address this apparent contradiction?

While stable communities are desirable, there is a question of just what constitutes stability. Are homogenous communities the model of stability? What about communities composed of single-family homes? Are they stable? Are communities where no new development has taken place for two years, the model of stability? The draft Framework doesn't provide a way to measure stability beyond recognizing some communities don't want change. This question presages some of the battles ahead that may bog down the reform movement. But, there are also communities that havebeen destabilized because of impediments to investment. Other communities face limited prospects for growth because of obsolete zoning and lot configurations. And, yes, some communities want growth and lots of it. Just as the original Centers Concept failed to recognize the diversity of the different Centers, the current Framework fails to recognize the difference in existing "stable" communities.

The city needs to consider what effect its regulatory practices have on neighborhoods, particularly those in decline. Outdated planning along with a hostile regulatory process have contributed to the loss of economic opportunity in the City and the pattern of disinvestment that creates the very instability the City's antidevelopment stance avowedly is designed to prevent. The narrow focus of the regulatory process on each parcel elevates standards like fence heights to a status all out of proportion to their relevance to the health of Los Angeles. However, the City has an opportunity to reverse years of decline. The City should create transit oriented districts (TODs) as the means through which to coordinate the Framework, Policy and development reform to leverage the multi-billion dollar investment in public transportation to stimulate re-investment in its neighborhoods and reshape land use patterns in targeted transportation corridors.

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The land use pattern in most transit areas could be substantially changed without requiring wholesale changes to existing zoning. While the pattern of zoning on contiguous parcels may not be optimal for large scale development, this is an issue related to the organization of land uses that could be corrected through the TOD process. The "Metro Red Line MOS-2Corridor Land Use Analysis and Joint Development Potential” published in 1992 by the former SCRTD, found that: 

  • Residential density can increase without change in the existing zoning in the corridor; 
  • existing commercial zoning is sufficient to accommodate any conceivable level of development; 
  • dwelling unit densification can occur while simultaneously preserving single-family and low-density multi-family housing in blocks zoned for R-1 and R-3 intensity; 
  • and the number of dwelling units within 800 feet of the transit stations can be dramatically increased, in some areas by as much as 50%, solely on existing residentially zoned parcels. 

There is a continuing need to develop a plan that substantively ties together land use and the transportation system. The City has not led the planning to maximize the benefit of the transit investment. Instead, it has followed MTA's lead, while bemoaning the lack of resources with which to plan. The MTA's interest, understandably, is much narrower than the City's in its focus on land uses that support the transit system and generate riders. But, the MTA does not have the prerogative or the responsibility to regulate land use nor to impose the standards accompanying them. 

Union Station Intermodal Hub 

From the theoretical to the specific. Two of the MTA's major efforts to demonstrate the efficacy of linking development and transit are the Land Use Transportation Policy and its headquarters project at Union Station. However, in spite of the support for transit related land use, even the MTA encountered the City's lack of standards for transit related development in connection with development of its headquarters building. One factor in the choice of Union Station is its proximity to the Union Station Intermodal Center transportation hub. The center is served by the Metro Red Line, numerous bus lines, Amtrak and Metrolink. In the future, the Metro Pasadena Blue Line will also access Union Station. Throughout the project approval process, the City vacillated between imposing a standard of two or three parking spaces per 1000 square feet of development, in addition to imposing the usual slate of mitigations. Although this requirement was negotiated away through mutual agreement it is ironic that MTA, the major provider of transportation services in the region, had to struggle with the City to draw the logical conclusion that parking is not an issue for a building on top of the regional transportation hub. 

Policy Linkages 

If all of the major land use initiatives now underway are implemented properly in relation to each other, they could provide the City a clear path to cause development to occur in locations that create opportunity for reuse and recycling of our urban environment and leverage our transit dollars. But, of the three initiatives, only the Policy has been formally adopted by the City. While the Framework is a blueprint for the City as a whole and the Development Reform Committee hopefully will streamline the regulatory process, only the Land Use Transportation Policy specifically links development to transportation. The development reform proposals could function as part of the specific development incentives the Policy recommends to facilitate development in transit areas. Since the Policy includes bus and rail stations, it offers a way to link nearly all new development to the transportation system, to encourage investment in communities, and also to introduce design standards and density thresholds tailored to specific neighborhoods in order to avoid mistakes of the past. Ideally, a TOD will be created for each transit area and include development elements, including zoning, design standards, density thresholds tailored to the area. 

A unified, consistent framework for land use decision making coupled with a development approval process that rewards transit related development could be the formula for a new Los Angeles. The economic vitality and quality of life of Los Angeles rests on these efforts and the revitalization of our neighborhoods depends on it.

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