March 27, 2000 - From the March, 2000 issue

Livable Spaces Is The Goal, The Question: How To Make Density Tolerable

It's been said that Americans used to have "communism" to be against. Now, perhaps "density" has taken its place. But no matter how intense the opposition, already dense regions like ours will continue to grow, and planning for density makes more sense than fighting it. TPR is pleased to print this piece by Livable Spaces Board Members Joan Ling, Yasmin Tong, and Paul Zimmerman, who discuss what density really means--and how to make it, well, livable.

By: Joan Ling, Yasmin Tong,

& Paul Zimmerman

Growth is a foregone conclusion of every government and private forecast in California, but sprawl does not have to be a preordained destiny. Many of the best minds in our state are searching for ways to accommodate this population growth in our existing built environment without taking over more open space. Community development activists are joining the discussions on sustainability, and introducing affordable housing and community building solutions as effective ways to create more livable places. All of us now recognize that traffic congestion, inadequate municipal services, pollution, and growing income disparities are all connected to policies that promoted a relentless spread of asphalt from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, the Tehachapis, and the Mexican border. Redirecting growth back into the urban areas promises a more compact built environment that can support a convenient mass transit system, more efficient municipal services, and a better-integrated economy. However, channeling such growth requires the political will to undertake reforms affecting land use, which must be a key part of our sustainable growth agenda.

What would a denser Los Angeles look like? Compare the 1950s subdivision of the San Fernando Valley with the tracts of beach homes built in the 1920s in such areas as Ocean Park in Santa Monica or Venice in Los Angeles. The former, at about 8 to 10 units to an acre, percolates like the La Brea Tar Pit, relentlessly carving into hillsides, spilling asphalt into open space, and bubbling up with composite shingle roofs. The latter, at about 18 to 20 units to an acre, provides some of the most visually exciting and sought after neighborhoods in the Southland. While part of the attractiveness of the denser neighborhoods undoubtedly corresponds with their proximity to the ocean, the scale of development is in proportion with pedestrian activities which makes these places some of the most livable areas around. While compact, these areas retain an essential single-family feel interspersed with some small apartment buildings and neighborhood-serving retail uses. It is dense enough to support light rail and other mass transit systems to connect home to work.

If we could wave a magic legislative wand, Los Angeles could double its housing capacity in those first ring suburbs while retaining a sense of home with porches and backyards, exemplified in the charming conch houses in Key West, or the wind swept cottages of Cape Code, or the elegant brownstones on Manhattan's Upper West Side. A sense of dimension and proportion in the cityscape could replace the sprawling monotony of ranch houses and the flat facades of commercial strips and corner mini malls. More compact land use can counter the massive apartment structures that scar our landscape or the monster mansions that destroy our best neighborhoods. To achieve this goal, we must relax the zoning density on the number of units but impose unit size limits and design guidelines that eliminate the guesswork of planning approvals. As we find ways to accommodate continued growth in existing urban areas, we can proceed with an aggressive pursuit of limiting development on the fringe and protect open space and agricultural uses.

The sense of home can also be fashioned from whole cloth by recycling obsolete industrial land; those remnant properties too small to accommodate the current demand of large warehouses and distribution centers are ideally suited to tucking in 50 to 60 homes on 3 acres here and there. Developing homes on recycled land converts desolate dirt into lively villages. Relatively cheaper land costs enable affordable home prices and quality products close to employment centers. Such development provides an ideal opportunity for lower-wage working families to step into their first owned homes. Equally important, these villages can be developed with little or no public financial support. They offer a development opportunity to companies that produce affordable housing and help them move away from the vagary of public funds and deep subsidies.

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There is frequently a built-in market for these homes in unproven areas. Members of affinity groups such as a hotel employees union local or a community folkloric dance troupe may very well be willing to populate these villages on recycled land as long as they have confidence that their friends and relatives will also live there. This sense of community shaped the homesteading of the West and the succession of immigrant groups inhabiting urban neighborhoods. Capitalizing on these affinity memberships not only assures home sales, but also and more importantly, these villages reinforce the social networks that bring members together in the first place. From these already cohesive groups, grassroots actions such as improving the neighborhood schools or turning around a troublesome street corner can occur.

If it is such a good idea to densify older suburbs or to reclaim obsolete land, what is stopping it from taking place? To name a few obstacles: the locked jaw reaction of homeowners groups to the word density; most cities' fiscal desperation to favor sales tax generating land use at the expense of housing; and the discomfort of local governments and residents with mixed use development. But, if you look carefully, you will find that granny flats are quietly and illegally built even in the best single-family neighborhoods. The loft district in downtown Los Angeles is going through a second renaissance. The City of Brea built a "downtown" from scratch, with mixed use the linchpin of their success. We will soon have enough interesting new examples of sustainable development to challenge entrenched attitudes.

What can be done to change the public constraints and incentives in order to promote sustainable development that include affordable housing and community building solutions? Our answers rest on every level of government and on private initiative. First, we must address the fiscalization of land use and the way the state allocates tax revenues back to the local jurisdictions. For example, recent state level discussions about swapping sales taxes and property taxes for the purpose of leveling the playing field for housing production. Second, land use and zoning reforms at the local, state and federal levels, perhaps using a supra-city regional agency (like the Air Quality Management District) with real enforcement and federal purse strings to encourage better land use patterns that positively affect travel methods. Third, use the judicial system to prod local jurisdictions to allow more compact land uses that can accommodate growth efficiently. For example, legal action against cities whose General Plans and Housing Elements discourage affordable housing production. Fourth, work with property owners and developers to identify those market opportunities based on sustainability principles. Perhaps the Homebuilders Association and the Building Industries Association can provide public information on designing and marketing sustainable projects. Fifth, win the hearts and minds of our voters and consumers through media coverage, press dialogues, and endorsements of decision-makers. A more livable Los Angeles now lives in the minds of a few. Through political action, marketing influence, and reasoned persuasion, it will become the new built environment that all Angelenos can live in and love.

Joan Ling, Yasmin Tong, and Paul Zimmerman are board members of Livable Places. Ms. Ling is also the executive director of Community Corporation of Santa Monica; Ms. Tong a senior account executive with Fannie Mae; and Mr. Zimmerman the executive director of West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.