January 1, 2002 - From the January, 2002 issue

Long Overdue Solutions For Region's Housing Crisis, L.A. Architect Urges Mixed-Use & Good Design

It is important that the development community continually look for ways to evolve. And while some believe that evolution includes building master planned communities in Orange and Ventura Counties, there are a growing number of us who look upon the urban core as the key to handling future growth in our City. To prevent the continuance of a paradigm which fosters suburban sprawl and bland architecture, architect Johannes Van Tilburg argues that what is needed is for cities to be more stringent in telling developers what kinds of buildings they will design and then incentivizing them to design them.

Johannes Van Tilburg

Johannes, housing was the hot topic for Los Angeles and California for much of 2001. However, in light of Sept. 11 it seems like the agenda has lessened in prominence. Give our readers a sense of how the equation has been altered on your end. How has the housing market reacted? And what are you seeing?

We're currently involved in projects ranging from a mid-range 80-100 unit rental complex to very large 1,000-1,600 unit developments at UCLA and Park La Brea. And surprisingly, we haven't really seen a difference in the market since Sept. 11. None of those projects has slowed or stopped because of Sept. 11.

I would speculate that the reason for that is our region's housing market. The market here in Southern California, particularly Los Angeles, is so complicated and the timeline for projects so long that the trepidation that one might feel is trumped by the enormous lag time and regulatory hurdles one would have to overcome if a project was stopped until the market regained some level of certainty.

Your answer seems to hint that while the housing market will continue to be strong and profitable, there are major hurdles to be overcome in terms of the regulatory process. What must developers of housing in the LA Market now contend with in the way of public incentives and disincentives?

The market will continue to be strong because of the increasing rates that rental properties are receiving and the continued shortage of housing. Those two factors provide enormous incentive to continue building housing. What's stymieing the development in that market are local regulations.

Cities like Santa Monica, Pasadena and Beverly Hills are the only local cities that have implemented ordinances which incentivize developers, particularly in the mixed-use venue. Just think of it, if L.A. had such an ordinance underutilized land-such as 3/4 full shopping centers that spot the urban fabric-could be sold to developers, the viable retail could be preserved and double deck parking could be used. In the process of making those modifications approx. 1/2 the site would become available for housing in the form of apartments or condominiums. These new "Boulevard Buildings" would make enormous strides toward providing the kind of creative housing that people want and deserve in Southern California.

And this fact has already trickled down to the residents. Every time I go to a homeowner or neighborhood meeting they ask about this kind of innovative design. They like the idea of being able to walk to shops, coffeehouses, small markets and other various service oriented stores. And if the neighbors-who are extremely protective of their communities-are in favor of such a development, why continue to fight building them? Let's create a mechanism to incentivize them.

All the City must do is take the initiative. It is very clear to developers that in order to get a 300-unit apartment complex approved they have to incorporate a proper street edge. But if the City doesn't mandate it the developer will just not do it on his own. So the cities need to be very demanding.

Johannes, you mention the neighborhood's acceptance of projects such as these. I gather that the architecture of these projects plays a major role in that approval. Talk a little bit more about the design of these projects. What is it about the architecture of these projects that helps them garner community support while still remaining financially viable?

The key to creating a viable project is to go out and design a plan which addresses the conditions currently existing in a particular community. Successful projects are those which relate to the current patterns, styles and scale of a community.

Additionally, traffic is always a concern. However, that factor can be minimized through design as well. While it may never be eliminated, a mixed-use plan can dramatically reduce traffic because residents will no longer be using cars for local trips. When they come home from work they will park their car and instead use the sidewalk for trips to the grocery store, etc.

However, fitting in with the sidewalk presents a new design paradigm for Los Angeles. Streets in Los Angeles are 64-feet wide with about 5-6 feet of sidewalk on either side of the street. That translates into only 25 percent of the surface of our city being accessible for safe use by pedestrians.

To put those figures into context, the streets in New York-even with very high buildings-are about 60-feet wide with a driving surface of only 30-feet. That creates 15-foot sidewalks on either side and translates into 50 percent of the surface of that city being used for pedestrian circulation. That factor obviously changes the character and the feeling of a City. And again could be one of the ways that cities can make a difference in making neighborhoods richer and more vibrant.

Give us some insight into the kind of developers who are capable of doing these projects intelligently and profitably.

The national developers like Trammel Crow, Post Properties and Archstone as well as the larger local developers like Allan Casden and J.h. Snyder have really taken the aforementioned issues to heart. What I don't see happening is the smaller developers following suit. And I think that's where the biggest opportunity is being missed.

These types of projects offer great opportunities for the small investor to buy a single- or a double-lot and build mixed-use. I've done it and it's both successful and financially doable. That type of investment was once a vital and integral part of the neighborhood economic development paradigm. Maybe it's changed because of the ease with which people can invest in the stock market. Maybe people are too transitory now. But regardless, without that kind of local level investment, an incredible piece of neighborhood revitalization is being lost. And again, that's something that local governments could incentivize.

You've watched efforts in Downtown L.A. over the last 20 some years, you see what's happening now. What are your predictions for the Downtown L.A. market or Long Beach for that matter in the way of housing infill?


We're finally doing some but while I'm happy to see the emerging pattern of loft units in Downtown we are still 10-15 years behind cities like Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Seattle. But at least we're starting to see some additional opportunities.

And what mistakes have been made? There is always room to learn from previous experiments. What lessons do you think have been learned from previous forays into urban development?

In order for people to move to Downtown housing must be first rate. Simply stated, first rate housing will stay occupied, poorer housing will go empty. And I think that's what we are seeing with some of the product downtown. Buildings that are 150-feet deep are being reused for housing yet are designed to be 70-feet deep and 20-feet wide. A 1400 sq. ft. unit with only 2 windows on the street now costs $2000-$3000/month-that's not an acceptable residential unit. That has been the overarching mistake of developers to this point.

The other factor is location. Not all areas downtown are equal and I think we are beginning to see that as well. One up and coming community appears to be South Park. It has finally started to have a sense of place, a super market is going to be built there by CIM, etc.

The one key mistake that the City has made is that it has not been vocal enough in aiding Downtown to bring back the necessary neighborhood services. That is a major mistake and one that must be corrected if Downtown is to flourish.

In hopes of helping housing and the services you mention return to the blighted areas of Los Angeles, a lot of energy has been put towards the funding of a $100 million Housing Trust Fund. Will that fill the void that you mention? Is that the appropriate role for the City?

The national developers and the REITs clearly have access to money. But such a financing component could be the tease that mid-size developers need to really make a mark on this market. So the ability of a fund to generate interest in the housing market is great.

Now from our point of view the low-cost housing tax credits provide another enormous incentive for development. But, I'm hearing that the tax credits are not so easily attainable and as such have not been used by a number of developers. That too must change.

Another observation would be that the City of Los Angeles, from district to district, really seems to have very divergent views on the need for low-cost, affordable housing. We recently met with Ruth Galanter and from the beginning she stated, "I want 20 percent low- to moderate-rent housing. I will do anything possible for you to make that happen, but that's what I want." That's vision. And we don't see that everywhere. Maybe ten years ago we saw more of that but in this new political era, it seems like some representatives simply don't want to go out on a limb and advocate for low-cost housing.

You mention the current unwillingness of some politicians to advocate for low-cost housing. You're not merely and architect and a developer, you are also a professor. Synthesize the points you've made here and tell us a little about what the lesson would be to your students. What would they take from this lecture?

Well I teach at two places-USC and Harvard- and each one would take a different lesson out of my lectures.

At USC, where my students are very clear that the intention of the program is to train someone to become a real estate developer, I believe that I would emphasize the opportunities that lie in urban development. The infrastructure is there. The streets are there. The lights, the trees, the sidewalks all there. When you look at a suburban development, that land must be dedicated, designed and constructed. So simply by choosing an urban area you pick up a 25 percent bonus both in cost and land use.

At Harvard, the students are professionals looking for continuing education. There I focus completely on mixed-use and urban infill housing. I have them find a site, do a project a study and then test the ins and outs with respect to transportation, parking, height, scale and density. In a two day period we design a complete project. It is a very exciting and stimulating experience.

Let's conclude Johannes by meshing those 2 lessons together. Urban infill and mixed-use once had vocal advocates in the mainstream media. Give us your sense of the current climate. What's there? And what's missing?

I have a very active practice and don't want this to sound like sour grapes, but if a project doesn't meet the international A-level standard of architecture, it simply won't get covered in Los Angeles. The architectural coverage of worthy projects simply isn't here. And I'm not merely talking about articles on style, but ones that really begin educate and address the underlying sophistication of how parking, commercial and housing coexist and integrally relate. Sam Hall Kaplan and Leon Whiteson were covering those aspects. Without them, that voice has disappeared in Los Angeles. A place like Los Angeles, devoid of a vision, is a very sad statement on the current state of affairs on the current climate of housing and development.


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