July 1, 2002 - From the July, 2002 issue

L.A. Planners Laud Mixed-Use Models For Housing, Schools

The City of Los Angeles continues to grow at a remarkable rate, yet the stock of housing available--particularly affordable housing--is not expanding to meet the demand. To delve deeper into the issues of mixed-use development, affordable housing construction, and the city of L.A.'s approach to meeting the needs of increased density, TPR presents this interview with Jane Blumenfeld, Principal City Planner for the city of L.A. and the Mayor's Director of School Facilities Planning.

With respect to housing, what is the challenge ahead of the city of L.A.?

To build both market rate housing as well as affordable housing. We need to produce 60,000 units in the five years of our housing element, according to the State. The challenge in Los Angeles is to realize the potential, because we have a lot of theoretical zoning capacity. We need to figure out what's preventing people from actually building where we have already agreed development is appropriate.

In the last year, we built about 7,000 units, which is better than the previous year, in which we built 5,000. But during the years of the recession, the rate of development was even lower. We need to build 12,000 units a year to accommodate our residents.

Where's the housing presently being built in the city? What areas of the city and in what communities?

Most of the single family housing is being built in the Valley. However, most of the multiple family projects are being built in the South Valley and the Westside, where rents are high enough to make projects pencil out. The labor is the same across the board and the land value will vary somewhat, but the rent differential is the key difference between the affluent areas and the lower-income areas- that's where the projects pencil out.

What's happened to "affordable" housing production in L.A. over the last five years?

Affordable housing is very dependent on bond financing, tax credits, and other subsidies. As those go, so goes that kind of housing. The City is looking at whether inclusionary housing can work-requiring some units in projects to be set aside and rented for affordable rates. The results of that study should be out in a month.

Jane, you've been assessing the opportunities for urban infill housing for some time now. Aren't there measures moving through the L.A. City Council for approval that would encourage mixed-use housing infill? What are the solutions you're advancing? What are the obstacles?

We're trying to promote housing development in commercial corridors, and are proposing several ordinances that will facilitate that kind of development. These major streets are frequently underdeveloped, with marginal commercial uses, that aren't assets to many communities. Although they have always had the theoretical zoning potential for housing, this kind of development has rarely been realized on these corridors. We're trying to facilitate this kind of low-scale development, which is encouraged by the general plan, and creates housing adjacent to transit, helps to reduce congestion, helps to balance jobs and housing, improves air quality, and provides housing that fits into the scale and fabric of our existing neighborhoods. We can do a lot more of that kind of development.

The ability to fit the allowed units into a building envelope can be difficult; the ability to mix uses in a way that works from both a design and a leasing perspective for the ground floor retail and neighborhood service tenant must be addressed; and we have an inordinate amount of commercial zoning capacity in many parts of the city, that could be better used for housing today.

Those are the opportunities, but what are the impediments? What are the roadblocks?

One of the roadblocks we are addressing is the complexity of our existing mixed-use ordinances. They are cumbersome and complicated and have discouraged that type of development. The ordinances we are proposing attempts to fix the problems, so that we get the kind of mixed use development we intended.

It's correcting in large part some of the building envelope impediments and the need to assemble many lots or secure the agreement of many lot owners in order to develop. Housing developers and non-profits are expressing a lot of interest in the ordinance and seem to think it will make a very positive contribution.

A mixed-used ordinance has been talked about in Los Angeles for at least two decades. Why has it been so difficult to enact? Is it the financing of housing and the lack of interest in the financial community to mixed-use? Is it a regulatory issue? Is it public antipathy to mixed-use?

Developers seem to think a lot if it is a lender issue. Mixed use is still viewed as a somewhat more risky type of development. Since it's not a typical development type in LA, it's treated in a way that doesn't really integrate the different uses as one project. Also, there's not really a lot of experience doing it in L.A. as there is in other parts of the world and other cities in the United States. Now it's starting to happen; we are seeing more mixed-use projects. There are new ones in the Westside, on San Vicente, in Hollywood on Santa Monica, on Wilshire. These are generally small projects, with ground floor retail, residential units above, usually market rate apartments. As these come on line and people live in them and people see them, the retail leases out, the units lease out, and lenders become more familiar, I think we will see more of them.

Environment Now, a local foundation, has been holding meetings and forums on housing infill for some months now, which you've been a part of. What's the focus of this effort? What outcomes might come from this civic collaboration?

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What we're trying to figure out there is a methodology by which private developers and non-profit housing developers can find politically and legally viable infill sites that can actually become housing and mixed use projects. We're looking for a useful inventory that people can turn to and have some confidence that they can successfully develop these sites for housing, because they have the right zoning, comply with the general plan, and fit within the scale and fabric of the surrounding community. We're trying to develop a methodology where people can come in and easily find sites, and then design projects that don't need exceptions from codes and that will improve our neighborhoods.

Are developers just unaware of such sites? Is this inventory something that developers and housing advocates are asking for?

Both groups are asking for this. For different reasons, everybody has an interest in creating more housing that fits within the adopted general plan, is designed well and is an asset to a neighborhood. If we can come up with a methodology that identifies these kinds of sites and parameters, it will serve everybody's interests.

L.A. Unified School District, in this basin, is said to be the largest developer in Southern California because of the 150+ schools it has to build in the next decade. It's also displacing housing as it goes about trying to site these schools in the neighborhoods most in need. What's the possibility of leveraging the school district's development needs with a housing agenda to build better infill, neighborhood-centered developments?

If we leverage different dollars and we plan the uses at the outset, we could come up with much better ways of using both the land, which is scarce, and the dollars, which are scarce, to create the housing, schools, parks, and other kinds of neighborhood amenities that all are victims of the same problem: expensive land and little of it. With proper planning at the beginning, involving all neighborhood stakeholders, we would also create much better communities that serve the needs of those residents, rather than just building a school, which is good, but not good enough.

There has been little interface over the years between the school district and municipalities like the city of L.A. Has something changed to give you optimism?

At the school district, with the new, re-tooled facilities division, the urgency of the need, and the level of magnitude of the need, there has been a dramatic transformation of how that team does business and how it interacts with the city. There has been a lot more cooperation between the two agencies, and a genuine effort to work together to meet the needs of the kids, who are the mutual constituency of both entities. But now we need to take it to another level, where we can leverage the public dollars that come from the state, the county, the city, and the school district, and work with nonprofit and private developers to try to create something that's bigger and better than the sum of the parts.

The school district here in L.A. is looking to place a $3.3 billion bond measure on the November ballot to match the new state bond measure. Is there some evidence in either of those bonds, or both, that gives you hope that there will be dollars there to accomplish these tasks?

In the state bond, there's going to be, for the first time, planning money. In the local bond there is also supposed to be planning money. This kind of funding is critical to pay for the extra time, money, and funds that are necessitated by joint cooperation and collaboration among different agencies, different city departments, all operating under different laws and different policies and procedures. Joining monies and projects among different agencies means that laws, adopted policies, etc. must be changed to make a project work for each of the agencies. This takes extra effort that nobody has any funding for. This funding will pay for that; it is unprecedented and critical to making that kind of thing happen.

The term "job-housing balance" has been at play for at least two decades, as well. What does it mean in the 21st century here in L.A.? How do we accomplish this, given what we are talking about, of housing, schools, and transportation? What's the promise? What keeps you optimistic for the future?

If we can build housing, schools, and parks near transportation and we think of them together and plan them together, then we offer people at least the opportunity to minimize their car trips. We also minimize the busing of kids all over the region. We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure investment in the city, in the inner-city in particular. Smart growth means building where we've invested all that money.

If we build housing where we've invested in the transit, especially rail transit, we use our money wisely. And that's what we have to do- find those places where we can build housing near transit so some trips are transit trips. And find the places where kids can get to the schools and teachers can get to the schools by transit. Then we've solved many problems at the same time.

Last question, Jane. You have two job titles, which demonstrates that it might be possible to cross boundaries in city government. What are your two job titles and how do they merge to support the agenda that we're talking about in this interview?

I am the Mayor's Director of School Facilities Planning and also a Principal City Planner for Citywide Planning in the Planning Department. Those are overlapping, yet distinct kinds of positions that bring these issues together. Planning citywide addresses all of these urban problems-car trips, housing, jobs-housing balance, schools, making neighborhoods. And then school facilities, which means looking at schools, not just as seats for kids, but in terms of how they fit into and can enhance neighborhoods so that they actually, in the end, help to create a neighborhood that improves the quality of life for everybody.

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