May 21, 2007 - From the May, 2007 issue

Architect Johannes van Tilburg on Housing, Mixed Use, and Good Urban Planning

As dramatic events unfold in the real estate market and the pressure to make intelligent land-use and design choices increases, Southern California developers would be well served to retain the lessons of the past while setting their new strategies. In order to gain the insight provided by 30 years of experience as founder and principle of design firm Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh, AIA, TPR was pleased to speak with Johannes von Tilburg, FAIA.

Johannes van Tilburg

When TPR last interviewed you in 2002, you expressed strong feelings about both the value of mixed-use developments and the need for incentives from government to achieve better urban designed projects. Has any progress been made?

I think we've done remarkably well in the last five years. The RAS ordinance erased some of the constraints of Proposition U and restored densities to where they should be, which is 3:1 FAR. Hollywood Boulevard is a good example. If you build retail on the ground floor, parking next to it, parking below, and five stories of housing on top, you have about 3:1 FAR. A "Boulevard Building"-which is what I call that-is becoming the building block of Los Angeles. The community has embraced this design. The public likes the retail on the ground floor. Even if they don't live right on the street, they like to come down from the hills and partake of their neighborhood.

Is this building style and density accepted throughout L.A. Basin?

Yes. It is accepted in other areas of the city, particularly mid-Wilshire, Actually, I think mid-Wilshire/Park LaBrea is becoming the center of town. But some areas of Los Angeles are surprisingly lacking, such as in the San Fernando Valley, where there's an anti-growth sentiment. (North Hollywood is an exception.) And on Ventura Boulevard, very little is happening.

Other cities like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills have, surprisingly, stepped back. In particular, Santa Monica is down-zoning areas, going from ten units per acre to lower, or from 20 to 16.

TPR recently interviewed Emily Gabel Luddy of the city of L.A.'s Urban Design Studio. She is staffing a mayor-appointed committee on urban design, chaired by Gail Goldberg and architect Brenda Levin, who will consider how urban design guidelines might promote building great housing and more livable neighborhoods. What might those guidelines be?

Well-constructed design guidelines are very helpful to practitioners like myself to lay out a pattern for the project. The rules should be simple: no parking allowed on the street-put it on the back of the lot; windows and entrances to buildings should be on the street.

We're going through an interesting process in Hollywood on a large project across from the Pantages Theater: we're going through a neighborhood architectural review board. It hasn't been all great, but by and large, the process has raised the quality of the project. So the city, with Emily Luddy and her studio, is providing yet another stepping-stone to good design.

But one of the problems with the neighborhood architectural review committees is that they are too large and they're not formal enough. If you have architectural review like in Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, where there's a formal group of appointed people who serve on that design committee. Hollywood Boulevard is ad hoc, and different people show up each time, so they defeat their own purpose. But architectural review can be very helpful.

What housing projects are you working on now that illustrate the art of the possible in Los Angeles?

Starting with Downtown, when you interviewed me five years ago, we had just completed Flower Street Lofts by the Staples Center. That was the first major for-sale housing project in Downtown Los Angeles in 18 years.

Downtown is remarkable. It allows density. There is usually CRA involvement, and that is mostly a good thing.

Even more remarkable, really, is the Mid-Wilshire area, and West Hollywood too. The city of West Hollywood's redesign of Santa Monica Boulevard is truly remarkable. It helps that whole area. That area is one of the hottest, most desirable areas in town. It has the highest income demographics in the city. But again, the San Fernando Valley is falling behind.

The project we just completed for Snyder in North Hollywood is a CRA project; there is a place for the CRA in redevelopment, but I think there is a bigger place, obviously, for private enterprise to seize the opportunities of a certain area. That will involve allowing higher densities and, again, tightening the RAS ordinance. And we're seeing another new trend: rental housing is coming back very strong. The condominium cycle has run. Maybe inventory is up a little bit; sale prices are not going up, but stabilizing and maybe even going down a little bit.

Student housing is interesting. UCLA builds its own student housing; we did a lot of it. USC, surprisingly, has never built much student housing. Private developers like Jeff Palmer and Allen Casden, who is our client, are stepping and providing housing that is going to be used by students.

The other thing that has happened with the emergence of the urban markets, is that the historical component that was always so needed in Southern California-the Mediterranean look-has taken some steps back. More contemporary, modern architecture, urban architecture has stepped forward.

What is your firm's dream? What inspires you to design and develop in L.A.?

I grew up in Holland in the 1950s, where housing was paramount, and came to California in the mid-'60s. I have just become an American citizen, about three months ago. I am very proud of that because I have been here over 40 years.

My dream was to create an urban housing firm. I went through the suburbs to do the work there-as we all did and had to do. But when I had the opportunity, I always wanted the urban work. And on my own, as a small-time developer developing small projects, I have done that. In Santa Monica I built four buildings, and I am very proud of them. Now, I am finding that many other firms would like to pursue my dream of doing urban housing at mid-rise and high-rise level. Our firm is still expanding. We purchased a building in Santa Monica. There are five partners in our firm; it is a multiple-principal firm. It's not just my work anymore, because Navy Banvard and Gustaf Soderbergh are taking stronger positions in the firm.

How many units of housing is the firm working on today?

Twenty-thousand, in planning, designing, and construction. We have 1,150 units at Hollywood and Argyle for the Clarett group alone. We also have an office in San Francisco and work in the East Bay.

Another big trend is that the big developers-from Lennar, to Toll Brothers, to Laing-who used to be much more suburban are now much more urban. Lennar Urban is working in Downtown Los Angeles. We are doing several projects with them, so they see the strength of the urban market.


In the urban market of Los Angeles, what does a typical rental and condo unit include? How many square feet? How many bedrooms? What's the market trending towards?

Rental has been surprisingly consistent. There is the dual-master, two-bedroom from 950 to 1,100 square feet. That is the workhorse. A couple can occupy it with a child. Two individuals have an equal share with a private bedroom suite, where the bathrooms are inside the bedroom. You have a bedroom suite on one side of the unit, and then your roommate has one on the other side.

Another trend on rental housing is going back to the old scheme of 25 percent studios. A lot of people who would like to live in good areas cannot quite afford a one bedroom. Then 50 percent one bedrooms and 25 percent two bedrooms-that's the makeup of the Blvd 6200 project at Hollywood and Argyle. In rental housing it's a continuous cycle of newer buildings replacing older buildings, people coming to town and getting some of the older units, then their job gets better and they get into the better units. Then they buy into the housing pool.

The for-sale area is truly all over the board. You can now sell 500 – 600 square feet like in New York. It all depends on the location. If people want to be somewhere, and if we're talking about $500 to $600 a square foot, then 600 or 700 square feet sells for about $400,000.

There is a shortage of luxury rental apartments. Not everybody wants to buy something immediately. We did a luxury project for Snyder in Beverly Hills of 1,600 square foot two-bedrooms, and 1,000 square foot one bedrooms.

We've seen a lack of development in the mostly residential neighborhoods. In my classes at USC and Harvard, I teach the neighborhoods that people covet for single family should absorb some density in the form of duplexes. Obviously, we should allow the "granny flat" over the garage. If 25 percent of the houses in those neighborhoods absorb a rental unit, I think it would strengthen the neighborhood, and I think the city-Gail Goldberg, Emily Gabel-Luddy, and Brenda Levin-should look at that. Maybe we should also talk about transportation, because housing and transportation are linked.

Last month new USC Architecture Dean Qingyun Ma told TPR about the USC School of Architecture and its students' and graduates' role in improving the built environment. As a firm and a USC teacher, what can you contribute?

My teaching at USC is interesting-I teach in the Master's Program for Real Estate Development. I am really going to the core. Those guys are the future developers that will build our environment.

I teach a design course, on the importance of architecture in development-the value created by good design, the quality of life created by good design. As in most firms, young designers are stepping up. Through their enthusiasm and the new way of designing that they've mastered, which is by doing computer animation, we get our clients excited about the possibilities much earlier in the process. Also, they are focusing on sustainable design issues-green building is more and more important.

I go once a year to Harvard, where we focus on urban design, urban infill, and urban housing. Housing is always first. You have to provide good housing for a growing community. I think the Music Center and Disney Hall and Getty all follow, but the housing issue and the quality is important. I think that we still design the best housing in world in Southern California.

What is so unique about L.A.'s housing market?

From extensive traveling and my personal experience, I am comfortable saying that L.A.'s townhouses, flats, open space location-just quality of life- are at the forefront. Now our cities and communities just have to stay at it-continue to work at it.

Where the quality of life is really deteriorating is in traveling east-west by car in the city. In the last five years since we talked, it has deteriorated. We had to go to Hollywood to a hearing on Thursday night, and it took us just shy of two hours to get there. That's not even yet Downtown. We should get with the program and develop the Metro system.

What does the future hold for L.A.? What would an interview with you five years from now focus on?

I'd say that Los Angeles will be a world city; we should act like it. We should solve some problems. I would like to see, five years from now, a rail line that goes to Culver City, hopefully to Santa Monica. That would change our lifestyle tremendously.

Finally, housing architect is a proud moniker; it's what everyone wants to do. That's where the action is. Look at what Rich Speier is doing with a housing project in Beverly Hills. Seigel is there, and Gehry is doing Grand Avenue. They've all become housing architects. And five years from now it will even be more so.

I would love to be on a panel for the San Fernando Valley because they are not creating the sense of place that I think they have the opportunity for. They have so much land and so many people. They can become a city, and they need to act like it. They need to create a sense of place, and it never seems to happen. What holds them back? I don't know how the growth numbers play into this. Are we straining under over population in Los Angeles? As an optimistic housing architect in Los Angeles, I want to say no. But that's an interesting question: When is enough enough?

But the city continues to grow, and I think we're in the third wave. Most of the sites we come to, we are doing the third project in its history. First a little building, then a little bigger building, and now the third building. We have a long way to go.

When teaching at USC or Harvard, what are your examples of cutting-edge architecture for housing?

The arrival is paramount. You are coming to a high-density structure-midrise, high rise-how do you get there? We have to be honest how we arrive. We walk around there, yes, but we arrive in our car. Motor ports where the car slows down, mingles with the pedestrian-the Dutch have developed what they call a "living yard" concept, where the car can interface with pedestrians. The storage of cars is becoming more important. Then it is wide open in the architecture. There are terraces, open space, views.

Everyone used to live at the lower level; now we are starting to live five to ten stories above. And the views are becoming magnificent. Even in Santa Monica, if you live on the fourth floor, you look over everything. It no longer has to reach back to this classical architecture of craftsmen style of Mediterranean, although that still has its place. You need contemporary expression, sustainable development. We formed a committee in our firm on sustainable development. For the project on Hollywood and Argyle, one of the requirements that the client wanted and that we also stepped up for was that the project was LEED-certified, for a $300 million mixed-use project. That's big. I think cities are soon going to require sustainable development. I think the guidelines need to be made clear in terms of use or resources, materials, etc.


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