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10.24.2007
Urban Jungle to Get Denser
Responses vary to new Downtown zoning ordinance

On August 7, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed the Downtown Planning Ordinance. Initiated by the Department of City Planning, the measure is part of a concerted effort to update and urbanize planning codes that were appropriate for postwar suburban developments, but woefully out of sync with the current needs of the city and its ever-increasing population.

The ordinance is also expected to create more highrise density downtown as well as more affordable housing by offering a 35 percent floor-area-ratio (FAR) bonus as an incentive for developers to include affordable units.

News of the ordinance’s passing set off a flurry of newspaper opinion pieces and letters from readers, critics, and urban planners, some of whom bemoaned the notion that LA was falling victim to “Manhattanization,” a term used during the 1960s by critics of San Francisco’s highrise developments. Others applauded the city council’s effort to steer LA toward a denser, vertical profile, accusing critics of being “urbanphobes.”

In the LA Downtown News, urban design critic Sam Hall Kaplan wrote, “Interestingly, the paramount concern of our persistent ‘urbanphobes’ is not about making these developments more accessible and pedestrian friendly, nor how to provide more housing choices, nor how to offer more inviting parks and public spaces. Rather, what apparently worries them, and many others in Southern California, is the ogre of traffic.” 

Scott Johnson, principal at Johnson Fain, a downtown-based architecture firm, said that any move toward more density and mixed land use is a good thing. But he considers it only one part of the total equation. “We need to see sustainability, affordable housing, and expanded use of public transportation happening at the same time as density,” he said. “LA is really behind on every one of these fronts.”

Even while LA is expanding its transit system to the further reaches of the metropolitan area, only about 12 percent of new residents in downtown, the public transit hub for greater LA, say they use the train or bus.

What most concerns Beth Steckler, policy director at Livable Places, an affordable housing and environmental advocacy group in downtown LA, is not public transportation or density but the lack of available affordable housing downtown.

“The real purpose of this [Downtown Planning Ordinance] is to streamline market-rate housing in highrises,” she says. Steckler argues that there are too many ways for developers to get around applying FAR bonuses toward affordable units. Livable Places proposed alternatives to the incentives detailed in the ordinance, which among other things would require higher percentages of affordable housing units than currently accepted by the city council.

Clearly, LA has a long way to go before reaching a consensus, and even further to a skyline of Manhattan-like density, if that’s even desirable. But what is apparent is the public’s ongoing interest in the debate, particularly on matters concerning the city’s unrelenting transportation woes. “The public is ready,” says Johnson. “We’re beginning to change.”

Allison Milionis