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Stealth Density
Barbara Bestor's Blackbirds gives a single-family look to high-density housing that puts pedestrians and cyclists first.
Courtesy Barbara Bestor Architects

With the help of LA’s 2004 Small Lot Ordinance, which allows developers to build single-family homes and detached townhouses on a single lot originally zoned for multi-family housing or commercial development, LocalConstruct and architect Barbara Bestor are hoping to turn a one-acre hillside parcel in Echo Park into a prime example of smart growth.

“We felt that there were few existing projects that took advantage of the ordinance’s potential,” said Casey Lynch, LocalConstruct co-founder. He and his partner Mike Brown started the company in 2009 with a focus on “green retrofits” for distressed apartment buildings and homes in Los Angeles.


The plan for Blackbirds—located between the neighborhood’s Preston and Vestal avenues—calls for 18 small-lot homes clustered around an internal living street designed after the Dutch Woonerf concept, where pedestrians and cyclists have priority. The project’s unusual rooflines and its resulting configuration reminded developers of birds surrounding a pond, which gave rise to the development’s unusual name. Blackbirds will consist of three 1,800-square-foot single-family homes, three side-by-side 1,400-square-foot duplexes and three side-by-side 1,300 square-foot-triplexes.


“Their density is similar to the fabric of housing around them. The trick visually is that some of the units are in duplex or triplex configurations but still appear similar to unique houses, a sort of ‘stealth density’,” said Bestor, who up until now had always worked on single-family residences.

Also intriguing is the focus on a less car-centric lifestyle at Blackbirds. Lynch adds that some units will also be “un-garaged.” Carports or open parking spaces will be placed strategically around the internal living street, which would leave more open space on the site. “We think that is a needed step in the evolution of LA typologies,” said Lynch.

“I am curious as to why larger scale housing projects so often have a lower level of finish and stultifying repetitiveness given their prices,” commented Bestor. “We are attempting to add quality and individuality to each of these units as well as a structure engendering community and neighborliness in the way they are grouped together.”

An initial presentation to the Echo Park Neighborhood Council garnered the usual concerns of increased traffic and parking congestion due to added density, but also notes of approval at the development’s utopian impulses.

Blackbirds is finalizing its schematics and the possible changes discussed include further reducing the density of the development, adding traffic safety measures, and access to lower streets for parking. A construction start date is dependent on a Zoning Administration hearing, but LocalConstruct is targeting construction to begin by the end of 2012 with units completed by late 2013.

Carren Jao