Editorial>A status quo to believe in?

Editorial West

In this issue, we cover a landscape of in-between spaces: divergent urban uses of public realm via Los Angeles’s Great Streets initiative, thoughtfully considered multifamily development in Santa Monica, a fresh batch of transit options in L.A., and a blending of private and public space in Seattle. If this seems like a jumbled mess, that’s because this collection of stories reflects the increasingly contested nature of West Coast urbanism. When considering the region’s pervasive homelessness crisis, increasing unaffordability, and legislative squabbles over development, we see a condition that is rooted at the nexus of two things: where we live and how we get there.

But really, this is old news. The tension between density and mobility has been a driving force in the West’s development since the colonial era, when conquistadors established El Camino Real and set up camps one day’s horse ride apart.

In today’s quest to make the West’s cities more livable, sustainable, and equitable, an effort is underway to give various modes of transportation—walking, cycling, light rail, and ridesharing—equal priority, meaning that single-occupant cars are watching their day in the sun fading in the rearview. If one argument is gaining traction, with large transit expansions planned in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle over the coming years, it’s a common sense one: that pedestrianized forms of mobility simply make for better cities. Where there is less of a reliance on cars and the space they require, people can live in smaller homes, coexist closer together, talk to one another more often, and have the time to enjoy their neighborhoods.

But only, of course, if they can afford to live in these areas in the first place. Because, simultaneously, the West is enduring a widespread shortage of rental and private homes resulting from decades of gradual downzoning and anti-density legislation that have left the region massively under-built. And whereas Los Angeles was once capable of housing 10 million people under the city’s 1960 zoning regulations, today, it can only accommodate about four million inhabitants and has been built out according to what is currently allowed. The reality is that hundreds of thousands of housing units are needed across the region to meet today’s needs, and the few talented designers who are stepping in to provide thoughtful, equitable distribution and design of those units are hampered by legislation, restrictive ordinances, or threats of litigation. Changes in zoning created this problem, and changes in zoning can help will solve it.

And when planning departments do not step in or act too slowly, state governments will act on their behalf. California’s AB1866, for example, set a new, relatively liberal statewide standard for the implementation of Accessory Dwelling Units, the small, sometimes-detached efficiency suites on otherwise single-family properties that are quietly up-zoning even the wealthiest of neighborhoods. These so-called “in-law” units, already common in working-class areas, help populations grow up and age in place, provide a landing pad for recent immigrants, and allow homeowners to earn rental income through their properties. Though this is a stop-gap solution, it is, at least, a developing front and a site of overall disruption.

Community-oriented designers can also subvert the rules. But too often, community-oriented design is impermanent or doesn’t operate at a scale
widespread enough to create lasting change. There is an under-addressed middle market that designers and developers have been too hesitant to embrace. The terminus of the new Expo and the adjacent Tongva Park designed by James Corner Field Operations in Santa Monica, however, are powerfully permanent statements. Though Tongva Park opened almost two years ago, the completion of the Expo terminus and its associated intersection make for a metaphoric moment: a pedestrianized street connecting public transit to a pier over the ocean. This design, bookended by the recently selected minimalist Agence Ter and SALT-designed proposal for PershingSquare in Downtown Los Angeles, creates an east-west urban route, while Gehry Partners’ ongoing community engagement surrounding its working designs for the Los Angeles River has the potential to create an ecologically significant north-south spine.

In this election season, let’s call this slow-burning revolution the Clinton option for urbanism: ignoring calls for barbarism and perfecting the status quo to be, if nothing else, better and available to many more. Right now, that’s the best West Coast cities can hope for, and maybe it’s not so bad.

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