How a Denser Los Angeles Can Still Look Like Los Angeles

Graphics: Vonn Weisenberger

If all you knew about America’s urban topography came from the loudest cries and the strongest opinions, you might conclude that cities consisted of nothing but pretty little houses and megalithic skyscrapers. Advocates of universal housing are eager to remove the first and build the second; neighborhood character protectors fear this is exactly what will happen if they don’t fight for every gable and square inch of lawn. Ditch zoning regulations and local ordinances as much as a comma, they worry, and Grover’s Corners will turn into Midtown Manhattan.

There are many nuances of density – townhouses, bungalows, small apartment buildings, duplexes – and as with so many other things in our politicized culture, debates take place at extremes. Almost 80% of the buildable area in Los Angeles, or nearly half a million plots, is reserved for single-family homes. Large parts of New York are also kept low density by law. There are powerful reasons to change this: to consume less energy, to curb sprawl, to promote public transport, to provide more housing at a lower cost. But in a nation of binary options, every attempt to slide into more density is answered with the same thrill hex: Tours! Residents of low-rise luxury neighborhoods erect barricades against the poor. Residents of low-income and low-income neighborhoods repel speculators and gentrifiers.

Los Angeles suffers from this contentious stagnation more than most cities. House prices have remained stubbornly high and severe density restrictions continue to push the city to deal with wildfires. Much of Los Angeles’ housing is hopelessly overcrowded, a condition COVID has made deadly, so making construction cheaper is one way to save lives. A McKinsey Study concluded that simply putting four bungalows on one plot – a quadruple – is the cheapest way to provide new housing. And yet attempts to relax regulations for residential neighborhoods – reducing parking requirements, moving homes closer to sidewalks, or allowing convenience stores – have gone as well as a rush-hour drag race on the road. 405.

Ordinary Angelenos have more nuanced views than activists and politicians, insists Christopher Hawthorne, who, as the city’s design director, is Mayor Eric Garcetti’s architectural consiglier. “This idea of ​​polarization is not helpful and is not quite accurate,” he says. “Most people fall between NIMBY and YIMBY. They recognize that what we currently have is not a sustainable model, but they have reasonable concerns about what the changes would mean in their own neighborhood. Especially in communities of color.

And so Hawthorne tried to force his way through the ideological trenches. He issued a public call for architects which reads as follows: Help us find a new density of light that will not scare everyone. This bet took the form of a city-sponsored competition called Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles, with cash prizes and bragging rights, but not a path to construction. When you use design to push for a change in the law, it will, by definition, produce proposals that are illegal to build. The results, revealed a few days ago, offer a suite of design solutions to a political problem. I don’t know if that’s the equivalent of trying to sing your way to better tax policy or, as Hawthorne hopes, a subtle strategy to change the conversation. It is certainly an ingenious experiment which resulted in a beautiful architecture turned towards the public.

The first category is the Corner Grouping, a category that Brooklyn-based architect Vonn Weisenberger won with a modern miniature village. The one- and two-story homes, connected in pairs by a prefabricated common core that contains the plumbing, cluster around a landscaped courtyard. There, residents can garden, dine, read, or get excited about each other on a piece of common property. As a vision of the kind of future that a slight bump in density might bring, it’s not exactly apocalyptic. For apartment dwellers, it is difficult to understand why this type of arrangement would be out of the question anywhere, what social problems it would trigger, or why it would wreak havoc on property values. Exactly. This is not a competition for aerial architectural fantasies, but for ideas so radically reasonable that they elicit shrugs rather than gasps.

Art: Vonn Weisenberger

Illegal-but-should-not-be situation # 2 is quadruple. The winner of this category, a team composed of Omngivning and Studio-MLA, produced an intricate Rubik’s Cube of living spaces designed to weave a neighborhood more tightly. What would today be the front yard of a single house becomes a collective garden, a kind of deposit in a community land trust that could one day squeeze through several blocks. In the current rigid grid of single-family homes, a single adult occupies the same real estate format as a family of four or a multigenerational clan. The architects of the competition’s first and second place entries tried to design for the way people live, rather than asking people to adapt to habitats that don’t really match. Many have the satisfying efficiency of a galley kitchen, with greenery, shade, pathways, bedrooms, and common areas tucked into their slots. But they also recognize that people don’t always occupy space with an architect’s thirst for precision. They buy cars, put bikes out on the lawn, cram cupboards, and have changeable home arrangements. The best designs share an ethic of flexibility.

Art: Surroundings and Studio-MLA

the winner of a third category, subdivision (a team led by Louisa Van Leer and Antonio Castillo), goes even further by blurring the distinction between public and private space. The street side of each block remains largely unchanged, a row of ordinary houses. At the back, a row of two-story duplexes faces the middle aisle of the block. Across the country, these alleys have a lasting reputation as dangerous, clandestine and unhealthy places; during the Depression, the federal government essentially declared them unfit for habitation. And yet Los Angeles has 900 miles of back alleys that could be salvaged as green conduits for pedestrians and bicycles. It’s like finding an extra room behind the bathroom mirror, a whole forgotten city layered on top of the one you thought you knew.

Art: Green Alley Housing

These entrances clearly show how city life can be improved by rethinking the segments of marginal land that are grouped together with each house: the paved yard, the driveway, the driveway, the garage. The competitive rhetoric is that this abundance of wasted space means that LA can be remade gradually and almost invisibly. In fact, this is already happening. The California state legislature recently passed a law allowing accessory living units, or ADUs, to be self-contained mini-apartments that share a lot with a main house. Who had little impact in most California cities so far – but in Los Angeles, “ADU production has gone crazy,” says architect Jason Neville. Backyard outhouses now account for over a fifth of all new housing permits in the city, where Hawthorne has developed a set of standard pre-approved designs. This bill created new housing options and economic opportunities for builders who were excluded from major development projects. “Previously, to buy a home, you needed $ 900,000 in cash. I can build an ADU for $ 100,000 to $ 300,000, ”says Neville. “We’re a mom-and-pop home builder working in a garage. The construction crews are small workshops, and the demolition is done by a few guys with vans. There is an industry that did not exist before.

For some Los Angeles architects, the ADU experience suggests that what LA needs is not a contest or menu of fancy design ideas, but a few ground rule changes that would allow homeowners, architects, and builders. builders to meet the needs of the city and achieve their own creativity. . Unfortunately, that’s like saying that all you have to do to reduce gun violence is change a few laws. Housing is one of those areas where it is almost impossible to separate the rational from the ideological. Low-Rise LA is Hawthorne’s strategy to give everyone something beautiful to watch. This is the planning version of a campaign video with a puppy in it: How can you hate this? The ideas he’s fighting for here are good, if not urgent, but the question remains whether the release of a handful of architectural beagles can soften hearts or open minds.

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