Density is often referred to as the “D-Word” in urban planning and development circles because it can be so controversial and misunderstood. For example, upon hearing “density” or “high density,” some people immediately think of high-rise buildings in Manhattan, Hong Kong, or Singapore. In reality, the “high density developments” typically found in Los Angeles and perhaps most of California (outside of downtowns) are apartment buildings rarely taller than five stories. So, what does it really mean to increase density in the Los Angles region and what would that look like in terms of changes to the built environment? Essentially, these were the main questions that were discussed at last week’s Urban Land Institute – Los Angeles (ULI-LA) event called “Increasing Density in Urban Development”. Held at a high-rise office building in Downtown L.A., the event featured a knowledgeable panel of speakers, including: Jenny Schuetz, professor at USC’s Price School of Public Policy (who served as the moderator); Alan Dibartolomeo with AMF Development LLC; Jim Andersen with Baru Investments; David Fishbein with Runyon Group; and David Martin, director of planning and community development at the City of Santa Monica.
While some may think of increased density as the introduction of more high-rise buildings, this is not necessarily the case. As professor Schuetz explained in her introduction, an example of increased density can be as simple as just building a structure on a previously vacant site like a parking lot. Regardless of whether that structure is a high-rise, a five-story apartment building, or a commercial development, the density of that property has increased when the land is built upon. While this point may be intuitive or obvious, I thought that it was necessary to get everyone in the audience on the same page. After all, as I alluded to earlier, just about everyone has his or her own opinions and preconceived idea(s) of what increased density is or looks like. Following this introduction/clarification, the panel went on to share their thoughts and give examples of the projects they have worked in the region. Highlighted below are the main projects I learned about at the event:
ELEVE Lofts and Skydeck
The first project discussed was ELEVE Lofts and Skydeck, a new apartment complex in Glendale built on the site previously occupied by a Circuit City store. The apartment units vary in size from 375 to 1,125 square feet. When I first heard that there are micro-units as small as 375 square feet, I was in shock. The developer explained that some people are willing to pay high rents ($1,500) to live in such tight quarters because of the large communal spaces the project contains and the convenience of being centrally located. ELEVE offers an impressive list of amenities on its 26,000-square-foot skydeck, including: an eating and BBQ area with gas grills; a spa deck with hot and cool spa tubs; a demonstration kitchen area; a large screen projector for movie nights; a “poets corner” with grand piano; courtyards with seating; a rooftop pet park and pet spa; and a fitness center. As a park planner, I was surprised and impressed to hear that the project includes a rooftop park for dogs. It is definitely an amenity that is growing in demand, especially among urban dwellers that do not have their own yards and lack safe and/or adequate spaces to walk their pets. ELEVE is also within walking distance to many shops and restaurants, with the Glendale Galleria and The Americana at Brand located just west of the project. In addition, the development is a “green” project which received the Silver LEED rating. Out of curiosity, I decided to check Yelp to see what the residents think of the apartment complex. There were only 13 reviews, but it appears that the development is well-liked given the mostly positive comments and the 4.5-star rating it received. The developer indicated that he is looking into the possibility of doing a similar project in downtown Los Angeles near the future streetcar line. If you are interested, check out photos of ELEVE at this link.
Another interesting project is The Platform located in Culver City. This is an upscale retail project that is currently under construction and will have a style similar to the trendy Space 15 Twenty retail complex on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. The site is located at the intersection of Washington and National boulevards, and was formerly occupied by car dealerships. The Platform site is very accessible by public transit as it hugs one side of the elevated Metro Expo Line station. It is also in close proximity to the 10 Freeway. According to the developers (Runyon Group), this project will offer a variety of retail, dining, and creative office space options, and is an attempt to “bring fashion, art, and culinary talents together.”
One unique element of The Platform is that a restaurant will be located at the rooftop (rather than street level) and will have a panoramic view of the city. For renderings of this project, please go to this link on Curbed. The Platform sounds and looks like an exciting project that will help revitalize an area of Culver City that was in decline; the Helms Bakery retail complex was the only bright spot. When thinking about this project, a question that immediately came to my mind was whether it should have included a housing component given its location adjacent to a light rail station. Perhaps the developer determined a mixed-use project including both commercial and residential uses to be economically infeasible or inferior to the project currently under construction?
Santa Monica Land Use and Circulation Elements
While it was certainly interesting to hear from private developers and learn about some interesting projects, it was also good to have a representative from the public sector on the panel. Specifically, Mr. David Martin from Santa Monica was there and talked extensively about the Land Use and Circulation Elements (LUCE) of the City’s General Plan. Adopted in 2010, the LUCE establish the City’s land use, urban design, and transportation vision.
These policy documents provide a long-term framework for implementing this vision, and are a tool for good decision-making. According to Martin, they also provide flexibility for changes in the City’s economy and land use, and establish criteria and measurements for periodically assessing how well the community’s goals are being met and if adjustments to the policies are needed. The LUCE focuses on increasing density in just four percent of the City, in areas where higher density are deemed appropriate. Specifically, those neighborhoods where future Metro Expo Line stations would be located are prime locations for new housing and mixed-use projects that consist of five or six stories of housing above ground floor retail uses. Martin also mentioned that about 3,000 new units are currently proposed for the downtown area, reflecting in part the high demand for housing in the city. In Martin’s words, there is an “entitlement boom” in Santa Monica as the City is reviewing and processing a substantial number of applications and project proposals. How many of these proposals materialize into actual projects remain to be seen.
Besides examples of projects, the panel also talked about emerging development trends. Developers on the panel are discovering that more and more young people want to drive less and/or do not want to deal with traffic altogether. Thus they are increasingly drawn to locations that allow them to walk to eat, shop, or work. This explains why there are tenants willing to live in 375 square-foot units in ELEVE in Glendale. Also, one developer indicated that jobs are less stable as they were previously and more people want to be flexible, rather than make a home purchase and be tied to a particular city or neighborhood. Another developer commented that young people require less physical space these days as they are so absorbed in technologies like smart phones and social media. While the younger generations may be more receptive or even like higher density, walkable communities, there remains strong opponents that fear any increase in density.
As Mr. Martin of Santa Monica pointed out, the LUCE was approved in large part because it was only increasing density in four percent of the city; residents in the well-established single-family residential areas are adamant about keeping their neighborhoods the way they are. Their concerns typically pertain to traffic and parking. This led to one speaker pointing out that the existing model used to calculate traffic impacts for the environmental review process is very outdated and does not reflect reality. In his view, high density residential or mixed-use projects actually reduce traffic impacts because their occupants are less car-dependent. When asked about the provision of amenities such as parks and open space, most of the developers indicated that they pay Quimby (park in-lieu) fees to cities which they can use to improve or develop parks. There is also a trend for developments to include private amenities on site such as the ELEVE’s skydeck and rooftop dog park to serve the development’s residents.
Overall, the ULI event was very informative and thought-provoking. I really enjoyed learning more about the topic of increased density as it does impact both my work as a planner and a resident in the urban core. My only disappointment was that the panel did not include developers who have any experience working on residential or mixed-use projects in Downtown Los Angeles or planners from the City of Los Angeles who are familiar with the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance which contributed significantly to the revitalization of DTLA and the growth of its residential population. The questions of how to increase density and whether DTLA should be denser are fascinating and are being debated as we speak. Recently, City Councilman José Huizar filed a motion that would incentivize high-rise building and put a moratorium on low-rise construction in key areas of DTLA. Huizar did this because he is concerned that new residential developments, consisting mostly of six- and seven-story buildings, are not dense enough and do not take advantage of the higher densities allowed for by zoning in downtown (see this article in Downtown News). It would be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming months. On a side note, but also related to the topic of density, there is a fascinating article about Park La Brea, one of the denser and most well-known apartment complexes in Los Angeles, on KCET. Be sure to check it out if you are interested in learning more about the largest housing development in the U.S. west of the Mississippi River.
Construction in Downtown Los Angeles by author Clement Lau
The Americana at Brand in Glendale from Wikipedia, author Gedstrom, used under Creative Commons lic.
Helms Bakery in Culver City from Wikipedia, author La Citta Vita, used under Creative Commons lic.
Metro Expo Line Culver City Station from Wikipedia, author Esirgen, used under Creative Commons lic.
Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica from Wikipedia, author Mike Gonzalez (TheCoffee), used under Creative Commons lic.
Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica from Wikipedia, author Bobak Ha’Eri, used under Creative Commons lic.