Experts, residents unsure of new downtown rules' effect
Some say larger, denser projects will help ease L.A.'s housing crunch. Others say they will burden an already taxed infrastructure and displace the poor.
By Sharon Bernstein
By significantly altering downtown zoning rules in a bid to spur more housing development, Los Angeles is gambling that it can ease its notorious housing crunch without causing bigger problems.
In the last three months, the city has taken two dramatic steps to further accelerate downtown's boom in residential construction.
First, the City Council voted to sell "air rights" above the low-slung Los Angeles Convention Center, allowing developers to purchase the right to add extra floors to other structures downtown. Then Tuesday, the council loosened zoning rules downtown, allowing developers to build larger and denser projects.
But how much can local government really prime the pump? Experts aren't sure about that, or about how severe the downsides might be: more traffic, greater strain on power and other elements of the city infrastructure, and possible displacement of the underclass that for generations has called downtown home.
David Shulman, a senior economist for the UCLA Anderson economic forecast, said that in the short term, the new rules may have little impact, as the market for housing continues to slow.
But he said that zoning and development are long-term endeavors and that ultimately the new rules could result in a downtown that has significantly more housing -- in a city that is woefully short of it.
"In the long run, it's one of the solutions to the housing affordability issue," Shulman said. "The housing supply has been artificially constricted by planning and zoning constraints for the past 35 years in Southern California."
The new rules encourage developers to build high-rises without leaving space between the buildings, allow them to reduce the size of lobbies and other communal areas, let them build closer to sidewalks and make it legal to build extremely small units.
Developers who reserve 15% of their units for low-income residents are now exempt from some open-space requirements and can make their buildings 35% larger than current zoning codes allow.
But Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, said he thinks the incentives are too weak to entice developers to build many such units. Moreover, he said, in downtown and other parts of town, builders are replacing existing housing that serves the poor and working poor with units aimed at people who are better off.
"There's all this emphasis on creating new affordable housing," Gross said. "But if we don't preserve our existing affordable housing, we're just spinning our wheels."
Jeff Lee, whose company, Lee Homes, recently completed a loft project downtown, said he thinks that developers will not need to take advantage of the higher densities offered by the city in exchange for affordable housing, because the code already allows buildings to be relatively tall.
"I'm not so sure people want to build more density," Lee said in a recent interview. "You're already in a high-rise, so it's very expensive construction."
The new plans envision a downtown where buildings are tightly packed together, and thousands of people live in the new structures.
But such a situation can feel overcrowded fast if infrastructure and transportation fail to match the needs of the new population.
Most experts agree that L.A.'s public transportation network is extremely limited when compared with those in such metropolitan areas as Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Residents interviewed for several Times stories recently have said they drive to work even if they live near public transit, because the system cannot take them where they need to go in a timely manner.
And the level of density that the city envisions downtown could mean a district that is extremely congested.
"People like living in the downtown but then they get in the car in the morning and they drive to work," said Richard Little, director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at USC. "So you're actually increasing local congestion by increasing density."
In March, the City Council passed an ordinance allowing developers to build taller projects by paying for unused "air rights" from shorter buildings -- without having first studied whether the district's infrastructure could support higher density.
At the time, planning officials said that because the density was legal under the city plan, that meant by definition that the infrastructure would be able to serve the new people.
But Little said that was not necessarily so.
"It's a serious omission," he said.
A study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments found that downtown residents use public transportation for less than 10% of their work, shopping and other trips.
But downtown boosters argue that with more people moving to the city's core and more amenities becoming available, there is a growing pedestrian life. These planners, developers and residents say downtown is uniquely suited to become denser than other parts of the city.
Then there is the question of gentrification.
Downtown's transformation over the last eight years has been dramatic. A city center that for decades was home to L.A.'s poorest residents has established a growing, upscale residential base. But a drive through downtown makes clear the rebirth is far from complete.
Lisa Floyd, 42, sitting at a restaurant on the ground floor of a modern apartment complex on Figueroa Street, said increased traffic would be a small price to pay to revitalize downtown L.A.
"I see so much poverty," said Floyd, who grew up near Normandie Avenue and 49th Street. "Downtown can really use a boost. There's not that many houses here anyway. If there's some prosperity here, maybe it will trickle to the surrounding neighborhoods."
But Kate Kaso, a teacher at Animo Justice Charter High School downtown, worries that more high-rises will do little for the underclass.
"I think it delineates the haves and the have-nots," said Kaso, 24. "None of the kids and families from school can live or shop at the places I hear are coming in. I don't know who it's benefiting. I don't see it benefiting the families I know."
Some see a middle ground.
Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn. and a key backer of the new rules, said the new downtown will be tall, dense and vibrant, filled with people who walk or bike to work and take advantage of the area's burgeoning night life and activities.
Residents of suburban neighborhoods, she said, should cheer the changes downtown, because it is an area with plenty of room for more people that doesn't impinge on single-family zones.
"The L.A. of the '60s is gone, gone, gone," Schatz said. "Sprawl has hit the wall."
Times staff writer David Pierson contributed to this report.