LA development guided by powerful people and relatively few voters

Some critics have charged that development in Los Angeles is influenced too much by powerful people. Yet, when voters had an opportunity this week to vote on increased regulation of development (Measure S), relatively few people turned out:

In the end, it failed by an overwhelming margin, garnering only 70,000 votes in a city of almost 4 million people. It’s a reassuring sign…

It’s hard to read too much into an election in which hardly anyone voted.

While it was a primary election (where turnout is typically low), this measure would have affected development throughout the city. Does this suggest residents aren’t that interested in development?

Maybe the voters save their attention for local development issues and LA has plenty:

Some of the same people who pushed for the passage of Measure S sued the city over an update to Hollywood’s community plan. In Granada Hills, neighbors are fighting a 440-unit apartment complex. That project conforms to that neighborhood’s newly rewritten community plan, but some residents say it’s too big.

Development can be tricky in that many residents might be very aware of what is happening next door or on the same block (particularly if it affects their property values or their children) but not have much knowledge or concern about matters in other parts of the city. In a big city like Los Angeles, residents may not be very familiar with the daily happenings of other locations. And, this is Los Angeles, famously the poster child for decentralization.

In other words, talking about development in the abstract might be a difficult sell, even in locations like this where housing prices are high for all.

UPDATE 3/9/17 9:08 PM: Here are more exact figures on how many LA residents decided the fate of this sweeping development regulation:

The Los Angeles Times reported late on Tuesday that just 11.4 percent of the electorate participated in the election, despite the fact that the mayor, half the city council, and several heavyweight ballot measures were all up for debate. In Tuesday’s election, apathy won.

Read further for an argument on why measures like this that are so broad should not be on primary ballots.

LA tightens McMansion rules

The Los Angeles City Council made several changes to ordinances involving teardown McMansions:

In a 12-0 vote, the council approved an update to the city’s Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, applying to single-family homes on lots that are less than 7,500 square feet. Such properties are currently allowed to have floor areas that are 50 percent of the lot size, but under the amendment will be reduced to 45 percent…

The council also unanimously approved an amendment that creates incentives for building detached garages or placing garages in the rear of a home by exempting them for the first 400 square feet from the size of the home, while garages that are attached at the side will have a 200-square-foot exemption.

It also approved the Baseline Hillside Ordinance, which puts limits on homes built on hillsides. The amendments still require the signature of Mayor Eric Garcetti…

Homes that are bigger than typically built in a neighborhood, or that dominate the footprint of the property they are located on, often referred to as McMansions, were limited in the original Baseline Mansionization Ordinance that passed in 2008. But the measure fell “far short of its mandate to create regulations that allow for sustainable neighborhoods and that protect the interest of all homeowners,” L.A. City Councilor Paul Koretz wrote in the motion creating the amendments.

While there has been much debate about these changes, they seem relatively small: downsizing homes from 50% to 45% of the lot, trying to make changes to garages, and places limits on homes built on hills. I’m guessing this won’t be enough to please a number of long-time residents concerned about teardowns nor will it do much to depress demand for teardowns in this pricey market. In other words, expect this to be an ongoing conversation.

The most congested city in the world is…

…Not much of a surprise. But, Los Angeles does lead the way by quite a bit over other cities:

Drivers in the car-crazy California metropolis spent 104 hours each driving in congestion during peak travel periods last year. That topped second-place Moscow at 91 hours and third-place New York at 89, according to a traffic scorecard compiled by Inrix, a transportation analytics firm.

The U.S. had half the cities on Inrix’s list of the top 10 most congested areas in the world and was the most congested developed country on the planet, Inrix found. U.S. drivers averaged 42 hours per year in traffic during peak times, the study found. San Francisco was the fourth-most congested city, while Bogota, Colombia, was fifth, Sao Paulo ranked sixth and London, Atlanta, Paris and Miami rounded out the top 10…

Study authors said a stable U.S. economy, continued urbanization of big cities, employment growth and low gas prices all contributed to increased traffic and congestion worldwide in 2016, lowering the quality of life.

The city built around the car and highways lives and dies with those same cars and highways.

What would it take to dramatically reduce that time in Los Angeles? The city has both a history of mass transit – extensive streetcar lines in the early 1900s – as well as rumblings about increased mass transit options in the future. See this 2012 post that sums up this potential “mass transit revolution.” But, any such effort must be monumental and involve both infrastructure as well as cultural change. Could we truly envision a Los Angeles in several decades where the car is not at the center of everyday life (both in practice and mythos) or will we have piecemeal efforts (including continuing trying to maximize driving through schemes like boring under the city) that don’t add up to much? Large-scale transformation would take a significant shift in focus by the city and other bodies and require sustained pressure for decades.

Another thought: are there effective ways for angry drivers to protest congestion? Yes, they can vote for certain candidates or policies. What if drivers one day symbolically walked away from their cars during the afternoon rush hour? (Such a protest, unfortunately, only would add to the congestion.) Could drivers clog the downtown streets in protest to block politicians? Refuse to go to work? There does not seem to be many options for the average driver to express their displeasure.

Will he or won’t he tunnel under Los Angeles?

Few tunnels get as much public attention as just the idea Elon Musk has to tunnel under Los Angeles to avoid traffic:

After being stuck in heavy traffic in December, the billionaire came up with a plan to create a giant tunnel under Los Angeles to ease congestion.

‘Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging…’, he tweeted…

Excavators working for the entrepreneur have already dug a test trench at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, Wired reported last week…

‘If you think of tunnels going 10, 20, 30 layers deep (or more), it is obvious that going 3D down will encompass the needs of any city’s transport of arbitrary size,’ he told Wired last week in a Twitter direct message.

I have a hard time envisioning how this could become useful for the general public. Musk would have to figure out something pretty spectacular to get the cost and time down. Or, one tunnel could open but it would be prohibitively expensive to use.

And isn’t there also an issue of freeing up land for entrances and exits from these deep tunnels? (Los Angeles might be a bit different if the tunnels are primarily for going through mountain passes.)

Making a McMansion worse with an underground garage?

One new teardown McMansion in Los Angeles is singled out for criticism for a unique feature:

The problem with one particular McMansion currently being built in Sherman Oaks is not that it towers head and shoulders above the houses to its north, the ones to its south, and all the houses across from it on the west side of the street except for one equally obese McMansion.

The problem is that its garage also reaches far lower into the ground because it is subterranean, accessed by a deeply sloping driveway. (Photo above) This is a singularly unique feature when compared to a concentric circle of the 500 nearest single family homes.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who authored the city’s porous and ineffective moratorium on McMansions, refused to personally answer direct questions about the property, but denied through a staffer any responsibility for its permit because at the time it was issued, this address was not yet covered by the moratorium. It originally only insulated some communities, including several in the San Fernando Valley…but not this one.

McMansions are often known for their large garages, whether they have oversized doors to accommodate extra-large vehicles or the big garages dominate the exterior (helping to earn some home the nickname “snout houses”). I thought the underground garage would help make a large house more palatable, particularly if some of the aboveground bulk or facade was smaller because space had been moved. Such a move echoes those of wealthy homeowners in London.

Perhaps the issue is that going underground might affect nearby properties? Presumably, it takes some significant extra work to create such a garage under a house and I was under the impression that few homes in southern California. But, I’m guessing that someone who could afford this property at a high price and the new home could also ensure that the subterranean garage is stable.

Los Angeles continues to tweak McMansion regulations

The work continues in Los Angeles about how to best address McMansions:

The City Council this week voted 13-0 to rewrite two ordinances governing the size of new houses in single-family neighborhoods and on hillsides, the Los Angeles Times reported:

“One mansionization measure backed by the council would reduce the square footage allowed for houses in R-1 zones — areas where only single-family homes are permitted — to 45% of the overall lot size, down from 50%. The council also moved to eliminate provisions that have allowed homebuilders to obtain additional square footage for their projects.

For example, developers have had the right to go 20% bigger when they showed they followed environmentally friendly design standards. That would disappear under the council’s plan.”

This isn’t the first time the city has taken on the issue. The first mansionization ordinances passed in 2008. But homeowners and others argued that the law didn’t go far enough to protect neighborhoods, and McMansions are still invading historic neighborhoods.

This highlights how regulating McMansions is not a one-time deal. In this case, the city already had regulations on the books. But, with enough pressure from residents, two changes were made to limit the size of new homes (through two different means). Presumably, these regulations could change even further as residents and builders see how things go over the next few years. It is harder to imagine the McMansions guidelines would allow for larger homes but builders, developers, and residents interested in such homes also could exert influence.

This may also serve as a reminder about the difficulty of crafting city-wide ordinances when different neighborhoods (and residents) might have different concerns about McMansions. In other words, what works in one neighborhood may not work in another. I could understand why local governments wouldn’t want to create a patchwork of regulations but it would be interesting to know how many residents and neighborhoods are driving these regulations.

Comparing the architecture of Chicago and LA

If baseball teams from two cities square off, why not use it as an opportunity to compare the architecture of the two locations? “Chicago vs. Los Angeles: Which city has the better architecture, public art, and parks?” Here are the comparisons in the iconic skyscraper and landmark categories:

Willis Tower

During much of the twentieth century, Chicago was a merchant city and the biggest name in the business was Sears. In the late ‘60s, the company decided to build a new headquarters and tapped Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design what would become the tallest building in the world. Designed by Bruce Graham and Fazlur Rahman Khan, the building’s “bundled tube” design not only allowed it to reach new heights, but to also make a grand gesture in the Chicago skyline. With an official height of 1,450 feet (1,729 feet if you include its antennas), the tower held the world’s tallest title until 1998 when the Petronas Towers in Malaysia were completed.

US Bank Tower

The tallest building on the West Coast—until about six weeks ago, anyway—is strong and mighty—it was built to withstand an 8.3 magnitude earthquake. But that hasn’t mattered much to filmmakers. It’s such a standout building that director Roland Emmerich targeted it in no less than three of his blockbuster disaster films; Aliens destroyed it in Independence Day, Tornadoes swept through it in The Day After Tomorrow, and it was felled by an earthquake (presumably above 8.3) in 2012. Completed in 1989, it was designed by architect Henry N. Cobb, who outfitted the structure with its signature crown. This year, the tower unveiled a terrifying glass slide that suspends riders above the street 1,000 feet below. (Even the engineer admitted it’d be “scary as hell” to ride in an earthquake)…

Chicago Water Tower

The Chicago Water Tower in many ways is a reminder of Chicago’s ability to endure through difficult times. The 154-foot tall limestone structure is a physical connection to the city’s early days as it is one of the rare buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which wiped out most the city’s downtown. Today, it is surrounded by towering skyscrapers but remains a popular tourist destination and symbol of Chicago’s strength and determination.

Hollywood sign

Perhaps the most recognizable landmark this side of the Pyramids at Giza, the Hollywood Sign has come to stand in for so much—show business, fame, excess—but is locally a symbol of the city’s complicated relationship with growth and change. The sign originally read “Hollywoodland” and was merely an ostentatious billboard advertising a new subdivision during a 1920s development boom. Later, when it had become a recognizable local landmark, preservationists sought to restore and preserve the sign. And now, with tourists from around the world flocking to Beachwood Canyon to get a closer look at those giant letters, it’s apparently become the bane of local residents’ existence—some of whom have proposed dismantling the sign entirely.

If we are comparing the most iconic representatives of each categories, the cities may be closer than many realize. Chicago is widely recognized as a capital of architecture yet Los Angeles has a good number of interesting and well-known buildings and designs. Additionally, the “feeling” of each place – spatially, culturally – is quite different so it could be hard to make direct comparisons. Yet, I would guess that if we went with quantity as well as history, Chicago would be a more clear cut winner.

I would be interested to see how many architects worked in both cities. In other words, were they separate architectural worlds or was there a lot of back and forth? Given that the two cities are so different, I wonder how much overlap is possible and then how much either the cities or architects would want to broadcast such overlap.