More worry over McMansions than LeBron’s teardown that replaced a midcentury modern

Are McMansions in Los Angeles disliked because of who might live in them or because of their architecture?

Newly signed Laker LeBron James’ $23 million digs on Tigertail Road in L.A.’s Brentwood come with a deep roster of industry neighbors, from stars (Jim Carrey) and execs (ABC’s Ben Sherwood, Scooter Braun) to reps (CAA’s Fred Specktor, Lighthouse’s Margaret Riley), writers (John Sacret Young) and movie royalty (or at least movie royalty-adjacent: John Goldwyn’s ex Colleen Camp)…

The tony community is taking well to its new neighbor, says one homeowner, who adds that there’s more concern about the explosion of “McMansions” in an area that boasts so many architecturally significant houses, like the William Krisel-built midcentury modern that was torn down in 2014 on the lot where James’ new home sits.

While James’ new-build eight-bedroom home has been under renovation since May as he adds a basketball court and indoor wine tap, the construction hasn’t been particularly disruptive, says the resident, given the large number of homes being built and updated throughout the neighborhood. “[His house] is set on the hillside, very tasteful and pretty, and it’s been low-key so far,” says the neighbor. “People were a lot more upset when Justin Bieber was looking around here.”

Even though James now lives in a large house that replaced an “architecturally significant house,” at least one neighbor does not think it is a problem for three reasons:

  1. The new house is “very tasteful and pretty.”
  2. LeBron James is not Justin Bieber. Not only is Bieber less popular than James, he has a Los Angeles reputation for parties and fast driving.
  3. The construction “hasn’t been particularly disruptive.”

So because Lebron James is simply a better-liked neighbor than Bieber, the construction of a mansion (or McMansion) can be overlooked? According to some, midcentury moderns are worth celebrating compared to McMansions.

How to make a better public case for abundant housing in four steps

After witnessing a positive result in front of a neighborhood council for a small project in Los Angeles, Virginia Postrel suggests four steps can help smooth the process:

Respect matters. Especially in liberal enclaves like West L.A., opposition to new housing — and to change in general — comes wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy and procedure. Activist residents, including official representatives, are jealous of their prerogatives as neighborhood incumbents. They’re more likely to say yes — or at least not say no — if they feel they’ve been listened to…

But so do the rules. Under a law signed in 2017, anti-development activists can no longer easily block new housing if it meets zoning requirements and incorporates 10 percent low-income units. One reason the Mar Vista project garnered support was that activists feared the alternative would be something less considerate of neighborhood sentiment.

 

Showing up is important. By answering questions and treating the meeting as important, the developer’s representative helped flip sentiment in Mar Vista. And the Abundant Housing LA speakers made arguments that often go unspoken in such forums. They reminded locals that by not letting people build housing near jobs, they make traffic worse, and that by blocking new apartments, which tend to be expensive, they send high-income renters into places where they push out middle- and lower-income residents. Beyond the specifics, it’s simply harder to argue against housing when you don’t have the overwhelming majority.

Don’t assume residents are against housing. In March 2017, Angelenos had the opportunity to vote for a slow-growth initiative that would have blocked at least a quarter of new housing developments. They overwhelmingly said no, defeating Measure S by a 70-30 margin. “That stereotypical kind of Nimby does exist, but there aren’t really that many of them,” says Burns. “When you really talk to people and you put a face on what it means to develop more — to add more housing — and it’s somebody who lives close by, you can really come to some sensible kind of compromises with folks.”

 

Generally, these look like good steps anybody seeking to redevelop property could benefit from. From some of my own work, these would be helpful for those constructing teardown houses in the suburbs as well as religious groups seeking to alter an existing building or construct a new building. Building a relationship with people in the community as well as presenting a cogent and reasonable case can go a long ways.

At the same time, I wonder if these four steps might be idiosyncratic and apply only to certain places and at certain times. This particular case is from a state and region that has a large need for more housing. The description of the steps above suggest that residents were more open to this project because they feared something worse. Additionally, this project is within a city and region that is already very dense (and one of the densest regions in the United States). Residents are used to denser housing.

I suspect redevelopment would be a much tougher sell in areas or communities that are (1) primarily comprised of single-family homes with some distance from denser land uses and (2) where housing demand is lower (or is perceived to be much lower – the Chicago area may have a big need for affordable housing but it would be hard to convince many communities of this).

 

Fighting smog not by reducing driving but by insisting on more efficient cars

Smog and air pollution due to vehicles is a familiar sight in many large cities. Yet, Crabgrass Crucible suggests the fight against smog in Los Angeles did not target driving itself but rather automakers:

The ban on fuel oil easily found favor among antismog activists. After all, like the steps with which smog control had begun, it mostly targeted the basin’s industrial zones. Harder to swallow in Los Angeles’s “citizen consumer” politics of this era, even for antismog activists, were solutions that might curtail the mobility associated with cars. Consonant with national trends noted by automobile historian Thomas McCarthy, there was a widespread reluctance to question orthodoxies of road building and suburban development. Even the “militant” activists at the 1954 Pasadena Assembly only went so far as a call to “electrify busses.” By the 1960s, as motor vehicles were estimated to cause nearly 55 percent of smog, there were suggestions for the development of an electric car. Yet Los Angeles smog battlers of all stripes raised surprisingly few questions about freeway building. For many years, Haagen-Smit himself argued that because fast and steady-running traffic burned gasoline more efficiently, freeways were smog remedies. So powerful and prevalent were the presumed rights of Angelenos to drive anywhere, to be propelled, lit, heated, and otherwise convenienced by fossil fuels, that public mass transit or other alternatives hardly seemed worth mentioning.

Once pollution controllers turned their sights to cars, they aimed not so much at Los Angeles roads or driving habits or developers as at the distant plants where automobiles were made. Probing back up the chain of production for smog’s roots, local regulators and politicians established a new way of acting on behalf of citizen consumers. Rather than pitting the residential suburbs of the basin against their industrial counterparts, in an inspired switch, they opened season on a far-flung industrial foe: the “motor city” of Detroit. The APCD’s confrontations with Detroit car makers had begun during the Larson era, but quietly, through exchanges of letters and visits that went little publicized. In 1958, after the nation’s chief auto makers had repeatedly shrugged off Angeleno officials’ insistence on cleaner-burning engines, the Los Angeles City Council went public with its frustration. It threw down the gauntlet: within three years, all automobiles sold within the city limits had to meet tough smog-reducing exhaust standards. Because its deadline had passed, a 1960 burst of antismog activism converged on Sacramento to push through the California Motor Vehicle Control Act. The battle was hard-fought and intense, but the state of California thereby wound up setting pollution-fighting terms for its vast car market. (232-233)

This helps put us where we are today: when the Trump administration signals interest in eliminating national MPG standards for automakers, California leads the way in fighting back.

Ultimately, this is an interesting accommodation in the environmentalist movement. Cars are significant generators of air pollution. Additionally, cars do not just produce air pollution; they require an entire infrastructure that uses a lot of resources in its own right (building and maintaining roads, trucking, using more land for development). Yet, this passage suggests that because cars and the lifestyle that goes with them are so sacred, particularly in a region heavily dependent on mobility by individual cars, the best solution is to look for a car that pollutes less. This leaves many communities and regions in the United States waiting for a more efficient car rather than expending energy and resources toward reducing car use overall. And the problem may just keep going if self-driving cars actually lengthen commutes.

Testing play streets in Los Angeles

The city of Los Angeles, known for its highways and roads, is trying to turn some of its streets into areas for fun and community activity:

There are roughly 7,500 miles of streets in Los Angeles, and Fickett Street is only one of them. But in this predominantly Latino neighborhood where parks are scarce, residents and activists have begun a design intervention to reclaim streets for civic life, kibitzing and play. From London to Los Angeles, the play street concept, known as “playing out” in England, has become an international movement of sorts, especially in low-income communities that lack green space and other amenities.

The efforts in Boyle Heights, a 6 ½-mile area bisected by six freeways, is a collaboration between Union de Vecinos, a group of neighborhood leaders, and the Kounkuey Design Initiative, or KDI, a nonprofit public interest design firm that helps underserved communities realize ideas for productive public spaces.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has invested $300,000 on 15 KDI-designed pilot play streets this year in Boyle Heights and Koreatown, another heavily trafficked neighborhood. Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the LADOT, first became aware of the concept while visiting Copenhagen…

On a recent Sunday, Kounkuey unveiled its “playground in a box.” Shade structures stretched across Fickett Street, affixed to loquat trees and no-parking signs, and the plastic “wobbles” created by KDI doubled as Tilt-a-Whirls, BarcaLoungers, and formidable hurdles for teenage skateboarders. Nine-year-old Amanda Alvarado built a McMansion. “Ava, lookit!” she exclaimed to her 4-year-old sidekick in pink pom-pom slippers.

This is a clever idea for two reasons. First, it transforms what is typically a thoroughfare for cars into a space for community life. Many American neighborhoods and communities are full of roads and planning that emphasizes the efficiency of getting vehicles from Point A to Point B. Even if the effort is temporary, the transformation can be a powerful symbol. Second, it does not require long-term investments into new spaces or architecture. The road already exists. Bringing in the equipment takes some work but it is portable and can also be used elsewhere.

At the same time, this seems like an incomplete concept. It feels like a small band-aid for larger issues. As the article goes on to talk about, in a neighborhood bisected by highways, lacking green space, and pushing back against gentrification, couldn’t more be done? How about permanent parks?

What routes would Waze recommend that drivers would turn down?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a 32% grade Los Angeles street to which Waze routes drivers:

But residents along Baxter Street in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood—reportedly one of the steepest streets in America (comprising two major hills)—are now banding together to try to change local traffic patterns. Neighbors have contacted city officials and Waze’s parent company, Google, to try to mitigate the problem…

The street, which dates back to 1872, has a 32-percent grade—more than double what current city law allows for today.

In 2003, the Times described the street this way: “Unsuspecting motorists gasp when they reach the crest and discover the roadway in front of them has dropped out of sight and there is nothing but empty space in front of their car’s hood.”

A decade later, Los Angeles magazine noted:

Baxter later became a proving ground for automobiles, as manufacturers staged elaborate stunts to demonstrate their vehicles’ power. In one such event in 1916, a four-wheel-drive truck loaded with 4,300 pounds of baled hay groaned its way up the grade, pausing twice for newspaper cameras. Nearly 100 years later, Baxter Street continues to bewilder uncertain drivers and confound elongated vehicles.

The appeal of apps like Waze is that drivers can avoid traffic by taking lesser-known routes. While residents may not like this, the more interesting question is how far drivers would let Waze take them. The apocryphal stories of drivers turning into lakes may make more sense when the story begins with a driver frustrated with the ridiculous or unpredictable traffic in many major American metropolitan areas. Would they drive through standing water? (The regular stories of drivers getting stuck on flooded roads suggest yes.) Would they be willing to go off pavement? Would they navigate through extremely tight places? Take a road with a severe and unblocked drop-off? Are there as willing to go through higher-crime areas? Apparently, a 32% grade is not enough so perhaps 40% would be too much?

I know this would not help Waze’s cause but I could imagine the company issuing some sort of award or recognition to users who are most willing to do something unusual to get around traffic.

Transforming LA parking lots into housing for the homeless

To help speed along a plan to provide housing for the homeless, Los Angeles is targeting the development of city-owned parking lots:

The idea of converting public parking to housing has been around for decades in L.A. but has gained little traction. In the 1980s, Mayor Tom Bradley proposed leasing rights to developers to build multifamily housing, but there was no follow-up…

The new parking lot review grew out of an urgency to implement Proposition HHH, the $1.2-billion bond measure approved by the voters to help fund the construction of 1,000 permanent supportive housing units each year.

With taxpayer funds now committed, a new obstacle emerged. The scarcity of suitable land in the city’s highly competitive real estate market could add years to the start-up time for new projects…

In almost every case, the scale of the project would change the character of a neighborhood, potentially bringing new life to aging business districts, but almost certainly stirring opposition in some. The strategy is getting its first test in Venice.

This is a clever way to jumpstart such a project – finding land is always difficult and the city already owns these lots – and one that is likely to encounter lots of opposition. How many businesses or residents next to these parking lots will desire these changes?

Yet, opposing the redevelopment leaves the nearby people arguing in favor of parking lots. This is not typically what people want to see: parking lots are visual blights, they may not receive much use, they include lots of traffic noise, lights, and pollution, and they are less preferable to nice buildings that help bring in revenue and improve the quality of the streetscape (and by extension improve property values). If a developer was to go into a typical urban or suburban neighborhood, very few people would be in favor of transforming an existing building or lot into a parking lot (unless that lot or building was a complete eyesore or vacant for years or some extreme case).

And if you can’t build housing for homeless on these lots, perhaps because of opposition from neighbors or because the lots themselves do not work for housing units, where else could you build?

Solving traffic problems by developing resilient roads

A new study suggests cities and regions should think about their whole network of roads as resilient rather than focusing on main arteries:

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Maksim Kitsak, associate research scientist in the Department of Physics and Northeastern’s Network Science Institute, and his colleagues examine the resilience and efficiency in city transportation systems. Efficiency refers to the average time delay a commuter would face annually due to traffic. Resilience is the ability of road networks to absorb adverse events that fall outside normal daily traffic patterns…

“What we show is actually these two measures are not really correlated with each other,” Kitsak said. “One would think that if the city is bad for traffic under normal conditions, it would be equally bad or worse for traffic under additional stress events, like severe weather. But we show that is not quite the case.”

For example, the study found that the Los Angeles transportation network—while inefficient on a daily basis—doesn’t suffer much from adverse events. The road systems are resilient. They function more or less the same regardless of unforeseen incidents…

Why is the City of Angels more resilient than the City by the Bay? Kitsak said there are many factors that influence transportation resiliency, but one of the most important ones is the availability of backup roads. Los Angeles has many, while San Francisco does not. San Francisco also relies heavily on bridges, which separate the city from other parts of the Bay Area where many commuters live.

This is more evidence that simply adding lanes to major highways or even constructing more major roads is not necessarily the way to go to solve traffic and congestion issues. All the roads (plus other transportation options) work together in a system or network.

Speaking of Los Angeles, this reminds me that the region can illustrate both the good and bad of having a more resilient road network. On the good side, concern about potential Carmageddon and Carmageddon 2 were overblown as the closing of a major highway for repairs was not as disruptive as some thought. On the flip side, a few years ago some Los Angeles residents complained about Waze rerouting cars through their quiet neighborhood to avoid backups on the main roads.

Finally, this study could also be related to claims by New Urbanists that the best option for laying out roads and space is on a grid system. Grids allow drivers and other easy ways to get around problem spots. In contrast, subdivisions (common in suburban areas) that include quiet and occasionally winding residential roads that dump onto clogged main arteries do not contain many alternatives should something go wrong on the main roads.

So is the trick in the long run to create a resilient road network within a region that is not totally dependent on cars? Los Angeles might come up looking good in this study but not everyone would agree that sprawl and lots and driving is desirable.