Wednesday, September 11, 2013

LA City Council Looks to Facilitate High-Rise Development in Downtown

High rises along Figueroa Street

Recently, many Downtown Los Angeles stakeholders have lamented the low-rise building boom which has swept through the neighborhood.  Parcels entitled for high-rise developments are instead giving birth to squat, wood framed apartment buildings.  While these mixed-use projects bring more residents to the neighborhood and eliminate pedestrian dead zones, do they truly meet the standard of "highest and best use?"  This is a neighborhood with ample transit connectivity and little opposition to high-rise development.  At this critical juncture in Downtown's rebirth, many worry that the neighborhood is not on trajectory to reach its full potential.

Luckily, LA's elected officials have not been deaf to these concerns.  Yesterday, 14th District Councilman Jose Huizar introduced a motion that may help solve the problem.  Councilman Huizar's motion proposes that the Department of City Planning look to incentivize high-rise construction in Downtown through a variety of measures, including:
...streamlined entitlement processing; mixed zones; floor area bonuses; expedited site plan review or waiver of site plan review for projects adhering to the adopted Downtown Design Guidelines; context-based reduction and/or elimination of parking regulations; by-right off-site parking; reductions on density limitations for hotels; programmatic environmental review; increased flexibility to meet open space requirements; greater opportunity for by-right development; and to expediently address issues of zoning and land use requirements that negatively affect the siting and development of hotels including conditional use permit requirements and limitations on the use of adaptive reuse provisions for hotels
These are the kinds of changes that developers and urban enthusiasts alike have been clamoring for.  Expedited site plan reviews and streamlined entitlement processing?  Eliminating parking requirements?  Somebody pinch me.

But wait, there's more!  Councilman Huizar's motion also includes an 18 month interim control ordinance that regulates the construction of wood framed Type III, IV and V buildings.  The temporary nature of this ordinance buys time for a more permanent fix when city finishes updating its zoning codes.  Anyway, here are the details:

1.  Zone 1: Prohibit Type III, IV or V construction on parcels fronting either side of Figueroa Street or Flower Street between Venice Blvd. and 7th Street, and on parcels fronting either side of any street between Georgia Street and Flower Street between Olympic and 7th Street near the Los Angeles Convention Center, the Pico Station and the 7th & Metro Station in Downtown Los Angeles;
2.  Zone 2: Prohibit Type III, IV, or V construction on any parcels fronting either side of any street from the eastern boundary of Zone 1 to the west side of Olive Street between Venice Blvd. and 7th Street, and within 1,000 feet of the portals of the Pershing Square transit station in Downtown Los Angeles when such developments consist of 60 percent or more (based on floor area) Type III, IV, or V construction.
3.  These restrictions shall exclude each of the following: parcels zoned 3:1 FAR when such developments would utilize less than 95 percent of allowable floor area prior to any floor area incentives or Transfer of Floor Area (TFAR); any adaptive reuse projects; any public works/public facilities projects; any remodeling, and/or any expansion of existing buildings when such expansions occur on the same parcel and constitute an expansion of less than 20% of the existing building size.
Here are the boundaries of Zone 1 and Zone 2, as described above:

Zone 1 is outlined in red.  Zone 2 is outlined in blue.

Councilman Huizar's language makes it clear that Zone 1 is meant to foster high-rise hotel developments around the LA Convention Center and Staples Center.  The city has actively sought 4,000 new hotel rooms surrounding the sports and entertainment district, in a bid to make the Convention Center more competitive.  Establishing project minimums for this area ensures that the remaining surface parking lots are not eaten up by low-rise apartment buildings.  The development incentives proposed by Huizar will hopefully lead to hotels filling those surface parking lots.

The under construction Avant Apartments at 1340 Figueroa are the exact type of project that Zone 1 would prevent.  While the Avant is far from the most heinous low-rise development in Downtown, it manages to take up a large swath of Figueroa directly across from the Convention Center.  That is valuable real estate that could have become desperately needed hotel space.

While Zone 1 prohibits low-rise construction, Zone 2 seeks to better manage it.  By limiting the amount of wood framed construction to no more than 60% of a development's FAR, it helps us to avoid fortress-like buildings such as Carmel Partners' 8th and Grand.

8th and Grand

Assuming Councilman Huizar's motion passes with the full City Council, I wonder what direction Downtown takes from here.  Part of the reason that we are seeing so many wood frame buildings springing up in Downtown is because that is what is most financially viable at this point in time.  Will developers be willing in incur the higher costs of building with concrete and steel, or will they begin looking to other parts of the city?  Are the development incentives proposed by the Councilman enough to convince developers to start thinking bigger?

For that matter, what happens to low-rise proposals within Zones 1 and 2 that are already in the development process?  Are their owners forced to start from scratch, or are their projects grandfathered in?


  1. I hope Councilman Huizar's motion is successful. Facilitating high rise would be great for downtown.

  2. fyi 8th & Grand is Type I construction. As currently written, it would allow low-mid rise as long as it's Type I or Type II. Downtown Design Guide has provisions to prevent fortress like buildings.

    1. Ah, I was not aware of this. Thank you for the info, Simon.