On June 19, 2013 the LA City Council approved an overhaul to its zoning code along with funding for the city’s Planning Department to complete the effort with a team of nationally recognized consultants. The city’s zoning code was first adopted in 1946; since that time the original 84-page pamphlet has expanded into an unwieldy 600+ page document. Those of us who work regularly in communities across the city know the code has become increasingly difficult to understand and navigate and is not in synch with the need of the residents or the development community.
The zoning code revision is part of a larger Planning Department initiative to streamline the development approval process. It is a serious commitment having been championed by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and approved by new Mayor Eric Garcetti. The department allocated $900,000 to hire Austin, Texas-based Code Studio, whose recent work includes the zoning code update for Denver.
What’s driving the update, which could cost $5 million over the next five years as the initiative is fully developed, is more than the need to streamline the cumbersome code. The sweeping scope of the overhaul reflects a changing vision of Los Angeles. The sprawling metropolis with its multiple communities is evolving as locals embrace light rail transit, more robust mixed-use development and greater densities in exchange for shorter, even car-free, commutes, more vibrant streetscapes and walkable neighborhoods.
At the heart of the new paradigm is a desire for a level of connectivity that cannot be achieved under the current single-use or Euclidean zoning (that would be Euclid, Ohio referring to the court case that established its constitutionality with Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co. 272 U.S 365 in 1926). Like the codes in many cities, LA’s organizes residential, commercial and industrial uses by separating them around the city. In the real world most projects do not conform to the simple, separated classification and require “exceptions.”
“According to a white paper presented to the City Council in November 2011 in preparation for a comprehensive overhaul of the city’s zoning code, over 60 percent of the city’s geography is covered by special overlays and site-specific designations,” notes James Brasuell in a March 2013 column “Exceptions Rule: the Dirty Little Secret of the LA’s Zoning Code” for the public television station KCET’s website.
Clearly the case-by-case approach to city building that favors the exceptional stands in the way of the larger vision of a more livable city espoused by the civic leaders and desired by community stakeholders. A first step in addressing the current, ad hoc nature of the process is to make the new code more predictable and accessible. The Los Angeles City Planning Department’s new website clearly details those goals.
The other, and perhaps more critical issue, is a potential move to a context-based zoning code that combines Euclidean and form-based codes while considering the new realities of smart growth, mix of uses, open space, neighborhood character and transit. Los Angeles can learn from recent efforts of other major cities such as Miami, Denver and Washington D.C.
In 2010, Miami was the first major U.S. city to adopt a form-based code, a progressive new zoning framework that regulates building types and sizes and their relationship to the street. It borrows from the New Urbanist transect model that manages the relationship of buildings to the street, to open space and to each other to enhance neighborhoods by concentrating development along transportation corridors, neighborhood centers and urban cores. Hailed as groundbreaking, the new code has won accolades from the public and the planning community alike.
D.C.’s Office of Planning is leading a multi-year public effort to revise the District’s zoning regulation, in part to correct past mistakes that failed to address the qualities that made the city’s historic neighborhood so desirable. As David Alpert observes in “D.C. Looks to its Past to Fix its Zoning Code” for The Atlantic Cities, “The goal is to let historic neighborhoods fill in their empty or damaged spaces with compatible development and allow the city to grow in ways that extend rather than ignore treasured elements like walkable commercial streets and local retail.”
Reports from Denver, where Code Studio led the city’s recent rewrite of its zoning code, suggest that the new form-based codes are working well and should encourage future development. Adopted in 2010, the new code replaced an outdated 54-year-old version. Quoted in the Denver Business Journal in a June 2012 article, Molly Urbina, interim manager of Denver’s community Planning and Development Department said, “The umbrella goal was to encourage investment in Denver by way of development and redevelopment. It minimizes risk by making [zones] more clear. It helps overcome doubt and creates clarity and predictability.”
While Los Angeles will no doubt face its own particular and parochial challenges as it embarks on the rezoning initiative, it is clear that the issues facing the city are the same as those that hobble other major U.S. metros as they grow and evolve. Forward-thinking leaders and engaged stakeholders have a rare opportunity to create a more exciting, competitive and connected future for LA. The rezoning initiative is the right place to begin.
Dan Withee, a founding partner of Los Angeles-based Withee Malcolm Architects, is actively involved in the development of award-winning multi-family housing in the Western region.
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