Multifamily Design Trends: Los Angeles vs. New York

Robert Gross of Nadel Architects discusses what differentiates the two metropolises when it comes to the design of residential communities and why starchitects are taking on multifamily projects.
Robert Gross, Studio Director of the Multifamily Division, Nadel Architects. Image courtesy of Nadel Architects

New York City and Los Angeles share the same affordability issues and skyrocketing rents. From an architectural point of view, the Big Apple’s features are far more traditional, an effect of high development costs. Los Angeles embraced a more laid-back type of architecture mostly due to the lower density of structures across the entire metro.

Today, the line between the two is getting thinner with every building that comes to life. Multi-Housing News reached out to Robert Gross, studio director of Nadel Architects’ multifamily division, who sheds more light on each market’s architectural similarities and differences. He also talks about Los Angeles aiming high and gradually becoming more vertical.

What makes the development process in New York City different than the one in Los Angeles?

Gross: New York City has traditionally had a much greater tolerance for density than Los Angeles. That is still the case. There is a greater level of NIMBYism in Los Angeles as people attempt to fight density in their neighborhoods. This will fail over time. Without growth of the supply of housing within the city, the same people complaining about density will be complaining about the cost of housing within the neighborhoods they are trying to defend.

Ultimately, these NIMBY residents will price themselves out of their own homes. San Francisco, with its 1978 Residential Rezoning, should have proved that to everyone with this type of bias. Statewide legislation should take care of this in the long run, promoting more density and housing as the current housing crisis requires a political response.

Rendering of The Rise Koreatown. Image courtesy of Nadel Architects

Los Angeles is known as the epicenter of pop culture, while New York City’s landscape is dominated by the presence of finance, marketing and fashion industries. Does this background influence multifamily design or is there a common thread that binds the two?

Gross: Traditionally, yes. Los Angeles and Southern California in general have always had more tolerance for experimentation in architecture. Due to the high costs of development, New York City projects were traditionally staider. Multifamily developments were handled by specialist architecture firms, which pumped out housing. These building types are usually found in the city and can easily be attributed to a specific time period. An example of this is ‘50s and ‘60s white-glazed brick apartment buildings. These are more utilitarian due to the high costs involved in building the structures. The lower density of Los Angeles apartment structures lent themselves to a more residential reference and more of a mid-century modern style was used for many buildings of the same period. 

Today, however, the apartment building is more international than ever before and is attracting international starchitects such as Frank Gehry, Richard Meir, Zaha Hadid and Norman Forster. These famous names might have once shunned multifamily projects but today, it’s common to see their names on residential projects. This is happening in Los Angeles, but it really started in New York and Europe, where the highest-priced units in their markets needed the added panache of these star names to help them market and get the demanded unit prices.

Today, New York firms are working in Los Angeles and Los Angeles firms are doing work in New York City. The world is more international than ever and with architecture mirroring society, so is architecture in our cities.

Do you think Los Angeles will ever reach the New York City building density standard?

Gross: Los Angeles will not be dense like New York City within my lifetime. New York is geographically constrained with an extensive rail mass transit system, whereas Los Angeles is 35 percent larger by land mass and has 4.3 million fewer people. Though Los Angeles is growing its rail mass transportation system quickly, which is a requirement for real urban density, it has a long way to go to get near the reach of the New York system. 

What are the measures Los Angeles is taking to support its growth?

Gross: The development of the light rail mass transit system is what will enable Los Angeles to grow into a dense urban metropolis. Without the people to fuel the density of the built environment, the traffic will choke off the growth of the city. It is mass transit growth and fighting frivolous anti-development lawsuits that will enable the city to keep developing into the metropolis it is destined to be.

What was your idea behind the design of The Rise apartment buildings in Los Angeles?

Gross: The Rise was designed with the intention of defining the street wall while espousing a sense of community. In the Koreatown project, this can be seen through the added exterior façade. In the Korean Market project, we find the same trait at the building’s base, which invites the community to shop and experience the neighborhood’s culture.

Rendering of The Rise Hollywood. Image courtesy of Nadel Architects

In the Hollywood project, the continuation of the old Homewood Avenue through the building grade and a large oculus, which provides daylight to the street level, allows people to pass right through the building. The construction was broken into five separate structures, which are a better fit for the neighborhood’s scale, and bridges pass between the separate elements, unifying them as a whole.

What does the future of multifamily design hold for these two markets?

Gross: Multifamily design will be as diverse as the people it serves. It will certainly feature denser mixed-use hospitality/destination-type developments for those affording them but also more streamlined communities for those with restricted budgets.


READ ALSO: Multifamily Design Trends: Building in Dense Environments


Elaborate on the most favorable trends driving the multifamily industry.

Gross: The most favorable trends driving the multifamily industry are centered around community. This includes the customization of the building’s design to suit its neighborhood. This customization includes amenitizing the building to suit its location and its community as well as curating the retail within it. I believe the sense that each building built is a themed destination more along the lines of a resort is a favorable trend and multifamily development is bringing it beyond just housing.

What are your company’s short- and long-term plans? 

Gross: We are expanding our area of practice into retail commercial interiors. We hope to continue serving the communities we build within in the same manner we have for the past 46 years. We have always attempted to make a difference not only for our clients but for the communities we build within, ultimately creating a destination for those who live, work and play there.