default avatar
Welcome to the site! Login or Signup below.
Not you?||
Logout|My Dashboard

Downtown Shouldn’t Squander Opportunity to Build Tall and Increase Density - Los Angeles Downtown News - For Everything Downtown L.A.!: Opinion

default avatar
Welcome to the site! Login or Signup below.
Not you?||
Logout|My Dashboard

Editorials Downtown Shouldn’t Squander Opportunity to Build Tall and Increase Density

Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 5:00 am

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - A couple decades from now, the period of 2012-2015 will be seen as a formative time in the evolution of Downtown Los Angeles. With the chilling effect of the nationwide recession largely worn off in the Central City, the community is in the midst of something between a mini-building boom and an actual building boom.

As Los Angeles Downtown News reported last month, the vast majority of the several thousand housing units currently under construction are in buildings that are seven stories or less. This is important because Downtown is one of the few communities in Los Angeles that is zoned to hold numerous new high-rises. However, this potentially once-in-a-generation opportunity to go tall is being mostly squandered.


This situation warrants the attention and involvement of city leaders, including key department heads and the offices of 14th District Councilman José Huizar and Mayor Eric Garcetti. There is an opportunity to facilitate and perhaps even incentivize high-rise construction. 

The number of mid-rise projects in the pipeline is not a bad thing. Chinatown will benefit immensely from the activity generated by the Jia Apartments, a 280-unit development scheduled to open this year. Similarly, Carmel Partners’ 700-unit complex at Eighth Street and Grand Avenue (complete with a Whole Foods) will create street life and serve as a lure for large retailers when it arrives in 2015. These and other developments ensure that Downtown will remain vibrant for years to come.

However, the big issue is that many of these projects are rising on surface parking lots, and once the parking lots disappear, so does the opportunity to go tall. The developers’ reasons for sticking with mid-rise buildings is understandable: Projects shorter than 75 feet can use wood-frame construction, while buildings that exceed that height are required to employ steel, which although sturdier is far more expensive. Additionally, it is more difficult and time-consuming to secure approvals for a high-rise project than a lower-slung building. With many of the new developments coming from out-of-L.A. real estate companies that have national portfolios and an above-all focus on the bottom line, the easiest and least expensive route is also the natural one. 

This is troubling because Downtown is the center of the region, with the area’s best public transportation system, and is the rare neighborhood where the mere mention of skyscrapers does not engender fierce opposition from local residents. In many ways it’s the opposite of Hollywood, where the proposed Millennium towers, recently approved by the City Council, ignited major controversy (questions over an earthquake fault below the project continue). Hollywood inhabitants waged a battle against the project, worried that the community could not support the increased density.

Downtown, by contrast, can and should support more density. Yet if the mid-rises dominate, the chance to go tall with dynamically designed buildings close to Metro stops will be lost.

The question becomes, what can be done? The trend of national real estate firms investing in Downtown is likely to continue, and they will certainly opt for the low-rise route if it remains significantly cheaper and easier than building tall.

One possibility is legislation creating so-called “minimum density zones,” where developers would be required to create projects at least 75 feet tall. Considering that using steel does not pencil out until buildings hit approximately 20 stories, this would likely propel developers to go at least that high.

However, creating laws dictating what developers can do with their land is more than a little problematic. There would certainly be numerous lawsuits that would delay development of any kind, which is not productive for anyone. Legislation could prove more troubling and costly to the city than it is worth.

The other option, as developer Tom Gilmore mentioned in the story, is to facilitate high-rise development in Downtown. There is a history here of just such activity: The 1999 Adaptive Reuse Ordinance made it easier and cheaper to turn dead office buildings into housing. That opened the door to the residential revolution.

Any effort to alter the city permitting process can be fraught with complications. However, there is a rare opportunity at play: Los Angeles’ antiquated zoning code is being modernized, and one of the first steps in the process involves looking specifically at construction in Downtown. The city should find appropriate incentives to encourage high-rises, among them trying to make the permitting process easier. This should occur before any serious talk of minimum density zones. 

Another thing worth noting is that some individuals are already building tall. Although in the minority, a few local developers see profit potential in residential towers, and they predict that as the national economy continues to recover, the trend will swing their way.

Perhaps it will, but local officials need to do more than stand on the sidelines and watch. The current period is critical for Downtown, and decisions made now will reverberate for decades to come. Don’t miss the density opportunity.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013

Rules of Conduct

  • 1 Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
  • 2 Don't Threaten or Abuse. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated. AND PLEASE TURN OFF CAPS LOCK.
  • 3 Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
  • 4 Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
  • 5 Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
  • 6 Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Welcome to the discussion.


  • Mike posted at 4:47 pm on Sun, Sep 22, 2013.

    mak2675 Posts: 1

    If we are going to build downtown, we need to build it right - and that is with high rise. Los Angeles already has plenty of lowrise and even midrise construction throughout the city available for tenants. There is no rush to move them to downtown so we shouldn't risk our one chance of building the sort of high density, high rise construction like you would expect for a city the population of LA. The traffic problems in Los Angeles are so severe, that only that would have any possible effect on making a noticeable improvement with gridlock, public transportation usage, and so on. And with the density traffic already so spread out in the city, only this plan would amass enough people downtown to give it the city a stronger concentration in the downtown core. Remember, Los Angeles is not Seattle, Philadelphia, or Miami. It is the second more populated city in the country. And we were dealt the best hand with this land, the best climate big city in the country. So we have and have had the capital that we needed to push ourselves to becoming the undisputable leading American financial city, but bad and RUSHED urban planning with the idea of "let's move the tenants in" planning is what caused us not to realize our potential - just like what we're hearing today about downtown construction and settling for a quick 10 year plan fix with mid and low rises. We still are having basic infrastructure and transportation problems even midsized cities have resolved. Keep in mind the population movement in the country is still westward. With the right urban planning the area in the viscinity of downtown Los Angeles can create the city climate that will allow it to develop into a San Francisco financial district within the next 50 years. Just look around and see what we have and you'll realize there is no reason to aim for a lower trajectory.

  • LetsGoLA posted at 11:07 am on Fri, Aug 9, 2013.

    LetsGoLA Posts: 1

    Simon Ha and David Carson are both spot on, and there are other reasons why we shouldn't worry about mid-rise construction downtown:

  • David Carson posted at 10:33 am on Fri, Aug 9, 2013.

    dmalcolmcarson Posts: 3

    I"m not sure that I see the point in pushing for high-rises when there are still acres of surface parking littering the downtown area. The sooner we can get those surface parking lots filled in, the better, and the market can absorb I assume three or four 5-7 story building for every one 20-30 story building. Once the surface lots are filled in, there will still be plenty of shitty one-story retail buildings all around downtown that can be torn down and replaced with high-rises.

  • LAdeveloper posted at 7:45 am on Thu, Aug 8, 2013.

    LAdeveloper Posts: 2

    I agree with everything Simon said in his much more eloquent response. At the end of the day, market conditions push developers into the type of product they are developing. We'd all love to build 40-story architectural masterpieces.

  • Simon Ha posted at 12:38 am on Thu, Aug 8, 2013.

    Simon Ha Posts: 14

    I observe three misconceptions in this article; Type I is high quality and Type III is not, high-rise is better than mid-rise, and that we are going to run out of prime land.

    It may be true that podium buildings with wood construction may not be durable as concrete & steel buildings. I live in a seven-story concrete building and it has its advantages such but for the most part, a Type III building can be designed and constructed as well as a Type I building. We associate podium buildings with low cost exterior materials such as stucco and cheap vinyl windows but not necessarily true. Stucco is about $7/sf vs composite panels like Trespa, Alucobond, or Swiss Pearl at $35-40/sf. Stucco is a regionally abundant, durable material that can be detailed to look nice. The interior of either concrete or wood building can look and feel the same but the quality of the building skin skews the perception of quality. The more expensive clothes can give you a finer sense of appearance. But housing is like people in a way. ‘It’s what’s on the inside that counts’, especially to the people who live in it.

    In the last decade before the crash, that housing cycle brought thousands of units in downtown. There were a handful of ground up high-rises – Luma, Elleven, Evo, Ritz Carlton, and 717 Olympic (the only rental high-rise) which opened before the crash with Concerto and Watermark opening as rentals (built as condos) on the rebound. During the condo boom, it made economic sense at $600+/sf sales price. The current cycle demand is in rentals. In order to make a profit on high-rise apartments, the consumers will have to pay around $4/sf or $3000 for a 750sf one bedroom apartment. The reason there aren’t high-rise towers going up everywhere is because most of us cannot afford to pay the price.
    Housing is a product similar to a car. We all want to drive a luxury car but not everyone can afford it. Why would we demand the developer to build something consumers cannot afford and why would we impose a regulation to build something the market demand cannot support?

    I will make the disclaimer that regulations, exactions, fees, length of entitlements, and higher land cost all contribute to the higher cost passed on to the consumers. I was touring a beautiful 1700 sf two bedroom on the 30th floor with a great view in a nice neighborhood in Midtown Atlanta priced at $2500/month ($1.50/sf) and thought why does it cost almost 2.5x more to have the same product in LA? And how much of that is due to the higher land cost and due to the higher price to develop in LA?

    In the end, the bottom line is what matters for both developers and consumers. Developers have to produce a product that the consumers can afford with a margin of profit for themselves and to the investors financing the projects. For now, a 6-7 story podium product is what is economically feasible to fill the market demands. These developments at 150-250 du/ac (considered very high density) fulfills the housing needs and fills in the surface lots. There are plenty of one-two story dilapidated buildings to be demolished to make way for many high-rise mixed use or office buildings to come in the development cycles to come.

    There are many great cities in the world with predominantly mid-rise buildings and I believe mid-rise scale developments do create a great urban fabric and a nice backdrop for high-rises to be featured.

  • LAdeveloper posted at 4:05 pm on Wed, Aug 7, 2013.

    LAdeveloper Posts: 2

    There is something called a supply bubble (we just saw one in 2008 in single family housing and commercial in many areas). Developing 20-story buildings increases the supply 3x as fast. People don't want to move to or work in an urban environment littered with empty parking lots, so most of them need to be built on to attract a critical mass. When the time is right, older buildings (or the cheaper ones we're building now) will be torn down and high rises will be built. You can't develop a utopia in 10 years. It will take many cycles to get Downtown where everyone wants it to be, but one thing that would help is streamlining the development process. When the vocal minority (and those who use CEQA to slow down good projects) are put on the sidelines and developers can move through the process without so many road blocks, they will be able to spend more money on building larger projects with better design.

    Just to clarify, this statement is generally wrong: "it is more difficult and time-consuming to secure approvals for a high-rise project than a lower-slung building." Zoning actually allows larger/taller projects in most areas of Downtown LA and the small projects take just as long to get approvals for. The problem is they both take twice as long as they should, so it's safer to do a smaller project than a larger one because you feel better about the supply your introducing into the market. If I could build 500 units and start construction tomorrow, I'd do it because I know the market can support it. What I don't know is whether it will support 500 units in 4 years (when I finally have entitlements and get it built), so I end up designing my projects for 250 units which has a better chance of being absorbed in 4 years than does 500 units. Yes what we are doing today is a reaction to bad practices before (yes, bad - building big is not always better), but it is also a reaction to a terribly slow development process within the City, ineffective & corrupt state law (CEQA), and special interest groups using those laws to their advantage in a way which they weren't meant to be used.

  • Urban Cave posted at 8:18 pm on Tue, Aug 6, 2013.

    urbanCave Posts: 19

    Couldn't agree with you more, Gary!