Jia Apartments

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.

BE THE FIRST TO READ THE LATEST DOWNTOWN NEWS, FOOD AND CULTURE STORIES. CLICK HERE AND SIGN UP FOR OUR DAILY HEADLINES NEWSLETTER.

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