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Is There Space For the Single-Family House in the New LA?

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Los Angeles has a complicated relationship with the single-family house. For much of its history, the city has been billed as place to buy a piece of land and put up a house, somewhere you could own your very own slice of America. But today the city's out of space, as has been exceedingly well-documented; LA has developed itself into an overpriced, artificially scarce corner, with 92 percent of its space used up and housing still far too expensive to accommodate the majority of residents. The task now will have to be adapting to a smarter, denser style of living, while at the same time maintaining what's great about Los Angeles. LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne explored this issue last night at the penultimate ThirdLA event, held appropriately at the Schindler House in West Hollywood.

Hawthorne sketched a brief history of the fading love affair between Los Angeles and the house, noting that, while 80 to 85 percent of land is zoned for single-family house construction, nine in 10 newly-constructed residences are in multi-unit developments. Citing this map comparing part of Los Angeles with San Francisco, he concluded that LA (parts of it, anyway) are just as dense as "traditional cities." Whether out of excitement or necessity or resignation, density is already being embraced.

Los Angeles is no longer a new city, but an "iterating city," as developer/panelist Mott Smith put it; a degree of loss is inevitable as the city grows into something new. The panel agreed that it was worth it to save the good stuff—the Dodge House in West Hollywood was mentioned as a particularly painful loss—but that leadership on density, "the third rail of LA politics," is desperately needed. The slow-growth movement (NIMBYs, basically) fights tooth and nail against any perceived encroachment, but Hawthorne advocated for a wiser approach to development battles, for distinguishing between mansionization (replacing neighborhood-appropriate houses with behemoths that use up their entire lot) and the small lot subdivision ordinance (which allows multiple detached houses on a single lot), rather than lumping them together as "a single anxiety-producing force."

"Whether we do anything or not, we're going to grow by a third by 2050," said Maria Cabildo, one of the evening's panelists. "People are going to come whether we plan for them or not." It's how we plan for them that's the issue.

Architects on the panel suggested some of their solutions: Peter Zellner presented a four-bedroom house he designed in the style of a dingbat apartment building—built on a residential lot half the normal size, squeezed between two other lots in a neighborhood zoned for single-family houses only, the house was constructed for $275k in under six months. Barbara Bestor spoke about her under-construction Blackbirds, which takes advantage of the small lot subdivision ordinance to pack 18 units on a site that was previously just five residential lots. The project more than triples the space capacity while maintaining the neighborhood's residential feel.

Panelists all agreed that the city will have to changes its regulations if it wants to densify intelligently. Smith and Hawthorne both questioned the need for hard parking requirements in an age when cities are being repopulated by transit-reliant Millennials; Bestor credited the lack of parking requirements in Downtown's landmark, late-nineties adaptive reuse ordinance for bringing about the past 15 years of explosive growth in that neighborhood.

Overhauling the city's ancient zoning code is a step in the right direction, but Smith believes there need to be changes too in LA's policy, which he characterized as hopelessly out of date, and "designed for suburbia." Building in Los Angeles just doesn't work right; regulations are inconsistent between city departments, and the process is needlessly long and expensive. Bestor summed the situation up succinctly by blowing her imaginary brains out when asked about the permitting for Blackbirds.

Ultimately, LA needs a change in expectations, Hawthorne argued. Only in Los Angles have single-family houses and private automobiles been assumed as conditions for living. Those days are now behind us, lost to the past, just as the Red Cars and Wrigley Field are. Let's enjoy our legacy—the Gamble House, the Lovell Health House, the Chemosphere—without remaining beholden to it. Ian Grant
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