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LA Design Contest Aims To Put More Low-Rise Multifamily Into LA Neighborhoods

Los Angeles’ housing affordability crisis is a problem decades in the making, but a city-run architecture contest sought a fresh, targeted approach to solutions: low-rise multifamily development.

A city-sponsored contest, called Low-Rise, was aimed at creating new, community-generated ideas for low-rise multifamily housing on a scale that would be both welcomed by existing residents and desired by future residents of the new units. Contest winners were announced by the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Chief Design Officer for the city of Los Angeles, Christopher Hawthorne, on May 17.

The winner in the fourplex category, from architecture firm Omgivning and Studio-MLA, proposed a concept based on classic LA bungalow courts.

As low-rise-zoned districts make up more than 75% of the residentially zoned land in the city of LA, “attempts to boost housing production and affordability and open new opportunities for homeownership that don’t address this territory will by definition be highly limited in their scope and effectiveness, particularly when it comes to reckoning with legacies of racism” that continue to impact homeownership, including through redlining, the contest website notes. 

Low-Rise’s approach deviated from the usual development process by starting with feedback from community listening sessions and incorporating the concerns and desires voiced in those sessions into their designs.

For Omgivning Managing Director Joel Chappo, the contest was all about the need and desire for “sensitive densification” throughout the city. 

“I think generally, people hear the word density and they think Manhattan, like, ‘Oh, it's going to be all high-rises.’ But really, it's just adding a story here or there,” Chappo said.

Downtown LA-based Omgivning, working with Studio-MLA, placed in two categories — the fourplex and the subdivision. Their fourplex design focused on providing private outdoor space for tenants and outdoor areas for communal interactions. The subdivision submission envisioned single-family residential lots chopped up into smaller ones that might put homeownership in reach for families or residents of a variety of income levels while still maintaining the scale and character of the surrounding neighborhood.

Both designs also reflect “the idea of sustainable communities — not as an environmental aspect, but as a socioeconomic one, and the question of how to keep the fabric of LA neighborhoods and communities intact, but still be able to develop and densify them,” Omgivning Senior Job Captain Albert Escobar said. 

A design from Vonn Weisenberger that takes the California ranch-style house and makes it multifamily.

Other winning designs include a three-unit design from New York-based Vonn Weisenberger that riffs on the classic California ranch-style home and provides communal outdoor spaces, and a design from Bestor Architecture, SALT and ARUP that proposes a cluster of four “conjoined vertical bungalows” in the backyards of single-family homes. 

It may be a while before these designs pop up in LA neighborhoods, assuming they ever do, Low-Rise’s organizers acknowledge. Many of them contain elements that are not currently buildable, such as not having enough parking as the current code would mandate, USC Lusk School of Real Estate Associate Professor of Real Estate (Teaching) John Loper said. But that was part of the point of the contest, he said, to push for changes to zoning and land use that would allow these types of projects to be constructed affordably.  

Even if it were possible to build them now, Loper said he thought it would be difficult for a developer to rent or sell the units with little parking, despite their amenities.

“That, to me, was a fatal flaw of these designs,” Loper said.