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LA Is Trying To Plan For A Big Downtown Housing Boom. Can It Meet The Need?

Downtown Los Angeles

Downtown Los Angeles’ reputation and landscape have changed dramatically over the past two decades. In 2001, Downtown was barely beginning to show signs of transforming from a place for workers to commute to and from into a place where those same workers elected to live. The residential population of Downtown LA has grown from just under 28,000 in 2000 to an estimated 80,000 in 2019.

The Department of City Planning’s Downtown LA Community Plan update offers guidelines for what can be built and where in Downtown LA over the next two decades. It is also linked to new zoning rules for the area. The plan projects that Downtown will add 125,000 residents and 55,000 jobs by 2040. That boom in residents would represent 20% of the city’s housing growth happening in a neighborhood that takes up 1% of the city’s land. The plan aims to accommodate what those residents will need, including housing. 

Architects and land use professionals who spoke to Bisnow said that Downtown has, over much of the past couple of decades, been one of the LA neighborhoods least likely to see pushback against new development. Still, some were unsure that the plan’s impacts would necessarily achieve its goals. 

The plan doesn’t guarantee a certain number of units will be built but increases the areas of Downtown where residential uses are permitted. Currently, 33% of Downtown’s total area permits housing of any kind, but under the proposed plan update, that would expand to 60% of Downtown, city planners have said. 

Jaymes Dunsmore, an associate in Gensler’s Cities and Urban Design studio, said that the plan’s expansion of the percentage of Downtown where housing is permitted would be a big help in the effort to increase residential projects in the neighborhood. 

Right now, Dunsmore said, a lot of projects that are under construction in Downtown had to be approved through a complicated project-by-project process that changed the zoning to allow for them to be built. In the Arts District, for example, much of the neighborhood has industrial zoning; under the new plan, live-work housing from affordable to market rate would be allowed in a majority of the neighborhood.

“Streamlining the process for the types of projects that we want to happen, that is going to have a big impact,” Dunsmore said. 

Los Angeles Department of City Planning Public Information Director Nora Frost acknowledged that now, most proposed Downtown housing developments have to rely on zone changes and/or general plan amendments or tap into the city’s Transfer of Floor Area Rights program to build a project that is larger than what is permitted on the property. 

These processes can add years to the timeline for a project, which translates into higher project costs and ultimately makes building housing more expensive and challenging, Frost said in an email. These paths to approvals also haven't helped to create much covenanted affordable housing, Frost said. 

Los Angeles' Arts District is set up for industrial development now, but the proposed plan would allow for significantly more live-work housing.

These routes to approvals also came under public scrutiny following the federal racketeering case against former Council Member Jose Huizar, who is accused of accepting money in exchange for favorable votes and actions on projects seeking these kinds of approvals. Huizar’s district included a significant part of the area that the Downtown plan update would cover. 

The Downtown plan update aims to simplify that process by instead laying out community benefits, including certain amounts of affordable housing units and open green space, that developers can provide in exchange for building a project that is larger than what is allowed on the site. Providing these benefits allows developers to go through a by-right approval process. 

“This means no environmental studies would be required, no public hearings, and no decision-making bodies such as a Planning Commission or City Council,” Frost said. 

Holland & Knight partner Ryan Leaderman said he worried that the community benefits are one of a handful of the elements of the plan that might lead to some choosing not to build housing in Downtown. 

Leaderman, who focuses on land use entitlements and the California Environmental Quality Act and has worked on a number of Downtown projects, said he sees a potential parallel between the Downtown plan update and the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan, a planning document that guides development in an area just north of Downtown and Chinatown along the Los Angeles River. Leaderman said that the plan is too complex and restrictive and that developers haven't been able to meet its requirements while producing a financially viable project. 

One of the main goals of that plan was to promote the creation of affordable housing in the area, but in the five-year period between the plan’s 2013 adoption and 2018, not a single housing unit of any type was built in the area it covered, which now has a residential vacancy rate estimated at less than 1%, according to the city planning department

“If you burden Downtown with a whole bunch of regulations that are not applicable to other parts of the city, I just don't think that you're going to have robust development here because it's going to be too difficult and too expensive,” Leaderman said. 

While Dunsmore said the plan update was an important step forward for the city, he acknowledged that the plan has high standards that developments have to meet. But it also offers a clearer path for those working to build projects in Downtown than the web of discretionary approvals and unknown variables many projects encounter now, he said. 

“Even if the city sets a high bar that you have to provide very high-quality design and provide community amenities, if that's all clear, developers can figure out how to do that and make it work. And they'll either do their project or they won't,” Dunsmore said.

“I think it's better to have a high bar but clear standards than the current system, in which we don't really have those,” Dunsmore said.

Abundant Housing LA Director of Policy and Research Anthony Dedousis said the Downtown Community Plan update’s expansion of space where housing is allowed as well as the plan’s elimination of mandates for on-site parking, a famous contributor to development costs, would spur strong housing growth in Downtown. 

But he underscored that just reforming land use and zoning rules and encouraging housing in Downtown, while important, certainly isn't enough to solve the city’s and the region's broader housing shortage and housing affordability crisis. 

“We need citywide reforms, especially given that our problems around affordability, car dependence, racial segregation and barriers to homeownership for people of all backgrounds are citywide and regional problems,” Dedousis said.

The DTLA 2040 plan update is scheduled to return to the City Planning Commission on Sept. 23. If approved, it would still require consideration by the city council's planning and land use management committee as well as the full council.