As ownership of property changes hands or as people enter new life phases, the desires that drive what happens on that property changes. This is change at the micro-scale. Collectively, as the residents of a neighborhood change, economic drivers shift, and government leadership turns over, change starts occurring at a coarser scale, and is manifested… Read more »
As ownership of property changes hands or as people enter new life phases, the desires that drive what happens on that property changes. This is change at the micro-scale. Collectively, as the residents of a neighborhood change, economic drivers shift, and government leadership turns over, change starts occurring at a coarser scale, and is manifested in the physical environment of communities at large.
New construction sites popping up throughout our cities evidence our emergence from the economic downturn, and development has picked up at a fast clip in many places. Throughout Los Angeles, this surge of development is changing the fabric of neighborhoods. Developers and homeowners are seizing opportunities to maximize the potential value of their properties. Small, early-20th-century single-family homes are being replaced with contemporary homes that push the limit of the property’s allowable square footage.
While we all know that change is inevitable, we are often shocked by the form and pace at which it occurs. We want the freedom to do what we want with our own property, but are frequently dismayed to see what someone else does with theirs. Urban designers and planners are charged with the difficult task of managing the balance between allowing change while protecting the character of a place.
The City of Los Angeles enacted the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance in 2008, in response to the “McMansionization” of some of its neighborhoods. The approach limits the allowable floor area of houses throughout the whole city, but some say it doesn’t do enough to prevent big box houses that don’t relate to their neighborhood’s scale.
The City of West Hollywood is currently grappling with these issues as well, particularly in its West Hollywood West neighborhood. As application approvals for new home construction jumped from two, in 2009, to ten approved and another ten under review in 2013, the city started hearing from its residents. This neighborhood, originally developed in the 1910s during Los Angeles’ streetcar era, is characterized by its pedestrian-oriented layout with detached rear garages and small lots, often 40-to 50-feet wide by 100-to 120-feet deep. Walking down its streets you will see a mix of one-story homes built in the first half of the twentieth century and two-story homes built during the following decades. Eclectic styles and forms are represented, as houses have been renovated, expanded, or replaced throughout the years. Change in this neighborhood is not new, but the speed at which it is now occurring is.
This new developer-driven construction tends to result in larger, boxier houses with repetitive designs. However, not all new construction is bad; this community values creativity and good design. Some new homes, despite their contemporary style, manage to enhance the eclectic character of the neighborhood. The City of West Hollywood hired SWA to lead the effort in developing zoning code amendments and new design guidelines that will allow for creativity while preventing the out-of-context, boxy, look-alike models that are becoming prevalent.
The community looks to design professionals to provide expertise, but the final outcome must be grounded in what it wants for itself. Through extensive yet compressed outreach (the project timeline is just six months from SWA’s kick-off to presenting to the City Council for adoption), we had the opportunity to hear residents’ concerns and desires and get feedback on our proposed approaches. During this process we have learned to patiently listen to individual viewpoints while maintaining the big-picture goal that we’ve been tasked to achieve. It’s easy to get caught by the “squeakiest wheel”—the loud voices that are most passionate—but we need to remember the present and future needs of the community as a whole.
Residents expressed concern over changes that would impact their ability to build family-friendly floor plans and two-story houses. SWA and its project partner, Page & Turnbull, focused less on additional restrictions to building size and more on the form and appearance of houses. Our primary approaches include code requirements for modulating building faces, increasing flexibility for rear accessory buildings, and removing the requirement for covered parking. These approaches will “break the big box” by articulating building surfaces and lines and reducing the bulk of primary structures without limiting living space. The zoning code amendments work together with new design guidelines and the city’s design review process to result in creative, diverse designs that respond to the neighborhood’s unique physical character. While this project is specific to the West Hollywood West neighborhood, residents of other neighborhoods are already voicing their desires to use it as a template for their communities.