May 18, 2021

Los Angeles (Re)discovers the Missing Middle

One of Vancouver’s Sister Cities is Los Angeles (yup, LA) – a city that builds fewer new homes per capita than almost any other in the States.  She has just done something her sibling should be aware of:

From Slate:

Christopher Hawthorne, the city’s chief design officer, held a competition, “Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles” to solicit new blueprints for so-called “missing middle” housing. …

The winning entrants, announced on Monday, are a reminder that multifamily housing does not need to look much different than single-family housing. Instead, these models weave apartments right into the neighborhood, with understated architecture and clever use of space.

The winning “Subdivision” submission, by a group of L.A.-based architects, rethinks the city’s back alleys as the type of narrow, quiet residential streets you might see in Japan or the Netherlands (or Boston or Philadelphia).

The Fourplex design, by the L.A.-based Omgivning and Studio-MLA, flips traditional domestic architecture on its head, putting bedrooms on the ground floor and public space on the second floor, ensuring light-filled living spaces on a crowded parcel.

The Corners winner, by Brooklyn-based architect Vonn Weisenberger, proposes adaptable units in a flexible pattern that preserves existing trees. Those buildings enclose a central courtyard for residents in the style of an old bungalow court; they also contain street-facing, ground-floor commercial or community space, which has long been banned from most residential blocks in Los Angeles.

Most of the Low-Rise winners would require various changes to city law to be allowed in most places, such as relaxed parking requirements, smaller lot sizes, and mixed-use zoning. In short, they’re illegal. …

In theory, these modest plans ought to take the “neighborhood character” argument against housing growth off the table.

Then again, the whole dialectic of NIMBY vs. YIMBY, Hawthorne contends, doesn’t accurately describe the situation on the ground. “When we actually talk to communities and neighborhoods, we find most people are in the middle. A lot of recent scholarship has clarified historic issues”—such as single-family zoning’s legacy of racial exclusion—”pandemic and wildfire have clarified others. Most people are ready to say our approach of land use and zoning in low-rise neighborhoods is not a sustainable pattern for the 21st century.” They just need help visualizing what change looks like.

Hawthorne thinks great design is the spoonful of sugar that helps the infill density medicine go down. He believes that architecture reached through careful community outreach and founded on consensus will be able to break through the single-family zoning paradigm. From this perspective, the constant kvetching over how new buildings look is not pure NIMBYism but a cry for something better. Now, something better is here—and that theory will be put to the test.

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