Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Residential Planned Developments: Yea and Nay

 Would you place a mixed-use development in this residential neighborhood?

The City of Los Angeles is proposing to change the City's Zoning Code to modify the existing Residential Planned Development (RPD) supplemental use district definition and process. If adopted as being presented by the Planning Department, the singular RPD would evolve to become the more plural Planned Developments or PDs. PDs, as described in the Planning Department's September 2011 Draft Version of the ordinance, will be defined as follows:
  •  A group of buildings and appurtenant structures located and arranged in accordance with requirements established by ordinance per Section 13.04, "PD" Planned Development Districts, of the Los Angeles Municipal Code.
Section 13.04 evolves from existing ordinance language that provides for the design manipulation of residential-only tracts to enabling language that permits a far greater range of mixed-use, i.e. residential and commercial, projects. Notwithstanding that this type of development flexibility might be a good idea in certain circumstances, the flexibility of the proposed zoning regulation needs to be carefully considered, and probably constrained, to both build support for the proposal as well as to ensure that the uniqueness of Los Angeles' existing residential neighborhoods -  particularly single-family neighborhoods are maintained.

    Planned residential developments were originally conceived in the years after World War II when planners were searching for ways to encourage more design creativity and environmental consciousness regarding the design of single-family tract home neighborhoods. The suburbs were in full bloom and there was a sense that the sameness of endlessly repeated identical lots and houses was dulling. At that time only a small cadre of landscape architects, architects, and regional planners were developing urban design ideas that countervailed predominant suburban development patterns.

    Planned Residential Developments were one important response to the uniformity of standard suburban planning, such as seen throughout Southern California. In the Los Angeles basin, a ceaseless grid of major boulevards defined vast neighborhoods, where 1000 square foot houses on 5000 square foot lots repeat to the horizon, the ocean, and the mountains. Planned residential developments, as adopted in the late 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and reaching a height of popularity in the mid- to late- 1970s,  allowed for flexibility with regard to the zoning standards used to design tracts. Instead of the typical minimum lot areas, prescribed building setbacks, and maximum heights associated with typical zoning designations, one could propose alternative standards. To borrow from the language of the Los Angeles Zoning Code that is being eliminated, the intent was to, "...encourage well planned neighborhoods with adequate open space..", something that clearly was not realized in this city utilizing the standard residential tract process.

    The idea for Los Angeles' residential planned developments was to allow for the clustering of housing, provide for townhouses and other types of more compact development forms, and in return for the increased intensity of housing, provide public benefit in the form of increased density of parks. The existing Los Angeles code explicitly requires that no less than 25% of a residential planned development's land area, exclusive of streets, be common open space. This requirement, in combination with the simultaneous provision that a residential planned development, "...not exceed the maximum number of dwelling units permitted by the underlying zone...", suggests that the intent of the existing ordinance is to maintain the overall concept of the land use recorded in the City's General Plan and Community Plans, and to allow for creative designs that realize open space benefits. These in turn allow for retention of land and environmental features, providing for passive and active residentially oriented open space. Perhaps these ideals and standards were too stringent. According to the Los Angeles Planning Department, only three residential planned developments were ever implemented.

    If mid-Twentieth Century planning worked towards the separation of land uses, Twenty-first Century planning embraces mixed uses. The proposed Planned Development ordinance follows this latter day logic and allows applications for planned development zones in a broad range of land use types including C (commercial), M (manufacturing), P (the now antiquated parking), and even R (residential) zones. At first read this new ordinance allows housing in industrial districts, despite concern that jobs rather than housing should be the City's priority, and commercial uses within R1 single-family zones. In practice implementing these types of surely controversial mixes would not be as easy as a cursory read of the ordinance suggests.

    Establishment of a planned development district would require an action of the City Planning Commission and City Council, which in turn would only be after the full range of typical public hearings. More importantly, if a planned development zone included uses that were less restrictive than the underlying zone, for instance commercial in a R1 zone, a General Plan Amendment would be required, typically an even more time consuming and costly process. Still, and despite these legislative obstacles which are prohibitively expensive, one has to wonder why Los Angeles' prime order of single-family neighborhoods surrounded by commercial boulevards and scattered commercial districts need be opened up and challenged.

    At the same time that the proposed PD ordinance prospectively introduces land use flexibility within Los Angeles zones that have been previously thought to be inviolate, the language of the reformulated code also suggests that existing density standards contained within height district restrictions can be stretched. Section 13.04 C 1 (b) states that, "(i)n approving a Concept Plan and Development Standards for a PD District, the City Council may modify zoning regulations relating to height, setback, and area requirements (i.e. density)..." No upper limits or definitions are placed on how much modification or increase in underlying standards is allowed, only general provisions for public benefits including increased open space and ",,,other desirable features that are not regular requirements of the zone (see Section 13.04 1 (b) (3))".

    PD districts, as proposed by the Planning Department do require the submittal and approval of concept plans and renderings, suggesting that design considerations will be highlighted during approval processes and pegged to minimum thresholds of design performance. PDs are also proposed to have minimum sizes, at least 200,000 square feet of non-residential floor area, 200 or more dwelling units and/or guest rooms, or a minimum three acres of land area, suggesting larger land assemblies and/or projects. Additionally, where communities have already established specific plans and special planning districts, PD districts will not be allowed. Unlike many special planning district types, which can only be initiated by Council offices, the Planning Commission, or Area Planning Commissions, this ordinance allows individual property owners to initiate planned developments, as long as they control the land.

    There are many nuances and wrinkles to the proposed PD ordinance, yet the policy direction is clear. Mixed-use districts with perceived public benefits of compact form, reduced vehicle trips, support for emerging transit infrastructure, and increased pedestrian orientation should be encouraged throughout the City of Los Angeles. Greater flexibility in terms of project initiation, and land use and density standards should be allowed as well. Flexibility should be exchanged for higher quality and creative design outcomes ensured through specific design approvals that are attached to land entitlements.

    The PD Ordnance is part of a larger long-term effort by the Los Angeles Planning Department to not only increase the flexibility of the existing zoning code, but to make it simpler, bring it up to date in relationship to best practices, remove conflicts in the language of the code that plague interpretation, and make the Code more developer friendly and "smart" by creating more tools and certainty in the land use entitlement and development process. The PD ordinance does this, at least from the perspective of the Planning Department, by allowing project advocates to initiate projects instead of being dependent upon Council offices, letting project proponents consolidate the numerous variances associated with development approvals into one application, and shifting the emphasis of planned developments from residential-only projects associated with past times to mixed-use projects associated with the present and the future. All of these are worthy goals, but in practice gloss over critical Los Angeles realities, making the ordinance as written problematic.

    Los Angeles, is still fundamentally a vast spread out City of residential communities surrounded by lines and nodes of urbanism. Admittedly it is evolving towards a more urban lifestyle and image of itself. Granted there are destinations and places of great and emerging intensity that belie older visions and ideals. But regardless of the nuances of present Los Angeles or future Los Angeles urbanism, and these are fought over every day, few argue that Los Angeles' urban future will or should be urban in the sense that an east coast city or European city or even emerging Asian city, is urban. Opening the door to intrusion of commercial uses within low density residential neighborhoods - even if accepting that the hurdles of General Plan amendments and required community input make this unlikely - seems to both contradict Los Angeles' overarching image of itself, and needlessly needle advocates for the conservation n of single-family and low density neighborhoods.

    Concern for neighborhood integrity also leads one to question why a planned development ordinance, whether in a residential, commercial, or even industrial area needs to undermine through flexibility allowances underlying land use constraints as established in the General Plan and Community Plans of the City. The original planned residential development ordinances, both in Los Angeles and elsewhere, were about gross design flexibility, not about land use or density flexibility. They were also pegged to a perceived design good, open space. Nothing this specific exists in the proposed ordinance. Each project becomes a deal separately negotiated. This type of transactional land use process is precisely what neighborhoods groups in Los Angeles resist, leading to a climate of rightfully objected to development uncertainty.

    A modern planned development ordinance can provide a needed tool for the zoning menu. As proposed, consolidation of the pluralistic variance process makes perfect sense. The use of a tool which can from a design perspective allow for creative urban design solutions for both residential and commercial projects also is wise. However, as propose the Planned Development Ordinance is too broad, not Los Angeles specific enough, particularly with, regard to its theoretical impact on residential neighborhoods, and written in a way that perpetuates the notion that development is only an economic transaction, not a social and design transaction as well.

    To shape this tool so that it better fits the Los Angeles situation will require tinkering at both its core and its edges. First, the notion that commercial and/or mixed use development should be allowed in lower intensity neighborhoods should be dropped. Limited commercial intrusions should only be considered in perhaps R4 and R5 multifamily neighborhoods, and only with clearly defined concepts of what the design benefit is, i.e. public space, wider sidewalks, community centers, etc. At the same time, serious consideration should be given to limiting the establishment of Planned Development projects to ttransit oriented districts and within reasonable distances, perhaps a quarter of a mile from major transit corridors. This would in one stroke conserve vast tracts of land to residential only projects and probably build more support for passage of a Planned development ordinance. Restricting density to underlying land use intensities would also create more confidence that uncanny development juxtapositions would not be created nor jar neighborhood sensibilities.

    Most important, assuming the design ordinance gets tweaked, more focus should be placed on the underlying historic intent of planned developments to be designed, high-quality developments. If the goal of a planned development is to first and foremost realize quality that can not be achieved under the normal statutes, don't immediately allow for increased density, breaking of height limits, etc., all under the guise of flexibility. This is development, not design flexibility. Accept the limits as they are and let designers, on parcels of all shapes and sizes, come up with creative and supportable ideas that mix up the existing puzzle of zoning towards better designed results. If the goal and objective is design flexibility and creativity respectively, why limit the ordinances to large parcels and large projects? This is inherently unfair and boxes out of existence the incremental type of beauty that is characteristic of many great cities and places, and especially defines the magic of Los Angeles.

    Planned development is a concept that the City of Los Angeles should update and expand to encompass commercial and industrial areas as well as limited residential areas. The zoning code needs tools such as this that encourage design flexibility. However, as written the City's proposed planned development tool emphasizes development flexibility more than design flexibility and needlessly challenges the underlying logic that makes Los Angeles unique. At this moment in time, the ordinance should be taken back to the drawing board and adjusted so it becomes a tool worthy of the specific circumstances of the Los Angeles scene.

    Sunday, April 3, 2011


    At this Forum Fest 2011, I have been asked to speak about John Chase. So many have written wonderfully of his personality, his sartorial predilections, his loves and greatest love, and even his sometimes difficulties, both professional and personal. John clearly was a captivating presence in our lives and we miss him. But rather than dwell again on loss, I want to concentrate on his legacy - his cogent everyday design intelligences that will continue to influence.

    Through his writings and through knowledge of how these writings translated into design practices, we learn specific methods of observation, criticality, and design technique that mark a specific moment in the history of architecture and urban design. But these writings, taken as a whole, are not just timepieces, they are a call to design today and in the future with an exacting sense of social and cultural smartness, awareness, fairness, and openness to the full spectrum of forces that shape the contemporary urban scene in a contemporary American democracy.

    John had many well-known mentors and teachers, David Gebhard, Esther McCoy, Charles Moore, Charles Jencks; a compendium of UC and UCLA influences and ideation of a now bygone era. While his writings are reflective of these individuals, there was one ephemeral presence, the author and educator John Beach, who John comes back to time and time again. In an afterword to “The Stucco Box”, an essay he co-authored with Beach, he talks about Beach’s approach. In Chase's words:

    • If high-art architecture supplies heroes; then John Beach, with his finding of equally cogent and complex products in the world of vernacular architecture, (such as the Drive-through Donut Hole in La Puente), supplied the other personae that any decent novel or movie requires: the fascinating villains and the memorable character actors. These Beachian universes made a compelling argument for considering high-art architecture as merely one part among others of a system of production and consumption of the built environment, rather than the top of a pyramidal value structure.

     The drive through Donut Hole in La Puente, California memorialized by John Beach and John Chase.

    In this fragment that celebrates Beach’s contribution to his education, John describes many of the themes that led him to an equanimous view of architecture in general and the Los Angeles urban landscape in particular; the importance of narrative, the capacity of Los Angeles movies to shape the actual landscape, suspicion of a singular avant-garde canon, fascination for the vernacular as well as the commercial and most important, and the potential for the commercial and the vernacular to be connected in the public mind and thereby realize  a seamless and populist architectural and urban experience that is valued.

    John Chase felt John Beach, more than any other individual, taught him to deliberately embrace parallel architectural story lines of both popular and elitist landscapes and see them as equals, a neat post-modern trick that exposes the full semiotic of the built environment, and that belies the cartoon image of this era, from the seventies through the nineties, and its architectural and urban works.

    John took this Beachian approach as a starting point to observe the city and then related it to a deeper reading of the creation of the architecture and urbanism of Los Angeles (as well as Houston, San Jose, and finally Las Vegas). John Chase, utilizing simultaneous environmental and urban narratives, was able to see not only the narrowness and diminishment that results when an environment or a city is commercialized and consumed, but the possibilities for architects to engage these negative consumptive  forces and turn them into something positive.

    In another of his essays, “You are What You Buy”, he describes this process and the architect's role in ameliorating its negative impacts.

    • The intensely meaningful imagery and the shared public values that consumerist architecture harnesses endows it with conflicting powers. It is capable of producing architecture with genuine civic and public characteristics, but its manipulative exploitation of forms for commercial purposes tends to contradict and undermine this potential. The task for architects and designers of consumerist architecture is not to avoid the task of addressing consumerism, but rather to invest consumerist architecture with both traditional populist and architectural values.”

    In John’s world, the architect, as well as the conscious individual, would always discover a sense of place through not only observation but practices of architecture, sometimes but not always designed by architects. He imagined these observations as critical and the practices that resulted as potentially uplifting. In this world, architects and individuals could always design, create something of value, even if the circumstances at first glance appeared reduced.

    Thus John brought to his work, particularly his work as the urban designer for the City of West Hollywood, a sense of design hope and generosity. He could place himself in the shoes of architects and when they did not know how to respond to public demands encourage them to attend to start with acutely observed local needs and desires, and to do so within their personal design languages. But, he also could steer developers and individual property owners who presented casual efforts the work of the broadest range of architectural masters, pushing them to realize higher orders of aspiration. For John, and for those influenced by John, the world, architecture, and city design was rich with possibility because he could truck in all design traditions all at once; whether Neutra and Schindler, or Woolf and Dolena. The goal was always to realize an urban landscape of heightened intensity and richness, whatever the tradition and whatever the means.

     John Chase reveled in the intelligence of period-style architecture and was one of the first contemporary architects to notice and write about James Dolena, an advocate in the 1930's through the 1950's of the stripped down, almost severely modern Hollywood Regency style. The public loved this architecture which still lies outside the canon of architectural history as typically taught in architecture schools.

    I suspect that John's gravitation towards this particular type of intensity was shaped by his recognition and personal interest in supporting the right of the individuals to construct their own specific place and identity in the world. John worked hard to construct an identity for himself, a gay man in Los Angeles, and he connected this personal struggle to a larger belief that architecture could liberate the soul of the individual as well as society. For John, Los Angeles, with its grab bag of ever emerging diverse populations each seeking to construct a place of purpose, was the perfect American urban canvass to realize in a public manner personal rights – yet another theme that John returned to again and again. In his essay, “Knocking off the Knock-offs”, John describes the modeling and remodeling of single family homes in West Los Angeles as having a human importance that exemplifies the Jeffersonian idea of the pursuit of happiness. He writes in this essay;

    • The constant that has held for each era of miniature remodel has been the replacement of an outmoded or non-descript façade with a design that clearly conveyed that the occupant had made a conscious design choice to live life elegantly, by their own lights. Even if the results may not be to everyone’s tastes, surely the remodelers deserve credit for that all-American attempt to construct an identity by choosing among alternatives, to be self-made individuals by living behind a self-made façade.

    Self-made identity, self-made façades, the construction of a free individual; these were ideas integral to John, both as an architect, an urban designer, and as person. This constant call for self-expression in the context of a polyglot urban environment was both an expression of how John lived his life, and an invitation to those he came in contact with to more closely observe cities, streets, and sidewalks, and thereby uncover the unexpected and discover through architecture and cityscapes the surprise of the urban. Indeed for John, life and architecture, with a small as well as a capital “A”, was a constant urban derive with positivist lessons.

    A common complaint of those who reject what in essence is John Chase's post-modern approach to architectural diversity is that it somehow must eschews selectivity and thereby wallow in relativity. There is for them in this approach no ability to discriminate. For John Chase this could not, in both his ideas and practice, be further from the truth. In “How can I miss you when you won’t go away”, he points out that design discrimination is in the eye of the beholder, even as he describes how in American democracy, quality is derived from an open discussion that has to be based upon respect for all who participate. He writes here:

    • Just because there is no universally accepted worldview doesn’t mean that there are not sets of cosmological beliefs accepted by subsets of the public. Many well-defined sub-groups within America have strongly held worldviews, from fundamentalist religious sects to Hells Angels and members of the Thousand Oaks PTA. And despite the apparent diversity of belief among subgroups within the American public, one seems to find a surprisingly great coherence around matters of architectural form and its symbolism – as proved by the success of consumerist architecture. Works of architecture may begin as private statements of taste, but they inevitably become, to some degree, public artifacts that are part of everyone’s daily life.

    When architecture becomes public, it becomes subject to the public will. At least in the United States this means the crush of public meetings and consequent public design decisions that John Chase spent the last decade and a half of his life managing with great skill and aplomb. In John’s urban design cosmology, quality, excellence, and endurance resulted, most of the time, both the capacity of the individual creator to amaze and stun through individual talents, as well as concise public discourse that either reified these talents, or told the talented to try harder to meet a public interest. From an interest in a self-constructed house and a self-constructed facade, John found himself the design stager of a self-constructed city, West Hollywood.

    John Chase's work clearly is an homage to and extension of the “both/and” philosophy of Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, but his is a projection that eschews the latter’s sense of  irony and elitism in favor of the former’s love for the right of all to have a say in the production of urban heterogeneity, whatever the starting point. John reveled in architectural history but he took on the everyday world as it was. He did not need to distance himself from it through strategies of abstraction or elitism. He encouraged all to contribute, but most of all he encouraged all things urban and architectural to be debated, believing that the ugly and the bad would then surely become the good.

    The everyday in design is best described as an attitudinal acknowledgement of inside to outside, bottom to top, observation of the daily, honoring of routine, respect for diversity, delight in multiplicity, revelation of the polyglot, equation of low with high, sensitivity to cycles and rhythms of weeks, days, nights, and seasons, simultaneity of past, present, and future, recognition of struggle, the knowing of history, making do and mashing up, acceptance of the feminine, the masculine, the ethnic, the queer, color and otherness; the everyday relates always the stuff of the environment to a sense of openness, fairness, and justice.

    The everyday that John practiced in his professional and personal life allows all to state that I - the particular me - is alive, here, present.  Try writing or designing architecture and cities with this as crutch and collar; not an easy task. Yet John was able to do it. For him no formal discipline or fixed set of values to fall back on; just query and critical projection and sorting through the consequences and opportunities of chance, in paranoid moments conspiracy, always looking for glimmers and gleans and finding thereby moments of pure clarity, clarity of human intelligence, clarity in history and memory, clarity in dreams of the future and through all clarity in architecture and urban design.

    Perhaps I just described one aspect of John Chases’ theory of the everyday. But more accurately, perhaps the theory of the everyday which resulted in Everyday Urbanism was in large part a result of the manner by which John, at first unknowingly, but later most deliberately, lived his life and lived his work. His was a consciously constructed life, a consciously constructed façade that resulted in a uniquely American identity. This John Chase endures in my heart and in my practice, and for these lessons - so richly taught with smiles, winks, half-whispered secrets, tours, walks, conferences, studios, breakfasts, lunch, and dinners, and enduring essays - I am most grateful.