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.