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Solimar Research

A Forest of High Rises Grows in Los Angeles

Josh Stephens on
Apr 6, 2015

Until the mid-2000s, the South Park neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles had exactly one high-rise tower: the looming, vaguely Stalinist Transamerica Building (now the AT&T Center). It most famously supplied the rooftop where Guns 'n Roses shot the video for "Don't Cry." The area—which occupies the southern portion of downtown Los Angeles, between the Financial District and Interstate 10—otherwise consisted of dilapidated retail, low-rent residential buildings and acres of surface parking lots. 

The area was avoided by businesses, developers, and rock stars alike. 

Today, the AT&T Center is but the tallest tree in a rapidly growing forest. No fewer than 20 high-rise and medium-rise projects are under construction or in development in the roughly 40 square-block area. At least that many projects are in earlier stages of development. 

It is, say planners, the next phase in the resurgence of downtown Los Angeles. 

"The last boom was the adaptive reuse boom," said Tanner Blackman, planning deputy to Councilmember Jose Huizar, referring to the renovation of former commercial buildings in downtown's Historic Core that was facilitated by 1999's Adaptive Reuse Ordinance. "The ground-up construction boom on parking lots...it's wonderful to see the spaces in between the communities that have been growing downtown fill in."

South Park's projects represent over 3,000 units of mostly rental housing that is expected to be available by 2017. The tallest will be 45 stories. Though they are being developed by a hodgepodge of developers, the loose vision for the area is that of a miniature Vancouver, or a high-end version of Portland's Pearl District. 

It is the closest thing to a development bonanza that Los Angeles may ever see. 

High-rise developments have faced all manner of opposition elsewhere in the city. In Hollywood, for instance, wary neighborhoods have backed California Environmental Quality Act lawsuits that have stopped developments in their tracks. [https://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3604] There, a dispute over the location of an earthquake fault has impeded development around Capitol Records building. Elsewhere the city, community opposition often leads to development agreements and shrunken projects. Not so for South Park.

What's extraordinary about South Park is that the neighborhood is, in large part, a blank slate. The vast majority of new development is taking place on the sites of parking lots. Developers can build high and wide without demolishing anything and without raising neighbors' ire. Traffic concerns are alleviated by a Blue Line light rail station.

"I can't see any other place in L.A. where you have such a nexus between market opportunity and land availability," said Paul Beesemyer, Southern California Program Director for the California Housing Partnership Corporation, which promotes affordable housing. "It's also important to...remember that it's not just happenstance." Beesemyer noted that the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency established the vision for South Park in collaboration with sports giant AEG, which owns nearby Staples Center. 

Vacant land is one reason why South Park has attracted a veritable United Nations of developers. They, or their parent companies, are based in Canada, China, Phoenix, Houston; they are joined by a half-dozen or so local firms. Out-of-town developers are focusing on South Park in part because it gives offers them the chance to put their names on brand-new marquee properties, in a marquee city. 

"For developers who want to put their signature stamp, South Park is the place to do it because you can develop from the ground-up," said Jessica Lall, executive director of the South Park Business Improvement District. (By contrast, many renovated buildings in downtown's Historic Core are named for companies that no longer exist.)

For all the excitement surrounding South Park, it is still not exactly a Paradise City for developers. 

As enticing as South Park's vacant lots may be, the area also suffers from Los Angeles' notoriously convoluted zoning laws, many of which include building restrictions that were imposed in the slow-growth era of the 1970s and 1980s. Some of the area permits only 3:1 floor-to-area ratios, meaning that many towers can occupy only a fraction of their parcels. Others will engage in the controversial practice of purchasing "air rights" from nearby parcels that are developed at less than 3:1. Even with these tricks, many properties are encumbered by "Q Conditions," which are limitations that the city places on individual parcels. This means, for instance, that some would-be high rises will instead come to life as seven-story wood-frame structures. 

"There are a lot of old rules and old regulations that, in a lot of developers' minds, conflict with the vision for South Park," said Lall. 

Meanwhile, building restrictions tend to keep heights down. City building code allows for wood-frame buildings up to seven stories. Taller buildings must use different, more expensive techniques to conform to earthquake codes. 

"You end up getting a lot of seven-story buildings, unless you're going to go to all the way to 24 stories," said Blackman. "If you're going to go beyond that, you're going to go to the moon."

The upside is that development in downtown Los Angeles is governed by floor-to-area ratio, not by units-per-acre. Developers may cram as many units as they see fit within a building's envelope regardless of how tall it is. Some of those seven-story buildings could have nearly as many units as buildings three times taller. 

Last year Huizar introduced a motion that would have imposed a moratorium on development in South Park so that the city could revamp its codes and promote more intensive development. That ordinance did not pass, but Blackman said that the effort served its purpose by signaling the council office's endorsement of more and taller buildings.

"Almost immediately after that, I think partly because of that message and partly because of economics, that we began to see more tower proposals," said Blackman.  

No matter how high the towers soar, Blackman said South Park's developers must create a street environment that is functional, appealing, and inclusive.

"There's a pull between wanting Los Angele to have the fantastic, world-class skyline that it deserves, but the urban planner in me hearkens back to Jane Jacobs and that human-scale," said Blackman. "It all comes down to the details of urban design."

South Park's blank slate means that few, if any, existing residents will be displaced. South Park developers speak of gentrification openly and enthusiastically. 

"There's a real tight group of investors, developers who want to see the neighborhood gentrify in a way that is going to create a safe, walkable area," said Paul Keller, CEO of Mack Urban, which has projects in South Park. 

South Park wants to be the antithesis to downtown's Bunker Hill, a 1980s redevelopment area that has virtually no street life. The South Park BID has extensive plans for sidewalk improvements, public murals, planting of street trees, a "Green Alleys" program, and activation of other public spaces. 

If development in South Park sounds maddening, many in the city agree. The Department of City Planning's Recode:LA initiative is currently overhauling the city's zoning code in part to promote high-quality development in places like South Park. But it won't be complete until 2017. 

South Park's developers see the market opportunity now – and want to get shovels in the ground before the next economic downturn – so they are dealing with the current system. 

"You're basically going 100 miles per hour down the freeway on a bus and you're trying to fix the tires," said Lall. "The question is how fast can the city go to take advantage of the opportunities that are here today?"

A version of this article was originally published at Next City, with financial support from the Surdna Foundation.

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