In the first installment of a thought exercise on ‘planning LA better,' I suggested that more should be done in City’s general plan to map areas where growth or larger buildings would be encouraged and places where lower-rise structures and/or preservation of the existing built environment would be prioritized. Then community plans could fill in the details. In this follow-up, I want to suggest how a new zoning code could reinforce this kind of hierarchy of citywide and local planning priorities.

Re:code LA

Los Angeles is currently revising its zoning code, which was last comprehensively updated in 1946, through a process called re:code LA. Background on the project and a summary of work through spring 2016 is available in this presentation. A short summary of LA’s existing zoning is here.

I serve on the Zoning Advisory Committee to the re:code process, which is a group of stakeholders that give early feedback on drafts. (We don’t have any formal power, and don’t take positions as a committee).

It’s important to note that re:code LA is not rezoning the city, not changing the zoning maps that show what is allowed on specific pieces of land. Rezoning is considered to be planning, and is primarily done through community plan updates. Re:code LA is meant to provide new zones and zoning tools to be used as LA’s community plans are updated. You can think of it as a tool kit for planning, plus a modernized set of land use rules.

The proposed structure for the new zoning code is a four-part framework under which each piece of land would be defined and regulated for Context, Form, Frontage and Use.

Context is meant to identify the ‘character’ of an area/neighborhood, whether it is downtown, suburban, rural, etc. Re:code hasn’t released a draft set of contexts but I believe that staff are thinking of approximately 6-8 contexts, which could include natural conditions like coastal or hill areas. Context wouldn’t necessarily have any rules linked to it, but would be a package of different form districts/ frontages and uses that make sense in that context. (For example, the downtown context would include form districts that allow taller buildings than form districts in a rural context; but you could in theory have a ‘suburban towers’ form district in a suburban context to allow diversity within contexts).  

I don’t like the terms ‘community character’ or neighborhood character’ when used to describe urban design, because it tends to signal conformity. Character implies that there is an existing type of place and lifestyle and that the goal of planning is to reinforce this existing pattern.  I think character is better used in an ethical sense; and that the character of a community can best be judged in whether it is open to different types of people. Matt Dixon, one of the co-founders of Abundant Housing LA, summed this up nicely:
    “neighborhood character comes from people, not buildings. The buildings     don’t make the community; they just make it possible for the people who make the community to live there. Design matters and can make a difference, but only if you have enough buildings for all the people who want to be a part of the city.”

But I do think that context can be meaningful in planning. There are some places where it may make more sense to have more density and growth because they are better served by transit, or because the topography is more favorable, or because they already have a built-up business district and residential population. Context also incorporates some of the ideas of the planning ‘transect,’ which is the new urbanist notion that planning and zoning should reflect the general rural to urban gradient that exists in many places.

Form is meant to regulate the “allowable development envelopes for buildings”- in other words, the location of structures and parking on a lot and the size and shape of structures. Re:code’s first adopted zones, 16 R-1 variation zones + one overlay zone, were designed to address perceived problems with ‘mansionization.’ They show many of the zoning tools the city plans to use to regulate form. These include minimum lot size, maximum lot coverage, minimum setbacks (front, side and rear as well as angled encroachment planes), maximum height, and maximum floor area ratio).  Re:code’s thinking on zoning for downtown Los Angeles showcase some additional form tools that might be used in a more urban setting: build to lines (basically maximum setbacks) and step backs to encourage podium tower forms.

Frontage regulates how the site and structures on it “address the street.” The new code could control minimum transparency, the minimum height of ground floors, whether and where pedestrian entrances are required, and other building features like porches and overhangs.

Use refers to what types of activities are allowed on the site. Re:code LA is attempting to organize the almost 2000 uses recognized in LA’s zoning code into a smaller number of categories. Each zone would allow some categories of uses automatically, allow some underlimits by special approval, and ban others.

Re:code LA pros and cons

I think that the work done by the re:code LA team is valuable and long overdue. They evaluated existing buildings and neighborhoods in LA and have suggested a zoning system that can be applied to a wide range of contexts. I like that form districts are separate from uses: it allows form and use packages to be mixed in a variety of ways. For example, form could mandate detached structures that look like suburban houses or small apartments, but allow some commercial and retail uses like corner stores to make an area more walkable. I also like that frontages are highlighted as an important component of the code, because the city does have an interest in encouraging a positive interface between private buildings and the public right off way.

I also have a few major concerns with the re:code system in its current shape (recognizing that it is not done yet.) One issue is that it may be hard to be a toolkit for future planning while drawing mainly from existing plans(that is, the city’s mainly out-of-date community plans and specific plans.) The zoning code is supposed to implement plans and needs to address existing zoning. But the code is also a kind of language of what it is possible to plan. While planners can develop new zones with new names to meet new goals (as, for example, they are doing with a "new industry zone" for the proposed Exposition Corridor Draft Neighborhood Plan),  residents will also naturally look to existing zones to guide their thinking of what types of rules they want in different areas- and what type of city is possible.  If the zones in the code are limited, so too may be the public’s sense of possibility.

We see this risk in the new R-1 zones, which were drafted to implement City Council instructions to preserve existing“character” and scale. Let’s assume that the new zones meet this goal. The problem is that as we move forward to update community plans, residents of areas zoned R-1 might naturally assume that these zones- which range from a somewhat bigger barn shaped building envelope to a more constrained/ preserving barn shaped building envelope- represent the full set of options before them. Where is the zone that allows detached homes to become attached row houses? The R-1 zone that allows small commercial and retail enterprises? The hot climate zone focusing on courtyards, thick walls, windscoops etc rather than setbacks and parking? The single unit to small apartment zone that takes mansionization as a market signal to allow four-plexes rather than to limit the size of one unit homes?

Re:code should develop and showcase zones for future planning that go beyond typical existing ‘character’ Since the build environment is constrained by existing zoning, it seems to me that updating zoning carries with it a duty to show that other types of urban design and forms are possible if we change the rules. Gerhard Mayer recently wrote about two successful building types that are rare in LA- attached row houses with rear gardens and perimeter apartment blocks with interior courtyard. If we don’t point out the possibility of buildings like these, including by having zones that allow them, we limit our ability to plan. In addition to a toolkit, re:code discussions have sometime used the metaphor of a zoning code as a palette. If we only offer beige and gray paint, no matter how many shades and nuances of beige/gray exist, we will still end up with a bland city.  

So I hope that re:code LA includes and showcases a better balance of zones suggestive of both preservation and evolution.

I also worry that a system allowing a profusion of too many potential zones will bias planning towards replicating existing patterns. Re:code’s four components allow fine tuning, which can be useful for important goals like encouraging inviting frontages. But this structure with “44 Form Districts, 21 Frontages, and 36 Use Districts with more to come” (not to mention at least a handful of contexts) multiply out to tens or hundreds of thousands of zones. There will be a temptation to use this system primarily to require conformity with existing buildings and existing relationships between buildings. Preservation and "fitting-in" are sometimes valid goals, but in my mind, a code for the future shouldn’t be about how we built or lived in the past. It should facilitate different ways of living,  allow a city with enough homes for all, and encourage experimentation to advance sustainability, walkability and other goals.

I would suggest that a variant of the re:code system to reduce the number of zones in LA rather than multiply them might be a better fit to allow the City to set and meet planning goals. What if the contexts - the main categories of urban form/ activities/ locations- became the zones? Contexts could do most of the work in setting form and use rules. These contexts could be set in the citywide general plan. Community plans would fine-tune the context zones, by for example, choosing from a small set of height limits and/or frontage features.

A code with ten or so zones and some levels or settings within the zones could draw inspiration from zoning systems used in Japan and Germany, which each have around 10-12 zones and encourage more mixed use development and less costly housing. LA’s own pre WW2 zoning codes, which arguably encouraged or at least allowed development of some of the most walkable and best designed parts of the city, also relied on a small number of zones. The 1930 code had 8 zones, the 1921 code had just 5, and the city’s proto-zoning residential and industrial districts passed 1904-1910 had the equivalent of 2 or 3 zones.  

Simplifying the zoning code is a natural fit with other good planning objectives, including eliminating parking requirements; reducing some of the exclusionary aspects of zoning that linger from its association with private subdivision; and allowing more housing of all types at appropriate scales. This proposal also relies mainly on maximum height and lot coverage to regulate form.

The following chart with a first draft of a simple zoning code with seven base zones linked to LA’s contexts is an effort to explore how zoning could help implement a citywide plan and allow some choice though community plans. This simpler zoning code option is just a starting point, and not an official LAplus proposal. It may be missing important pieces. It may still be too wedded to traditional zoning. It may be possible and desirable to ‘shrink’ it even more.

* (would require repealing section 104 e of the city charter, which sets a 13 FAR limit.)