Deborah Snoonian Glenn, a former senior editor of Architectural Record and This Old House, relocated from New York to Los Angeles in 2013. She writes about architecture, design, and other topics.
With their new housing project, Blackbirds, an architect and developer strive for a sensitive way to build up a low-slung city.
When it comes to multifamily housing, Los Angeles offers up plenty of ugly, from ubiquitous mid-century dingbats (boxy stucco buildings with apartments perched over ground-level parking bays) to the widely reviled, city-block-hogging, ersatz villas of developer Geoff Palmer, one of which recently burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances during construction.
But if L.A.-based developer LocalConstruct has its way, the city well known for innovations in single-family homes would build denser housing to be more design-savvy and sensitive to city neighborhoods.
That's the idea behind Blackbirds, an 18-house community perched on a rocky hill in Echo Park, one of Los Angeles' oldest neighborhoods. The two- and three-bedroom homes, all under 1,900 square feet, are a mix of attached and semi-detached units built around a landscaped living street known as a woonerf (h/t to the Dutch planners who coined the term). Basically, the woonerf is a greener, more pedestrian- and bike-friendly space than a plain old parking lot—though most Blackbirds residents will also park there, as car-centric L.A. codes require two spaces per residence.
Set for completion in spring 2015, the project is being carried out under L.A.'s small lot ordinance, which encourages higher density and infill development by allowing multiple houses on a single property. But instead of playing the typical developer's game of shoehorning as many units as possible onto the one-acre parcel of land, "we wanted a site plan and design that meshed with the surrounding neighborhood of single-family homes and minimized traffic and parking impacts," says Casey Lynch, one of LocalConstruct's founders and co-presidents.
With its modest-sized lots and houses, community garden, and resource-saving features like low-flow water fixtures, Blackbirds hits the right notes for eco-conscious urbanites who are ready for a starter home and want to live in an area that offers a less car-dependent lifestyle. (Pricing for the homes has not yet been announced, but the Los Angeles Times reported last year that similar homes were selling in the range of $500,000 to $800,000.) Echo Park itself, just a few miles north of a thriving downtown, has become one of the city's most sought-after neighborhoods and is home to a robust and offbeat restaurant and retail scene of its own. The new residences are waking distance from those amenities and just a staircase away from a stop on the local bus line that connects to L.A.'s vast and largely overlooked public transit network.
Neighborhoods like these, Lynch says, are ripe for right-sized and denser redevelopment. "The demand for walkable, transit-accessible areas is only growing here. We expect that some Blackbirds residents will be one-car families—people don't want to sit in traffic if they can avoid it."
Multifamily projects, even small ones, can be a tough sell in any city. But L.A.'s entrenched culture of NIMBYism and the city's onerous review and permitting process make it even harder to get them approved. (Blackbirds will take four years from start to finish, compared to about 18 months for a typical development of the same size elsewhere, Lynch says.)
Delays drive up development costs, which are then passed on to consumers when houses are rented or sold. And fear of delays leads to less risk-taking by developers, who by and large rely on cookie-cutter designs that don't relate to their surroundings, simply because they've been approved before.
It's a conundrum for a city where rents and housing prices are at record highs. To ease the crisis, Mayor Eric Garcetti set an ambitious goal last fall to build 100,000 new residences by 2021. "But increasing density doesn't just mean we should build huge multi-block complexes or tall towers everywhere," Bestor says. "Los Angeles is a city of diverse and multiple centers—the right long-term solution depends on the local context."
Finding this solution takes more time upfront, Lynch says, but he believes it's time well spent. "People will pay a premium to live in smaller, well-designed spaces in desirable areas," says Lynch. "We don't want to do this work in a formulaic way." So far his firm has built or renovated some 1,800 units of housing in the western U.S., including 15 projects in Los Angeles, with more to come.
"Developers' interests are at odds with the city's in many ways," Lynch says. "I'm not saying we're not in it for profit, because we are. But we're also very idealistic. When it's done right, denser development can lead to better, more sustainable communities."
Correction: This story originally described Barbara Bestor as a longtime resident of Echo Park; she now lives nearby, but not in the Echo Park neighborhood.