In 1972, Los Angeles City Planning Director Calvin Hamilton released a 75-page report that explained how to implement a population ceiling in Los Angeles. The secret, Hamilton said, was downzoning—in particular, placing strict limits on the small apartment buildings, such as fourplexes, bungalow courts, and dingbats, that had long defined the city’s many low-rise neighborhoods. Take away apartments, and the city’s population growth would slow.
The effort was remarkably successful. If it had been built to the absolute limits of the zoning code in 1970, Los Angeles could have held apartments for 10 million people. By 2010, the city’s zoning envelope had been tightened to limit its hypothetical capacity to 4.3 million people—meaning that if every single residential lot were instantly transformed into its highest-intensity use, L.A. could barely house more people than it already contained.
It is no longer kosher for city officials to talk about population control; on the contrary, as a recent tourism campaign attests, the zeitgeist in Los Angeles is very much that “everyone is welcome.” The region has poured billions of dollars into a subway network to try to decouple population growth from traffic congestion; the state has forced the city to allow accessory dwelling units (also known as garage apartments or granny flats) in neighborhoods once limited to single-family homes.
Still, housing growth in Los Angeles has been anemic. The city builds fewer new homes per capita than almost any American city; that is the chief reason it has become, by some measures, the country’s least affordable place to live.
What’s missing? The low-rise, multifamily housing that the city banned in the 1970s and ’80s. Which is why Christopher Hawthorne, the city’s chief design officer, held a competition, “Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles” to solicit new blueprints for so-called “missing middle” housing. “There’s a narrative in L.A., as in many cities, that neighborhoods are changing too fast; but in reality, L.A. is changing less rapidly than at any point in its history,” Hawthorne told me. A former architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times (and for this magazine), he plans to use these designs to win hearts and minds in the community forums where upzoning goes to die.
The winning entrants, announced on Monday, are a reminder that multifamily housing does not need to look much different than single-family housing. Instead, these models weave apartments right into the neighborhood, with understated architecture and clever use of space. In theory, these modest plans ought to take the “neighborhood character” argument against housing growth off the table.
Then again, the whole dialectic of NIMBY vs. YIMBY, Hawthorne contends, doesn’t accurately describe the situation on the ground. “When we actually talk to communities and neighborhoods, we find most people are in the middle. A lot of recent scholarship has clarified historic issues”—such as single-family zoning’s legacy of racial exclusion—”pandemic and wildfire have clarified others. Most people are ready to say our approach of land use and zoning in low-rise neighborhoods is not a sustainable pattern for the 21st century.” They just need help visualizing what change looks like.
There are four categories in the competition. The “Redistribution” design, by a team from the United Kingdom, explores carving up the landmark Schindler House. The winning “Subdivision” submission, by a group of L.A.-based architects, rethinks the city’s back alleys as the type of narrow, quiet residential streets you might see in Japan or the Netherlands (or Boston or Philadelphia).
My favorites are the designs for the “Fourplex” and “Corners” categories, each of which pushes beyond what’s currently permitted in most of Los Angeles, answering the low-rise challenge with clusters of little buildings on each lot. The Fourplex design, by the L.A.-based Omgivning and Studio-MLA, flips traditional domestic architecture on its head, putting bedrooms on the ground floor and public space on the second floor, ensuring light-filled living spaces on a crowded parcel.
The Corners winner, by Brooklyn-based architect Vonn Weisenberger, proposes adaptable units in a flexible pattern that preserves existing trees. Those buildings enclose a central courtyard for residents in the style of an old bungalow court; they also contain street-facing, ground-floor commercial or community space, which has long been banned from most residential blocks in Los Angeles.
It’s a funny twist on a contest for speculative architecture, a forum usually characterized by bombastic designs that are gunning more for social-media shares than for a building permit. These renderings are muted, almost to a fault. (Bright colors never hurt anyone.)
Then again, consider the brief: Entrants were asked to watch hours of video in which L.A. residents talked about what they wanted and did not want to see in their neighborhoods. If the result is something you might walk by without a second thought, that’s the point. The client is world’s most exacting: the American homeowner next door.
Low-Rise L.A. is Hawthorne’s second city-sponsored design competition. The first, which selected a number of preapproved designs for ADUs, had a more explicit connection to streamlining growth. Most of the Low-Rise winners would require various changes to city law to be allowed in most places, such as relaxed parking requirements, smaller lot sizes, and mixed-use zoning. In short, they’re illegal.
So far, Los Angeles politicians have not shown much interest in the missing-middle program. Maybe these designs can build support for local policy changes. But the more likely venue for housing reform is in Sacramento, which has abolished some of California cities’ rules that limit housing choice (like those banning accessory dwelling units) and is taking aim at others, including parking requirements and apartment bans. When the Los Angeles City Council took a ceremonial vote on State Sen. Scott Wiener’s proposal to permit small multifamily buildings near transit statewide, overriding local zoning, members were unanimously opposed. They would never say they want “population control,” but they support the policies that were created to achieve it.
Hawthorne thinks great design is the spoonful of sugar that helps the infill density medicine go down. He believes that architecture reached through careful community outreach and founded on consensus will be able to break through the single-family zoning paradigm. From this perspective, the constant kvetching over how new buildings look is not pure NIMBYism but a cry for something better. Now, something better is here—and that theory will be put to the test.
Correction, June 24, 2021: This article originally mistakenly credited an image to Green Alley Housing. It is by Louisa Van Leer Architecture.