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A Less Atomized, More Communitarian Los Angeles? Low-Rise Winners Point the Way

In a nutshell, it’s a vision of how we wish we could have been living during quarantine.

We didn’t launch Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles, a design challenge whose winning entries are being announced today, specifically to address the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s an initiative I began thinking about pursuing not long after I joined Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office as Chief Design Officer for the City of Los Angeles three years ago, after more than a decade as the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times. 

The goal, instead, was to confront what is surely the fundamental stalemate in Los Angeles politics and civic life: How to envision the future of our single-family and low-rise neighborhoods. 

This territory makes up more than 80% of the residential land in L.A. We won’t reach our housing targets or climate goals—to say nothing of fully reckoning with histories of redlining and other racist zoning or lending practices—if we don’t think about opening it up to new types of residential architecture. And yet it has remained essentially off-limits to the vast majority of the housing that we’ve built in recent decades.

Some of the opposition to adding more housing in low-rise neighborhoods comes from wealthy homeowners in the hills. But it also comes from residents—homeowners and renters alike—in communities of color, who have good reason to be skeptical about what ill-considered zoning updates might unleash on their blocks, including speculative outside investment and the displacement of longtime residents. In Los Angeles, where the Black population has declined by 26% over the last three decades, an exodus driven in large part by high housing costs, this is no small matter.

The result of this logjam is that there has been little incentive to pursue wide-reaching new housing policies in Los Angeles that address this low-rise territory. When it comes to affordable housing specifically, we’ve had to rely, as is the case in so many American cities, on a complex collection of funding sources and a limited supply of potential sites that together can drive the average unit cost through the roof. Meanwhile recent research has demonstrated that one- and two-story residential architecture—precisely the kind Low-Rise focuses on—is by far the least expensive to build in Southern California on a per-unit basis.

One potential and productive way forward, we concluded, would be to ask architects and landscape architects to produce visions of how thoughtful, targeted updates to our planning approach in low-rise neighborhoods could, despite the prevailing rhetoric, bring a raft of appealing new options along with them.

Once we’d settled on those fundamental goals, we made a point of pausing to rethink how design competitions typically operate. Especially when they’re focused on housing, they can produce a troubling dynamic, whereby architects from outside a neighborhood tell its residents what their future should look like. We decided to reverse that equation. We began the Low-Rise effort by organizing a series of community-engagement listening sessions, organized by theme, so that residents could tell the architects how they wanted to see their neighborhoods evolve, instead of the other way around.

The sessions were required viewing for Low-Rise entrants and helped shape a detailed call for entries, with $60,000 set aside for first-, second-, and third-place winners in each of four categories. Separate juries for each category included not just well-known architects like Jeanne Gang, Deborah Berke, and Tatiana Bilbao, but affordable-housing developers, planning commissioners, urban designers, experts in landscape architecture and sustainability, and members of community land trusts and other neighborhood organizations. The winners were drawn from a total of 380 entries, far more than we expected.

So what do the winning designs have to say? That the kind of housing options and amenities that so many of us have dreamed of having during lockdown are also the kind that can help us imagine a more affordable and community-oriented future.

 

So what do the winning designs have to say? To a large degree, they say that the kind of housing options and amenities that so many of us have dreamed of having during lockdown are also the kind that can help us imagine a more affordable and community-oriented future for our low-rise neighborhoods.

These include well-designed and shaded gardens and courtyards accessible directly from apartments, to take advantage of the Southern California climate; pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods with corner stores woven throughout instead of exiled to the edges, to support local merchants and reduce car use; and designs that make it easier for multigenerational families to live together while avoiding the kind of overcrowding that proved so deadly in Los Angeles during the pandemic.

In the Corners category, which assumes that neighboring property owners can combine their lots to build 6–10 apartments, the young Brooklyn architect Vonn Weisenberger took first place with a design inspired by the ranch-style houses of Cliff May but updated for a less atomized and more communitarian future. Under an oversized green roof featuring cutouts to accommodate existing trees, seven apartments open onto a generous shaded courtyard. A community space open to residents and neighborhood groups alike faces the sidewalk along the front of the complex.

Weisenberger’s proposal calls for modular “utility cores” between units that hold HVAC, plumbing, and other mechanical components, allowing kitchens and bathrooms to be mass-produced off-site. He even included his own outdoor furniture designs.

Second-place honors in Corners went to the Austin, Texas–based team Studio TAAP, for a design that proposes teaming up with a local Community Land Trust so that site improvements will be owned collectively by residents, ultimately producing 7–10 units available to families earning 80%–120% of L.A.’s median income. Its design includes a community daycare and puts four oversized kitchens, each shared by two or three units, at the heart of a strategy to support multigenerational living. 

As the entry explains, “A young family may start out by purchasing a ground floor, single-bedroom unit with adjacencies to semi-private courtyards and the shared kitchen. As their family and wealth grow, they may choose to purchase the adjoining two-bedroom to accommodate aging grandparents, a configuration that might be ideal for an extended family wanting two distinct private spaces.”

In the Fourplex category, Omgivning and Studio-MLA won first place with a proposal, “Hidden Gardens,” that carefully balances shared and private outdoor spaces and includes a community open-space easement at the front of the property. The entry features private, covered patios overlooking communal gardens at ground level.

 

The first-place Fourplex design, by an L.A.-based team including architecture office Omgivning and landscape architecture firm Studio-MLA, proposes giving back some land to the neighborhood in the form of a community easement along the front of the property. Over time, as more fourplexes are woven into neighborhoods, the proposal imagines these easements linking up to form a new greenway, planted with shade trees instead of lawns.

The design features a reverse plan, putting bedrooms on the ground floor so that kitchen, dining, and living-room spaces on the second floor can open directly onto private covered patios. The combination of those private outdoor spaces with the community easement and a shared central garden at ground level suggests the ways that architects can help us rethink the thresholds between private, semi-private, shared, and fully public space—a crucial question as we learn to live a bit closer together in Los Angeles.

The second-place winner in the Fourplex category, by L.A. firm Bestor Architecture, keeps single-story houses intact while adding a series of compact four-unit structures at the rear of properties, offering a practical way to jump from one to five units on a low-rise lots without removing existing houses or displacing their residents.

 

The second-place winner in this category, by L.A. firm Bestor Architecture in collaboration with ARUP and SALT Landscape Architects, strikes a compelling balance between maintaining neighborhood scale and adding significant numbers of new housing units. Its design keeps single-story houses in the Frogtown neighborhood intact while adding a series of compact four-unit structures, arranged in a pinwheel plan, at the back of properties, offering a practical way to move from one to five units on a lot without removing existing houses or displacing their residents. The new fourplexes would be built “with the same inexpensive wood construction as the neighborhood’s existing 100-year-old Craftsman and Mission Revival–style bungalows.”

None of the winning entries is as firmly grounded in community input as “Green Alley Housing,” created by architect Louisa Van Leer and urban planner Antonio Castillo. It calls for new duplexes lining a network of revitalized alleys in the northeast Los Angeles neighborhoods of Garvanza and Highland Park.

 

No winning design is more grounded in community input than the first-place entry in the Subdivision category, which imagines that homeowners have the option of splitting off a small parcel from their property to build a duplex, taking advantage of smaller minimum lot sizes than are now permitted. The Green Alley Housing team, led by architect Louisa Van Leer and urban planner Antonio Castillo, built on the listening sessions by organizing its own community engagement, workshopping its proposal in a pair of Northeast L.A. neighborhoods, Garvanza and Highland Park, where the team members live.

That outreach shaped an entry that calls for rows of new duplexes lining a revitalized network of green alleys. Los Angeles has more than 900 linear miles of alleys, giving a proposal like this one the potential for broad impact.

A subtly ambitious first-place winner came from a design collective in Banstead, about 15 miles south of London, called Arts and Creatives Designs Ltd. Its proposal prevailed in the (Re)Distribution category, which asked participants to redesign—just for the purposes of this initiative, to be clear—a famous L.A. house as a fourplex.

The team chose to focus on the Schindler House, by R.M. Schindler, reimagining it as a kind of neo-agrarian compound with room for more than a dozen residents, including a flexible space that could be offered to a person experiencing homelessness. It’s an approach inspired by the “small farm movement” that gained traction in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the 1920s, when the Schindler House was designed and built.

Of the 12 winning designs to earn cash prizes, six came from teams based in Los Angeles, with another from Orange County. Two came from New York City, two from the U.K., and one from Austin, Texas. Another 23 proposals won Honorable Mention citations, including entries from Lever Architecture of Portland, Oregon; the L.A. firms Bureau Spectacular, OffTop Design, and RADAR, Inc.; and teams based in Chicago, New York, India, Australia, Germany, and the U.K. This fact sheet includes the full list of winners.

What comes next? Quite intentionally, we’re making the winning entries public at a crucial moment in the development of L.A. housing policy. We are now updating the Housing Element of our General Plan and our three-dozen Community Plans. By way of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment process, we have committed to add 450,000 residential units in the city of Los Angeles alone between now and 2029. The best and most practicable ideas emerging from Low-Rise, and from community sessions during the remainder of 2021 that will seek input on how the winning entries do and don’t make sense for different neighborhoods, will be folded directly into that policy work. 

Our overarching hope from the start of the Low-Rise initiative was that thoughtful, community-minded architectural proposals might provide an effective basis for a more productive conversation about the future of housing policy in Los Angeles, giving residents specific ideas to react to instead of worrying in the abstract about what changes in zoning or land-use policy might mean for them.

I think there’s reason for optimism on that score. As a group, the winning entries suggest that opening up low-rise L.A. neighborhoods to more housing options, rather than being something to fear, could improve those communities in tangible and achievable ways, creating paths to affordability and strengthening the social safety net at the same time. If you’ve followed the housing wars in Los Angeles in recent years, you’ll know just how novel, and perhaps radical, a sentiment that really is.

Featured image: Vonn Weisenberger’s first-place entry in the Corners category updates the ranch-style houses of Cliff May for a more communitarian, and partly prefabricated, future. All images courtesy of the designers and architects noted. 

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