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Christopher Hawthorne on Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles

Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles is the latest initiative spearheaded by Christopher Hawthorne, the Chief Design Officer for the City of Los Angeles. Since leaving his post as architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times in March 2018, Hawthorne has carved out a unique and surprisingly wide ranging role at City Hall. Recently I reached out to him to talk about his two-plus years in government, the latest “ideas” challenge (as he describes Low-Rise), and other issues facing Los Angeles. 

MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
CH: Christopher Hawthorne


It’s been 2½ years since you left journalism for City Hall. What has that experience been like? What have you learned about government that you hadn’t known?


It’s been an education! Every day is really different from the last, even if I’m experiencing most of it through the same Zoom or Google Meet portal. I’m fortunate to work for a mayor, Eric Garcetti, who’s very engaged in and knowledgeable about design, and who has encouraged me to define this new post in a broad way. Some days I’m doing things that at least superficially feel like my old job: writing a brief, making edits on an RFQ, going to see a new work of architecture or reading up on an old one, giving a talk. Other days, it’s much more about building relationships and figuring out when the time is right to push to improve the design elements of a project that several or even dozens of colleagues are working on. In those settings, the written word has little or no currency—something I learned perhaps more slowly than I’d like to admit—which is to say I’ve managed to build up a whole new set of skills. The work of a critic is mostly solitary. Government work requires about a hundred forms of collaboration, all of them different in subtle but crucial ways.


How has the pandemic reshaped your job—aside from doing it at home?


All of us in the Mayor’s Office have been helping out with Covid-relief projects and working to keep other, longer-term initiatives moving forward at the same time. I’ve been hugely impressed by the resourcefulness and energy of my colleagues, whose job descriptions have been changing on a monthly, weekly, and sometimes daily basis. Since March I’ve worked on everything from 3D-printed PPE for health-care workers to art campaigns to encourage mask use to recruiting architecture and landscape architecture firms to do pro bono design work for restaurants expanding into outdoor spaces along streets and sidewalks.


You’ve conducted a lot of ideas competitions in your role as Chief Design Officer. How do these exercises translate into policy? Is that the ultimate intention?


It’s funny—other people have asked me a similar question, but in fact this is the first ideas competition that we’ve organized. (And we’re very intentionally not calling it a “competition,” but instead a “design challenge.”) I worked with the Bureau of Street Lighting to organize a design competition for a new standard city streetlight that wrapped up earlier this year and was won by a talented young L.A. collaborative called Project Room.

I’m really proud of that process and what it yielded, but nearly all of my work is in other areas: helping select public art and design elements for the expanded LAX; a program to allow architects to have designs for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) pre-vetted by our Department of Building and Safety so a homeowner can choose a design from a city website and see it approved it in a streamlined way; various efforts to improve the design of the public right-of-way, including adding shade and working on an RFP for our new street-furniture contract; a Mayor’s Office Civic Memory Working Group (supported by the Getty Foundation) with historians, architects, artists, indigenous leaders, and others looking at ways for our public design work to be more honestly engaged with complicated or buried aspects of our history and developing policies to better protect historic landmarks and mark important or fraught milestones in public space; and public symposia like the one I’ve organized this Friday with USC and the Los Angeles Cleanteach Incubator on the architecture and urbanism of charging stations and the future of gas station sites as we move from gas-powered to electric vehicles. (More on that last event, called Pump to Plug, is here.)

So the work is really varied. The streetlight competition and this design challenge, simply by virtue of how they’re organized, include more public and media outreach than the other projects, so maybe it’s not surprising that sometimes people think that competitions make up a larger proportion of my overall portfolio than they actually do. As for how the competitions translate into policy, the winner of the streetlight competition is now the standard design for the Bureau of Street Lighting, and next year we’ll put it out for bid. So that’s a very direct process.

In terms of this housing design challenge we’ve just launched—it’s called Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles—the connection to policy is more multifaceted but no less important.


Pump to Plug is an initiative designed to curate creative responses to the challenges and opportunities posed by the transition to electrified mobility. Photo by Janna Ireland.


What’s the genesis for this competition?


More than anything, the genesis for Low-Rise is the stalemate in our policy debates about the future of housing policy in low-rise residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles. On the one hand, we know from the perspective of climate change, affordability, and racial justice that our 20th century approach to land use rules is simply not a sustainable model for 21st century L.A. The wildfires this summer made that clearer than ever. We have to continue to find ways to build more housing and to locate it closer to jobs and transit and away from areas vulnerable to wildfire.

On the other hand, even people who generally support the idea of adding infill housing often have concerns about what any policy changes would mean for their own communities. And this concern—this opposition, when it hardens into that—is much more diverse than many architects, journalists, and even many policymakers sometimes acknowledge. Some of it, of course, comes from wealthy homeowners in the hills. But a lot of it also comes from communities of color, who worry—I think reasonably—that changes to zoning and land use may open the floodgates to speculative outside investment and, ultimately, to widespread displacement.

Mayor Garcetti has achieved great success in boosting and streamlining the production of ADUs, on one end of the density spectrum, and, thanks to our Transit Oriented Communities work, adding new affordable units in larger multifamily buildings near train lines on the other. The hole in the donut, if you will, the policy space in between, is housing at the so-called Missing Middle scale. What’s the next step past the ADU in low-rise neighborhoods? How can we make the case for the appeal of the three-to-eight-unit complex on a modestly sized parcel over one to two stories?

There’s a lot to recommend housing at this scale, both urbanistically and in terms of affordability, and we used to build a lot of it in Los Angeles. In fact, many of our finest architects produced work at this scale that was both innovative architecturally and pitched directly to the needs of working-class and middle-class Angelenos. It’s become some of our most beloved and most desirable architecture. It’s ideal for our climate because it gives immediate access to the outdoors and allows residents to dramatically expand their daily living space, given how much of the year we can comfortably spend time outside. And according to recent research, housing at this scale is also by far the cheapest kind to build in L.A. on a per-unit basis. But—and here’s the real answer to your question—there’s a good reason that the donut has a big hole. Making changes to zoning in that middle zone is a thorny challenge, especially from a political point of view. This is a hearts and minds issue as much as anything. We think good design can help break this logjam and point the way toward a less antagonistic debate.

A few people responded to the launch of Low-Rise by saying, essentially, “This isn’t a design issue. Just legalize this kind of housing and get on with it.” And I understand that sense of urgency given the affordability and climate crises. But how? That’s a million times easier said than done. State housing bills that have proposed significant changes in this territory, like SB50 and SB1120, have had a decidedly chilly reaction from many Southern California lawmakers. We need a broad-based conversation for Los Angeles about how low-rise neighborhoods evolve, one that’s organic to our city and its particular politics, demographics, history, architecture, climate and topography. We think this design challenge can help advance that conversation in important ways.

Also, if you’ll indulge me, a note on why we’re not using the word “competition” but calling this a “design challenge.” Typically in a design competition related to housing, architects propose ideas to remake a site or a community from without. This approach can exacerbate concerns that new architecture is a Trojan horse for speculative development and displacement. We decided to turn that formula inside out. We started with a series of public-engagement listening sessions, organized by theme and led by housing experts and activists from a number of organizations and nonprofits, to hear about the concerns and the aspirations of a range of L.A. low-rise communities. Instead of asking them for their opinions on the latest proposed legislation in Sacramento, we began by asking them about how they’d like to see their own neighborhoods evolve over time: what they want to protect, of course, but also what they’d like to see added that they don’t have (or used to have and would like to see come back). So our process begins with communities telling architects what they’d like to see built instead of the other way around. What we heard in that process, in so many words, is that “competition” suggests an initiative very different from the one we’ve worked to develop. We paid careful attention to that advice. These listening sessions are on the Low-Rise website and they are required viewing for entrants in the design challenge.

Horatio_West_Court vik wikipedia

Horatio Court West, built in Santa Monica, California, in 1919, was designed by Irving Gill. The six attached buildings share pedestrian and vehicle access on a tight 60-foot lot. "There’s a lot to recommend housing at this scale, both urbanistically and in terms of affordability, and we used to build a lot of it in Los Angeles," says Hawthorne. Photo via Wikipedia.


Beyond the distribution of good design ideas for affordable housing, what else do you want to accomplish?


The central goal is to use good design to help us advance a broad civic conversation about the future of housing options in low-rise neighborhoods. The winning proposals are not meant to be an end in themselves, platonic examples of high-design residential architecture. A comparison to the Case Study program might be useful here. In certain ways, it’s quite clear that we need to work with architects to do for new multifamily L.A. housing what Eero Saarinen, Pierre Koenig, Charles and Ray Eames and other Case Study architects did for the single-family L.A. house. At the same time, we need to be much more engaged with and forthright about the connections between residential architecture and larger political and socioeconomic forces (in our case displacement, speculative investment, mobility, and affordability) than John Entenza and the other organizers of the Case Study program were. Imagine a Case Study program that was ambitious about architecture but also held up for close scrutiny the effects of redlining or restrictive covenants or federal subsidies for postwar highways leading to residential subdivisions. That’s the kind of combination we’re aiming for. We can’t pretend that architecture and the architectural press haven’t been bound up in, and sometimes carried water for, these larger forces that historically have done real damage to communities, particularly communities of color.

We see using the winning proposals primarily as a means to an end—as the basis for further public engagement and discussion. We’ll ask communities what they like about the winning proposals as well as which elements don’t seem as appealing or appropriate for their neighborhoods. The idea is to keep moving this civic conversation forward in a respectful, productive way.

There’s also a major sustainability element here. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that a well-designed fourplex in a typical L.A. low-rise neighborhood might use less water and electricity than a traditional single-family house, for example, even as it houses more people. We also want to promote the idea that an all-electric kitchen with induction cooktops, if well designed, will become something Angelenos are excited to embrace, instead of uncertain about. (For more on the scope of that uncertainty, see this recent L.A. Times piece by Sammy Roth.)

chris hawthorne headshot

How do you get these ideas in front of developers, state legislators, and congresspeople who might be in a position to act on them?


Part of the support we’ve received from the James Irvine Foundation, the Department of Water and Power, and other partners will help fund a publication—not only to publish the winning designs but also to commission essays and roundtable discussions with community leaders and housing advocates putting those designs in the kind of larger context I’ve been describing. We expect to see the winning proposals published pretty widely. We’ll also organize public sessions to talk about them with the architects and landscape architects who proposed them and also with communities, developers, elected officials and so on. The design challenge in turn is part of a larger research initiative on new paths to homeownership and housing affordability in Los Angeles led by the Mayor’s Office of Budget and Innovation, in collaboration with the Irvine Foundation, Urban Institute, Citi, and other partners.


So much of the lack of affordable housing is baked into the byzantine systems of zoning, code, the often hidden levers of power that controlled what got built and where. How do we address these larger systemic issues?


Nothing in this initiative should be seen as an effort to downplay or sidestep those crucial questions. We hope to get a number of practical and workable ideas from the best entries about how to refine and improve these larger policies—the specific places we could extend the reform of parking requirements, for example. And the timing for that kind of investigation is excellent. The Department of City Planning is in the process of updating our community plans across the city. We have a new basic zoning code in the works with the flexibility to accommodate some of the housing types included in the Low-Rise challenge. And an update of the Housing Element of our General Plan is under way.

We see a symbiotic relationship between this design challenge and these various planning, policy and code efforts. The planning department, for example, has been hearing from the Boyle Heights community about the possibility of preserving or reintroducing small-scale corner stores, or tienditas, in residential areas. We’re asking entrants in Low-Rise to include a corner store in one of our categories, in large part because we heard in the listening sessions that people in many parts of L.A. really like this idea, but also because it tracks so closely with some efforts underway in the community plan updates. Good design will help make the case for the real benefits to neighborhoods that this kind of change can deliver.

But the crucial point is this: No effort to tackle the housing affordability crisis will be effective if it doesn’t address the low-rise neighborhoods in L.A., which after all make up more than three-quarters of the buildable residential land in the city. We have to find productive ways to address the future of that territory. Because of the complexities of doing that, up till now there’s been a vacuum of architectural imagery about the future of these communities. Sometimes that vacuum has been filled with alarmist or knee-jerk illustrations of what change might bring. As New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty tweeted in November, “I’ve always said that NIMBYism is a problem of the imagination in which every proposed outcome is just assumed to be horrible. And, indeed, some buildings/uses are horrible! But a lot are not, and many are very good.”

Low-Rise is designed to fill that vacuum with a series of forward-looking but also thoughtful and community-minded architectural ideas. Architects and landscape architects possess a particular set of skills that we believe will be hugely helpful in clarifying a path forward for our low-rise housing policy and illuminating the ways in which certain changes to that policy will be worth looking forward to instead of feeling anxious about. 

Better options for older residents to age in place, being able to walk to (or let your kids walk to) a corner store, giving your grown children the chance to afford to live in the neighborhood where they grew up, having closer relationships with your neighbors and building community resilience, saving money on your water and electricity bills: these are all specific benefits that modest changes to housing options in low-rise neighborhoods could bring about.


The L.A. dream, for so many decades, was centered on the single-family house. Your brief smartly offers up a variety of housing categories: single-family, multi-unit, etc. Talk about the decision. 


We’re offering entrants the option of proposing designs in four different categories: a ground-up fourplex; a duplex on a lot made possible by presumed smaller minimum lot sizes; a famous house subdivided into four units (entrants can choose from a list that includes Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, the Schindler House on Kings Road, Frank Gehry’s Schnabel House, John Lautner’s Chemosphere and a few others); and, finally a 6-10 unit complex across two connected lots (including the corner store), presuming neighboring homeowners who want to combine their parcels. All of these are to be executed in one to two stories. We’re asking teams to pay close attention also to the quality of outdoor spaces—both in terms of providing shade and cooling but also providing the kinds of well-designed garden spaces, places to gather in the open air, that have become so prized during the pandemic. As we stress in the brief, we’re most interested in proposals that illustrate a newfound flexibility in housing options and make this flexibility attractive and communitarian in spirit, as opposed to entries that simply demonstrate ways to increase the number of units.


Closing question: Both the state and the city have affordable housing “goals,” since the need is enormous. How does the competition play into that?


The latest version of the state housing plan known as the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA, calls us to add, for example, more than 450,000 new housing units by the end of the decade just within the city of Los Angeles—a very big number in less than 10 years. The Mayor supports RHNA’s updated calculus for allocating these units, which rightly moves a lot of new housing production away from the exurban edge and into transit- and jobs-rich areas of Southern California. But it’s difficult to imagine us meeting that target without tackling the question of how new housing can be added in low-rise neighborhoods in an equitable, sustainable and affordable way. Our design challenge is meant to address that very question: to provide some ideas about what that housing might look like, how it might fit comfortably and attractively into existing neighborhoods, and what it might be like to live there.


Registration for Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles closes on December 18. More information at lowrise.la. Featured image for Low-Rise by Charles Young/Paperholm. 


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