By Jessica Ritz
“L.A. is having a moment” was an oft-repeated phrase during Making LA’s morning sessions. Long-held attitudes are shifting, with residents’ habits and the built environment following suit. Talking about matters related to density reminded the crowd of the need to pause and allow for nuanced, careful thought as we collectively surge towards change.
Is density good or bad? Do we need more or less of it? What might a denser city look and feel like? The answers, as always, are complicated.
In conversation with de LaB’s Marissa Gluck, musician-cum-architecture-aficionado Moby confessed to not being exactly sure what density means to him, but he knows for sure it’s part of why he left Manhattan, where he was born and returned to as an adult after growing up in the Connecticut suburbs. Other reasons for his cross-country move included dodging the fate of being “the Woody Allen of electronic music” and becoming sober.
“New York was at its best when people didn’t want to live there. Then it fell under the weight of its own popularity,” he said. California has its own daunting challenges, such as water and agricultural mismanagement that he discussed as part of a brief detour onto a “vegan soapbox.”
But there’s much more to love. Southern California winters, easy access to nature, and a creative community were among the selling points that lured him out west. After decades in Manhattan, Moby finds less density conducive to creativity. By way of example, he’s a big fan of The Springs in the Arts District, a new sprawling multipurpose wellness center that houses a health- and eco-conscious restaurant. It takes a considerable amount of space to build a place like that.
After the presentation from Dr. Lucy Jones of Caltech and the US Geological Survey, AKA the “Earthquake Lady,” about urban resilience in the face of seismic dangers, the question might be: Why would anyone want to?
Thankfully, Dr. Jones, a fourth-generation Californian, is also Mayor Garcetti’s Science Advisor for Seismic Safety to help the city plan better instead of coasting along in our current default mode: denial. (One quick bit of takeaway advice, BTW: stock up on more emergency water. Think you have enough? You probably almost definitely don’t.)
“You’ve got to accept risk in California,” she plainly laid out. And given that a dense urban center like L.A. is “a system of systems,” the chances we take are indeed scarier. Look at our water infrastructure, for example: 85% of the city’s supply is imported and crosses the San Andreas fault to get here, and those systems won’t survive without imminent reengineering. We can learn from the past, but we have to envision unknowns in the future; the ’94 Northridge earthquake happened when landlines were the norm and only computer scientists knew what the World Wide Web was. Now we rely on cell phones and Internet connectivity for most aspects of modern life, including how water reaches our taps and toilets, and yet we have little idea of how these systems will fare in a major seismic event.
Recent studies have also exposed the vexing threat of aging concrete buildings, but even accepting a mere 1% failure rate of code-compliant structures—the equivalent of approximately 10,000 structures collapsing—with many more off-limits due to red and yellow tag designations does not make up a pretty picture.
Without water, standing buildings, and other necessities, it’s hard to get people to stay here. So in order to avoid protracted devastating economic impacts—New Orleans still experiences multi-billion annual losses from Katrina, for example—a rating system tooled for resilience is needed ASAP. And we all need to get real about it.
“The earthquake is inevitable, but the disaster is not,” Jones assured the audience. Feel better now?
It’s encouraging to see L.A. government being proactive about seismic safety in a new way. Peel back the lid on a jarful of frustrations that real estate developers share about bureaucracies and the regulatory environment, however, be prepared to stand back. (The same can be often said of the communities impacted by developers’ projects.) Architect Julie Eizenberg of Koning Eizenberg Architecture in Santa Monica moderated the exchange among panelists Rudy Espinoza of the non-profit community-based organization Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN), Yuval Bar-Zimer of Linear City Development, Kevin Wronske of Heydey Partnership, and Casey Lynch of Local Construct. While a densifying Los Angeles is generally considered to be a positive development in the zeitgeist, Bar-Zemer warned that it “can be a little bit dangerous” given the undesirable aesthetic outcomes that often result.
Referring back to the afternoon’s first speaker, Espinoza doesn’t share Moby’s enthusiasm for raw juices and reiki services being proffered in ample square footage downtown. “We need housing!,” he exclaimed, to which Eizenberg countered by asking if the city can move towards a Yes/And dynamic, or are competing interests perennially damned to be Either/Or choices? (Bar-Zemer clarified that the Springs exists in that particular location because of the area’s M3 zoning.)
As gaps in the city fill in, the need to find a sustainable balance between quantity and quality will grow in what would ideally be a Yes/And climate. “It’s going to be a pretty boring city to live in” if density trumps “other values in the built environment,” Bar-Zemer said.
So how to make L.A. more livable for more people? Espinoza advocates for communities to “learn alternative tools of capital.” (The demise of redevelopment agencies has largely decimated public funding for affordable housing, Eizenberg noted.) Bar-Zemer offered the “unconventional” opinion that affordability can’t be effectively legislated. Lynch groused about the requirements that “force bad design” for multifamily housing, a broadly shared sentiment. From the standpoint of being both an architect and a developer, Wronske had earlier stated his belief that “spec homes don’t have to suck,” even if they’re harder to realize.
So what might some of the panelists immediately do if given a magic wand? Wishes included eliminating parking requirements, altering restrictions on numbers of units, strengthening the planning department’s commitment to community planning and adding staff, and changing tall building mandates, such as the recently jettisoned helipad regulation. Given the inspiring examples of L.A.’s evolution seen throughout the day, these aren’t pie-in-the-sky concepts.
“Vibrant cities aren’t perfect cities,” Eizenberg said. So yes, maybe we can have our raw vegan cuisine alongside al pastor tacos in a neighborhood boasting new infill development… and eat it, too.
Making LA is working to transform Los Angeles by bringing together designers, architects, artists, and city leaders who are making a difference in their neighborhoods across four critical areas of focus. Read more recaps from the November 7 conference on the themes of Transportation, Water, and Community.
Jessica Ritz is a writer who contributes to the Los Angeles Times, Sunset, Tablet and KCET. Her blog Taster Tots reviews the best family-friendly restaurants in L.A.