On Wednesday, April 29, 2015 the Urban Land Institute hosted a sold-out Case Study and Site Tour to examine one of one the most controversial social experiments in the history of Los Angeles – the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance of 2005. Considering its relatively short history, this ordinance has already made a significant impact on the city.
The Case Study and Site Tour was staged in two parts, starting with a guided tour of three Small Lot Subdivision projects in Culver City: a three-unit development on a single 6,000sf lot at 2624 Cullen Street by Modative architects for developers Daniel Wood & Per Ericson; a seven-unit project on three lots totaling 14,506sf at 3237-3239 Fay Street, also by Modative for Fay Avenue Art District Dwellings, LLC; and a six-unit development straddling two lots totaling 9,675sf at 3260-3264 Fay Street by William Adams Architect for Minaret Development Partners. Attendees then gathered at the Helms Bakery Complex for a panel discussion and Q&A session featuring experts and thought leaders in the field: Jane Blumenfeld, Retired City Planner and author of the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance; Matt Jacobs of BLDG Partners, a Small Lot Subdivision developer; Christian Navar and Derek Leavitt of Modative; and Scott Plante of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. Craig Lawson of Craig Lawson & Co., a land use consultancy, moderated the discussion.
Photo sources: Timothy Braseth
Over the past several decades, it has become clear that Los Angeles’ model of suburban style development within a major metropolis is unsustainable. However, for most of the past century, urban planners and social architects have been groping for solutions to the inevitable housing crisis we now face. Some of the more fanciful proposals have included “The Causeway”, a proposal in the 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan revived in 1968 to build man-made causeways and islands off the coast of Santa Monica on which to build even more houses (as we see in Dubai today); and Haralamb Georgescu’s 1965 “Sky Lots” proposals – grassy single family parcels suspended like Christmas tree ornaments in giant towers along the 405 freeway, forming vertical villages that would also contain schools, offices and retail so residents would not need to drive. Both are drastically different, yet equally creative solutions to the same problem – how to create more space for more housing for an ever-expanding population squeezing into a limited amount of buildable land.
By 2005, another proposal, equally creative (some might argue equally audacious), actually came to fruition, the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance, an amendment to the Los Angeles Municipal Code that allows developers to fully maximize an under-utilized lot’s potential and build as many residential units as that lot’s zoning will allow. By allowing two, three or more large houses where one small house or duplex may have previously stood, the ordinance invariably increases density. Developers typically combine two, three or more parcels to create multi-story high-density micro-communities in residential neighborhoods of otherwise modest homes. Small Lot Subdivisions in Los Angeles range from as few as three units on a single lot to forty-nine spanning multiple parcels. (More than that number requires an additional layer of review in the entitlements process.)
The ordinance was a result of the Housing Crisis Task Force formed in 1999 by the Los Angeles City Council to stem the rapidly rising cost of housing that has made L.A. one of the ten most expensive U.S. cities in which to buy a home, according to a 2014 study by the Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER).
Thanks to ULI’s panel of experts, a number of misperceptions about Small Lot Subdivisions were addressed:
- Small Lot Subdivisions are not condominiums. With no shared walls, foundations or infrastructure, they are freestanding, fee-simple, single-family residences, or “townhomes”, treated as such by mortgage lenders and insurers.
- Small Lot Subdivisions are not PUDs (planned urban developments) PUDs are single family detached homes on commonly owned land which usually require HOA fees.
- According to Modative’s Chris Navar, Small Lot Subdivisions are not intended to be “affordable housing”, but by being more affordable (in today’s market) than a comparable home standing alone on a large lot in the same neighborhood, he prefers the term “attainable” housing.
- Ordinance author Jane Blumenfeld stressed that Small Lot Subdivisions do not green-light variances or grant special privileges to well-connected developers who know how to bend the rules. They simply allow one to take full advantage of the zoning that already exists to build to a lot’s maximum potential.
- Scott Plante of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council made the point that Small Lot Subdivisions are not for everybody, and are not intended to ever become L.A.’s only housing option. They simply add to the menu of options available to homebuyers, a point seconded by Blumenfeld and Leavitt.
An important advantage, according to Modative’s Derek Bluemenfeld, is that Small Lot Subdivisions foster home ownership, filling neighborhoods with owners rather than renters, which provide inherent benefits.
As the panelists pointed out, developers love Small Lot Subdivisions. By tweaking their designs ever so slightly, they can bypass many of the regulations associated with apartment or condominium construction and maximize their return on investment.
Buyers love them too. Young first-time buyers or down-sizing empty-nesters get a newly constructed, architecturally designed home, usually for less than the cost of a traditional single family home in that same neighborhood, without the maintenance and security issues that come with a yard and none of the hassles or expenses of condo associations and HOA dues.
But more often than not, neighbors oppose them. Plante cited many complaints among Silver Lake residents about Small Lot Subdivisions being out of scale and out of character with Silver Lake’s historic neighborhoods. Plante, Leavitt, and BLDG Partners’ Matt Jacobs told of encounters with community stakeholders objecting to further density in their communities. It was acknowledged that people understandably get emotional when they see beloved century-old bungalows demolished for new development. Furthermore, according to Plante, local residents such as those in his neighborhood association tend to distrust city officials and urban planning experts, a trend he found disturbing.
Photos Courtesy of: LA property Solutions and Seattle Met
The Small Lot Subdivision ordinance is one of many experiments intended to increase residential density while striking a balance between the large mixed-users and the low-rise single family neighborhoods that Los Angeles is famous for. The Urban Land Institute will continue to monitor the ordinance’s progress.
This article was written by Timothy Braseth of ArtCraft Homes LLC. ArtCraft Homes is a real estate investment firm developing creative, sustainable and affordable housing for the discriminating buyer.