In Los Angeles, perhaps the only thing that takes longer than building housing is getting a project approved. Attempt to secure a green light for an entire community growth plan, and the wait becomes Godot-like.
That’s why a pair of approvals in City Hall last week were seriously monumental: The Los Angeles City Council voted 13-0 in favor of plans that will guide greatly expanded residential development in Hollywood and Downtown.
The city has 34 community plans intended to shape development that fits the unique characteristics of a neighborhood—which uses are most appropriate (residential, commercial, industrial or a mix). Ideally they should be updated regularly to reflect ongoing changes in a neighborhood, but in practice usually aren’t—the last time a community plan was approved for Hollywood was, gulp, 1988. Hollywood actually had a plan approved in 2013 but after opposition a judge shot it down, forcing everyone back to the drawing board. The new vision just passed for Hollywood plans for the addition of 35,000 housing units.
That’s big, but the Downtown plan, also known as DTLA 2040, is even bigger. A building boom that started at the turn of the millennium has already seen the area grow from around 18,000 residents to more than 75,000 today. DTLA 2040, meanwhile, prepares for the creation of some 100,000 housing units and the addition of 175,000 residents to an area where office vacancies have thrown the area into an identity crisis.
State guidelines require Los Angeles to add 455,000 housing units, including 185,000 affordable residences, by 2029. Downtown’s central location, access to transit and the necessity to build vertically when so much of L.A. sprawls horizontally make it ideal for future high-density residential development.
“Even though it represents just one percent of the city’s total land area, through this plan it will accommodate 20 percent of the city’s total projected household growth,” Brittany Arceneaux, a senior city planner, told the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee on April 24.
DTLA 2040 had to accommodate lengthy community review that added new facets to the plan while the area’s council rep, José Huizar, had his office searched by the FBI as part of an investigation into a play-to-play scheme with real estate developers. (Huizar was eventually charged by federal authorities and has pleaded guilty.) Add to those delays, disruptions from the pandemic and changes initiated by Huizar’s successor, Kevin de León, and the process nearly ground to a halt before clearing the City Planning Commission and PLUM committee before reaching the full panel on May 3.
Steeped in controversy thanks to his participation in a now-infamous leaked conversation about redistricting, de Leon nevertheless sparked what may be DTLA 2040’s most consequential element: an “inclusionary” housing requirement which dictates that every new project in the area contain an affordable housing component. The councilmember accurately called it “north star for the rest of the city.” Expect it to be a model for future community plan updates.
“An inclusionary housing component will allow workers to have access to genuinely affordable housing in downtown L.A. is a BFD, because it’s real and it’s not theoretical,” de Leon told the council.
The Fashion District, Skid Row and Chinatown also stand to benefit from the new plan, which includes provisions for preserving businesses and allowing low-income residents to live near their jobs. So will developers, who will not only have more property on which to build, but streamlined permitting where before rules could vary from block to block across downtown.
Downtown is both the historic heart of Los Angeles and home to its newest landmarks and tallest buildings. It’s also a mix of extreme wealth and abject poverty, and a collection of distinct neighborhoods that have little in common except for being positioned between the freeway ring and the L.A. River—there’s not a lot of overlap between the Arts District, Bunker Hill, South Park or Little Tokyo, to name a few.
Yet DTLA has a big advantage in that NIBYism, scourge of development in more affluent areas of the city, is almost nonexistent. Propose a seven-story housing complex in most L.A. neighborhoods and there will be pitchforks and torches over traffic and lost parking; suggest a 50-story skyscraper in Downtown and the community is more apt to shrug, so long as there’s a decent coffee shop on the ground floor.
There will be future grumbling—when it comes to city planning at this scale, there always is. But at the end of last week’s meeting when DTLA 2040 finally passed, PLUM Committee Chair Marqueece Harris-Dawson seemed hopeful.
“It’s been a lot of work,” he said, “but it’s work I think is worthy of our city.”