Don’t Zone Out! Los Angeles “Re:Codes” its Postwar Zoning

Lakewood circa 1953. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Archive.
Lakewood circa 1953. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Archive.

The City of Angels is going through a makeover. 

First off, the Mayor’s office launched a Great Streets Initiative and an “Operation Neighborhood Blitz” on the city’s potholes, some of which date back 70 years. About as old as some of those holes in the road is the City’s creaky Zoning Code. This code, which has regulated land use patterns dating from a period that embraced the car and the separation of uses, is now being updated for the first time since 1946.

LA’s zoning code delineates where agricultural, one-family and suburban zones are permitted in the city of Los Angeles. It also determines everything from where adult entertainment venues are allowed, providing useful distinctions between venues like an “Adult Cabaret” vs. an “Adult Arcade,” to the rules surrounding drilling oil in urbanized areas. 

“As you know, how Angelenos move about the city, eat, work, recreate, live, and generally use space is changing” says Deborah Kahen, a supervisor in the unit charged with code amendments. Yet, she says,” the City’s current Zoning Code is antiquated, rigid, and confusing–hindering the full realization of a 21st century Los Angeles. Re:code LA is a 5-year project that will overhaul the City’s Zoning Code for the first time since 1946.”

The new code, to be developed with input from Angelenos in a series of public workshops starting this Saturday March 15 across the city, will address parking, transit station areas, open space, outdoor dining, signage, the size of infill homes, location of new uses (urban farming, beekeeping etc.) and many other aspects of the cityscape.

Courtesy of Saul Gonzalez
Courtesy of Saul Gonzalez

But what does this really mean? Find out in this Q and A with Deborah Kahen. 

DnA: Tell me about this plan to update our zoning code and why we need it now.

Deborah Kahen: re:code L.A. is the first comprehensive update of our zoning code since 1946- a postwar era when L.A. was suburbanizing.

Since then we’ve been using tools like overlays and supplemental uses to keep pace with modern land use, when often the solution would be a better toolbox of zones. As a result, the code has become a web of extraneous regulation. So when somebody has a parcel that they want to develop, it’s not always clear what they can do or even where to look to find out. This confuses everyone, including neighbors, architects, and developers. To reemphasize, we are relying on a system whose foundation was built in 1946. The code calls out uses like addressograph making and chinchilla raising. These are not on the forefront of our minds today when we look for housing in a neighborhood we can comfortably walk to a commercial area from, or a place to start a small business that will attract qualified employees. A stronger zoning code makes a stronger Los Angeles.

This project is overdue. It’s time to collapse the multiple layers of regulations into zones wherever possible, as well as better organize and visually present them. In addition, we can create new zones to meet popular land use patterns, such as different scales and types of mixed use, to be used in the future. These zones can be applied on the ground when policies such as community plans are updated through the public process.

Downtown will be one of those areas that we can rezone in a few years.

We recently released our draft Zoning Code Evaluation report. In that we identify the main issues with the current code that we have heard so far. We are inviting everyone to read it on our website recode.la and provide feedback. We are also hosting forums across the city through April 12. Find your local one here.

DnA: So just how much does the Code shape the city?

DK: The code lays regulation for development, such as where and at what density housing is built and how to use land around transit. The regulations also have design, parking, and height considerations, to name a few. The code supports policies developed in conjunction with stakeholders. Community Plans are the most well-known policy document.

A simple example: by policy a walkable neighborhood commercial area is desirable on a certain street. To fulfill that vision, the zoning may include regulation requiring that parking goes behind the building.

re:code LA is going to be creating zoning tools that can better implement our future policies.

DnA: So is this overhaul to speed up development applications? 

DK: The overhaul is to create more predictable zoning and process so neighbors and developers know what can be built down the street from them.

silicon beach
Venice Beach, oftentimes dubbed ‘Silicon Beach’ after an influx of tech workers to the region. Photo by Tom Karlo via Flickr

DnA: Can you explain why this matters to us?

DK: This relates to all of us.

Where is our industry going? Are code requirements making it difficult to attract emerging industries? How do we retain and grow what we have?

Another example is micro-units and skinny houses. Where do we want micro-units? Currently we have square footage requirements for unit sizes. Do we need to change those in some places?

DnA: Does the zoning code impact energy and water use? 

DK: Absolutely. We are in a drought. What are we doing with landscaping, how much water we are pouring on our yards? How can we enhance the L.A. River revitalization? How can we reduce cooling loads on buildings?

distint neighborhood collage
L.A. is made up of multiple communities, and the new zoning code intends to codify that.

DnA: You said you are starting with downtown. What are you planning there? 

DK: We’ve heard a lot about downtown not yet being a complete neighborhood. We think it needs more services. There is also discussion about enhancing the adaptive reuse ordinance.

DnA: What do you tell people who worry that this Recode might impose unwanted changes on them or feel that we already have way too much regulation?

DK: What Recode will not do, is come down on a single family and say, okay we are bringing in industry and you’ve got to go.

We are not pulling the rug under people’s development rights, but we want to collapse the overlays into one readable guide and expand the realm of building type possibilities in the City.

DnA: What is the process?

DK: We are six months in, and primarily engaging in the community. As mentioned before, in tandem with our consultant team we released the draft Zoning Draft Evaluation on our website which documents major criticisms in our current zoning code. We are seeking feedback until May 2. The report is available online at recode.la.

DnA: Have you looked at any cities for how they’ve shaped their codes?

DK: We’ve looked outside of Southern California, particularly at Denver and Raleigh; this is partly about presentation; they use images and present the material in a way that’s comprehensible.

Also, there is some imaginative thought there. For example, alleys. If you are putting a second unit on your home what if all the units should face the alleys? Is there a possibility to create a new street front style there?

DnA: How far along is this process? and what are the main goals?

DK: We are about a half year into a 5 year project. Recode L.A. has three deliverables, primarily a citywide zoning code, but before that we’ll target a code specifically for downtown. The third deliverable is a web-based interactive code, something like Turbo Tax. It’s envisioned to respond to user input with a customized response. That’s where you’d go if perhaps you have a piece of property and it can inform you what you can build on it. Or you might have a project in mind like building a multifamily housing project, and you can figure out what you need to know build it. This city is very big, but we are exploring the possibility of linking it to a map of the city that will show people where specific uses are permitted.

The public is invited to participate in workshops unfolding all over the city starting tomorrow in the San Fernando Valley. Click here for more information.