Let L.A. Be L.A.: Unrestrained high-density development doesn’t become the City of Angels.
Victor’s Restaurant, a nondescript coffee shop on a Hollywood side street, seems an odd place to meet for a movement challenging many of Los Angeles’s most powerful, well-heeled forces. Yet amid the uniformed service workers, budding actors, and retirees enjoying coffee and French toast, unlikely revolutionaries plot the next major battle over the city’s future. Driving their rebellion is a proposal from the L.A. planning department that would allow greater density in the heart of Hollywood, a scruffy district that includes swaths of classic California bungalows and charming 1930s-era garden apartments. The proposal—which calls for residential towers of 50 stories or more along Hollywood Boulevard, where no building currently tops 20 stories—has been approved unanimously by the city council and will now probably be challenged in court.
That proposal isn’t the only densification plan making its way through city hall. Another is a “wholesale revision” of L.A.’s planning code that would strip single-family districts of their present status and approve the construction of rental units in backyards and of high-density housing close to what are now quiet residential neighborhoods. “We are going to remake what the city looks like,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the New York Times in March. Richard Abrams, a 40-year Hollywood resident and a leader of SaveHollywood.Org, puts it differently: “They want to turn this into something like East Germany. This is all part of an attempt to worsen the quality of life—to leave us without backyards and with monumental traffic.” The rebels gathered at Victor’s note that many of the density scheme’s most tenacious advocates, such as councilman and mayoral aspirant Eric Garcetti, live in leafy residential areas removed from the traffic nightmare that the new development would bring.
Despite public outcry, Los Angeles’s political, labor, and real-estate elites almost unanimously support what Villaraigosa calls “elegant density,” pushing for the transformation of the city’s low-rise, multipolar, and moderate urban form into something more like vertical, transit-oriented New York. Dissenters from this view are often called “antiurban.” But to activists like Susan Swan, who leads the Hollywood Neighborhood Council, it’s really about letting L.A. remain L.A. As she notes, New York and Los Angeles have evolved in radically different ways. New York, particularly its urban core, was built largely before the automobile age. Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs are transit-dependent: 56 percent of commuters take public transportation. By contrast, L.A. remains overwhelmingly car-oriented, with only 11 percent of commuters using public transit, despite the $8 billion invested in rail lines over the past two decades. Los Angeles’s downtown is nowhere near as important as New York’s; just over 2 percent of L.A. metropolitan-area employment is downtown, compared with about 20 percent in greater New York. Instead of revolving around one mega-center, L.A. boasts commercial centers in each of its major neighborhoods, many of which are close to single-family homes and low-rise apartments.