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10.25.2010
LA's New Design Guidelines on the Line
The voluntary rules promise many urban-design fixes, but critics charge they don't go far enough
Blank wall sections would be deemed a no-no under the city's proposed design guidelines.
Courtesy LA City Planning

Urban design excellence and quality architecture haven’t always been front and center in LA’s planning documents. But spurred by an effort to revamp its community plans, the Los Angeles City Planning Department is hoping to change that, proposing broad new residential, commercial, and industrial design guidelines. Still under review, the plans have already encountered resistance. Some wonder if the voluntary regulations will be powerful enough, while others fear they’ll encourage too much development.

If passed, the new guidelines, now in draft form, would emphasize “attractive building design,” and stress pedestrian scale, public space, streetscape activation and improvement, contextual sensitivity, sustainability, and landscaping. They would de-emphasize parking lots, driveways, blank walls, sunken entries, and buildings out of scale or character with their neighborhoods.

“It’s another tool that the community and developers can use when designing projects,” said City Planning Associate Michelle Sorkin. She describes the guidelines as qualitative, as opposed to neighborhood plans, which are tailored to specific locations and filled with exacting regulations.

Will Wright, director of community affairs for AIA/LA, appreciates that the guidelines encourage thinking from a pedestrian point of view. “My problem is if the developer wants to build by code, they don’t have to adhere to this. How can we have them mean anything if they’re voluntary?” he said.

The regulations won’t be binding, noted Sorkin, because “there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for the city.” She points to community plans as the tools for binding regulation.

Yet some community members fear the guidelines will wreak havoc on the built environment. In a letter to the website Citywatch LA, Ken Alpern, a former board member of the Mar Vista Community Council, contends that the guidelines will “destroy single-family home neighborhoods and… overdensify/over-develop our city into oblivion.” Others have claimed that the guidelines are being rushed through without enough public comment.

“The issue of there not being enough time to look at these is a fair criticism,” said John Kaliski, principal at Urban Partners, although the planning department has pushed a vote back to November from October to get more public input. But, he noted, “there’s nothing in there that says that LA should be a denser city.” Sorkin reiterated that the guidelines “do not imply a certain scale.”

The guidelines’ necessity became apparent during the city’s ongoing process to update the more than 20 specific plans for its 35 community plan areas. Many of these plans have overlapping design elements, while others have no design guidelines at all. The guidelines could reduce confusion and fill in the gaps.

Their visual format—filled with pictures, maps, and diagrams as opposed to charts and numbers—is meant to be more accessible than past planning documents. And their content derives from past Planning Director Gail Goldberg’s set of planning guidelines called “Do Real Planning,” launched in 2007. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” said Sorkin. “But this is a much more user-friendly tool.”

Sam Lubell