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Blessing or Curse?
Los Angeles' consideration of binding citywide design guidelines spurs debate.
The guidelines praise this building's varied architectural treatments and use of glass on the ground floor.
Courtesy Los Angeles Department of City Planning

A new proposal making its way through the Los Angeles City Council would elevate the level of urban design for many development projects requiring approval from the city.

In early February, LA city council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee held the initial public hearing on the Citywide Design Guidelines, a set of design standards for all city discretionary projects—any new construction or renovation that increases floor area and requires an additional level of approval from the city. While many urban advocates have praised such measures, the reach of the new guidelines prompted some in the local architectural community to argue that they might have the unintended consequence of stifling good design rather than encouraging it.

The LA planning commission has used the Citywide Design Guidelines since 2011 in its advisory role on large projects and planning policies. But according to LA city planner Deborah Kahen, the main criticism of the guidelines in that time has been a lack of teeth in enforcement. By adopting the guidelines for use by the city council, said Kahen, the new ordinance would provide a “blanket” over the city, compensating for inadequate design standards in a patchwork of community plans. The rules would also liberate planners and councilmembers to focus on more neighborhood specific considerations.


The guidelines rely on visual directions (i.e., pictorial exhibits of the “recommended” or “not recommended” design choices) to make recommendations for three building types: residential (except single-family homes), commercial, and industrial. The rules stop short of requiring details such as materials, design, or style. Rather, they, “require that everyone pay consideration to certain elements, but not saying how,” said Kahen. As an example, “articulation” is preferred to a “large blank facade” for residential developments.

A common typology that would benefit immediately from these guidelines, according to Kahen, is the city’s seemingly infinite number of strip malls. “A common in landscape in Los Angeles are large parking lots that front the sidewalk. That’s a really painful barrier to pedestrians,” said Kahen. The guidelines would improve walkability by moving parking to the rear of lots and minimizing curb cuts, in addition to providing a landscaped buffer. All three sets of guidelines recommend outdoor public areas such as courtyards and plazas, while stressing the importance of direct paths of travel for pedestrian destinations, especially near transit.


Andrew Zago, principal of LA-based Zago Architecture, acknowledged that the guidelines are well intentioned, but he is more concerned that the guidelines might be too stifling: “The guidelines may well prevent a lot of the worst from happening, but they may also prevent the best from happening,” he said.  Zago cited Lafayette Park by Mies van der Rohe and Villa Schwob by Le Corbusier as famous and successful developments that would not have passed muster according to the proposed guidelines. And, Zago pointed out, “Crappy buildings haven’t killed L.A. so far.”

Acknowledging that the guidelines are well intentioned, Zago suggested that if the city wants to promote higher levels of design, it should develop language to empower local architects to turn the city into an incubator of architectural innovation: “I would imagine that the city should say, ‘Wow, we're leading the world in innovative architecture practices. What can we do with our codes to see some of these things happen on the streets?’”


Planning staff and the PLUM committee have so far been receptive to concerns like these. The committee delayed taking actions on the guidelines until a later hearing. Since the first public hearing, the Los Angeles chapter of the AIA, which worked with the Planning Department’s Urban Design Studio to develop the guidelines, has responded by gathering an ad hoc committee to “provide additional critical input to make certain that the guidelines will not hinder innovation and design diversity,” according to AIA|LA Director of Government and Public Affairs Will Wright. Wright’s goals for the new guidelines include reducing “Tuscan-village fakery” while constructing lasting building stock that “inspires society” and is unique to Los Angeles. That last point is really Zago’s concern as well: “The guidelines put a happy Main Street cookie cutter on what is an interesting city already,” he said. The PLUM committee will consider the in early March. If adopted by the committee and the full council, the guidelines would go into effect 30 days after approval.

James Brasuell