Reading Between the Guidelines

Reading Between the Guidelines

Dave Reichert / Flickr

Recently, LA’s planning department added new design guidelines to its small lot subdivision ordinance, a measure that allows owners to divide larger lots—once reserved for apartments and larger condos—into smaller parcels. The guidelines outline well-intentioned goals to improve the quality of this important type of housing stock, revolving around issues like site organization, building design and materials, urban form, setbacks, parking, landscaping, and access.

Intelligent requirements include adding permeable paving; designing for pedestrian access; locating parking to the rear of dwellings; and demarcating clear entryways. But the problems lie, as is often the case, with the more subjective requirements, like “enhancing the public realm,” creating “high-quality” environments, and making housing “compatible with the existing neighborhood context.”

These are not bad ideas. Of course they’re good goals. The question is who determines the standards of quality, compatibility, and other very subjective guidelines? As of now the rules leave decisions in the hands of a very small group of people in the planning department’s urban design studio. They’re an architecture-fluent group that I’m a supporter of. But while compromise is often the death of architecture, we’ve also learned that absolute power corrupts, particularly in planning.

For example, a design-savvy developer in LA, who had hired a top tier architect to design a small lot development, told me he was recently informed by an employee in the department that his design was subpar. They told him that he preferred architecture that looked like The Grove, the nostalgic retail development in the city’s Miracle Mile area. Hence the issue: why should urban design and architecture decisions be made on the basis of taste?

Design guidelines can be effective tools, but micro-managing them can lead to a limitation of creativity and a bending of design to the tastes of a few. That can become a bigger problem for architecture when those few are planners, or other officials, or neighbors, not architects. The same goes for Los Angeles’s citywide design guidelines, which I support as an important tool for improving the urban realm and preventing mediocrity. But they too must not become a method for bending style in one direction or the other. The most powerful guidelines outline specific baselines for good design, and don’t wade into subjective aesthetic issues. And if they do wade into subjectivity, decisions should be made by several people, not by any one or two players.

One of the things that makes Los Angeles special is its overflowing wealth of design talent and creativity. Sure we need to establish a baseline to make sure they’re complying with the basic standards of livability and urbanity. To not do that could mean a repeat of the many urbanistic mistakes that have marred the landscape here. But to dictate how architects should design, and to leave decisions about those designs in the hands of too few, is a recipe for limitation and mediocrity.