As space runs out and prices surge, the single-family house becomes less and less practical in Los Angeles. Yet residents are loath to abandon this staple of Southern California living.
Into the void steps Blackbirds, a new community in the Echo Park Hills designed by Bestor Architecture and developed by Local Construct. Essentially, the project is a hybrid between a cluster of single-family homes and a courtyard apartment complex. Architect Barbara Bestor calls it “stealth density”: clusters of duplex and triplex townhouses and single-family residences centered on a rectangular, planted street. Some structures are dug deep into the ground to create more space and fit into the hillside landscape.
Bestor’s team overlaid several studies of the neighborhood’s local housing and topology to fit the project into its relatively tight site.
“Once you’re in it, it definitely feels like you’re in a courtyard housing situation, but from the outside it looks like it could be part of the neighborhood context,” said Bestor.
Outside, each home is clad in horizontal black hardy siding or vertical white standing seam metal. The living spaces take advantage of the California climate and feature vaulted ceilings thanks to shed and gabled roofs, skylights, rooftop decks, private patios (and in some cases yards), and cantilevered balconies. The interiors feature open floor plans, and industrial-sized windows with city and mountain views. Spaces flow from one to the next, and verticality makes them seem much larger than they are.
In essence Bestor has created a new type of village, embedded into the topography and dotted with fir trees, grass, and other colorful and inventive landscaping designed by Mia Lehrer + Associates. Interaction with neighbors is inevitable, from the kitchens that face the courtyard to the common parking area to the community garden.
This type of density was made possible by LA’s 2005 Small Lot Ordinance, which encourages infill development on smaller, subdivided city lots. Houses here are bought separately, not as condos. A little-used section of that ordinance also allowed the team to pursue landscaping, land carving, and gardens within the parking area, rather than creating covered garages. By removing cars, the inner courtyard can also be used for large events and community gatherings.
“We were trying to create density but maintain a high level of quality,” said Bestor. Small lot developments in the city have often been mediocre and formulaic, which has led to local resistance. But in response to those trying to do away with the small lots measure, she is hoping to show how the projects can mesh with and improve a neighborhood, and that if small lot developers invest in design they will be able
to turn healthy profits.
Considering the team’s design ambition, managing the restrictions and conflicts posed by both the ordinance and the local zoning required a lot of extra effort, added Local Construct cofounder Casey Lynch.
“It required going back and forth between the various departments to get approvals for things they’re not used to seeing,” he said.
The arrangement of tightly packed housing around common space is not unprecedented, but the contemporary mix of sizes and shapes as well as the interaction with the hilly landscape makes it uniquely Los Angeles. It could become a new model for those Angelenos who are looking for greater density and community, but are not quite ready to give up on the quirky, outdoor, and spacious lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to.