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Southern California Development: Urban Density, Transportation & The Opportunity Zone

03/24/2020 3:47 PM | Cinnamon Thompson (Administrator)

The incorporation of density to the suburban-style sprawl that is Southern California’s cityscape is a topic that has been debated on repeatedly in the last year or so. With bills like SB50, SB4, and a push for transit-oriented developments, all of which seek to incentivize pro-density development at the forefront of the housing crisis, it’s hard to imagine how much longer the battle will continue. Nevertheless, opposition by NIMBYism and neighborhood groups, often seems to prevail. Those in favor of density wonder how much longer this can last. The urban landscapes of Southern California have long since run out of room to build out – when will we collectively decide to build up? 

Real Estate as an Economic Driver

Moderator Edgar Khalatian, of Mayer Brown, LLP introduced the panel and opened the discussion, which kicked off by John Keisler, economic development director at the city of Long Beach pointing out that real estate development is often an economic driving force, not only for private businesses, but also for the state and local governments. John pointed out that real estate development, business development, and workforce development all work in tandem to push the economy forward. Of course, without a surplus of raw land, the development has nowhere to go but up. Keisler noted how the city of Long Beach has extensively reviewed various ways to grow GDP overall, which consists of ways to maximize every space, person and asset. This has a ripple effect of creating opportunities for workers, investors, and entrepreneurs. 

Wells Lawson, senior director at Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), noted that Metro is also taking more of a community-based approach in maximizing space, but to the liking of area residents. In contrast to previous years, Metro has examined the concept of “transit-oriented communities” as a way to mitigate pressures of gentrification and evaluate what kinds of economic opportunities transit brings to a neighborhood in the context of the local workforce. Metro involves the community in new projects, by taking into account any feedback from residents that is gathered during community outreach. This feedback is incorporated into proposals and development guidelines to ensure the project facilitates economic development and stability within the community, rather than becoming detrimental, such as in the case of gentrification. What this boils down to is that communities often are in need of more affordable housing. Khalatian posed the question whether or not involving the community has resulted in less housing, or less affordable housing. Lawson informed that as a result of increased community involvement, Metro has revised it’s housing policy to ensure transit agencies are held to a level of accountability in providing affordable housing.


Preservation in the Face of Progress

In the effort to densify what was once a sea of single-family homes, opposition parties often note the preservation of the “classic California” look as a concern. Ken Bernstein, principal city planner at city of Los Angeles noted that creating places that contribute to density and economic development, while retaining the classic design, is a key factor in the effort to cohesively densify our city in a way that works for everyone. As we shift to higher transit usage, pedestrian-friendly design with active street frontage and 360-degree design takes priority, but not at the expense of how the project relates to longtime neighbors. Another concern of any new development in Southern California, whether it is pro-density or not, is the climate impact and the projected response to the unique climate of Southern California. Bernstein noted that if all of these design and sustainability guidelines can be met, the chances of a pro-density, transit-oriented development receiving community approval are much greater.  

As of now, the city is operating on an outdated 1946 zoning code. Most of these updates are being rolled out through the city, while simultaneously reshaping the quality of the new design. In addition to updating the zoning code, many of the new projects in development, are able to pass through the transit-oriented community design guidelines. Bernstein also added that most new developments are using TOC housing incentives and 42% of new housing is going along new transit routes – which is exactly where the city wants to see new housing built. 


Density Where it Belongs

As the sole developer on the panel, Greg Ames, managing director of Trammell Crow Company Los Angeles brought a “purist” view of development in the context of transit and density. Because Trammell Crow Company does not carry its own portfolios, but rather develops into the portfolios of its investors. Developers like Trammell Crow Company are largely concerned with the long-term feasibility of projects, and how they might stand up to the many “what-if” scenarios that loom over construction. Ames noted that transit-oriented development is especially interesting to Trammell Crow because of the versatility of these projects, but also because of the opportunity to truly shape a district in a way that is beneficial to the community. Ames cited the developments taking place in North Hollywood, in partnership with Metro, as exactly the type of neighborhood where density belongs. 

Ames also mentioned the fact that adding density to a neighborhood also makes the area more of a destination – further cementing the concept of real estate development as an economic driver. Adding density brings homes and jobs, but entertainment uses are also relevant. Shopping, dining and other entertainment can create a destination for residents living in a more traditionally zoned area of single-family homes. In any case, development is necessary to further propel the economic engines of Southern California in this time when the only way we have to go, is up. 

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