Why you should forget what you think you know about housing in Los Angeles
In 1991, Frances Anderton was a young journalist newly arrived in Los Angeles when she parked herself in a one-bedroom unit in a building designed by Frank Gehry. The 1960s stucco apartment house in Santa Monica featured a red drop roof and wide wooden balconies, a cross between a bungalow hotel and a Japanese minka. Early in his career, Mr. Geary lived there with his family. At one time or another, so did his sister, psychoanalyst, and artist Judy Chicago.
Ms. Anderton, who grew up in England, became a longtime producer and host of radio shows about design and architecture for KCRW in Los Angeles. But it transcends the itchy habits of many Americans, who view a first apartment as a gateway to a single-family home.
While she was dating Robin Bennett Stein, a musician and writer whom she eventually married, she made room for him in her apartment. After the couple had a daughter, they traded a two-bedroom apartment in the same building (the unit previously owned by Mr. Gehry’s analyst).
And there they stay. “During the years I lived alone, I felt safe, among neighbors; “Later, our only child grew up in a building where she never felt alone,” Ms. Anderton wrote in her latest book, a paean to community life called “Common Ground: Multifamily Housing in Los Angeles.”
In her book “Common Ground,” Ms. Anderton, 60, points out that although Los Angeles may seem like a sprawling breeding ground for American dream homes set in parks, it has an equally compelling history of shared real estate that continues. until today.
Permanent sunlight allowed the city’s multifamily housing to be opened onto courtyards and gardens and equipped with exterior stairs and balconies, breaking up the rigid blocks of traditional residential homes and strengthening social ties. Although most of the shapes and arrangements of these buildings were transplanted from other regions—like Angelenos themselves—they bear the marks of the creative claws of the architects who came to Southern California to test their imaginations: health-seeking humanists like Irving Gill, and radical modernists like Rudolf Schindler. And rebels who manipulate form, like Mr. Geary.
As contemporary architects and developers work to alleviate Los Angeles’ housing scarcity—nearly 42,000 people in the city are currently without housing—“Common Ground” shows examples of affordable multifamily buildings that look like anything else.
Real estate development is no walk in the park, but given some relief from the city’s strict restrictions for affordable housing builders, this area has attracted design innovators who are working with progressive developers committed to correcting decades of inequity resulting from exclusionary housing policies. For this reason, many of the projects Common Ground highlights make more out of less: those with oddly shaped plots, peripheral locations, and components produced in factories.
One example: MLK1101, a 26-unit mixed-use complex for formerly homeless veterans and low-income families, which provides sunlight, green space, and a balance of public and private space without sacrificing feelings of safety. One critic pointed out that the energy-efficient building, designed by Lorcan O’Herlihy with the nonprofit development agency Clifford Beers Housing (now known as Holos Communities), and completed in 2019, has a green roof that reaches the ground at its entrance — a gesture. This may be common in cultural buildings but is rarely seen in affordable housing.
“Our mission is to produce solutions, not just things,” Mr O’Herlihy said. This does not diminish the importance of curb appeal. By designing attractive buildings that honor the block, it helps stave off resistance from neighbors.
Mr. O’Herlihy works to make green spaces accessible wherever he can find them. In the case of Formosa 1140, an 11-unit market-rate apartment complex built in 2009 in West Hollywood, the economics of the project did not allow for a central courtyard, so its developer partners negotiated with the city to lease a portion of the parcel. A pocket park that can be enjoyed by both residents and the public.
Currently, his office is completing Isla Intersections, an affordable housing complex located on a wedge-shaped median between two avenues in South Los Angeles. From this unpromising site emerged stacks of factory-made steel modules, interspersed with small green spaces. Each of the 57 units is one-bedroom, and an adjacent street is being transformed into a paseo – a landscaped pedestrian thoroughfare that helps clean the air.
To squeeze not just housing, but an entirely new type of building from the margins, is an achievement that Common Ground highlights in its discussion of One Santa Fe. Described by Ms Anderton as “a skyscraper laid on its side”, the three-building complex, which opened in 2011, has 438 apartments, 20 per cent of which are affordable, with shops, restaurants, a library and multiple common areas. Including the pool deck.
The surroundings and air quality aren’t exactly pastoral, since One Santa Fe runs alongside the metro rail lines in the city’s newly developed Arts District. “There was very little,” architect Michael Maltzan recalled recently. “You’ll see weeds blowing across the street. I’m not making that up.”
He noted that there are no real precedents in Los Angeles regarding building size and high level of mixed use. Facing criticism that the size would overwhelm the neighborhood, he looked ahead, trying to envision how the city would develop around him. For example, One Santa Fe is designed to provide access to the anticipated Red Line Metro station. If that happens, the complex — much of which floats like a bridge above street level — will become a gateway between transit and the city.
The building attracted a mixed population of residents of different ages and income levels, providing “an alternative to the binary housing zoning of Los Angeles—apartments for the poor or young and childless seniors, and homes for well-off families.” “, writes Ms. Anderton. It has proven to be a pioneer for similar cluster developments in other neighbourhoods.
Larry Scarpa, a partner at architecture firm Brooks + Scarpa, said he believes the future of housing in Los Angeles lies in combining affordable and market-rate units under one roof. His company recently completed a mixed-use development called 11NOHO that took advantage of a California state bill allowing height and density increases in buildings with affordable units (12 out of 60, in this case). The building is on the edge of North Hollywood’s emerging arts district, where there are “a lot of restaurants and shops that need service industry workers,” he said. “Why should they drive from Palmdale,” a city more than 50 miles away?
The design, a variation on the courtyard apartment style that has defined Los Angeles for more than a century, is a feature of two previous Brooks + Scarpa projects featured in “Common Ground”: The Six, a 2017 supportive housing building for disabled veterans, and Rose Apartments, a mixed-use complex created in 2022 for youth who have outgrown child care facilities and preschools. All of these buildings wrap around shared outdoor spaces that connect visually to the street, yet provide the feeling of light-filled sanctuaries.
Ms. Anderton said she was motivated to encourage multifamily housing when her daughter, who was in high school, complained of feeling stigmatized for living so differently from her friends in single-family homes.
But as she embarked on her book, she recalled: “People would say, ‘Frances, you have to remember that people really want to own a home.’
She was reminded of the racist history that shrouded Los Angeles with single-family zoning, providing financial assets to white families and pushing renters of color to the margins.
“It’s all quite true,” said Mrs. Anderton. “But that doesn’t mean this other story isn’t true too. We really have to cherish our multifamily housing history.”
Living Small is a bi-monthly column that explores what it takes to live a simpler, more sustainable or more compact life.
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