The Los Angeles Conservancy, the non-profit organization that works to preserve and protect Los Angeles’ architectural heritage, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The group was born in 1978, following years of urban “renewal,” in which many older buildings were quickly razed with little or no regard for their historic significance. It was, in some ways, a time with many similarities to the one we find ourselves in now, as the pressing need to build and densify the city crashes into the desire to preserve and maintain the unique character of our built environment.
To celebrate the big anniversary, the Conservancy last Thursday held a panel discussion, moderated by KPCC radio host Larry Mantle, called “The Future of Preservation in Los Angeles: The Next 40 Years.” Panel members included Margaret Bach, founding president of the Conservancy, Christopher Hawthorne, former architecture critic for the LA times and now the newly appointed chief design officer for the City of Los Angeles, Luis Hoyos, architect, urban designer and professor of architecture at the Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental Design, and Michelle Magalong, executive director, Asian & Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation.
As Bach recounted, the Conservancy was born from a coalition that came together to save the Los Angeles Central Library (where Thusday’s discussion was held) from being sold and torn down, a singular success after many other local landmarks were lost during waves of urban renewal in the 1960s and ’70s.
Since then, according to the panelists, the Conservancy has matured and played critical roles in both the preservation of specific structures and – as in the case with the old Ambassador Hotel – historically sensitive redevelopment of culturally important sites, which take current populations and community needs into consideration.
Also, in some cases, as Magalong pointed out, the Conservancy and others have also worked to memorialize things that are no longer be there. Magalong, the youngest member of the panel, explained that she originally got involved in historic preservation during the efforts to name and honor Historic Filipino Town. Although the area has changed much architecturally, and continues to change with current waves of development, it was for a long time the place in Los Angeles most welcoming for new Filipino immigrants, and where newcomers could find helpful community and services. So it was that role in the city’s history, rather than specific architectural structures, which became the foundation for its eventual historic designation and its now-official name.
Of course, the issue of preservation is taking on new dimensions these days as the city confronts an epic shortage of affordable housing and a still-growing population, with questions of supply, demand and densification taking center stage. And many proposed solutions to the housing crisis – including the much-discussed SB 827 (described by most of last week’s panelists as a “blunt instrument”) – involve replacing older, lower-density buildings with newer, higher-density structures.
Much of Thursday’s discussion centered on this critical topic. In general, all the panelists agreed that there are “no easy answers” to the housing issues currently facing Los Angeles, but they also all said that real and effective solutions will likely be complex and multi-faceted, and not just a matter of building more and more high rise buildings.
For example, Hawthorne said Los Angeles has definitely been guilty of underbuilding housing for the last 30 to 40 years, but there are still many sites, such as parking lots, where new housing could be built without losing older, more affordable units. In fact, Hawthorne said, many of those parking lots did at one time hold housing, and it would just be a matter of returning them to their original use.
Hoyos agreed that a huge city of single family residences just isn’t sustainable, but he said there are a variety of creative planning options being developed to deal with this issue throughout the world. For example, he cited the “eco districts” now being created in some parts of certain European cities (including Paris). In these specifically defined districts, he said, greater density is accepted, but it’s created with new infrastracture to generate the areas’ own electricity and take care of their own waste.
Hoyos said the key for Los Angeles will be evolving and “more granular” zoning policies, to allow for new models and solutions in places where they’d make sense…and the process should start with the long-promised revisions of the city’s Community Plans.
Hawthorne said another part of a more mixed and nuanced approached to housing development lies in a mix of housing patterns, which can provide some level of densification without every new building having to be a stereotypical high-rise. For example, he said, pioneering California architect Irving Gill was known for inventive town-house and courtyard buildings, which contained 6-12 units on a site – much denser than a single family home, but “far from Manhattan.”
Bach agreed, noting that there are many such examples of lower-scale density in Los Angeles, such as garden apartment developments, which can still play a valuable role in an effective housing mix. In other words, those patterns can brings in additional units to the city without the “fear factor” of high rises. Instead of maximizing density at every turn, she asked, “What would a 10-15% expansion look like?”
Hoyos also said that more carefully calculated parking requirements could help spur the development of more affordable housing. In other words, instead of either requiring two parking spaces for every dwelling unit (as we do now), or eliminating parking requirements entirely (proposed for many areas under SB 827) – the city could provide a much more calibrated mix of parking, depending on where a project is being built. This could help make many more new units more affordable, especially in areas were certain groups of people tend to use less parking than others.
In addition to urging a more nuanced and contextural approach to new development, Thurday’s speakers said that it’s also extremely important for a wide variety of voices to be invited into the current housing discussion.
According to Hawthorne, housing and development debates have too long been controlled by those who have secure housing, while those less secure are locked out in various ways.
Magalong agreed, saying it is very important to fully engage and involve people of color in these discussions, as well as renters and those with lower incomes. And that can be difficult, she said, because those people may not be educated in the value of the built environment, or its history, their own importance as stakeholders…and they may simply be too busy or unavailable to attend meetings about things like preservation and development options, especially when held during the work day or late in the evening.
In response to Mantle’s question about what such an open and egalitarian discussion might look like, Hoyos cited the city’s recent SurveyLA effort as a model for community involvement. During that effort, he said, there was lots of community outreach, as well as broad and inclusive discussions about what makes certain places valuable to certain neighborhoods and communities. The same kind of grass-roots conversations, he said, should be done on the current housing situation. Oyos also said the SurveyLA results – because they identify various kinds of spaces and resources around the city – can be a great help in identifying places where greater density and new development could be placed, and where other resources should be preserved as new housing is built.
On the subject of using more variety and finesse to deal with questions of housing construction, Mantle asked the panelists if it helps to have so many people coming out of architecture schools these days with greater technical expertise.
Oyos said it does help because architects with greater technical skills can more easily tweak building designs for greater sustainability, or adapt different kinds of designs to different kinds of communities. But Hawthorne said that while newly minted architects may have greater technical skills these days, “political” discussion and complexity are often missing from their training and from their discussions of new development.
Hawthorne cited the recent discussions about the fate of LAPD’s old Parker Center headquarters as a case in point: should a building with so much historic significance be completely razed for new development…or should it be preserved in some way, and re-used?
Magalong said that while there are definitely great technicians coming out of architecture school these days, “we don’t have advocates” among those graduates – in other words, the preservation field is missing younger people and people of color, discussing the cultural significance of existing places and spaces.
This is often, Magalong said, because preservation simply doesn’t pay as well as working for developers (in fact, many leading preservation groups are staffed mostly by volunteers). And Bach agreed, saying getting people interested in preservation needs to start with kids and communities, and educating the people who live in those communities about the value of their neighborhoods and the stake they hold in those places.