Building New Housing In LA Is A Cluster. Exhibit A: The Westside

An Expo Line light-rail train on Los Angeles' Westside. (Photo courtesy Metro Los Angeles via Flickr)

A proposal to build taller, more dense housing around five Expo Line stations in Los Angeles' Westside has been in the works since the light rail's first couple of stations opened in 2012. From the inception of the route, the intent was to bring more mixed-use development in tow. Generally speaking, that's the whole idea behind transforming a swath of land into a transit corridor.

But we're talking about building new housing in the city of L.A., so add six years of meetings, impact reports and community input, and now the Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan has taken a notable step forward.

This past Tuesday, the City Council's Committee on Planned Land Use Management (PLUM) unanimously recommended that L.A. adopt the plan that would "upzone" select patches of Westside neighborhoods: Westwood, Palms, and West LA.

The main argument is that upzoning fosters more housing, which will theoretically lower rents. And cheaper rents would provide some much-needed relief for our overpriced housing market, which, as we all know, is too damn high.

SO, WHAT'S UPZONING?

Nothing much, what's upzoning with you? No, but really, upzoning is just another term for re-zoning, or revising the rules of deciding what kind of buildings are allowed in an area.

Industrial areas could become home to residential, commercial, and mixed-use buildings. The building of more housing around transit corridors, especially in a place like L.A.'s Westside where so many Angelenos commute to for work, could also mean less street traffic.

On the whole, upzoning means new developments tend to be taller and more dense, effectively bringing multi-family dwellings to traditionally single-family neighborhoods. Upzoning does not mandate new construction but it does open up the possibility where it didn't exist before.

WHERE EXACTLY IS THE CITY LOOKING TO UPZONE?

The Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan applies to five Expo Line stations in the Westside neighborhoods of Westwood, Palms, and West L.A.:

  • Bundy/Expo
  • Sepulveda/Expo
  • Westwood/Rancho Park
  • Palms
  • Culver City

All told, the plan may result in a few thousand new housing units over the next decade or so. The version of the plan approved by the PLUM committee is perhaps watered down, at least compared to the desires of developers, said Michael Lens, professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA.

IS UPZONING JUST CODE FOR GENTRIFICATION?

In many situations the answer is yes, but Lens said the Westside isn't the kind of neighborhood where that rule would apply.

"The Westside of Los Angeles is in a sweet spot here where the gentrification and displacement problems are really quite minimal compared to the social good of having more housing," he said.

Lens thinks the current high rents paired with the above-average median income exempts the Westside from the perils upzoning can bring. He cautioned that some low-income residents could be negatively affected, but he believes very few would be pushed out.

"We're not talking about Boyle Heights or South Los Angeles," he said.

Lens advised that if your main concern is low-income households, "we should absolutely be promoting this kind of land use change." Still, not everyone is convinced that upzoning along the Expo Line is actually a good idea.

YIMBYs vs. NIMBYs

Most affected neighborhood councils are in favor of upzoning, but the Westside Neighborhood Council is not having it. They say the plan will bring way more of a population surge than the Exposition Line and existing infrastructure can handle.

Councilman Paul Koretz has been reticent about upzoning but residents in his district came out hard in favor and let their feelings be known. Local groups like Abundant Housing L.A. have been tugging at Koretz's sleeve up until the last minute, citing the need for more affordable housing.

The L.A. Times Editorial Board was also in favor of the plan.

Koretz gave his support to the plan, though the Palms Neighborhood Council was quick to say he hadn't done enough, while also putting other community groups on blast.

THE TRAFFIC IS DARKEST BEFORE THE DAWN

Even if there's an influx of residents surrounding metro stations, that doesn't guarantee that traffic congestion will quickly decline. It will likely take some time for residents to truly part ways with their cars and in the meantime, many of the new developments will specifically not include parking spaces. That means for a time, street parking could become even more of a nightmare.

If there is a tangible benefit of upzoning, it may mean enduring some growing pains.

WHAT WILL THIS MEAN FOR RENTS?

"This one thing isn't going to radically move the needle," Michael Lens said. "We need to find ways to add more and more housing in more and more places."

That way Lens sees it, we have a serious shortage of housing units so we have to start building somewhere and keep building — otherwise we're going to be building further into the desert for eternity.

But when it comes to our wallets, we'll have to wait and see how land developers and landlords act under the new zoning rules.

Before any upzoning actually occurs, the plan has to be approved by the City Council. That vote has not been slated yet.