Gauntlet Thrown to City’s New Chief Design Officer

Los Angele Business Journal March 23, 2018

As L.A. attempts to build its way out of its housing affordability and homeless crisis, it matters more now than ever how a new project’s design speaks to a neighborhood. The appointment of renowned LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne to the newly created post of LA’s Chief Design Officer, can do much to elevate LA’s design debate and drive positive outcomes. The stakes are huge.

Mr. Hawthorne enters the fray at a particularly fraught time. Resident opposition to projects is rising citywide for many reasons: From traffic and parking to gentrification fears. I believe a perceived lack of neighborhood compatibility is another significant factor.

Another key factor: The pressure is on for developers to create ever larger projects to make deals pencil out. Developer funding in some cases is derived from global corporations whose capital investment is highly mobile –they can go anywhere to obtain the highest return. And with the dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agency, zoning incentives are about the only tool in the city’s tool box to spur more housing production.

These zoning incentives do not come cheap. Bigger projects lead to a neighborhood feeling under siege. They provide a larger tableau for legal opposition based on regulations tied to the California Environmental Quality Act. Add the cost of subsidized rents, sharply increased city fees, protracted city review timelines, high acquisition and increasing construction costs, prevailing wage requirements – all point toward a developer putting the maximum amount of building they can on a site.

Now consider the critical importance of a more neighborhood-centric design ethos. Good design matters. It always has. Design taste, however, is immensely personal. But applying certain design principles can accomplish what better architects have long known and applied. There are “tricks of the trade” to place and articulate massing where it can be best accommodated, to soften and lessen the intensity of that big new addition to a neighborhood through choices of materials, landscaping and design inspiration.

It will not solve every neighborhood resident’s problems with a project. But it will help the new contemporary-designed project respect and speak to a more mature neighborhood’s design and massing. Because, at the end of the day, it is about respect – for the neighborhood, for its residents, for a city desperately trying to create more housing; and, yes, for the architect, developer and investor risking capital to produce that housing.

The key is to establish urban neighborhood design guidelines that are flexibly applied. We should not want the new chief design officer to seek endless replication of one design style, or to mute the difference between new and historic buildings to make them virtually indistinguishable. Neighborhood compatibility emphasizes neighborhood context at streetscape level. And we must allow for an architect’s creative vision.

What Hawthorne can do in his new role is educate, serving in effect as chief inspiration officer to encourage innovative design, use of quality (but less costly) materials and resourcefully employ methods for integrating new housing within existing neighborhoods.

The key is to provide neighborhood design guidelines early in the process – ideally at the point of project conceptualization. By the time renderings are created, the architect usually has gone through an elaborate contortion to fit all the required pieces into the building design puzzle.

It is critical, however, that the best laid plans of the newly minted chief design officer do not add yet another layer of review to an already complex, prolonged process. More delays will just further drive up housing production costs and, by extension, rents.

The new position promises to make L.A. architecture and urban place-making better reflect our standing as world class city.

The “how” will matter as much as the “what” in accomplishing that goal.

Kate Bartolo is founder of downtown-based Kate Bartolo & Associates Land Use and Development Advisors.