Planning Report – ARP will continue to Enliven LA

CCDG

Adaptive Reuse Program Will Continue to Enliven L.A.’s Urban Core in Absence of Longtime Director.

Under Hamid Behdad’s watch as director of the city of L.A’s adaptive reuse program, the city of L.A. built or planned over 11,000 units in renovated, recovered building in the urban core.  Behdad is leaving after six years to go into development, but his fervor for adaptive reuse is unabated.  TPR was pleased to speak with him about the benefits and future of the program in the second of a two-part interview, which first appeared in last month’s TPR.

Last year Kor Group’s Kate Bartolo told TPR that the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance “is one of the best programs ever devised to encourage restoration.”  But she also said, “the Balkanization of L.A. City departments makes it difficult to get all the approvals necessary for an ARO project.”  Was she correct?

She is and she isn’t.  Kor Group-and I love Kate; she is a wonderful lady-has a mixture of projects.  Kor Group has the Broadway Building in Hollywood, the Eastern Columbia, the Pegasus, the Molino, Barker Brothers and all that.

Pegasus, Eastern Columbia, and even Broadway were pretty much mainstream.  But Kor also has projects in the industrial area, such as Barker Brothers and the Molino project.  I can see why she said what she did, because developing a loft project east of Alameda is not as easy as developing one west of Alameda.

There is a simple reason for that:  the ARO area does not include the industrial land for industrial properties east of Alameda.  As a matter of fact, it intentionally excludes it.  The projects that we are doing there are “artist in residence,” which is a slightly different category of loft versus adaptive reuse.

If you remember during Joel Wachs in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the city of L.A. passed the “Artist in Residence” ordinance, which would allow you to convert certain warehouses or industrially zoned buildings into artists in residence.  That is a different product, and had a different philosophy behind it. What impact does the ARO have on industrial land, which is growing ever more scarce in L.A.?

When we passed adaptive reuse we excluded the industrial land because that was not the main intention.  The intention was to bring back life into the historic commercial buildings in the historic corridor of Downtown, not necessarily the warehouses east of Alameda. Also, we were concerned that by opening the floodgates and allowing all of those buildings east of Alameda for converting to residential lofts, we might start losing industrial land, which is a big discussion nowadays.  Later on there was an attempt, from CD 14 even, when we expanded the ordinance from to Lincoln Heights, to Mid-Wilshire, Chinatown, and South L.A, to expand adaptive reuse to east of Alameda.

I specifically argued against it because Mayor Hahn had recently launched the Industrial Development Policy Initiative.  At the time Mitch Menzer was the head of the Planning Commission, and I told him, “Mr. Commissioner, we should really be careful about opening the floodgate because we want to preserve the industrial land.  Maybe we should take our time and think about this.”  And I am glad I did.  The Planning Commission unanimously voted to exclude east of Alameda.

What tweaks in the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance of 1999 do you think are appropriate today?

Adaptive reuse creates great flexibility.  If we didn’t have it, some of these projects would never take off.  For example, parking is always an issue.  We have waived some parking requirements, for good reason.  What are we going to do with a 100-year-old building that doesn’t have a subterranean basement, or if it does, the columns are so close to each other that you can barely even make a parking space out of it?

If we were to require, for instance, yard setbacks for these projects because they were being converted from commercial to residential, all of these historic buildings should have been torn down and rebuilt.  How are you going to push the building back 15 feet from the back or front yards?  It’s Impossible.

The zoning code of the city of L.A. has been written for a suburban style of development, not for urban.  It is very obvious.  Parking, setbacks, height restrictions, on and on-if these things were not anticipated in the adaptive reuse ordinance, none of them would be built.

What could use improvement?  I wish we had a crystal ball and we had passed an ordinance like Division 85 that we did in 2005 from day one to streamline the safety guidelines for these projects.  But we didn’t know what we were facing, so how could we write a comprehensive ordinance about what we don’t know?  So, we decided to start these ordinances by a Building Department policy.

As we go forward, we are going to learn, and when we feel like we’ve learned, then we’ll turn it into an ordinance.  That is exactly what happened.  From 1999 until July 2005, we were working under a guideline for fire/life safety provisions. Once we understood and felt confident, we thought we could turn it into an ordinance.

Now, If some other city asks for some advice from my experience, I would tell them to do it all in one shot.  I wouldn’t go back and issue all of the modifications between 1999 and 2005 for safety, which everyone questioned at the time.  But we didn’t know where it was going, but we had to show flexibility to make the projects happen.

The following article was originally posted in The Planning Report

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