One of the shitty parts about most American cities is that it's all suburban subdivisions and strip malls. There's not much in the way of charming historical neighborhoods, and people wonder why things got that way. Well, here's why: because American zoning laws require it. And these same laws are what's preventing suburban sprawl from evolving into traditional Main Streets. I'll use Los Angeles as an example - but the same processes apply nearly everywhere. In the order of importance, these laws are: (1) the building use law; (2) the building size laws; (3) the minimum parking law; and (4) the lot size law.
We'll use my teleporter. Hop on in.
Our starting point on the teleporter is going to be in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, where Chandler Boulevard and Woodman Ave intersect. This section of LA was first settled during the Red Car era; the old Red Car line to Van Nuys used to run in the median of Chandler Boulevard. In 1912, there was even a Red Car station here called "Castro Avenue".
Here, nothing-special 70-year-old tract homes sell for north of $1 million, due to the housing shortage. It's about as unremarkable a neighborhood as you'd expect: quiet, safe, boring suburbia, not too close to jobs or Metro stations. Probably not really a place to put a bunch of apartment towers, honestly, but certainly a place with demand to grow.
Now, we'll hop back into the teleporter and go across the country to Newport, Rhode Island. Newport was a big deal during the colonial era, but never really reached the big time after independence. Newport is a useful point of comparison, as it's quite visible how things worked in the old days: the more valuable the land is, the more dense you get. At the bottom of the hill near the harbor, it's a mix of rowhouses, apartments, and buildings with shops on the first floor.At the top of the hill, where land is cheaper, it's mostly single-family homes.
If you allowed more organic growth like in the old days, you'd see Sherman Oaks grow into something more small-town-y like Newport, with apartments and shops on major streets. That's not happening in Sherman Oaks, and it's worth it to explore why. We'll go into the four major types of laws that make it illegal for this part of Sherman Oaks, land of 70-year-old, million-dollar tract homes, to evolve into something more like Newport.
First: The building use law.
In Los Angeles, as in most cities in America, there are legal restrictions on what you can do with a piece of land. The City of Los Angeles provides an online tool to show what land can be used for what purposes. Scroll around Sherman Oaks on Google Maps and you'll see that most of it is designated (or has zoning) R1 and a little bit of RA - RA is green, and R1 is yellow.
R1 means that the only legal things on this land are "One-Family Dwellings, Parks, Playgrounds, Community Centers, Truck Gardening, Home Occupations." RA only allows mansions and agriculture. You can build a 5,000 square foot mansion in Sherman Oaks - but the City won't give you a permit if you want to build four 1250 square foot apartments, or a corner store, or anything else like that.
Got a good mental picture? Great. Let's beam over to Newport.
Think about what would be illegal in Sherman Oaks. The inn on the corner? Illegal. The cafe on the first floor of the inn? Illegal. The insurance office down the block? Illegal. The spa? Illegal. The mansion down the street which got converted to apartments? Illegal.
Every single one of these things would be banned in Sherman Oaks, even though there are two major thoroughfares which intersect at Woodman and Chandler, and the land is extremely expensive.
The land is valuable enough in Sherman Oaks that you absolutely could put everything you need in daily life within a 10-minute walk, whether it's your morning coffee or your Sunday church service, if you allowed more uses. That's how most American small towns worked in the past. But that's illegal in Sherman Oaks, in most parts of LA, and for that matter, in most of the country. Instead, you have to drive everywhere. It's the law.
Second: Laws on building size.
Let's head back to Sherman Oaks again, to talk about the building size laws.
This time, look at the size and shape of the buildings on Street View. You shouldn't find anything that surprises you - it's just a bunch of unremarkable suburban homes. Front and back yards, one- and two-story buildings, driveways, 2-car garages.
Now, flip over to Newport on Street View, where there's a much wider variety of buildings. It would be illegal to build any of this in Sherman Oaks today, even if you changed the law to allow businesses and apartments. It's not a health and safety thing either. It's a bunch of kind of silly little details that you might not notice if you're not an architect, a contractor, or a land use lawyer.
I'll go one by one and show you some of these, referencing the LA Municipal Code as we go along.
- There's only very small gaps between some of the buildings. In Sherman Oaks buildings are legally required to stop 5 feet from the side property line. This is a product of LA's ban on rowhouses in the 1920s. LAMC 12.08(C)(2).
- There's no front yards in Newport, because buildings can exit directly to the street. That's illegal in Sherman Oaks, because you are legally required to use the first 20% of the lot, or 20 feet, whichever is smaller, for a front yard whether you like it or not. LAMC 12.08(C)(1).
- Newport's back yards are too small. In Sherman Oaks you're legally required to use the back 15 feet of your lot as a yard, even if you don't want a yard. Maybe half the buildings in Newport meet that. Some don't have yards at all. LAMC 12.08(C)(1).
- Newport's buildings are too tall. In Sherman Oaks, it's illegal to build four-story buildings, because LA City bans buildings higher than 28 feet here. LAMC 12.08(C)(1).
Would it be the end of the world to allow Newport-style buildings in Sherman Oaks? No, of course not. But they're banned all the same, and there are plenty of people who think it would be the end of the world if it were legal. After all, that's why the city council established those laws in the first place. I have a whole history of why this happened here.
Third: lot size laws.
We'll go back to Sherman Oaks again, but this time we'll look at it from the air. Check out the lot size: the lots are about 6500 square feet.
This is pretty standard for 1950s Los Angeles suburbia.
Beam over to Newport and what do you see? Well, for starters, the lots are much smaller.
Eyeballing it from the air, the Newport lots range from 1200 to 2500 square feet. There doesn't seem to be anything wrong if you allowed smaller lots like this in LA, right?
Well, too bad, because these small lots are also banned. LAMC 12.08(C)(4). Lots have to be 5000 square feet, minimum, and at least 50 feet wide. This is two or three times the size of the Newport lots.
If you've been following along with this essay so far, let's take a second and think about what you can and can't do on the land in Sherman Oaks.
You can't use the land for businesses or apartments. You can't put the buildings closer together or build larger ones (even if businesses or apartments were legal). You can't cut up the lots and build multiple single-family houses, even if they'd physically fit. The only thing that's legal is a suburban-style tract home. And because of that, that's why there's so many people building ridiculous spec homes and doing flips, because it's just not legal to build anything else there. This is why nice LA suburbs, are full of flippers and crazy spec mansions; in gentrifying suburbs, you get flippers trying to pitch indifferent tract homes as "luxury"; in poor suburbs, you're basically stuck with crummy old houses until the neighborhood gentrifies, since it's not legal to build anything else.
Fourth: the minimum parking law.
In Sherman Oaks, like in almost all of the suburbs, every house has two parking spaces. It's required by law, even if you only have one car, or you live alone, or you don't drive. The minimum parking law requires at least one, and usually two parking spaces per home, and one space per every 300 square feet of retail space.
The minimum parking law sounds like a not-so-big deal, but it effectively turns everything into a strip mall or subdivision. I'll show you why. We'll go back across the country to Newport, to demonstrate. Here's a pretty ordinary building: six apartments over three stores in Newport.
Under LA's minimum parking law, you'd need 19 parking spaces for this building to be legal: 7 for the stores and 12 for the apartments. Each parking space needs about 400 square feet, so you're legally required to build 7,600 square feet of parking. So, to meet the minimum parking law, it means you need to tear down the restaurant next door and the community center two doors down. No, I'm not joking. That's how much land the other two buildings occupy.
If you do that, congratulations. You've turned an old-timey Main Street into a strip mall.
And garages usually won't work, either, because garages don't make financial sense to build unless you're in an extraordinarily expensive area like Downtown LA. If you build a garage, the cost is about $34,000 per underground parking space, or $24,000 per above-ground space. At those prices, we're talking about building a 7600 square foot garage costing $456,000, for a 5450 square foot building assessed at $815,300 for tax purposes. So, surface parking really is your only economical option.
So, when you start wondering about why LA - and most American cities - don't build charming old-school neighborhoods, it's not about construction techniques, or nostalgia, or changing housing fashions, or any of that stuff that you might think of. Nope. It's usually because it's banned by law.
Ironically, the old-school, Main Street style of development ought to be the goal of how most of suburbia evolves in the future. Places like Sherman Oaks contribute to the housing shortage because these neighborhoods occupy huge amounts of valuable land, and it's not legal to add new jobs or housing there. While it probably doesn't make sense to add tons of big apartment towers there, since it's not close to jobs or mass transit, the demand certainly there to add new housing and new businesses. (That's why indifferent tract homes in Sherman Oaks cost so much money.) But when the only legal things to build are suburban subdivisions and strip malls, that's exactly what you're going to get.