How LA taught me to love density

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The Hollywood street where I first lived when I moved to Los Angeles 16 years ago didn’t look all that different from the suburban St. Louis neighborhood where I had grown up. To my great surprise, and some relief, Canyon Drivewas lined with handsome single-family homes with lush grassy lawns, long driveways, and big garages to hold several cars. Just up the hill was a park where I could hike for miles without seeing another person. At first, that was the only place I walked. When I wanted to go places, I hopped in my car to drive, just as I had done as a teenager with a new Missouri driver’s license.

But after six months, I learned there was a subway running practically beneath the house I shared with three roommates. A few months after that, I realized I could walk to the farmers market that I had dutifully driven to every Sunday. Soon, instead of driving across town, I would spend afternoons wandering the streets of Hollywood, marveling that such a different-looking place with so many interesting people to talk to was such a short distance from my own quiet street.

By the time I decided to find my own apartment, I was hooked on Hollywood’s energy. I moved even closer to the action, renting a bungalow on the hillside just behind Hollywood and Highland. I rarely considered driving anymore and eventually got rid of my car—I could walk to almost everything I needed, and I had my new friend the subway.

From my tiny new perch, I saw my neighbors heading to work, heard the loudspeakers on double-decker tour buses, smelled bacon-wrapped hot dogs sizzling on vendor carts after the Hollywood Bowl let out. I watched dozens of cranes erecting new stores, offices, bars, restaurants, apartments, and what I hoped would somewhere, someday, be a grocery store.

One day a woman from a local homeowners group came to my door. She asked me to sign a petition to stop the construction of a nearby residential tower. It would block my view, she said with a sense of urgency, pushing the clipboard towards me.

I looked past her and at the parcel in question: a parking lot, its dust swirling through a chain-link fence perimeter. I estimated the building would clip 1/80thof my view. That didn’t bug me. Any view would be better than a parking lot. An apartment building would mean residents would be shopping locally, helping the neighborhood grow. The ground-floor retail promised by the rendering meant I might actually get that grocery store. More importantly, I wouldn’t live here forever. As the person who represented my address, I considered what value a building like this might add if I were to move on. More people, and more eyes and feet on the street, made Hollywood feel safer and more vibrant.

I refused to sign the petition, handed the clipboard back, and decided to get more involved with the changes happening in my neighborhood.

52 apartments for veterans rise above Westlake
Skid Row Housing Trust/Brooks+ Scarpa

I’m writing this from my new neighborhood of Historic Filipinotown, where, a decade later, now I’m a homeowner myself. This neighborhood is not as dense or as walkable as Hollywood, but it’s heading that direction. From my front yard, I can see cranes building houses for people in Koreatown. At either end of my block there are new four-story apartment projects, bringing hundreds of new units to the neighborhood.

From my years in Hollywood, I learned how important these projects are for LA. I saw first-hand how decades of campaigns by anti-development groups have strategically left Los Angeles with very few places to grow. By suppressing bigger and denser development in appropriate places such as Hollywood, these groups not only make housing more scarce—and therefore expensive—they put pressure on other neighborhoods to house LA’s growing population.

While it’s easy to blame powerful entities including developers and city councilmembers for changes we don’t like in our neighborhoods, the people with the most power are the homeowners who don’t want their neighborhoods to change.

About half of Los Angeles is zoned for single-family dwellings. These homes are some of the city’s most expensive residential real estate. They also functionally segregate LA. Single-family houses do not block people’s views, but they do block people’s opportunities. They separate workers from jobs. They extend commutes. They devour green space.

These are all the same qualities that have historically made single-family homes so desirable, of course. But times have changed. LA now faces a housing crisis that is making it financially untenable for many of its families. That crisis is forcing more of LA’s residents onto its streets.

If you can afford to own a home, you owe it to the rest of the city to encourage the kind of development that keeps the dream of home ownership within more Angelenos’ reach.

Just like my first street in Hollywood, in HiFi there are driveways and garages (although fewer lush lawns these days). But here, each lot is zoned for eight units, meaning a house can be torn down and replaced with a multi-family dwelling. As much as I love the row of charming Craftsman bungalows on my street, I know that eight units are better than one. Tall buildings are better for my city, for my neighborhood, for my children.

We have to find space in our own communities to house more people, in ways that allow more people to live closer to where they work and learn. The only way to do this is to build taller. Approving more towers in transit-accessible neighborhoods. Pushing for a bigger apartment building for the vacant lot on the corner. Making it easier to build granny shacks in backyards. Instead of trying to block projects in our neighborhoods, we should be recruiting more inclusive projects to our blocks.

If the residents who own the single-family homes in this city step up and lead this progress instead of resisting change, the rest of LA won’t bear the burden of our housing shortage. And if we do it right, we’ll even be able to keep more of LA’s single-family homes. But only if we grow up.

I’m one of the Angelenos lucky enough to own a tiny piece of the city’s past. It’s now my responsibility to look to the future to make room for my new neighbors.

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