Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity—This Can Work!

Los Angeles and every urban area in California is looking for solutions to transportation challenges as well the affordable housing crisis.

Fortunately, a big part of the solution to one—where to build new housing without threatening existing neighborhoods, for example—is part of the solution to the other. These solutions have been taking root here over the past few decades. We need to encourage, even accelerate, them. 

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Mixed-use development with multifamily housing on commercially zoned land has become popular in many communities in Los Angeles County. We believe that if we are going to help solve the affordable housing crisis in the aftermath of COVID-19, this is the type of development we need to encourage and accelerate by making it easier to build throughout the county, especially along commercial streets well-served by transit. 

Many of these streets—or at least stretches along these streets—are in need of revitalization and and redevelopment. We propose enlivening them and giving them new purpose by turning them into “Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity”!

If Metro were to choose a few of these streets for their planned zero-emission bus rapid transit (BRT) projects and work with cities to develop attractive neighborhood plans, these streets are likely to attract investment, development, renters and riders. BRT costs less and takes less time to construct than light rail lines, operates on dedicated lanes so it provides better on-time service than regular buses, and Metro has set aside money to build several BRT lines.  

Our goal would be to encourage investment in mixed-income, mixed-use, moderate-density development (maybe 4-5 stories) in order to create these new urban neighborhoods by first improving them with BRT service, making the streets and sidewalks better and safer places to walk and bike, and adding street trees and urban greening—a key ingredient to success. Another key ingredient: new state and local funding for affordable housing (more on that in another email).

We aren’t the only people talking about using what are currently "moderate-density” commercial corridors to address the housing crisis. Peter Calthorpe, renowned architect, urban planner and a founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and Joe DiStefano—co-creators of UrbanFootprint, web-based urban planning and mapping platform—used this tool to evaluate the housing potential along El Camino Real, a 45-mile mostly commercial roadway through the heart of Silicon Valley.

Join us on Wednesday, June 10, for a Zoom webinar from 1-3 p.m. with Peter Calthorpe and Joe DiStefano, who will use UrbanFootprint to help us understand the potential for BRT, housing and community development on select boulevards in LA County. Register HERE.

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El Camino Real snakes through a typical suburban landscape of office parks, commercial strip centers, malls and some apartments. What UrbanFootprint enabled them to assess in the Silicon Valley—and what we want them to assess in LA County—is how many new affordable dwellings could be built on low-density mostly commercial land under various density standards without disturbing any existing residential development.  

Calthorpe and DiStefano wanted their study to answer questions including: What if single-use commercial strip development was replaced with mixed-use buildings and housing and served by bus rapid transit? How much housing would fit if it was four stories? Five stories? What if it provided a range of housing types and densities and development was focused near transit stations?

They used the UrbanFootprint mapping tool to assess several scenarios of “transit-focused” development and found that as many as 250,000 new dwellings are possible—enough to make a serious dent in Silicon Valley’s housing crisis. 

UrbanFootprint was also able to assess other impacts of this kind of development: Residents would consume 40% less water per year, use 13% less energy in their homes, drive 33% fewer miles per year, produce 45% less GHG emissions, and save $3,100 per year in transportation costs. 

This illustrates the importance of building multifamily housing along underutilized corridors closer to transit and job centers.

El Camino Real is served by several modes of transit—BART touches the north end of the corridor, Caltrain commuter rail runs alongside, and a Valley Transportation Authority light rail line intersects with the corridor in Mountain View. Their study proposes that El Camino Real would also be served by a BRT hybrid with small autonomous vehicles running on a median along the corridor.

In LA County we believe that building housing along corridors like these and providing easy access to bus rapid transit, which has proven so successful in the San Fernando Valley, would enable residents to more easily access jobs all over the city. Transit riders could transfer to another bus if BRT doesn’t take them to their final destination, or they could bring their bikes onboard to enable travel to jobs near the corridor.

Could mixed-use become the leading form of housing development in LA County?

Yes, and we believe these new neighborhoods could provide significant new housing for people who make low-, moderate-, and middle incomes. These are the goals:

  • Meet regional housing needs in walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented districts.
  • Promote transit ridership with housing affordable to the most frequent riders.
  • Encourage quality housing for low-, moderate- and middle-income residents.
  • Make goods and services available nearby.
  • Avoid displacement of low-income residents (or small businesses) located in these neighborhoods now.
  • Reduce air pollution and GHG emissions by reducing traffic.
  • Improve these neighborhoods with street trees, urban greening and pocket parks.

Join us on Wednesday, June 10, from 1-3 p.m. for a Zoom webinar with Peter Calthorpe and Joe DiStefano, who will use Urban Footprint to help us understand the potential for BRT, housing and community development on select boulevards in LA County. Register HERE.

Transit is key to making this scenario work and bus rapid transit has proven very successful judging by the popularity of both Metro’s Orange and Silver lines. BRT is a good choice for the Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity scenario because it is more permanent than ordinary bus service. Once installed on a street with a dedicated lane, signal priority, and a BRT station with more amenities than a bus stop, BRT service cannot be cancelled as easily as bus service—which will make investors more confident that housing developments are likely to remain attractive and hold their value.

Mixed-income communities seem a healthier and fairer goal than communities segregated by income. Moreover, middle-income households would help attract stores, restaurants and services that low-income families need too, and these would also provide jobs.

The market-rate housing would be built by for-profit developers; for-profit developers would also build affordable housing where inclusionary units are required. Otherwise, housing that's 100% affordable would be built by nonprofit developers, and we are working on ways to ensure funding sources for this housing.

Commercially zoned corridors provide an advantage for this kind of development in that they are typically served by transit, and the land can be less expensive because many commercial uses are in decline—though zoning codes may need to be changed. Setbacks above the third floors of housing could also help reduce visual impacts and again, to underscore the importance, street trees and urban greening are essential to turning urban streets into urban neighborhoods.

We believe that the success of these new neighborhoods could inspire cities to make mixed-use, mixed-income, multifamily housing on Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity LA County’s leading new form of development.

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