UrbanFootprint CEO Joe DiStefano on Boulevards of Equity & Opportunity

In our last e-blast about Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity Peter Calthorpe gave an overview of a study he did using UrbanFootprint, a web-based urban planning and mapping platform that he co-created with Joe DiStefano to determine the development potential along El Camino Real, a 43-mile long transportation corridor with mostly low-intensity commercial development in Silicon Valley. The goal was to determine whether a significant amount of housing could be built along this corridor to help address California’s housing crisis.
In this e-blast Joe DiStefano talks about a similar assessment using UrbanFootprint in LA County to determine the potential for housing development that can address our local housing demand along the 2,100-plus miles of transportation corridors in LA County, the City of LA, and along one major corridor—Atlantic Boulevard.



This is what Joe found:

 "First let me go back to the statewide housing deficit, which exceeds 3.5 million new units. We know that more than 50% of California’s population cannot afford housing in the state they call home. That means that nearly 20 million people in the state are not able to comfortably afford a place to live. (You can watch Joe give his presentation here (about 45 minutes in) or just view his PPT here.)

“Southern California contributes to this challenge. From 2010 to 2017 the 6-county region added about 1.2 million jobs but just 160,000 homes. So the state’s latest Regional Housing Needs Assessment determined the need over the next 9 years for a staggering 1.3 million new units in Southern California—more than half to support moderate and low-income households. And just for context, the median home process across the region is about $600,000.

“This suggests a need in LA County alone for a minimum of 800,000 new homes to meet the need through 2029, about 470,000 of those in moderate or below-income categories. When you scale down to the City of LA, where the jobs-housing imbalance continues to apply pressure on the housing market, there is a need for about 500,000 new units in the city alone, and the median price is about $750,000—so well over half of the demand is for affordable housing.

“We applied our UrbanFootprint platform to estimate the development potential to address this demand along LA County’s pretty ubiquitous commercial corridors. It’s important to understand how much location and access to transportation options, transit access, and the ability to walk to services and access daily needs makes a difference in household and transportation cost burdens, and even energy and water use.

“I grew up in LA and I’m pretty blown away by how much transit has been built and how much more is planned, and all around the transit network are more than 2,100 miles of 4-, 6-, and 8-lane boulevards. These are auto-centric corridors that serve as connective tissue for the county and the region—some were built for cars but some were actually built for the streetcar system in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when LA had the most extensive rail transit network in the world.

“These corridors come in different shapes and sizes, handle different types of transportation, and offer different development opportunities. But along these 2,100 miles of corridors are nearly 20,000 acres of low-intensity land zoned for commercial, which is rapidly becoming obsolete by internet shopping on Amazon and the likes of Amazon—a trend that’s being accelerated by the current coronavirus crisis.

“We’re not including really small parcels or those under 8,000 square feet—the size of an average urban parcel—and we’re only looking at parcels with an FAR or floor-area-ratio of 0.5 or less. In short what we’re looking for in our study is low-intensity development on parcels that are big enough to redevelop with a goal of determining how much potential there is for development along these corridors, where a variety of moderate-intensity housing and building types could feasibly be built.

“The desired densities would range depending on whether or not they are near transit lines and on the size and width of the corridor—whether it’s 4 lanes, 6 lanes or 8 lanes wide. My PPT shows that [in LA County] if you look at all the corridors the capacity is really quite substantial, and would allow for the construction of up to 1.6 million homes, with more than half a million in the City of LA alone.

“This is all a theoretical sizing of the potential, but even a fraction would lead to a substantial amount of new housing if you look at the need. And if we look just at the corridors in LA County that are in and around major transit investments the number drops to about 840,000 units on about 9,200 acres—or about 360,000 new homes in the city. You’ll recall that the state estimates the housing need in LA County to be about 815,000 homes. So the corridor has the capacity to meet that need. Not that they will but they can, and that’s an important fact to remember.

“And if the corridors were developed here are some important statistics that indicate the impact on the region and its households: New homes on these corridors would use 40% less energy at a minimum, and 2/3 less water—enough water savings to supply more than a half million homes every year. Households on the corridors would drive at least if not more than 1/3 less, which is like taking 360,000 cars off LA County roads every year. Since they use less energy and drive less they will reduce carbon emissions by nearly 40%. These households would save thousands of dollars per year in transportation costs and household utility bills, which add up to $4.5 billion/year in household cost savings.

“That’s a really big slice of the overall affordability equation—we have to look at the cost of transportation as well as the cost of housing and heating, cooling and watering these households. And this is where state and regional climate and equity and hazard mitigation goals really start to align, and where housing and climate goals intersect, and where building housing along these corridors looks better and better. This is where we can line up these state and regional policy goals and also create a huge inventory of more affordable housing along corridors that provide better transportation options, put more people within walking distance of services, and really reduce long-term household cost burdens.

“Given that we are already running out of time let’s focus at the potential of one corridor that crosses LA County—Atlantic Boulevard which is 36 miles long and one of the few contiguous north-south corridors in the eastern part of LA County, running from the mountains to the coast and crossing major transit corridors along the way: the Blue, Green and Gold Lines cross Atlantic as does the 710 freeway and LA River, and there’s a substantial amount of transit service which will soon include the West Santa Ana Branch light-rail corridor, which will also cross Atlantic.

“There are low-intensity commercial parcels all along Atlantic Boulevard, and about 350 acres that could reasonably accommodate up to 24,000 new homes. And if and when these parcels are converted to new uses they’re likely to be reassessed and could provide a substantial tax revenue bump to cities tasked with providing services to both existing and new residents. In other words developing these parcels by converting them from single-use commercial into new uses at higher intensities could generate significantly new revenues.

“So while Peter has assessed the potential for $14 billion in tax revenue in the Bay Area as parcels convert from single-use commercial into new uses and at higher intensities—and even more than that with tax increment financing—I think we could expect the same here. It’s important to remember that the intensity of development can run from moderate to high along larger corridors, with the highest intensity wherever there’s an intersection with high-quality transit service—so lower-intensity development along 4-lane streets and higher-intensity on wider corridors, with the highest where there is major transit service.

“What I’m talking about is 3-, 4-, 5-, and a maximum of 7-story buildings only near rail stations—the majority of development would be far below that height depending on a neighborhood’s sensitivity to density. But the average development should be about 3 stories. And retail should continue to exist."

At this point we had to stop the discussion in order to move on to other speakers, but Joe’s assessment of the potential for development along Atlantic Boulevard was instructive, interesting, and illustrated the potential for addressing the need for housing—especially affordable housing—along one of LA County’s many Boulevards of Equity and Opportunity.

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