Driving into Los Angeles from almost any direction, the contrast is stark.
In some areas, towering cranes mark the construction sites where more and more office towers, hotels and apartments are being built.
In other areas, dilapidated low-slung buildings, warehouses and parking lots remain, often images of urban blight.
Why are some areas redeveloped, while others are not? What roles do zoning and density regulations play? These are some of the questions Pomona College Economics Professor Bowman Cutter seeks to provide insight into after being awarded a Haynes Foundation Faculty Fellowship to combine zoning and property data with Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to create redevelopment maps of parts of Los Angeles County.
“People haven’t linked the property records over time like this before,” says Cutter, an environmental economist and an expert on urban land use. His work will combine local data on zoning, demographics and infrastructure with data from L.A. County property rolls to generate a dynamic map that policymakers and stakeholders can use to visualize redevelopment patterns over time.
“Picture the GIS layers where you can zoom in on different areas,” he says. “Then you can sort by the last change, the use of it as an office property, as an industrial property, by the zoning, by the regulations that apply.”
Bowman’s study on the effect of density regulation on redevelopment in Los Angeles includes only existing commercial and industrial properties, not residential properties.
"Commercial development, especially offices and industrial properties, provides the jobs, services, and taxes that anchor urban development,” Cutter says.
The complex question Cutter hopes to untangle is which non-residential properties are redeveloped and why across L.A. County. He is starting by building the data and GIS layers for two to three years of data in areas of L.A. County from downtown L.A. to the coast.
“I’d like to do all of L.A. County later,” he says, calling the initial phase a proof of concept with a report due by August 2019.
“This is a test, and if I want to get a full set of data, it’s probably a fair amount of money,” he says, meaning that this work might lead to pursuing larger federal or private foundation grants. “I think this is probably the beginning of the project, rather than the full project.”
Zoning and density regulations vary throughout L.A. County’s many municipalities and districts, among them parking requirements, setback and height restrictions, and the ratio of the floor area to the size of the parcel.
Redevelopment tends to occur in focused areas, sometimes spurred by other development, as in the case of downtown redevelopment near Staples Center, the arena where the Los Angeles Lakers and other teams play, and anticipated growth near the NFL stadium under construction in Inglewood, not far from Los Angeles International Airport.
Another under-recognized factor in development is minimum parking requirements, such as a requirement for two parking spaces for a residential unit with more than three habitable rooms in a multifamily building. Critics claim such restrictions limit construction of desperately needed housing, fail to encourage use of public transportation, and contribute to urban sprawl.
“Parking is the single most widespread zoning regulation in the U.S. Even Houston, which is famously no-zoning, has minimum parking requirements,” Cutter says. “There’s been a movement in the last 10 years or so in Los Angeles to lift some of those restrictions downtown, and especially the new condos have lower or no parking restrictions.”
His maps could soon provide a visual that will illustrate what the massive amounts of data reveal about L.A.’s vast web of building requirements.
"I’d like to look in a much more detailed way than anybody’s done, on property by property, how these density restrictions affect what you build and when you build,” Cutter says.
“What I’m trying to say is, if we had different regulations, would the shape of the city be different?”