Culver City: livable, thriving and affordable

In preparation for the Community Conversation on Affordable Housing in Culver City on Saturday Jan 28th 2017, I wrote some thoughts that could take us in a direction of smart growth.

DSC01007.JPGStrong cities are always changing, just like the people living in them. A thriving city attracts more people than a city in decline. A flourishing city attracts people and talent, which in turn is attractive to businesses. Since people frequent commercial sites for work, to conduct business for daily necessities and play, a successful city is one where people make lots of trips. The closer we are to each other, the shorter these trips can be. Because they can be made by foot, bike and public transit, we are most likely to bump into neighbors and notice the details in our neighborhood. The benefits to our health and environment are many.

The (sub)urban environment of Los Angeles and ongoing investment in transit creates an immense potential to develop housing without the expense of building more infrastructure. The areas most attractive for additional housing are centrally located, with high urban quality and reachable in diverse ways. They are the very places that are socially and economically alive and innovative. These qualities are magnified and sustained by providing opportunities for all sorts of people to live there. Culver City, strategically located between coast, mountains and downtown Los Angeles, with good public transportation and a thriving downtown, is in the enviable position of being such a place.

L.A. (city) welcomed 20,000 new inhabitants last year, and this trend is likely to continue as will the recovering economy. The improvement of public transportation has already paid off and will also continue. How does Culver City with fewer than 17,000 households adapt to being surrounded by so much growth?

As a relatively small and independent city, Culver City has the power and opportunity to become a model of smart growth. Smart growth refers to optimal use of local assets, reducing environmental harms and employing public policy to nurture community. Smart growth is not a single solution or ideology.

Public governance guides the process of growth. It ensures that benefits are shared, keeping the city stays inviting and open to everybody and ensuring changes taking place contribute to the resilience of the community.

If the new houses would only be for the happy few, it would be hard for the city to keep the middle class around and to house the workers for the new jobs that certainly will come.  The use of public policy to freeze out new opportunities and rely on adjacent Los Angeles to take care of affordable housing is not a strategy Culver City should embrace. Using policy to exclude people is nothing to be proud of. At the same time, history suggests that a planning document like the housing element from the General Plan of Culver City alone is not going to provide a sufficient supply of affordable housing.

Smart growth opportunities that includes all are to be found in preparedness and experiment. Culver City seems agile and small enough to be in touch with stakeholders and the community to see possibilities, to act independently and even help Los Angeles. By embracing a wide range of opportunities to grow incrementally and by prioritizing the shared benefits of growth, more people will have the chance to stay in Culver City while maintaining the character of our neighborhoods and ensuring our city’s fiscal health.

Let’s explore five parts of a story-line for smart growth in Culver City.

1. Transformation the Hayden Tract into an urban quarter. The Hayden Tract is slowly developing into a much more urban, mixed-use part of Culver City, and could become part of downtown. Some logical next steps would include: allowing temporary housing inside some industrial properties, enabling additional housing, and figuring out a shared growth strategy with the owners, renters, the City and the neighbors. For example, the amount of parking space in this area is an opportunity for shared use since it is not being used on the weekend right now. An area like this, so close to public transport and to downtown is too valuable to be used for ‘car-work-only’.

firetruck in HaydentractThinking about the possibilities of the Hayden Tract, I want to share the development of Science Park in Amsterdam with you. Picture a rather isolated part of town, with gated institutions and community garden plots, hidden behind a railway and a dike. The University and a state research institute own most of the land; the city owns just the main roads and garden plots. The University and research institute wanted more square footage for their work and the city wanted the area to be transformed from an unknown corner of the city into a vibrant mixed-use spot that would attract people. By committing to a shared vision, a strategic quality document, and a combined financial construct, by setting out a maintenance plan upfront, by planning for a slow decrease of parking spaces with the opening of a train station, and by collectively paying for the design of an excellent, festive, walkable and bike-able public space, this corner of Amsterdam was transformed over a period of 10 years into a thriving urban spot. It includes affordable student housing, new high-end homes, and diverse facilities that attract people from all over the world, many of whom start businesses in Amsterdam. This success is not the result of some special cultural aspect of the country; instead, it was the result of deliberate policy decisions.

Amsterdam Science Park

2. Letting the heart of Culver City grow. Downtown Culver City is spreading out. It covers the area between the Kirk Douglas Theater and the Helms Bakery, stretching out to the Culver Studios and connecting with the Hayden Tract and the Ballona Creek on the one hand and the border of Venice Boulevard on the other. Instead of approaching downtown as a series of separate projects with separate owners (and separate cities), it would be much more fruitful to picture the area as one coherent attractive public space, shared by the same citizens and visitors. A finely grained pedestrian network could provide shortcuts from the Culver Hotel to the Station and from the Ivy station to the Platform. It would be a public space that is actually shaped by the buildings around it, consisting of a variety of housing types, including a substantial amount of affordable housing, that would help define and strengthen the center of our city. Streets continuously aligned with shops, work places and amenities on the first level and extending several stories up would create the highly sought after fabric that people treasure in a city. Anticipating the market, the City Council can take the lead by setting the development ambitions according to: livability, spatial quality, traffic and a variety of uses, including the right percentage of affordable units. The City Council is in the position to shape and initiate a dialogue and to get the owners and stakeholders around the table, including parties that can provide much needed affordable housing units.

Examples (site specific, not ment to copy) Woodwards -Vancouver: architect and developer with a specific knowledge on affordable housing. Woodward  Vancouver

3. Searching for the character of Culver City. We can imagine additional housing in the residential neighborhoods as well. A strategy for incremental and citizen-led change could start with a few examples that define the quality-level decided upon by the city and the community. There are many possibilities. For example, the city might permit a few small areas, well served by transit, to built townhouses or tiny houses. Such an area could eliminate required garages, which are costly to build and generally used to store holiday decorations, sports equipment, and rarely used items. If this change only occurred along certain streets, it would guide a gradual and organic change, while preserving the style of the neighborhood. Another possibility is to allow neighborhood initiatives to arrange plots in a new way and develop a co-housing structure. Such a model is flexible, can moderate rents and provide housing for middle class families. Quality standards for building fronts and the streetscapes could define and strengthen the character of Culver City.

Examples co-housing

4. Reuse of existing buildings and empty plots. Which kind of buildings can we expect to become empty soon in Culver City? Perhaps some old bank buildings, unrented commercial or unoccupied office spaces? Temporary housing might be an option here. It happens regularly that special buildings, mostly situated along the main streets and arterial streets, have trouble retaining business tenants. The city could allow housing in such spaces. When the property is in hands of the city, re-use for affordable housing is easier to arrange.

Two other Dutch examples come to mind;  The Acta building in Amsterdam, a former University dental sciences building, was no longer being used. The bank crisis kept the corporation from tearing it down and rebuilding on the property. Under leadership of a corporation it is rented out to students who don’t pay much, but assume responsibility for remodeling and maintaining their units.  Another example is a temporary development of a lot with mobile homes, in the Riekerpolder District in Amsterdam, where for a designated time period youth and refugees live together in a containers. Later, the area will be developed into a more conventional mixed-use community.

Amsterdam Riekerpolder:

Happening in Culver City, Globe avenue by Habitat for Humanity:

5. Showcasing collaboration with neighbouring districts. Fox Hills is one of the most densely populated areas in Culver City. But this fact alone is no reason to consider Fox Hills a good place to add more affordable homes. Fox Hills has an isolated feel, caused by its location. It is bordered by the Westfield Shopping Center, the Holy Cross Cemetery, and the 405 freeway,  and it has no residential streets connecting it to Ladera Heights. This sequestration of the Fox Hills neighborhood contradicts its dynamic surroundings: the proximity of LAX, and of the Playa Vista Campus. Imagine what Westfield Center would be like if it was as accessible for pedestrians and bikers from all directions as it is for cars right now. Is there a way to make Jefferson, Sepulveda, Slauson and Centinela first class walkable and bikeable streets instead of arterials? Or should that perhaps be left to a secondary network of streets and bike-routes? Why not consider a route for bikes to use that transects the Holy Cross Cemetery? It would be wonderful if it was possible to enter Culver Park, Baldwin Hills and Kenneth Hahn on the Fox Hills side and find that all parks are connected to the Park to Playa-trail. Connecting Fox Hills to its surroundings for pedestrians and bikers in an attractive and convenient way should be a priority. Invite Los Angles, the Holy Cross Cemetery, representatives from Ladera Heights community and the oil companies to a meaningful discussion about growth.  What successful deals could be explored for the benefit of all?

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESBe curious and ask questions. By inviting stakeholders and the communities involved in development to look forward, by starting with trial efforts and temporary uses, stepping stones for a long-term vision will arise. It is healthy for everyone involved to have a say in the long-term envisioning of Culver City’s growth and change.

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