For a city with a futuristic reputation, Los Angeles’ planning and land use processes are surprisingly reliant on relics of the past. The city’s zoning code, approved in 1946, is the oldest for a large city in the United States. Needless to say, Los Angeles of 1946 was not nearly as complex as it is today, and the city is desperately in need of modern planning and land use strategies.
Two Cal Poly Pomona alumni, Erick Lopez (’01, urban and regional planning) and David Olivo (’94, master’s in urban and regional planning), are undertaking a zoning code reform project for the city’s planning department. In 2012, shortly after the City Council approved $5 million to complete the effort, Lopez and Olivo began working with Urban and Regional Planning Assistant Professor Ramzi Farhat on an early study of what a new zoning code could do for Los Angeles.
Farhat and a fall/winter URP undergraduate capstone class used the South Park neighborhood to first explore the benefits of a new code. South Park, one of Los Angeles’ richest case studies for urban planning, is most notably anchored by L.A. Live, the sports and entertainment complex that includes Staples Center, popular restaurants and music venues.
Perhaps a little less glitzy, but of no less significance to the recent evolution of downtown, is a residential neighborhood that has sprung up just to the east of L.A. Live. There, the skyline boasts the city’s first LEED Gold and Silver (industry standards for green buildings) residential high-rises, wide sidewalks, colored crosswalks, large shade trees and public gathering places that welcome pedestrians.
The capstone course produced three visions for how a new zoning code could inform the area’s development: a neighborhood plan, a district plan and a hybrid plan. “The idea that the city’s zoning code will be rewritten has encouraged the students to more boldly explore ideas about redistricting, morphology, uses, local amenities and approaches to coding,” Farhat says.
Creative empowerment has produced award-winning, envy-inspiring results. The studio received the 2013 Academic Award from the Inland Section of the American Planning Association, and Lopez says, “Other universities have found out what we’re doing, and they want in on it now too.”
This past spring, an interdisciplinary urban design studio picked up where the capstone course left off. The studio gave students an experience similar to that of planners, architects, and landscape architects – or what Lopez describes as “the natural progression from the planners developing policy, vision and direction, and architects and landscape architects playing within that realm to realize that vision.”
Los Angeles is finalizing contract negotiations with Code Studio, the Austin-based firm selected to complete the comprehensive zoning code overhaul. Lopez and Olivo intend to present Code Studio with the students’ results. They also hope that future ENV courses will continue the South Park study or conduct similar projects in other neighborhoods.
The value of the work by ENV students, Lopez says, is inherent in the Cal Poly Pomona model for learning. “The polytechnic approach develops strong, practical approaches to big problems. … If we’re going to get this project done in the time frame that we set out, we’re going to need practical approaches from the very beginning.”
Yan Aung, Kevin Finch and Helen Kang work on their model of the South Park area of Los Angeles. Architecture and Landscape Architecture students combine for the 403 studio