Design, Context Reach The Forefront As State's Densities Increase

William Fulton on
Apr 1, 2004

There’s no denying it anymore: California has entered the infill age. Suburban development still continues apace, especially in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire. But most of the state is engaged in the process of adding more residents to existing neighborhoods and existing urban areas – and trying to find good ways to add more houses and shops to those neighborhoods as well.

What all this means is that design and context are important. In fact, design and context are critical components to successful infill development. And they are important not because designers tell us so, but because the practical realities of making infill work in already crowded communities demand it.

Let’s begin with design, which, in the postsuburban era, is necessarily the key to resolving incompatibility among land uses. As I stated in this column in February, traditional suburban zoning sought to solve all problems with distance, essentially eliminating conflict and incompatibility by placing different uses far away from each other. Indeed, the notion of separating incompatible land uses with space is the very legal basis of zoning.

But in the postsuburban era, land is expensive. As a result, densities go up, and solving incompatibility with space becomes harder. Some years ago, officials in a suburb that was transitioning to higher densities revisited the city’s zoning ordinance. Because most new homes were now two stories instead of one, the zoning ordinance’s six-foot side-yard setback was no longer adequate. Residents did not want to look out their second-story bedroom window and see their neighbor getting ready for bed only 12 feet away.

The Planning Commission’s solution was to increase the side-yard setback by two feet – from six to eight feet – meaning that neighbors would be staring at each other through their bedroom windows at a distance of 16 feet rather than 12 feet.

This seemingly logical solution was the result of a system that has always used space, rather than design, to solve incompatibility. The problem arises when land economics do not allow you to use vast amounts of space to fix things. Purely from the perspective of solving the bedroom-staring problem, an 80-foot setback might make sense. By contrast, 16 feet does not make much of a difference when you are in your nightclothes. But in a world where land is expensive and production homebuilders do things a certain way, it’s about all the space you are going to be able to get.

At some point you have to design your way out of incompatibility instead. At a "micro" level, this can involve very simple solutions like using townhome party walls or orienting the houses so that people don’t stare in each other’s windows. Or it can involve creating small but private spaces like courtyards and terraces, as Europeans and Asians have done for centuries.

At a "macro" level – especially in a mixed-use situation or a situation where commercial and residential locations are in close proximity to one another – design is important as well. A parking lot or tennis court that might be open-air in a suburban situation might need to be enclosed. Most important, the construction items used to create separation – walls, for example – must be attractive and interesting, so that people feel invited to sit or eat or converse near them, rather than get pushed away from them.

But design is not the only issue. Context is important too and, in an auto-oriented society like California, context is largely a question of roads.

No matter how densely we pack our neighborhoods with new housing, those neighborhoods are not likely to be better for residents unless they can walk to many locations from their residences. This works in old, pedestrian-oriented downtown districts – look at Pasadena, Sacramento, or San Diego – but it is much harder to make it work on arterials. And arterials are where the infill action is.

The state is filled with older suburbs that are bursting at the seams and are clearly more than ready for a transformation to higher density and more sophisticated development patterns – the San Gabriel Valley, the San Fernando Valley, West Los Angeles, the South Bay, and north and west Orange County, to name only a few areas in metro L.A.

But all are built on an arterial grid system. It is true – as Dick Ramella of The Planning Center and many others have pointed out – that these commercial strips contain vast amounts of underutilized land that will be required to provide housing in the decades ahead. But most of these roads are also very wide, carrying large amounts of high-speed traffic. As they are currently designed, the arterials present a huge impediment to the pedestrian-oriented infill districts, even though the strips contain a lot of land ripe for infill development. Given California’s traffic-choked atmosphere, it is hard to imagine narrowing the streets in a way that will reduce capacity.

This pattern – combined with California’s history of high-quality suburban design – often leads to high-density strip development that seems like an attractive and insular fortress. Maybe the best example is the new development projects near Park La Brea and the Farmers Market on Third Street in Los Angeles (see CP&DR Places, January 1999). The Grove, a new shopping center by upscale retail developer Rick Caruso, is internally pedestrian friendly, but it does not contain any housing and the project is big and blocky from the Third Street perspective. Across Third Street, The Palazzo – a new luxury apartment complex – faces the street in a more friendly fashion, but the apartment residents can see only The Grove’s back wall.

You can’t really blame Caruso and his designers – Third Street is a large and busy arterial street, and most of the customers will not come from The Palazzo. They will enter from the seven-story parking garage attached to the project. From that perspective, it makes sense to shut off the project from the street. The arterial becomes the divider rather than the connector.

Something similar is also true at the vaunted Brea Town Center project in Orange County (see CP&DR Places, January 1998). An almost European intimacy exists on the narrow side street, but Brea Boulevard – which runs right through the center of the project – is still six lanes wide and carries large amounts of traffic. It is nearly impossible to imagine the urban district of Brea Town Center jumping southward across busy Imperial Highway, even though the property is immediately adjacent and ripe for recycling.

How context and design will work together on California’s arterial strips is difficult to predict. Perhaps in some cases the superblocks inside the arterials will become pedestrian havens – as suburban planners originally envisioned – but with higher density and more intense activity. In most cases, the biggest obstacle to this is the existing neighborhood fabric – auto-oriented single-family homes with wide if lightly traveled residential streets. But many of these neighborhoods will change on the edges with high-density housing and mixed-use development. That alone might provide residents with more places to walk within each superblock and create a more pedestrian-friendly environment inside the suburban grid.

In other cases, it might be possible to pick and choose among arterials, facilitating some to maintain traffic flow and speed while selecting others for narrowing so that they can become the transit-oriented centerpieces of a kind of "arterial district." That would be a radical change from the deliberate sameness that suburbia originally created. And it would be a big step toward making the transition from suburban to urban in California.