Deciphering Our Current Zoning System

A screen-grab of the zoning of some parcels in Downtown Los Angeles.
Mar 09 2015

Before we start, if you don’t know what Zoning is we wrote an article that explains the basic fundamentals of what it is and why it’s important. If you do, then get ready to get into the weeds.

Anatomy Of A Zone

If you ask most people what their Zoning is, you will most likely get a confused expression. If you are one of those people, don’t worry, you are in good company. However, those who do know what you are talking about usually respond with the Zone Classification “R1”, “C2”, or with “residential”, or “industrial”, the general use that the zone allows. What they may not know is that they are leaving out some pretty important details. The Zoning of a property is actually made up of 2 or more parts. To help demonstrate the anatomy of a Zone, below is an example of a zone you might see along our commercial corridors:

Anatomy of a current zone, listing out the prefix, zone class, height district, d limits, and overlay.


This is where you will find site- or project-specific provisions which are established by ordinance as part of the Zone for a lot. These are in the form of T Conditions (Tentative Zone Classifications) and Q Conditions (Qualified Classifications). T Conditions are City Council requirements for public improvements as a result of zone changes. Q Conditions are restrictions on property as a result of zone changes, to ensure compatibility with surrounding property. To figure out what the applicable regulations are, you will need to track down and read the specific ordinance that established it, and the easiest way to find that is by using our Zoning Information and Map Access System (ZIMAS).

Zone Class (mandatory)

A graphic showing all of the current Zone Classifications from most restrictive to least restrictive.

There are a total of 35 types of zoning classifications in the City of Los Angeles that go from “OS” Open Space (most restrictive) to “PF” Public Facility (least restrictive). Most of these zone classes only contain basic requirements and restrictions such as permitted uses, minimum lot area, and yards. To find these regulations you will need to look up each Zone’s section in the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC).

Height District (mandatory)

The Height District will determine the maximum building height limit in feet, number of stories, or floor area ratio. To find the regulations applied by this part of the Zone you will need to read Section 12.21.1 of the LAMC. Height Districts sometimes contain what are referred to as “D Limits” or Development Limitations which further restrict heights, floor area ratio, percent of lot coverage, and building setbacks; to find those regulations you will need to track down and read the specific ordinance that established it, and the easiest way to find that is by using ZIMAS.


There are areas in the City which are subject to overlays (or Supplemental Use Districts) that apply additional regulations beyond those required by the base zone regulations, usually to protect or create certain neighborhood characteristics. To find out what the regulations are, you will need to look up Article 3 of Chapter 1 of the LAMC and/or the individual overlay documents.


Real World Example

To use an actual example, here is a breakdown of the regulations for a block in the West Los Angeles Community Plan are along Wilshire Boulevard that is zoned [Q]C4-2-CDO:

A graphic depicting the different locations that one would have to look to find the regulations based on a specific zone example.

As you may have surmised by now, to figure out what one can do on their property takes a lot of searching through multiple parts of the Zoning Code, documents, and ordinances, as well as a lot of critical thinking and powers of deduction. Keep in mind that we haven’t even begun to discuss the General Provisions (Section 12.21 of the LAMC), Exceptions (Section 12.22 of the LAMC), and Conditional Use (Section 12.24 of the LAMC) sections of the Zoning Code, which you would also need to review if you want to get a clear picture of what you can do on a piece of property.

We aren’t telling you all of this to scare you, we only want to set the scene for the new zoning system being proposed through re:code LA. In fact, when the 1946 Zoning Code was only 80 pages long and contained all of the regulations which might apply to you, the current system made a lot of sense. However, our Code has grown substantially longer and more complex, and the addition of overlays and site-specific conditions over the years have further complicated the process of determining what apply to a specific property and which doesn’t.

The re:code LA team has been hard at work trying to figure out a new zoning system that will help accomplish all of the objectives outlined in the Zoning Code Evaluation Report. We will introduce you to that proposal in our next article, A New Way To Zone.

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