How the New Zoning System Can Work For You

on November 27, 2017

The re:code LA team is working to completely rewrite the Zoning Code for the City of Los Angeles as a more useful tool for guiding the use and development of land in neighborhoods throughout the city. To accomplish those goals, the new Zoning Code simplifies the approach for selecting the zoning options that best realize a variety of community visions. For more about what zoning is, please read our What Is Zoning? article.

This article will explore the different parts of the new zoning string, which is what planners call the numbers and letters that distill the zoning code into its most basic form, so that you'll be able to understand each part of the string and anticipate how it influences planning and development.

The current Zoning Code results from years of amendments and additional layers of regulations from outside of the Zoning Code. As a result, about two-thirds of the properties in the City of Los Angeles are subject to overlays and special districts. To determine what the Zoning Code allows, you'll usually need to reference two or more different documents. For more about how the current zoning string works, please read our Deciphering Our Curent Zoning System article.



Under the new Zoning Code, it should be much easier to answer questions like: How large can buildings be? What kinds of uses are allowed? How do lots address the street? How do adjacent properties relate to each other?

Much of the flexibility and responsiveness of the new Zoning Code comes from the decision to separate two basic topics addressed in all zoning codes—form and use—and understanding how the zoning string represents these concepts will help you understand how the new Zoning Code can work for your neighborhood.

In the new zoning string, the form of the built environment is described in the first set of brackets, while matters of use—where we live, work, shop, etc.— are included in the second set of brackets.

Form District and Frontage

Every zoning string will include a "Form District." Form Districts will allow planners to tailor specific regulations on the size, shape, and placement of buildings. For example, the part of the zoning string that describes a "House Scale" Form District will include HS7.1 in the first bracket. A Form District that describes the characteristics of a "Low Rise Corridor" will read LSC7.2 in the first bracket.

Form Districts offer a new approach to how we currently regulate buildings in the City of Los Angeles, and we'll be exploring how they work on this website a lot more in the future.

Sometimes, more letters will follow a hyphen in the first bracket. This second part of the bracket indicates a Frontage, for example: [LCS7.2-MS]. In that example, the MS, or Main Street Frontage, is a requirement of the Zoning Code. A Frontage is the space between the street and the front of the building (what's also referred to as a building façade). The differences in how Frontages are arranged and required have a huge influence on how we experience places and neighborhoods.

The re:code LA team made the deliberate choice to separate the Form District from the Frontage to create new flexibility in the Zoning Code. By separating these concepts, the new Zoning Code can assume the role of many existing overlays and Specific Plans, and be more responsive to the variety of needs throughout the City of Los Angeles.

Use District and Density

Similar to the first bracket, the second bracket of the zoning string also includes two components, specifically, the designation for a Use District and then a corresponding "Density." Similar to Form Districts and Frontage in the first bracket, separating Use Districts from Density creates a tailored package of use-related regulations that can be crafted for the specific purposes of a neighborhood.

The Use District regulates the activity that takes place in the building, rather than the form the building takes. For example, the "Residential, Limited" Use District, the new Code's version of R1 zone uses in the current Zoning Code, would be represented as RL. The new "Entertainment Mixed" Used District, which would encourage entertainment-related uses, would read as EX. By separating Use Districts from Form Districts, planners and community members will be able to pair specific Form Districts and Use Districts to achieve the desired goal.

Following the Use District in the second bracket is a designation for Density—or how many residential units are allowed. The zoning string's approach to Use Districts and Density are apparent in zones like [RL-1L] which would be "Residential, Limited" Use District, with a one-unit per lot limit. Similarly, the "Entertainment Mixed" Use District could be paired up with a one-unit per 400 square feet of lot area, [EX-4]. However, for places like Downtown Los Angeles, the "Entertainment Mixed" Use District may not need a density limit, and would be represented as simply [EX]. The separation of Use Districts from Density allows planners to pair a package of desired uses with the desired amount of density.


The new Zoning Code will retain some existing overlays and create at least one new overlay. To accommodate overlays, the zone string may include a third bracket. For example, the third bracket is where you'll find Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs), Specific Plans, and new Conservation Districts (working title). The new Zoning Code needs to accommodate most of the regulations from our current overlays, and planners, and community members might still need to craft new overlays to fit the specific needs not addressed in the new Zoning Code. The optional third bracket will designate either of those two scenarios involving overlays.

The Building Blocks of a New Zoning Code

Each of the concepts described by this article—Form Districts, Frontages, Use Districts, Density, and Overlays—can be thought of as the building blocks of the new Zoning Code. Each section of the zoning string references a specific building block. Just like with a set of toy building blocks, varying the arrangement of the components of the Zoning Code can create many different results. Where the previous code tended to lump all the pieces together (more like Play-Doh, perhaps, than building blocks), the separation of these components in the new Zoning Code allows for responsiveness and flexibility appropriate for the diverse neighborhoods that make up Los Angeles.


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