Boyle Heights

The New Zoning Code Debuts in the Boyle Heights Community Plan

on October 31, 2017

Boyle Heights residents got an early look at the new Boyle Heights Community Plan draft concept at two public open houses on October 24 and October 28. The open houses showcased for the first time details of how the draft Community Plan will implement planning policies to support the people who live and work in Boyle Heights.

Key to achieving those policies goals is the city of Los Angeles' new zoning code. In fact, the Boyle Heights Community Plan is the very first plan to present to the public a real world example of the new zoning code in action.

Boyle Heights, with its long history as one of the first suburbs of Los Angeles and its deep cultural roots in the Latino community, wants the new Community Plan to prioritize existing businesses, residents, and the existing historic buildings and neighborhoods, allowing its neighborhoods to continue to flourish. The new zoning code provides multiple tools for accomplishing those ambitious goals.

Introducing Form Districts

The draft zoning map for Boyle Heights introduces new terminology that might be unfamiliar to anyone with knowledge of the existing zoning code for the city of Los Angeles. At first glance, you'll notice new combinations of letters and numbers, offset and grouped by a series of brackets. An example of the new zoning code looks like this: [LRN7][CX1-4].

As illustrated in the graphic above (as presented to the public at the recent open houses), the first bracket contains the key to understanding the most innovative part of Los Angeles' new zoning code: form districts. For over a century, the city of Los Angeles has relied on a zoning code that regulated development mostly by use—the kinds of activities that take place in a given building, whether it's office space, retail, or a residence. The Boyle Heights Community Plan debuts the new zoning code's regulation of form—how a new development is designed, with choices made regarding positioning relative to the street, length of the building, the number of doors and windows, the size of outdoor spaces, and more.

The Boyle Heights Community Plan includes several examples of form districts that provide excellent chances to learn and understand more about how form districts achieve planning goals.

The first example is the House Scale form district. This form district covers many of the residential areas in Boyle Heights, closely following the same kinds of standards established by the previous RD2-1 zoning designation. The height limit of 33 feet is still in place, for instance. The new form district does allow for one change that's in keeping with many of the existing properties in the form district: the addition of backyard units, which are already common throughout the district. To allow more space for these units, the form district shrinks the rear yard setback (the required space between the back of the house and the end of the property line) from 15 feet to five feet.

Low Rise River form district

Another example of the new form district tool is the creation of the Low Rise River form district along the Los Angeles River (shown in the graphic above), which is crafted to help Boyle Heights achieve better connection with the Los Angeles River, and start to re-orient buildings and developments to take advantage of their position next to the river. The Low Rise River form district is paired with mostly industrial uses, and the latest draft of the Boyle Heights Community Plan does not allow for new residential uses in this area. Moreover, the new form district leaves intact the existing density and size (measured in floor-to-area ratio, or FAR) regulations. The changes implemented by the form district encourage new opportunities for the public to access and explore the river. The form district will require new developments and major renovations to implement landscaping standards, outdoor amenity spaces, and active ground floors along the river. The new form district also requires building breaks (a gap in the building facades or walls) for pathways or paseos open to the public, allowing circulation to and from the river.

To take advantage of the mobility options provided by the Gold Line, the Boyle Heights Community Plan has targeted new development and affordable housing in "Community Centers" near the light rail stations located around the plan area. The Boyle Heights Community Plan employs the Low Rise Node form district (pictured in the graphic below) to achieve those development goals.

Low Rise Node form district

This form district allows a base FAR of 2, with an affordable housing bonus up to 4 FAR. In addition to allowing new development and providing incentives for affordable housing in transit-adjacent areas, the Low Rise Node form district also requires urban design choices that will create walkable streets, with buildings opening to the public realm and inspiring foot traffic. The Low Rise Node form district requires many of the same kinds of design choices as included in the Low Rise River form district—including active ground floor space, entry spacing, and building breaks—to maintain the character and scale found in the rest of Boyle Heights.

Each of these form districts, and the others proposed by the draft concept of the Boyle Heights Community Plan (there's about 20 in total), could be applied in other parts of the city with a similar context and similar goals for the future.

New Use Districts, Too

The new zoning code doesn't completely do away with the concept of use when regulating development, but the implementation of this new approach to zoning also offers a chance to rethink and reorganize the old zoning code. A new residential use district created for Boyle Heights provides a clear example of how the new zoning code can clean up the old zoning code and make it easier to implement the vision of the community.

The new residential use district mostly leaves existing residential standards in place while allowing space for the tienditas (or small corner stores) already common throughout this neighborhood and a critical part of the fabric that makes it unique and livable. Planners call such examples of retail businesses "neighborhood-serving commercial." Currently, these corner stores aren't actually allowed (they are "non-conforming," as planners would say)—they either predate the current zoning code or they've been permitted through site-specific exceptions. By creating this new residential use district, the Boyle Heights Community Plan uses the new zoning code to more accurately describe and encode the existing character of the neighborhood, also allowing the possibility of new businesses. The new use district also implements a few constraints on neighborhood-serving commercial uses, like location (only at a street corner) and size (2,500 square feet).

Conservation Districts

The Boyle Heights Community Plan also uses another tool provided by the new zoning code that could also be applicable in other, similarly historic neighborhoods around the city. A "Conservation District" provides a tool for maintaining the historic character of a neighborhood as new developments and renovations take shape. A conservation district acts as an overlay, adding an extra layer of design consideration on top of the other requirements enacted by the zoning code, but it's designed to work simply and easily, without introducing the same layers of approval and discretion that would be necessary in a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone.

Boyle Heights includes two examples of conservation districts. The first is in the residential areas in the blocks surrounding Cesar Chavez and First avenues. To ensure that any new developments or major renovations maintain the historic character of these neighborhoods, the new conservation district will require design choices pertaining to roof shape, windows at the front of the building ("high transparency," as planners would say), a front porch, and some specific exterior building materials. The goal of those design requirements is to ensure new residential development fits in with their historic neighbors.

Boyle Heights also includes a similarly unique and historic commercial district, located along Cesar Chavez Avenue between Cummings and Mott streets. There, the Boyle Heights Community Plan suggests another conservation district—this one would regulate entry spacing, window depth, and vertical expression and horizontal expression (i.e., façade decorations like moldings or other decorations, oriented vertically and horizontally, respectively). Again, the conservation district is focused on ensuring that new development and major renovations fit into the existing character of Boyle Heights, except this time the concept is tailored to a commercial corridor.

Onward to the Next Community Plans

The Boyle Heights Community Plan is only the first showcase of the power and capabilities of the new zoning code. The re:code LA team worked closely with the policy planners in the Department of City Planning to create this particular collection of zoning tools to fit the goals of the Boyle Heights communities.

The zoning options selected for Boyle Heights only represent a fraction of the potential combinations of form and use districts available in the new zoning code. Some of the zones selected for Boyle Heights can be carried over to other parts of the city, but only in cases where those zones meet the goals of the community. The re:code LA team will work with policy planners on future community plans to create more zoning code designations, expanding the number of tools in the zoning code and tailoring them to the many diverse neighborhoods of the City of Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, both the re:code LA team and the policy planners working on the Boyle Heights Community Plan will work together to refine this plan and its zoning code designations to address the feedback of the public. The initial draft will go through another round of public feedback (hence the recent open houses) before planners release a draft environmental impact review (EIR) for public comment in early 2018. The draft EIR could end up adding, removing, or modifying the palette of zoning options explored here to address the feedback of the public.

The Boyle Heights Community Plan may be the first to make use of the new zoning code, but it won't be the last. We hope that when it's your community's turn to make these kinds of choices, you'll join us in determining which zoning tools best fit your plans.

(Boyle Heights and Mariachi Plaza image by Lauria Avocado, via Flickr.)