Zoned into Mediocrity: How the 1946 Code Keeps Los Angeles from Reaching Its Potential

on July 08, 2014

A guest contribution by Dr. Andrew Whittemore

Los Angeles’ current Zoning Code largely represents the efforts of homeowners’ groups, in the decades after World War II, to protect a concept of good zoning espoused by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). This concept of good zoning, which encourages the rigid separation of uses and low densities, is of merit in some situations, but certainly contains its own biases. In addition to the introduction of suburban and estate zones, height districts and other restrictive measures, conflicts over the maintenance of the early postwar concept of good zoning have led to a great number of discretionary actions built into the Code. These have tended to increase the weight of those disinclined to allow change. This use of discretion has been at the expense of the creation of new housing. It has been at the expense of the environment and efficiency, displacing density from urban areas to exurban locations. There have also, however, been notable efforts to increase home construction and flexibility in land use via discretionary measures. All this discretion comes at great administrative cost, but the current code does capture many indications of what is valuable to the diverse publics of the City. Perhaps the new code will demonstrate the City’s wish to address the concerns of its various publics via mechanisms that are at once simpler, fairer, and flexible.

Before the 1946 Zoning Code: 1904 – 1945

Big real estate interests in the early 20th century promoted the use of zoning in order to grant protections to homebuyers beyond what covenants or districting for specific uses could give them. In its quest to support single-family home construction and ownership through loans and mortgage insurance, the FHA demanded in the 1930s and 1940s the strict separation of uses and low caps on density. This provided an incentive against over-zoning and spot zoning. But tightening zoning regulation was difficult. Before 1946, the City’s Zoning Code consisted of eleven ordinances, seven governing specific uses such as drilling or slaughtering, one regulating yards, and three more designating land use categories in different parts of the City. The City Charter regulated building height; and, in fact, it still indirectly regulates heights by limiting the maximum Floor Area Ratio anywhere in the City to no more than 13 times the buildable area (lot size minus setbacks) of a property (Volume 1, Article 1, Section 104, Subsection (e) of the City Charter). In some cases, the regulations have not been flexible enough: a burgeoning population’s demand for services and a growing variety of industries have often forced City Hall to constantly make miscellaneous exceptions to the Code.

Enter the 1946 Zoning Code

At first, discretion was used to allow variety in development. The 1946 Code created the conditional use procedure to allow the City to review and permit uses that were generally desirable but locally of high impact, ranging from auditoriums to hospitals to trailer camps. These reviews would not be governed by the rigid standards set by the charter for variances. It was the first of many discretionary planning measures introduced, and allowed the expansion of the City’s infrastructure, services, and industry. In 1950, the City expanded the use of the conditional procedure to allow private housing projects of the sort built by the Metropolitan Life Company at Park La Brea. Later renamed Residential Planned Developments (RPD), this type of conditional use permit allowed developers to cluster the allowable number of units onto smaller areas of the site, which planners hoped would result in denser, more affordable housing options and attractive open spaces. Homeowner associations saw these developments as introducing substandard housing, and a 1968 Citizens’ Committee report demanded that regular standards replace the conditional use process for RPDs. The City delivered in 1971.

Homeowners were, however, not so against discretion when it could be used in their favor. Development could be made more attractive if homeowner associations brokered a deal with a developer to provide some specific locally-needed use. To facilitate these agreements the City Planning Commission recommended a process of contract zoning, whereby a zone change would be granted contingent on certain previously agreed concessions. In 1970, the City Council passed the ordinance creating “Q” Qualified Conditions, which City Council could place on any property to specify various aspects of its use or construction. Q Conditions could be used to guarantee open space provision along with development, dictate the specifics of a site plan, or bar specific undesirable uses, and have become standard in zone changes.

The Arrival of CEQA

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), passed in 1970, represented another significant challenge to developer preeminence. Following Friends of Mammoth v. Board of Supervisors (1972), CEQA resulted in the requirement of performance-based evaluations for nearly all new development, and could result in Environmental Impact Reviews (EIRs) for high-impact projects. Following a suit brought by Westwood homeowners, the City made it policy in 1987 to conduct EIRs for all projects of over 40,000 square feet, generating 500 or more car trips per day, or having 25 or more residential units. Three years later, a City ordinance mandated a site plan review process for all projects meeting relevant thresholds. It required the Planning Department to review a proposal’s compatibility with abutting properties and consistency with zoning, the General Plan, and any redevelopment plan, if applicable. Empowered homeowners took to the review of development proposals with gusto, using site plan review as a mechanism to water down development proposals or make them infeasible.

A Housing Crisis

The General Plan Housing Element of 1994 reported a capacity of nearly a million more housing units in the City. However, there was economics to consider—whether or not allowable densities would permit developers to recover land costs. There was also the issue of how much Angelenos were willing to allow. Despite the room to grow, only 84,255 multi-family units were added in the fifteen years following 1994, not 14% of the estimated multi-family build-out. In contrast, 21,888 single-family units were added in the same period, 65% of the single-family build-out (Construction Industry Research Board). There remains an evident bias in what gets permitted in Los Angeles. It is perhaps still the case today that anti-growth activists dominate the City’s planning scene. The single-family house, opined Robert Greene in the LA Weekly in 2003, has been a revolutionary force in Los Angeles. The story of land use regulation in Los Angeles was for the better part of the late 20th century written by suburban preservationists. Meanwhile, a housing crisis has risen across the City and metropolis forcing middle-income households into inland counties and the poor into overcrowded housing. In the past two decades, some discretionary measures have allowed more flexibility in the marketplace. A 1999 ordinance established procedures for the adaptive reuse of commercial or industrial economically unviable buildings built before the 1974 institution of modern building codes, although this has stayed limited to some of the densest areas of the City. By 2010, the adaptive reuse program had resulted in nearly 10,000 new units. Legislation allowing household occupations by discretionary permit arrived in 1996.

In Short

The Los Angeles Zoning Code, as are most, is more than a matter of “by-right” or not. Over the past seven decades a number of discretionary actions, the most significant of which are discussed here, have been built into the Code. These have tended to favor the interests of wealthier Angelenos, resulting in a restrained development climate. There have also, however, been some successful efforts to introduce flexibility. All of these opportunities to tweak and intervene, in whichever direction, have created administrative difficulty and unpredictability in the entitlements process. This is a difficult way for the US’ second largest city to function. The Code also represents the residue of so many past conflicts rather than the current set of challenges facing the City. As the City moves forward, it is important to remain mindful of history so as to respect the still significant interests of homeowner-dominated neighborhoods, but add a simplicity and flexibility that serves more Angelenos.


Andrew H. Whittemore, AICP is an Assistant Professor at the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His research focuses on urban form and design, planning history and theory, land use planning, and zoning. He especially focuses on planning’s influence on the built form and design of North American cities and the politics associated with planning for neighborhood change. He holds a Ph.D in Urban Planning from UCLA, wrote his dissertation, entitled "The Regulated City," on the history of zoning and land use politics in Los Angeles, and subsequently published on the subject in the Journal of Planning History, Planning Perspectives, and Planning Los Angeles (APA, 2012).