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Planning and Zoning in Los Angeles

About this post: Since 2013, the city has been working on a comprehensive revision to the citywide zoning code named re:code LA—the first update since 1946. ATC breaks down the core components of the new zoning code and what it means for land use professionals.

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Understanding the LA Zoning Code is crucial for anyone involved in property development, urban planning, or community engagement in the City of Los Angeles.

What is a zoning code?

Zoning, in essence, defines how land can be used, the types of buildings that can be constructed, and the activities that can occur on land parcels in various locations. In Los Angeles, the zoning code has been a critical tool for translating broad land use goals and policies into specific development standards and requirements**.**

Below are some examples of the diversity of zoning codes commonly found in Los Angeles:

  1. Residential Zones: These zones typically include categories such as R1 (Single-Family Residential), R2 (Two-Family Residential), and R3 (Multi-Family Residential), each specifying the density and type of residential development allowed.
  2. Commercial Zones: Examples include C1 (Neighborhood Commercial), C2 (Commercial), and C4 (Commercial Office), each specifying the types of businesses and activities permitted.
  3. Industrial Zones: M1 (Light Industrial) and M2 (Heavy Industrial) regulate the types of industrial activities allowed and restrict noise, pollution, and building height.
  4. Mixed-Use Zones: These zones allow residential, commercial, and sometimes industrial uses within the same area. Examples include zones like C2/R3 (Commercial/Residential) or C4/1VL (Commercial Office/One-Family Limited).

The Evolution of LA’s Zoning Code

Traditionally, LA’s zoning regulations were focused on separating incompatible land uses and controlling the size and scale of buildings. However, as the city’s needs and priorities have shifted, so has its zoning approach.

Los Angeles has been revamping its zoning code in recent years to create a system more aligned with contemporary urban challenges and aspirations.

Since 2013, the city has been working on a comprehensive revision to the citywide zoning code named re:code LA—the first update since 1946. Re:code LA aims to create a new zoning tool framework that considers not only land uses but also the physical design of buildings and their role within a dynamic urban landscape. The initiative also looks to streamline and create more predictability for development processes.

In May 2023, the City Council approved the Community Plan update for Downtown LA (”DTLA 2040”), the first application of the citywide zoning code. LA Planning has also approved a new community plan for Boyle Heights. The updated zoning code will be incorporated into the remaining 32 community plans.

The 4 things you should know about LA’s new zoning code:

1. Modular zoning will allow for greater flexibility

‍The new zoning code represents a departure from the traditional approach of separating land simply by use (i.e. residential vs. commercial). Instead, it creates a hybrid, modular system that regulates both the activities on site and the physical environment around it. Land parcels under each Community Plan will be rezoned using new zoning tools that consist of 5 modular components or “districts”: Form District, Frontage, Development Standards, Use District, and Density.

Modular zoning components allow form and use to be regulated distinctly rather than as one. Communities can build unique zoning districts using each component, offering “virtually limitless customization” (see images and description below).

Modular zoning was chosen as it simplifies the layers of conflicting regulations that exist today—60% of the city is covered by special overlays and site-specific conditions, with the majority of parcels having 2 or more different sets of regulations. There is less need for overlays, supplemental use districts, Q Conditions, D limitations, and more in the new zoning code.

New Zoning Structure: The first set of brackets determines the built environment and the second determines the type of activities on the lot. Each zone string is independent of each other, but the various districts can be combined in response to a variety of planning needs. Specific Plans are represented in a third bracket set, with a hyphen if there is more than one.
Old zoning structure (still in effect in communities across LA)

2. Multiple planning tools are available to increase affordable housing supply

A central goal of re:code LA is to ensure zoning enables, not hinders, opportunities for diverse housing options.

DTLA 2040 was the first community plan to be approved, with a focus on increasing housing supply. City Council approved a mandatory inclusionary housing system in downtown, requiring that all newly constructed residential projects include a minimum percentage of affordable units (exceptions in cases where office buildings are converted to housing). The plan removes minimum parking requirements for new developments, allowing applicants to build parking based on how they interpret demand. Council also opened the door to residential development in a portion of Skid Row. However, developers will need to construct projects that are at least 80% affordable in this area— much higher than in other parts of downtown.

DTLA 2040 also includes updates to the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance (ARO), giving developers in certain areas the right to build 30,000 square feet of building for every 10,000 square feet of lot.

DTLA and Boyle Heights have both created their own Community Benefits Programs. Replacing the Transfer of Floor Area rights (TFAR) program, the Community Benefits Program provides developers with above-baseline bonuses in exchange for contribution to citywide community benefits, such as affordable housing and new parks.

It is expected that similar housing programs will be implemented in the remaining community plans.

3. Reliance on a dynamic, web-based zoning code

‍The City hopes that the new code will be easier to understand for citizens and land use planners, resolving ambiguities across community plans and parcels. In particular, the City has promised a more user-friendly and digital zoning code that can be accessed online by not only professionals, but the public.

4. Community plan updates will take months, even years, leading to a patchwork of zoning tools

‍Community Plan updates are underway in in 12 communities. The city has 35 community plans that are supposed to be updated every six years, but that hasn’t been the reality. Community Plan updates can take months and years to complete. As such, there will be a period from now until full integration where some communities will continue to utilize the old zoning code, even with the new zoning code in practice elsewhere.

It is also important to note that City Council also approved the Hollywood Community Plan in May 2023, the same time as DTLA 2040. However, the Hollywood plan does not incorporate elements of re:code LA.

What does this mean for ATC?

ATC has added City of LA zoning as a targeted search option! ATC customers can narrow their City of LA search by:

  • Zoning: All base zoning classifications, height districts, supplemental use districts, and other designations
  • Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ): Guidelines and restrictions implemented to preserve the character of neighborhoods
  • Sign District: Regulations that govern the placement, maintenance, and aesthetics of signs

The zoning search filter is available in all jurisdictions, including the Cities of Santa Monica, Culver, and Pasadena, as well as LA County.

We will make sure that the ATC data is updated to reflect any changes in the new zoning code. As land use policies continue to change, it will be critical to understand how others are leveraging new zoning codes and housing programs to get projects to pencil. It is unclear how the new code will be interpreted by city officials. Exploring new applications and determinations will be important to understanding zoning precedent. We will make sure to have these documents and more available for our customers.

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