Converted: Linear City’s Toy Factory Lofts building in downtown’s Arts District.

Converted: Linear City’s Toy Factory Lofts building in downtown’s Arts District. Photo by Thomas Wasper

Downtown L.A.’s Arts District in recent years has lured urban pioneers who want to live in converted industrial buildings on the fringe of the urban core.

The neighborhood they carved out of the old manufacturing and warehouse zone has become so vibrant that land values have climbed and developers are circling, eyeing undeveloped or underutilized properties they see as ripe for new housing stock. Now, that interest is causing a split in the development community between those who favor converting old warehouse and industrial buildings to residential or mixed uses and others who want to start their projects from the ground up.

The differing views came to the fore at the end of July, when L.A.’s Department of City Planning emailed a proposed zone that would change what could be built in the Arts District and how it could be built.

At the heart of the debate are two primary issues: the minimum size of live-work units and the type of construction allowed in the zone.

Preservation proponents sought zoning limits that kept minimum 1,000-square-foot live-work units and construction restricted to steel, concrete and glass with a limited amount of heavy timber. But the planning department’s proposal, released July 31, calls for minimum 750-square-foot units and allows less expensive stick-frame and stucco buildings. It does, however, include incentives to use concrete, steel, glass and heavy timber by allowing greater density, said Craig Weber, a city planner with the planning department.

The upside of creating denser projects constructed with less expensive materials, proponents argue, is it allows for more affordable units to be built.

“Mandating steel and concrete frame structures can ultimately raise the cost of construction and make the units unaffordable to many tenants who want to occupy these future developments,” the planning department wrote in its draft proposal, which would not change zoning in the Arts District but instead would create a zone for which developers could apply for individual projects. It also responded to the request for larger units. “Live-work tenants are anticipated to be engaged in a variety of occupations, requiring both large and small units; the diversity of unit sizes will ensure that units can accommodate a range of incomes.”

Dana Sayles, a land-use consultant with Culver City firm Three6ixty who has been involved with the zoning discussions through work with her clients, put it more frankly.

“You can’t build a bigger unit and charge a smaller rent,” she said.

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