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THE NEW URBANISM : Multifamily Housing Discovers Its Own Sense of Style

September 20, 1987|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' design critic.

A SENSE OF STYLEis beginning to assert itself in the increasingly competitive multifamily housing market in an increasingly urban Los Angeles. If the slump in condominium sales a few years ago taught developers anything, it was that buyers were not going to plunk down hundreds of thousands of dollars for mundane, motel-like homes. Units with style sell, developers learned, even in a down market. And now, as the market shifts to the up side, we are seeing a shift in image--in housing as well as in the city itself.

For most of its history, home in Los Angeles has meant a free-standing structure on its own piece of land. While that image persists, the reality of the detached dwelling--so central to the Arcadian dream of Los Angeles--is fading. Escalating land and housing costs, a steadily increasing population, and changing life styles are prompting more people to make their homes in multi-unit complexes, especially if the purchasers are divorced, widowed, single, retired or childless.

A decade ago, an estimated 80% of the new housing built in the Los Angeles area was detached structures, the indomitable single-family house. The estimate today is about 50%. The fact is that the suburban sprawl that for years defined Los Angeles is becoming more dense, and urban. And some interesting new architecture is reflecting this shift.

Three housing projects, each responding with imagination and verve to different aspects of Los Angeles' new urbanism, typify this change: a duplex shaped to serve changing life styles in Santa Monica's Ocean Park; a small condominium in Pacific Palisades that makes maximum use of a limited site, and a large cluster development in the Pico Union area southwest of downtown, designed to provide attractive, affordable housing. Though each was developed quite differently, they share a sense of style.

The Santa Monica duplex was built by George Lefcoe and Charles Whitebread, two law professors at USC. A bachelor, Lefcoe had lived for eight years in a well-appointed, starkly modern house off Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills. "The Mulholland house was fine at first, but in time it just did not suit my evolving professional and social life," Lefcoe says. "I wanted a place where I could walk to the ocean and restaurants and where I could entertain colleagues and friends easier."

But buying or building a single-family house by the ocean was just too expensive to do by himself, so Lefcoe joined with Whitebread, bought a crumbling vacant single-family house on a narrow, 30x140-foot lot in Ocean Park, razed it and had the architectural firm of Solberg + Lowe design a comfortable two-unit complex.

While more than doubling the use of the site--in planning terms, densifying it--the sculptural structure with nautical touches (the ocean is three blocks away) lends the street a touch of class that most likely will set a tone for more "urban" housing.

As for Lefcoe and Whitebread, living in adjoining units worked out as planned. Though they live separate lives, they are friends, occasionally entertain together, and look after each other's unit when one happens to be away.

Site, more than life style, shaped the 19-unit luxury condominium complex at 15500 Sunset Blvd. in Pacific Palisades. Developer Fred Johnson knew there was a demand for attractive condo units, indeed any units, in the Pacific Palisades. The problem was finding a site that was well located, appropriately zoned, reasonably priced, and buildable.

What Johnson found was a 21,000-square-foot site (with a 26-foot frontage on Sunset Boulevard) that drops off sharply down a 32-foot slope. Above it was the rear end of a supermarket--replete with trash bins, below it an unfinished community theater, and across the street a gas station. About all the site seemed to have going for it were views of the distant Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific.

But Johnson and Randy Washington, of the VCA / Randy Washington Group in Santa Monica, saw the site problems as design constraints that with imagination could shape a more interesting project. "Because of the site we had to scrape harder for solutions, concentrate more on each detail, really go for the 'wow' factor and in effect come up with a better product," says Johnson. Helping were landscape architect Roger Pressburger and interior designer Beverly Trupp.

On what was once considered an unbuildable site is now a fanciful, vest-pocket Mediterranean village. A literal oasis off Sunset Boulevard, it is layered with plantings and fountains that drown noise and create a lush passageway to the apartments. As for the sharp slope, it also was turned to an advantage, allowing the parking to be tucked with relatively ease under the units.

As the demand for multi-unit housing increases, sites such as 15500 Sunset Boulevard--on the sides of cliffs, squeezed between stores and gas stations, and generally unappealing--will be marked for development, posing challenges to architects and landscapers.

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