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An L.A. big enough for tiny apartments

Planners propose units as small as 250 square feet. After all, New York and Paris have them.

July 24, 2007|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Is Los Angeles ready for the 250-square-foot apartment?

That's what city planning officials have in mind with a series of sweeping new zoning proposals that would allow developers to build smaller condos and apartments than ever before.

The tiny units -- studios that officials hope would be as small as 250 square feet -- are part of a package of proposed zoning changes aimed at significantly increasing density in downtown L.A. The rules would apply to the roughly five miles around downtown but could eventually be extended elsewhere in the city.

The idea is to encourage developers to continue to build high-rises downtown even as the market appears poised to slow down -- while also spurring them to build units that are more affordable. Supporters -- who include the city's top planning officials, some developers and Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes downtown -- say the rules will encourage the construction of housing at a time when the city desperately needs it.

"This is a landmark event," said Dan Rosenfeld, a principal in the development firm Urban Partners, which is behind several downtown projects. "The people who care about downtown L.A. have been waiting for these ordinances for a long time."

But the proposal -- slated to come before the City Council next week -- is already drawing criticism from those who see it as another effort to boost development in a region that is already in a high-rise building boom stretching from downtown through Koreatown and into Century City, Westwood and Marina del Rey.

Some land-use experts question whether there is much of a market for tiny apartments in downtown L.A., which, despite its recent resurgence, still lacks the cachet of Manhattan, central London or Paris. Others fear overcrowding and slum conditions if the market goes sour and the units are too densely packed.

"I see it as creating a neighborhood where parking is horrendous and families are squeezing themselves into these units which are very small because they are affordable," said Noreen McClendon, a developer of affordable housing. "It's just a tenement."

The tiny apartment is a fairly new concept in Southern California, which has a long history of suburban sprawl and larger spaces.

But in New York, Boston, San Francisco and many European and Asian cities, residents have squeezed into tiny apartments for decades, usually because the lure of the downtown area is so great -- and the prices for larger places so high.

Gretchen Broussard, who co-owns Tiny Living, a Manhattan store that sells furnishings for small spaces, lived in a 200-square-foot apartment in that New York borough until five years ago.

"I couldn't even turn around in the space," Broussard said. "I maxed out every inch of the wall space, mounted everything to get it off the floor ... "

In San Francisco, Martin Eng rents a 300-square-foot studio in the swanky Nob Hill neighborhood, across from the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Though Eng has several other homes around the state, the apartment is his primary residence -- and he said it's livable only because it has a good view and plenty of light.

With a rent-controlled cost of $400 a month -- below the market rate -- the studio is a convenient city crash pad for Eng, 53, who works in investment.

"Mine is a tiny place, not somewhere you would want to entertain or bring people," Eng said. "It's like a poor man penthouse -- you can't really be proud of it."

Although the new L.A. ordinance does not directly address the size of the apartments that could be built, it would remove all restrictions on the number of units that developers could put in a single building, a move that planners hope will result in residences as small as 250 square feet -- about the size of a hotel room or a modest living room.

The ordinance would also let developers willing to reserve some apartments for low- and moderate-income families to make their buildings 35% bigger than zoning rules normally allow and to opt out of providing half the open space typically required. Those who build units for those with very low incomes would not have to offer parking spaces for those residences.

Perry said the proposed rules would concentrate new housing downtown while preserving single-family homes elsewhere.

The smallest units, Perry said, might be attractive to young professionals who want to buy a condo but can't afford anything larger, or to service workers who couldn't otherwise afford to buy or rent near their downtown jobs.

Burbank architect Mark Gangi, who also teaches at USC, said the rules could help mold downtown into a lively metropolitan center.

The new apartments might be used by those who need an affordable place to live, he said, but they might also become pieds-a-terre for professionals and others who want a modest place where they can stay overnight if they are working or seeing a show or ballgame.

But others are more skeptical about how tiny units would fare in Los Angeles.

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