The common perception of Los Angeles is that it’s all sprawl and car-dependency, with few walkers, cyclists, or transit riders. But the reality is, that’s changing, and many of LA’s neighborhoods are among the more densely built and populated in the country. A legacy of their development during the heyday of the electric street car system, small lot sizes and gridded street patterns still put many residents within comfortable walking distance of transit and bus stops that connect them to the city’s multiple job centers. Before it became emblematic of sprawl, LA had an extensive trolley system and ridership rates that rivaled those of San Francisco’s present day BART system. Even the subdivisions built during the post-WWII expansion—detached from the street car system and contributing to its demise—were built on grids where the topography allowed it. They, too, are relatively compact compared to those in other areas of the state and country.
LA’s relatively low profile adds to its sprawling image. It is due in part to the region’s susceptibility to earthquakes and because more than half of its housing stock was built prior to 1960, before architectural advancements could ensure tall buildings would not collapse in a major temblor. Few older buildings exceed eight stories. But despite the low-slung buildings, density is higher than the profile suggests because lots are relatively small and multi-unit structures have always been intermingled with single-family homes in many older residential neighborhoods. Historically, culturally, and architecturally important multi-unit residences, like the Casa Laguna in Hollywood, are carefully maintained and remain in use, but as less significant buildings become obsolete, they are replaced by taller ones. Where zoning permits, multi-unit structures supplant decrepit single-family homes. Los Angeles is incrementally increasing in density and so are its neighboring cities.
In Hollywood, which is part of LA, two of the area’s three ZIP codes already have densities in excess of 21,000 persons per square mile—comparable to that of Queens, NY—and plans are being discussed that would further increase density in the areas around the district’s Metro stations. Santa Monica had a 2010 average density of 9,672 persons per square mile, but density in the ZIP code area adjacent to its downtown is roughly 14,650 and will increase with planned transportation-oriented development around the Metro station, scheduled for completion there in 2015. Even in suburban Santa Clarita, a major developer is responding to the region’s changing demographics by building homes that incorporate an accessory unit to accommodate intergenerational living.