Finding Density in Sprawl | SPF:architects

Finding Density in Sprawl

As a studio that’s been in Culver City for more than a decade, we’ve watched our small town go from (the uncomely) ‘Culver Shitty’ to one of the most desirable locations on the Westside. Today, within its five square miles you can find innumerable design firms, film studios, art galleries, a rapidly growing tech sector; all the markings of a ‘hot’ neighborhood by any real estate measure. But while Culver City’s popularity has boomed bringing plenty more residents and lucrative employment, its available housing stock has lagged.

Los Angeles housing crisis is one widely publicized and its ills can be seen across the urbanscape. Countless ideas on how this could be fixed have been thrown out, but perhaps the most transformative of those pushed through has been the Transit Oriented Communities Program (TOC)1.

TOCs and Culver City

Since the TOC program took effect in 2016, we’ve been ruminating how it could affect our town. Culver City is not only intersected by several major thoroughfares (eg. Washington Blvd., Venice Blvd, La Cienega Blvd.) but also served by two stations long the popular Metro Expo Line .

A site in the heart of this busy quarter long in our view is a parcel at 3200 La Cienega. This pick-ax-shaped patch of land is not much now but it is quite special in that it is situated just a five-minute walk from the La Cienega/Jefferson station off the Expo Line. As a TOC Tier 4 site (the program’s most advantageous), it has been granted a number of bonuses including a 55% increase in FAR, a 35% increase in maximum lot coverage, and three additional stories up to 33 additional feet. With these bonuses, 3200 La Cienega could accommodate a 203,000-square-foot building as tall as 78 feet with more than 254 apartments—the max height and density currently allowed in the area.

While in any other major city calling a seven-story building tall would be considered laughable, in a low slung, sprawling metropolis like LA, such breadth does not go unnoticed. So we’ve asked ourselves, is it possible for a building of such a scale to bolster its largely squat environs? And more broadly, as LA seeks to become a denser and denser, how do you preserve the California spirit—big sky, nature in view, unobstructed light—at every scale?

A Stacking Game

Given what would otherwise be a hulking mass if established as a standard apartment construction, we thought about how these more than 250 units could be spread across their highly-visible and expansive site. As seen with the Line Lofts, we determined 3200 would need its own unique distribution of space.

To that end, our design layers five- and 10-foot prefab modules seven stories high, where the spaces yielded can accommodate studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. By using prefabs there is no need for expensive steel framing, reducing both construction time and cost.

The stacking also provides an opportunity for us to play with the form. As seen below, we are able to remove corners of the building to give way to curved sightlines at the street level, as well as ground-floor “porches” where residents can convene; for those passing by, these cutaways (clad in wood) offer a sense of an interior exposed visually connecting the building with the streets. Studies have shown that civic buildings with modest enhancements like seating, lighting, or plants can make a building feel more approachable and welcoming and reinforce civic trust. We applied the same logic here.

When You have 253 Neighbors

When you live in an apartment complex, there are certain concessions you agree to, particularly when it comes to noise and privacy. With this in mind, we considered ways the building’s din could be reduced by reorganizing the circulation.

Unlike a typical apartment building where paths stretch door to door to door, or along the perimeter of a property, ingress/egress is provided by zig-zagging bridges that cross above a central courtyard with each traverse connecting to an entry node serving four apartments. With these bridges, residents never pass directly in front of the windows of neighboring units, in turn reducing disruptions and increasing privacy.

Community, on the other end, is programmed on the fifth floor, 56 feet above, where a setback gives way to a shared deck with views of the surrounding city. And again, the building corner cutaways provide additional space for residents to convene.

What is Density in LA?

Los Angeles has only started to contemplate what density could look like in its bounds—the city has very much taken on a “let’s learn as we go” approach. In that same respect, we don’t consider our design for 3200 La Cienega to be an exhaustive solution but rather a study on how certain elements within a large-scale project can come together to improve on what we have come to accept as apartment and city living. We see this project as the beginnings of an exploration on how hundreds of units can be soundly articulated architecturally and urbanistically while still delivering on cost and speed of construction, two very critical points for developers—and a city in dire need of affordable housing.


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    Enact­ed in 2016, the TOC Pro­gram grants devel­op­ers exemp­tions from cer­tain build­ing code restric­tions if they 1) incor­po­rate afford­able hous­ing, and 2) build near pub­lic tran­sit. The TOC is envi­sioned by LA pols as a key step­ping stone to a taller, denser, more walk­a­ble, tran­sit-ori­ent­ed city — with more afford­able housing