Commentary on the LA Forum’s Dingbat 2.0 competition, written for the publication: Dingbat 2.0: The Iconic Los Angeles Apartment as Projection of a Metropolis.
Now that midcentury architecture is en vogue, there seems to be an interest in romanticizing the dingbat, especially the ones with zippy sputnik styling. However, it’s important to keep in mind how limited this affection is. The dingbat is ubiquitous across Southern California, found in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Pasadena, the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County. Rather than viewing the dingbat with halcyon glasses, the reality is that these cities have been traumatized by the combination of cheap construction and density that lies behind the logic of the dingbat. Dingbat neighborhoods are often the least desirable areas of the city, often perceived as slums, and—as often as not—slums in fact, not just perception.
In the cities I’ve worked in, the zoning codes that immediately followed the hey-day of dingbat production are often written to prevent the dingbat from ever occurring again. Pasadena’s City of Gardens ordinance mandates a courtyard typology that follows traditions from the 20s-30s rather than 50s-60s dingbat or the later 70s-80s six-pack construction. When I helped re-write the City of Azusa’s zoning code, we effectively banned the dingbat by requiring all new multifamily units to have direct access to the ground in lieu of common corridors, walkways or stairways. Where I currently work, in Glendale, the response was even more dramatic—the multifamily zones were down-zoned in the 80s to prevent dingbat densities from ever happening again. Unfortunately, the imminent down-zoning also produced a rush of poorly designed applications intended to lock-in entitlements at the higher densities. As a result, Glendale and other cities contain entire neighborhoods of 60s, 70s, and 80s-era dingbats in which there is no incentive for reinvestment – why would an apartment owner ever consider replacing their dingbat with a new building when the current zoning will require a more amenitized, more expensive, less dense and ultimately less profitable structure? By freezing the dingbat in its current form, but without providing economic value to alleviate the problems the new zoning was intended to correct, these kind of zoning laws ultimately perpetuate the slow decline of the dingbat neighborhood into a slum of substandard housing. The political will to rezone these neighborhoods for denser development simply doesn’t exist, and likely never will, and with good reason since many of these neighborhoods don’t have the infrastructure to sustain more density.
Therefore it is a little disappointing that many of the entries in the Dingbat 2.0 competition simply re-imagine multifamily housing typologies at dingbat densities. As a strategy for rehabilitating the dingbat, this invention of a better architectural mousetrap seems unrealistic to me, for the reasons outlined above. This is not to take anything away from the architectural or urban merits of individual proposals—many would provide far better living environments than current dingbats—but is difficult to foresee any of the competition proposals considered seriously outside of isolated new tracks or random infill lots within existing dingbat neighborhoods. What cities desperately need, even if they don’t know it, is a menu of interventions and micro renovations that can be applied to existing dingbat apartments.
If there were to be a Dingbat 3.0 competition, I think it would need to pair creative financing, creative architecture and creative zoning policies. I imagine a series of experiments that would selectively relax zoning regulations to allow for specific architectural additions that would add new financial value to existing properties. For example, how could the seismically-weak “soft story” of tuck-under parking be activated to create pedestrian-oriented street frontage? The solution will not be found with architecture alone, although some of the Dingbat 2.0 proposals propose automated car lifts as a solution to this dilemma. Public policy will need to intervene as well. Since many dingbat neighborhoods abut commercial corridors, it is likely that parking problems are generated by commercial customers (and usually employees) as much as residents. A permit parking district could reserve on-street parking for residents, allowing some of the tuck-under parking to move to the street, thereby allowing an additional unit or two to be added to existing dingbats, and thus promoting reinvestment in these buildings. Alternatively, perhaps height restrictions in the zoning code should be relaxed just slightly, to allow for small towers of a few additional units to be added on the of roof existing dingbats. Finally, there might be certain dingbats that are so poorly designed and built, and present such chronic code-enforcement problems, that the best solution is demolition. Perhaps these sites should be converted to neighborhood pocket parking lots to help remove parked cars from the street or nearby dingbats. But most residential zoning districts prohibit commercial parking uses, preventing this solution from being an economically viable strategy for the building owner. From my perspective—perhaps because I sit where public policy is the most readily available tool—the Dingbat 3.0 neighborhood will be created not by architecture only, but architectural solutions married to specific zoning policy standards as well as financing strategies. I imagine these married solutions will vary widely and resist categorizing into a single typology like the original dingbat. Cities need a series of pilot projects to bring together architects, property owners, lenders, and city officials from various departments to explore the implications of Dingbat 3.0. Glendale has sites—who wants to get started?