Blackbirds by Barbara Bestor and LocalConstruct
For over a century now, Los Angeles’ solution to the problem of perpetual population influx has been to expand outward. The city has swollen and engulfed smaller communities time and time again but now we are starting to reach the limits of our geography and that old solution is no longer looking viable. Contrary to east coast cities, LA was never forced to grow upwards, in fact the city was marketed as being a community of single family homes with yards and driveways, the idea of people living in high rises was anathema to the California way of life. Now though, in 2015, we are neck-deep in a housing crisis and we need to find another way.
Housing density is a fairly contentious issue in LA in part because the gap between the haves and have-nots is so huge. The haves in this case, are largely homeowners and they are understandably opposed to the idea of having large apartment buildings or even medium density developments going up next door. The have-nots are largely apartment dwellers and in a city the size of LA, you would be forgiven for thinking that finding a place to rent would be easy — it isn’t. Many apartment open houses result in dozens of applicants for landlords and often have people bidding against one another over the advertised rental price. It’s a crazy situation and now more than ever, people of average or lower income are being priced out.
Lots of people have put forth ideas on how to assuage the housing crisis and these ideas have spanned the gap from reasonable to absolutely insane. One such company is called LocalConstruct and their idea, while different, is pretty far from insane. The execution of the idea is actually pretty brilliant. LocalConstruct was founded in 2008 by a pair of UCLA grads, Casey Lynch and Michael Brown. LocalConstruct has a number of properties throughout the Western United States, with the bulk being located in Idaho. When a parcel of land in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood came up for sale, they jumped at the chance to work in a city that prides itself on having many examples of great architecture. Rather than building another single family home or a traditional boxy apartment building on the property, Lynch and Brown decided to try something decidedly atypical (both for the neighborhood and for their company) and to built a micro-neighborhood. To help realize their idea, they contacted renowned LA architect Barbara Bestor.
Bestor’s design, which has been christened Blackbirds, borrows heavily from Dutch and Scandinavian design, both in terms of aesthetics and function. The defining feature of Blackbirds is the woonerf or ‘living street’ that serves both as parking and common space for all eighteen homes on the property. The homes are broken up into four distinct floor plans, some with garages and some without. The houses are relatively small by LA standards, with the largest coming in just under 2000 square feet, but they’re laid out in such a way that they don’t feel at all cramped or limiting. The homes all have abundant windows and light color palettes inside to make them feel larger than they are. The fixtures are all high end, with lighting fixtures having been designed specifically for the project. Blackbirds’ homes sit on a .82 acre lot but manage to not feel jumbled together. The woonerf prevents parking problems in an already parking-challenged neighborhood.
The homes in the Blackbirds micro-neighborhood are many things, but one of the things they aren’t is cheap. The least expensive units are still well over the $700,000 mark and the largest units are over $1,000,000. As an exercise in increasing density without making ugly, uninviting boxes, Blackbirds is a resounding success. As a housing solution for those of average income, it falls short. As someone who loves the city, and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, I can only hope that the ideas that Barbara Bestor, LocalConstruct, and Blackbirds put forth are accepted and adopted and acted upon before the housing crisis reaches critical mass. Owning one’s own home is part of the dream of Los Angeles, but right now, that dream is out of reach of most people.
For more information on Blackbirds LA please visit http://www.blackbirdsla.com; for more information about Barbara Bestor please visit http://bestorarchitecture.com; for more information on LocalConstruct please visit http://www.localconstruct.com.
Photos Courtesy of V3llum.