The sprawling Los Angeles area is the pinnacle example of the post-war housing boom and expansion. Flush with cash from the Golden Age of Hollywood, shiny new cars from Detroit, and a healthy surplus of some of the most beautiful land in the country, it’s easy to see why Los Angeles has the landscape it is today. Nestled in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles is home to an area called Warner Center, about 26 miles west on highway 101 from Downtown. It is one of a number of communities (both as part of Los Angeles proper and as their own independent municipalities) spread all over southern California representing the ideal of a car in every driveway and a chicken in every pot. Despite Warner Center’s history, big efforts are underway to transform the city to meet the demands of future lifestyles. The Valley is getting some much needed density in order to keep Los Angeles an attractive place to live, with other communities such as Northridge, North Hollywood, and Sherman Oaks enacting their own improvement plans. While it has the benefit of a much-desired climate, the competition to bring new “sunbelt” residents to a certain area is increasing.

Warner Center is the proud torch carrier of a new master plan, approved last October by the city council, which will bring about a slew of new development that aims to increase the overall quality of life for the existing and new residents to the area. The new Warner Center will be split into eight distinctive areas, named North Village, Downtown, Uptown, River, College, Topanga, Park and Commerce. You can see how they are split up below.

Warner Center 2035 districts from the official master plan. Color added by author.

Warner Center 2035 districts from the official master plan. Color added by author.

To populate this new development, the master plan calls for the changing the number of residential dwellings from 900 (as of 2009) to a build-out limitation of just over 26,000 residential units. The new residential housing will largely be in the form of mixed use buildings, in the form of low, medium, and high rise.

Warner Center Orange line bus. Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Warner Center Orange line bus. Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

A big part of the mixed-use strategy is to create what the plan calls a “livable center”, focused around the following areas:

  • Public Realm to have great streets and civic amenities.
  • Shops and a wide range of retail to choose from.
  • Housing that is diverse, close to amenities, and has good proximity to jobs.
  • Schools and Parks to be adequate and accessible.
  • Jobs will have a wide range of opportunities for residents.
  • Transit will provide options for mobility using a sound transit network.

The livable center idea is designed to bring people out from behind the wheel and into the street instead. The logic is that the vibrant street culture will make the new Warner Center a place where people will want to hang out and feel that they are getting the greatest quality of life possible. It is not altogether different from the urban village model, with smaller downtown and midtowns popping up within a single city’s limits.

The market seems to be responding well to the idea as well, with apartment buildings selling to the tune of almost $90 million under the assumption that the Warner Center 2035 plan would be adopted. .

The redesigned streets will feature new public amenities, including re-designed street lights, benches, waste disposal containers and improved sidewalks. The design is aimed at turning the area into a transit and pedestrian hub, and in order for that to work you have to make the people want to be part of it. Here’s what, according to the plan, a street might look like when the light rail system is put in place.

Transit hub design from the Warner 2035 Plan.

Transit hub design from the Warner 2035 Plan.

The design allows for a single lane for cars, which combined with public transit and pedestrian / bike traffic will result in lower speeds and, hopefully, safety for all commuters regardless of their mode of transportation.

Will Warner Center succeed in bringing walkable a small town feel into big Los Angeles? Nobody is certain. Luckily the plan can be revised as time goes on if it becomes apparent that a certain aspect of it is not working as it is intended to. Judging by the support the project has received from both public and private partners, it is shaping up to be something that will make a fascinating case study 20 years from now.

If Los Angeles can get this right, they potentially put themselves in a position where they can compete with the large number of cities that millenials are interested in calling home. The following chart from The Atlantic shows that the top 15 cities that young people are attracted to show some surprising results, including San Antonio and Charlotte.

Top 15 cities for young people as of November 2013. Chart courtesy of The Atlantic.

Top 15 cities for young people as of November 2013. Chart courtesy of The Atlantic.

Absent from this chart are the top three most populated cities in the United States: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. As cities adapt to the ever-changing needs of the American consumer we are reminded that, just like in business, those who can best solve their customer’s problems will keep their customers and gain new ones. Substituting customers for residents and purchasing with “voting with their feet”, it is becoming less and less about the narrative of “the creative class” and much more about the future of the United States.

New housing is no longer the answer, but the right kind of housing is. Having things to do within driving distance is, for many Americans, not as important as having things to do within walking distance.

The lesson from the Rust Belt has been in many ways simple: learn to adapt to the changes of a new economy or become a victim of it. Los Angeles is trying to adapt. Let’s see what Warner Center looks like in 2035.