Building Height is one of the main variables that zoning codes control. Building Height is a key factor in the planning and design of any building. It is always one of the first things I look at when considering the development potential of a site.
The height of the buildings in a neighborhood has a huge overall impact on the living environment. Compare smaller scale shopping developments like Westwood Village and Palisades Village, with larger scale shopping developments like Century City Mall or the Beverly Center and you can quickly see the difference. One experience is more intimate and one on one, while the other is much larger with open public space.
Los Angeles, for the most part, is spread out wide and low, with the average building height being 1 or 2 stories. If you got to Manhattan in New York there are plenty of tall buildings there. In LA, Downtown neighborhoods like Downtown Los Angeles, Downtown Brentwood, Downtown Hollywood, Downtown Long Beach, and Downtown Glendale – there are a few tall buildings.
Why are there so few tall buildings in Los Angeles? There are two reasons- 1) California has seismic activity (you don’t want to build a tall building on top of an earthquake fault!) and 2) Land in Los Angeles use to be cheap. Not so much anymore! In the past, it was easier to keep building outwards rather than upwards.
How is Max building Height and the Number of Stories related?
The maximum height is the tallest you can build a structure. It does not inform you as to the number of stories. As a builder or developer, you can choose to make the new building as many or as few stories as you like so long as each floor meets the minimum ceiling height requirements for its intended use.
For example, say you have a lot with a MAX Height of 45 feet, you could choose to build 1, 2, or 3 stories. The minimum ceiling height is 8 Feet for habitable spaces, and when you add a few feet for the subfloors and ceilings of each floor, height is usually about 12-14 feet per floor, so a 45 ft height limit would be at most a 3 story building. In theory, you could have a single story with 45 foot high ceilings, but many people would consider that a waste of space.
Reading the Los Angeles Building Code for Max Height:
§ Section 12.21.1 of Los Angeles Municipal code deals with Building Heights.
LADBS has a great informational Bulletin: General Zoning Code Design Criteria For Multiple-Dwelling Development
There are four different parts of Los Angeles building code you need to understand to figure out the maximum building height: Zone (Residential Zones/ Commercial Zones) the Height District (1, 2, 3, 4) Special Height Districts (L, VL, XL) and Specific Plans (Baseline Hillside Ordinance, Mulholland Scenic Corridor).
- Height District
- Special Height District
- Specific Plans
Not sure if you got it right? When in doubt, make a trip down to your local building department and talk with someone from the Zoning Dept.
The zoning is the first thing to check. Each zone gives you the base Max Height which some of the other factors might modify.
Here is a table of Max base Heights for Residential Zones:
Here is the table for Max height for Commercial Zones:
Yes, that’s right- Commercial Zones have no max height. However, they do have a maximum FAR (Floor Area Ratio) which will limit the maximum height indirectly. Let’s use a basic example- let’s say you have a made-up commercial 4,000 sqft Lot with no height limit and a 1x FAR. You can build a 4,000 Sqft building. How you choose to lay it out is up to you. You Could make a single story 100% lot coverage building, a 50% lot coverage 2 story building, or a 25% lot coverage 4 story building. Or anything in between.
It is very common to see “C” zones that have added Height Modifiers that impose a Maximum Height Limit and scale down the FAR. FAR ratios of 6-13 are Massive!
Height districts alter the maximum building Height AND FAR of a zone. Height Districts are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4. Height District 1 is the lowest height district, while 4 is the highest. If the Height District is 1 then the Max Height is the same as the basic zone.
Los Angeles Height District Map
As you can see from the Map above most properties in Los Angeles are in Height District 1 (I’d guess about 95%). You will usually only run into Height Districts 2-4 on Commercial parcels or Higher density R zones like R3 and R4. Since these Height Districts are already 75 feet or unlimited the Higher district pretty much just modifies the FAR. Quick note, Residential and Commercial Lots buildable area is calculated very differently. Residential has front back and side yard setbacks, while commercial properties do not.
Let’s look at a residential example. Let’s say you have a 6,750 sqft lot that is zoned R4-2. Lot dimensions 50 x 135. Let’s say 15-yard setback for the front, 5 feet set back sideyards, and 10 feet in the back. Buildable Area is 3,125 sqft
In this example, The 2 height district increases the FAR to 6x so you can build 18,750 sqft instead of 9,375 sqft that you could normally build in R4 zone Height district 1. The increase in height district in this example doubled the building size!
Special Heights Districts:
While Height Districts increase the building size and height, Special Height Districts Decrease it.
There are several different Special Height District codes (L, VL, XL, SS)
For R1, if you see R1-L, or R1-VL, or R1-XL this means that even though R1 Zone is
Lets take an example so you can see how this can change things.
Let’s suppose you have an R2-1XL Zone Lot. For the R2 Zone the Max Height is 33 feet. However for R1-1XL the max height is now reduced to 30 Feet.
The Cities Zoning code has all sorts of zoning overlays. If a parcel is in one of these special zones then that will alter the Height.
-Overlay Zones: HPOZ, Baseline Hillside Ordinance, Coastal Zone
-Community Specific Plans
-General Plan footnotes
Baseline Hillside Ordinance
§ LAMC Section 12.21C.10-4
USING ZIMAS to Look Up Zoning
What is the heck is Zimas? Zimas is an acronym for “Zone Information and Map Access System”. Pretty boring name if you ask me, but I like Zimas (reminds me of the clear vodka like drink from the nineties). You will hear a lot of planners at the zoning counter talking about Zimas- they spend most of the day on the website.
Zimas is the first place you want to check to determine the property’s Height Limits:
Type in your address and open up the “Planning and Zoning Tab”
The Zoning Tab contains all the properties zoning information. Don’t be intimidated by the huge drop down menu, most of the fields are blank for most parcels.
One feature I love about Zimas is that the Zoning Information is linked to the related zoning documents. Any field that is a “No” or “None” you don’t care about.
In the example above the Property :1720 Winmar- is an “RS” Zone, and it has modifications “ZI-2462”, and it is in an Enterprise zone ZI-2129. Since this is a residential property and enterprise zones deal with commercial properties this doesn’t have any affect. You can also see there is a General Plan Footnote, good to check that also. The big one here, is that it is in a hillside zone, which means it falls under the baseline hillside zoning ordnance. That is going to change the rules for max height dramatically.