Reconsidering the front set-back

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One of the more annoying aspects of LA zoning is the requirement for large front setbacks in almost all neighborhoods.

What’s a “front setback”? Simple: It’s a front yard.

In your standard R1 zone, which is the zoning for most single family homes in the city, the required front yard is 20% of the depth of the lot, up to a 20 ft maximum. A standard LA lot is something like 50′ x 150′ (7500 sq ft). 20% of 150′ is 30′, so the font setback would have to be 20′ deep (because 20′ is the maximum). That means that 20′ x 50′ = 1,000 sq ft of the lot, or 13%, is required by the city to be front yard.

Why is that so annoying? I’ll answer the question with another question: When was the last time you saw anyone actually using their front yard?

I think the reason no one uses the front yard is because it’s not private. It’s by definition close to the street. And, due to LA’s insane fence ordinance, which limits fence heights in many places to 3.5′, there’s no way to screen that street-adjacent land from prying eyes.

So, you’re left with a big patch of nothingness, which is likely to be planted with grass and will therefore require a bunch of chemicals and tons of water to maintain.

How should the code be changed? One possibility would be to allow parking the front setback. That would free up space on the sides and in the rear that is generally used for parking. But the problem with this idea is that no one wants to walk / live on a street with a bunch of cars parked in front of the houses.

So, a better option is to allow houses to be built much closer to the street. I would dramatically decrease the minimum front setback, to something like 5′. I would not increase the allowable floor to area ratio; in other words, I would not allow houses to grow, just shift forward on the lot. The result would be larger back yards, which are by definition more private and usable, and (I think) more interesting streetscapes, with less wasted space.

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