Blackbirds, an 18-unit residential project in Los Angeles, designed by local architect Barbara Bestor, broke ground this spring, and its developers hope it becomes a new prototype for adding to the city’s density while preserving a sense of community. Built on a hillside in Echo Park, by sustainably-minded development company LocalConstruct, Blackbirds is a mix of houses ranging from 1,350 to 1,950 square feet on a one-acre lot (made possible because of a 2004 small lot ordinance that allowed a number of home lots to be subdivided). All of the units are fully detached single-family houses, explains LocalConstruct co-founder Casey Lynch, but some appear to be duplexes or triplexes because the units only have four inches between them to maximize density.
The project blends in with the bungalows in the area because of its pitched-roof design. Bestor chose to alternate the cladding on the units: blue-black fiber cement panels that look like wood, or white standing seam metal. “It’s not a cookie cutter, everything-is-the-same kind of project,” says Bestor. “Instead you have a grouping of like-minded things.”
Inspired by the Dutch “woonerf” concept, where the design emphasizes the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, Blackbirds’ units are arranged around a 58-foot-wide, 197-foot-long street that doubles as green space for residents and includes outdoor parking for some of the units. Six units offer enclosed, two-car parking garages. “The whole concept with the courtyard is that you actually have to see your neighbor when you come home, which is a good thing because you might have a conversation with them or become friends,” says Lynch. Private yards offer further opportunities to interact with neighbors. “You might be out having dinner with your family and, right next door, you see your neighbor is doing the same,” says Lynch, who hopes the development will spark a micro-neighborhood. “It’s not for everybody but we think it’s a good type of community-building that’s appealing to people who want to live in an urban environment.”
Tankless water heaters, dual-flush toilets, low-E windows, drought-tolerant landscaping, semi-permeable driveways, and recycled and no-VOC materials are used throughout the development in a bid to be greener, but perhaps Blackbirds’ largest contribution to the environment is bringing people who work in the city closer to it. Blackbirds is situated near local shops and transit stations, making it an ideal spot for aspiring urbanites. “It’s a good set up for someone who’s not wanting to use a car that much,” says Bestor.
Though the process has been more difficult than originally anticipated because of kinks in the small lot ordinance, Bestor hopes it becomes a model for a new kind of urban density. “I’m interested in advocating a building type that’s way denser than what was there and still makes a profit for developers, while not messing up a neighborhood.” The project is about a year from completion and selling prices have not yet been determined, but Lynch says he wants to “provide high design, beautiful architectural homes at an affordable price point to an entry level buyer in L.A.”