A Remedy for the Car? The Life Sciences Could Be the Cure

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A Remedy for the Car?

The Life Sciences Could Be the Cure.

The life sciences in Los Angeles punch above their weight. Small but mighty, this emerging sector is quickly changing not just how Angelinos work but also how they live. Driven by innovation, the life sciences are perfectly suited to LA, the creative capital of the world—and a mega-sized incubator for breakthroughs in industries ranging from aerospace to entertainment.

It’s time we took notice. While the life sciences represent a small percentage of the commercial real estate in LA, there’s an increasing demand for lab space and, even more, for much-desired innovation communities that support science, research and technology. These hubs emerge from some of the best academic institutions in the country, their renowned research programs fueled by billions of dollars in funding from the National Institutes of Health. Together, they output some 14,000 life science graduates into the workforce each year. Local universities are part of the reason that employment in life sciences companies—ranging from corporate giants to start-ups—is growing locally at an annual rate of 10 percent.

It’s no surprise that the companies developing products to make people well—life sciences, biotech and pharma—are drawn to LA, with its focus on health and wellness, its attractive indoor/outdoor lifestyle, and its rich culture of arts and entertainment. San Diego and San Francisco are already two of the top three markets for life sciences in the country. The Los Angeles market, ranked in the top ten according to some reports, is gaining traction.

As life sciences companies have settled into LA, lab developers are experimenting with new models of mixed-use urban development that eschew the stand-alone office building. Instead, they’re opting for pedestrian-friendly, urban campuses—cities within a city—a radical notion for a metropolis that’s built around the car.

But is it? No. In fact, the real estate market for the life sciences is following trends established by the tech industries (Playa Vista), creative industries (the Hayden Tract in Culver City), and entertainment industry (Hollywood), which have also settled in up-and-coming neighborhoods such as West Adams and Sycamore Ave. Additionally, there are life sciences hubs in the village-like communities of El Segundo, Pasadena, and Thousand Oaks. All are dense and desirable communities where people can live and work, minus one of the nation’s worst commutes.

Most of these places are already connected by public transportation or will be soon. Local investments in mass transit, such as the Expo Line—connecting DTLA and USC to Culver City and Santa Monica—are providing alternatives to the car and driving development adjacent to the Metro. When finished, the purple line will connect high-end, high-density mixed-use districts from the east to the west; Westwood, Century City, Beverly Hills, Mid-Wilshire, and Koreatown will have a direct line to DTLA. Recently, Culver City closed several streets, giving cyclists, pedestrians, and public transport the right of way over cars.

While these trends may seem like contradictory, if not antithetical, to Southern California sprawl, they’re proof that development patterns are starting to shift. The “15-minute walking community,” a benchmark for sustainable city planning worldwide, is starting to grow here in starts in fits. People want to live in close proximity to amenities—cafes and restaurants, retail, galleries, and boutique offices—while still having access to all the LA has to offer: it’s the best of all worlds. In fact, the city is a vast network of such hubs, with more and more walkable districts offering an antidote to LA’s car-centric dependency.

Many of these new developments are built around older buildings, which have been expanded and/or restored, catalzying growth around them. In a city built around sound stages and stage sets, adaptive reuse is a draw for developers who have anchored mixed-use activities in the vicinity of historic buildings, capturing the kind of authenticity that tenants and businesses seek.

In fact, LA is rife with 20th-century buildings and light industrial facilities that are readymade for research: they have robust building frames, high floor-to-floor clearances, and large floor plates. They’re perfect for accommodating labs and for drawing the talent that wants to work there. Because retrofits are faster than building from scratch, developers can get spaces to market more quickly. Conversions have been further incentivized by a city ordinance that favors renovation and reuse in DTLA. If this ordinance is extended to the whole city, it will add even more appeal for developers looking to invest in this sector.

Access and convenience are two reasons that, in the last 20 years, life sciences companies have ditched their offices in the suburbs, relocating to cities. Cities offer vitality and spontaneous, urbane lifestyles. Mixed-use districts are a perk for recruiting, as young people want great access to art, culture, and amenities. More than just chasing the zeitgeist, life sciences companies want proximity to universities that they rely upon for research as well as sources of funding. There’s also a competitive advantage for tech and sciences: density sparks breakthroughs. Innovation is more acute in urban environments where people of different industries can interact and meet.

LA’s naturally creative environment is the consummate petri dish for the exchange of ideas between technology companies, entertainment, the life sciences and creative industries. This city alone offers companies a place to capitalize on all its incomparable energy, creativity and talent. In addition to stimulating the development of more labs, the concentration of life sciences companies might very well spur wellness communities, the perfect complement to a city where the artistic, entertainment, and lifestyle industries rub shoulders and flourish.

Scientists and researchers, like creatives, rely on collaboration for inspiration and success. As they continue to seek out places to come together in real time, they could instigate a return to urban areas and offices, revitalizing whole districts of the city—and putting people back on its streets.

Peter Schubert is a partner at Ennead, an international architecture firm based in New York focused on designing high-impact life sciences facilities.