Planning Process Raises Questions

A sprawling, scrubby 257-acre site on top of Topanga Canyon is the latest battleground in the heightening war over the shaping and styling of Los Angeles city- and "suburbanscapes."

Involved in this particular battle--in addition to the usual array of concerned local residents and determined developers--is the credibility of the county planning process.

Scheduled to be aired before the county Regional Planning Commission Thursday is a proposal to develop the Topanga site for a hotel and conference complex, an 18-hole golf course, tennis and equestrian facilities, 224 home sites and a convenience shopping center.

Also included in the ambitious plans submitted by architect and developer Christopher Wojciechowski are police and fire stations and a water treatment plant. The cost of the development, called the Montevideo Country Club, has been estimated at about $100 million.

Wojciechowski describes his dream development, encompassing the headwaters of Topanga Creek, as a public resource, while residents to the north, on the "valley" side, talk of it as "upscaling" the area, and not incidentally, the value of their homes.

But residents to the south see the development as a major threat to their rustic life style and the canyon's fragile ecology, which is ravaged intermittently by floods and fires. They also note that the grading for the proposed project would destroy hundreds of valued oak trees.

And, as in almost every community these days, there is growing concern over traffic. Topanga Canyon Boulevard already is one of the more overburdened and dangerous roadways in the area, due, in part, to the penchant among local residents for souped-up pickup trucks, or at least it seemed that way during a recent visit there.

Whatever, there is little question that Topanga Canyon is a unique area, caught in a sort of comfortable, if not funky, 1960s time warp in which the reality of a 1980s real estate packaging, embodied in the Montevideo Country Club, is not particularly welcome.

But in addition to the conflict of styles, there is the question of land use. The general interim plan for the site prescribes light agricultural use and about 100 single-family houses.

Though the plan has been adopted, its implementing zoning has not. Still on the books is the old zoning, which, in this case, would allow 529 home sites.

Nevertheless, the intent of the plan has been quite clear for some time. One wonders why the county goes through the trouble and expense, and residents the time and good will, that preparing and approving a plan demands, just to see it so blatantly ignored by developer after developer requesting variances.

The situation seems to have taken its cue from the infamous business practices of the entertainment industry, where producers, having signed a detailed contract, have been known when putting down the pen to comment, "now that it's done, let's negotiate."

No matter how well designed, the proposed Montevideo Country Club is so out of scale and of context that it raises questions concerning the good faith of the county's planning process.

It is just this type of situation--the obvious abuse of zoning prescribed by a general plan--that frustrates community groups trying to play a responsible role in the development process, and that sends them over the thin line from conscientiousness to contentiousness.

When communities in the Los Angeles area had elbow room and traffic flowed freely, such developments as Montevideo would probably have been approved without much debate, perhaps even welcomed.

But as the area continues to urbanize and becomes more dense, such developments demand more scrutiny, and the planning process more credibility.

This problem of urbanization was the theme of the recent Monterey Design Conference sponsored by the California chapter of the American Institute of Architects. It was quite timely and well intentioned, if a bit confused and not particularly well attended.

Critical as it is, urbanism is just not as sexy a subject for architects these days of glitz and glamour. "But we must address it for it is no less our future," commented conference chairman Marvin Malecha, dean of the School of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona. How true.

Those at the conference recognized with varying concern that if architects want to play a role shaping the built environment rather than just decorating it, they are going to have to get more involved in concerns beyond individual projects and into the unappetizing politics of development.

However, most speakers focused on personal laundry lists of urban design goals, including the need for more mixed-use, higher-density projects, recycling landmarks and expressing, through a more vital architecture, an area's history. It was all very presumptuous, another episode in the continuing soap opera of "Architect Knows Best."

The drift of the discussions prompted moderator Michael Pittas to plead for architects not to be so absorbed with style, and to concern themselves more with social intent, the involvement and effect on the ultimate user, the public. Pittas's effort was noble; a voice in the wilderness.

But it was obvious from the subsequent panels that architects feel more comfortable as autocractic decorators than as democratic designers.

Very much a designer was Richard Neutra, one of the more prolific and influential architects to have graced the Los Angeles scene. An engrossing view of his early years and his relationship with his wife, Dion, is offered in Richard Neutra: Promise and Fulfillment, 1919-1932, Compiled and Translated by Dione Neutra (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Ill. 62901: $19.95).

The relationship of the Neutras and his development as an architect and a husband is traced through correspondence and diary entries. Not exactly an architectural history, the collection with a forward by Thomas Hines of UCLA, nevertheless is engrossing.

Engrossing also is the current exhibit of photographs and memorabilia, "Hula Hoops to Hanoi, L.A. Concerns 1954 to 1965," at the Central Library downtown. And besides the exhibit on the first and second floors, there is, of course, the library itself.

Wandering through the structure designed by Bertram Goodhue and viewing the mural by Dean Cornwell, one is reminded of how precious and vital the library is to the city's sense of history and place, and how important it is that it be preserved.

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