Growing up is difficult, for an adolescent or a neighborhood. The habits and patterns ingrained during the early, mostly unconscious years, make it hard to imagine a different way of being on the threshold of maturity.
The east Hollywood district known as Olive Hill is about 70 years old--young for an urban neighborhood. Its first growth, laid down between 1915-30, has begun to be overlaid by a more confused second growth that many residents find troubling.
Fourth graders from the Los Feliz Elementary School--summing up the sentiments of many people who live in Olive Hill--said: “The sidewalks are kind of crowded, streets are too noisy and dirty, get the weirdos off the street, give us more places to play . . . . “
An innovative program sponsored by the Los Angeles City Planning Department and the independent Urban Design Advisory Coalition (UDAC) sent a team made up of architects, planners, community representatives, local officials and a developer to study Olive Hill.
The team, the Los Angeles Design Action Planning Team (LA/DAPT), met for four intense days in early March in a vacant former bookstore on Vermont Avenue to develop a series of proposals for Olive Hill’s future.
“The LA/DAPT program brings some of the most experienced private sector and community people together with the city’s planning officials to blitz ideas for a district,” said city planner Emily Gabel.
“In this way, we can concentrate our resources of talent and expertise to come up with a slate of suggestions the city can use to inform its own specific plans for the district.”
The Olive Hill LA/DAPT is the second in a series planned to work on a variety of L.A. neighborhoods. Vision Van Nuys in October, 1988, helped create the basis for a new specific plan for that section of the San Fernando Valley.
LA/DAPTs are planned later this year to take a look at Watts and the Eastside’s Brooklyn Avenue.
The Olive Hill LA/DAPT outlined five major objectives in its study of the area between Los Feliz and Sunset boulevards, east and west of Vermont avenue. They are:
--To examine ways in which the density of the neighborhood might be increased to accommodate growth without destroying its character.
--To define and enhance an urban village ambiance in the established shopping areas along Vermont and Hillhurst avenues.
--To define the relationship between the commercial and residential sectors of the district, particularly with regard to traffic impact and parking problems.
--To integrate historic Barnsdall Park, now isolated on its hill above Hollywood Boulevard, with the neighborhood.
--To provide guidance for a better connection with the major hospitals along Sunset Boulevard, to be served by a Metro Rail station at Sunset and Vermont, and the Olive Hill district to the north.
“It became apparent to the team right at the outset that the major tension in the area resulted from a conflict between its community integrity and its place in the city at large,” said team co-chairman Rex Lotery, an architect and a member of UDAC.
“The Olive Hill district’s dilemmas are typical of the dual role many L.A. neighborhoods are facing as the city becomes more densely populated and more socially and economically complex.”
This tension between community and citywide roles is evident in Olive Hill’s major thoroughfares, such as Vermont Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard.
The intersection of Hollywood and Vermont, which should be the neighborhood’s heart, is little more than a gigantic traffic interchange for through traffic traveling north to Griffith Park or east-west between central Hollywood and downtown. Barnsdall Park, graced by some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most elegant Los Angeles architecture, is hidden from view behind a shopping mall on Vermont Avenue. There is now no easy way for pedestrians to cross over Hollywood Boulevard and climb the hill to enjoy the peace of a green oasis in the heart of Hollywood.
“The isolation of Barnsdall Park is a disgrace,” Lotery said. “In a city with so few urban parks, we have squandered the chance to create an anchor of beauty for the Los Feliz neighborhood and the wider city.”
The LA/DAPT report, which was presented to the city’s Planning Commission March 16, suggested that the Vermont-Hollywood intersection be transformed into the Barnsdall Park Gateway Plaza.
Soften the ‘Hardscape’
The plaza would be marked by a tall column or obelisk to define its location as an urban gateway to Hollywood. Across Hollywood Boulevard, a flight of grand steps would lead up to the park, opening the vital corner to public view and easy access.
Planting and palm trees would soften the present “hardscape” of tarmac and raw building.
The different character of the shopping strips along Vermont and Hillhurst would be acknowledged and encouraged.
Vermont Avenue, which has a regional role as a major approach to Griffith Park, would “evolve into a mature, pedestrian-oriented shopping street linked to Barnsdall Park visually,” the report said.
Vermont would continue its association with the arts through local institutions such as the popular Los Feliz Theater and Chatterton bookstore. At the same time, the mixed ethnicity of its surrounding population which includes Anglos, Latinos and Armenians would continue to be reflected in Vermont’s cafes and delis.
Hillhurst Avenue north of Franklin is envisioned as a more upscale Larchmont Village-type precinct attractive to the prosperous Los Feliz community that surrounds it. South of Franklin, Hillhurst “should evolve over time into a primarily residential corridor with multifamily housing over limited retail services,” the report states.
“The Vermont shopping strip is a throughway as well as a destination--a place you drive through as well as drive to,” explained team co-chairwoman Brenda Levin, an architect who lives in the area. “Hillhurst, on the other hand, is mostly a destination, like Larchmont Village in Hancock Park. So the two ‘urban village cores’ have to be treated differently.”
As for housing, the report recognizes that Olive Hill’s residential texture of single-family homes should be preserved. To accommodate more people in an increasingly crowded city, the report suggest that “new multifamily housing should be encouraged along the commercial corridors in conjunction with mixed-use commercial retail development.”
“It’s ridiculous that the city has no specific zoning category that would allow mixed-use development,” Lotery said. “Why shouldn’t people be allowed to build apartments over shops or offices?
“In fact, developers should be encouraged to add affordable housing units in retail complexes by awarding them bonus densities in excess of the currently allowed zoning levels. This has to happen in Los Angeles as the city matures and develops its second growth.”
A Better Client
Charles Zucker, a representative of the American Institute of Architects acting as an adviser to the LA/DAPT, summed up the program’s essential purpose as a means to help the community become a better client when dealing with public planing agencies.
“We hope to strike a spark in the neighborhood’s heart,” he said, “that will catch fire and light up the often obscure and usually threatening process of planning and development.”