As a girl growing up in Israel, Achva Stein was part of a community that dreamed of turning the barren desert green.
As an architecture student at UC Berkeley and Harvard in the 1960s, Stein pursued a similar dream by designing public spaces in inner cities as part of a federally funded effort to revitalize devastated communities.
But when Stein came to Los Angeles in 1987 after six years in her homeland, she was stunned to discover that the opportunities to work on public projects such as those she had worked on as a student were gone--casualties of changing times and the Reagan era.
So when Jeff Samudio of Eagle Rock, one of her graduate landscape architecture students at USC, told her that he and his residents organization needed her help on a project to revitalize their community, "naturally," Stein said, "I jumped."
Stein and several of her students have taken Samudio up on his request and are coming up with ideas on how to spruce up Colorado Boulevard. They will use design regulations that Los Angeles city planners are writing for the boulevard to show how residents and merchants can construct a better-looking street.
Stein, associate professor of architecture and director of the landscape architecture program at USC, is also a partner in the Glendale landscape architecture firm of Troller Mayer & Stein. She is volunteering her time and the time of her students for the redesign project--conceived as a collection of drawings depicting, lot by lot, how the commercial area can be improved.
Stein is using as a framework the Colorado Boulevard Specific Plan, which puts limits on development and encourages developers and property owners to abide by certain design restrictions. The plan is making its way through the city approval process. If adopted by the Los Angeles City Council, the plan would limit development along Colorado Boulevard from Eagledale Avenue on the west to Eagle Vista Drive on the east.
Under the plan, zoning would be more restrictive on properties fronting Colorado Boulevard. The plan would also prohibit certain types of businesses and certain design elements deemed by city planners to be unsightly, such as garish signs and parking that fronts the street.
The plan is designed to encourage development of green open space, public parking and wider sidewalks and the preservation of architecturally significant structures.
The specific plan regulates the height and size of buildings but cannot regulate their design. It cannot force merchants to plant trees or redesign sidewalks or restore building facades. Stein's plan is to suggest such design changes to residents and merchants alike, hoping to spark their imaginations and persuade people to improve the community on their own.
"The idea is to get the community involved, to get them interested, to get the merchants on the street to donate money so they can get together to create their own sort of force to push the city to help them," Stein said. "There is beauty in this city; there is beauty in the desert. People just have to make it happen."
When completed, Stein's project will include examples of suggested redesigns of specific Colorado Boulevard properties--a series of trees, perhaps, to unify the street or an intricate wall to hide parking spaces. The finished product will also include a report suggesting how merchants and citizens can obtain funds and skilled people to make the plan a reality.
Students who work on the project will get course credits, Stein said. The community will get a rough draft of what their neighborhood could be.
"She's giving people or groups of people a realistic view, a window in, a vision of what their community could look like," said Emily Gabel, a Los Angeles city planner who has worked with Stein. "She's really stepping into a gap the city doesn't have the resources to fill--capturing the imagination of people that things can change."
Stein said she hopes that the Eagle Rock Assn., a residents group that has become increasingly active in preservation and revitalization efforts the past two years, will use the plan to attract private money to make the plan happen.
Stein's work in Eagle Rock is, she said, part of a larger and admittedly idealistic vision. She dreams of a stronger link between professionals, academics and government to improve the design of public spaces. She also dreams of individuals working to improve their own communities.
It is an ideal, Stein said, that she learned as a child in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, where she followed the city's gardener around, learning from him and her parents that the Jewish mission was to build a community in an arid land, to "tie ourselves to the land of Israel."
It was the Zionist idea that human strength comes from making the most of the land available that propelled her into the field of landscape architecture and into New York's Queens College in 1964, Stein said. There she became involved in the civil rights movement and transferred to Berkeley the next year. While at Berkeley she volunteered her time in Watts in 1967 and in depressed Northern California towns designing public spaces.
While studying for her master's degree in landscape architecture at Harvard, Stein and several colleagues won a grant from the Ford Foundation to design a plan for the reclamation of the Sudbury River, a channel that runs through Framingham, an industrial suburb of Boston. Stein's plan was instituted in the town, and what was once a dump on the banks of the river is now a park, she said.
In 1979, Stein and her husband, a transportation planner, were awarded Fulbright fellowships to work in India. There, Stein studied how the people of desert towns made the most of their land.
At USC, Stein, 45, is developing a landscape architecture program where there was none before. She is also one of a small number of landscape architects in the city who volunteer their time to help communities, city officials said.
"There should be more people like Achva who are committed to working on community-based projects," Gabel said. "We have the best laboratory in the world. We have 465 square miles to work with and we can't do it ourselves."
Stein said that eventually she would like to set up an institute at USC that would volunteer student and faculty time to develop architectural plans for people who want to improve their communities but can't afford architects.
"In Los Angeles, I feel that I am needed," Stein said. "Everywhere you go, there is work to do. We are doing work that the city can't afford . . . but we're also helping the students to understand that what they do . . . is important.
"It is my mission," Stein said. "It is work for the rest of my life."