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COLUMN ONE : Like It’s So L.A.! Not Really : What is the essence of the city? Architects aim to distill it and package it into four blocks of shops and offices. The homeless will not be there, but irreverence and some ugliness is quite welcome.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

High on a hilltop in Universal City, the folks at MCA Development Co. have a vision of Los Angeles as they would like it to be. It starts with what they wish it was not.

Take Venice Beach, said MCA President Lawrence Spungin. “There’s somebody on every street corner with a ‘Work for Food’ sign,” he said. “It’s not fun anymore.”

Leasing director Tom Gilmore has the same gripe with Melrose Avenue. “I don’t need the excitement of dodging bullets to go there,” he said. “I don’t need to go to a Third World country.”

Even the city’s most charming places are overrun by rowdy crowds, said planning director James A. Nelson. “Look at Westwood.”

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But these executives think they have hit on a $100-million solution. Overlooking the traffic-clogged Hollywood Freeway near Universal Studios, MCA is building a new and improved Los Angeles--a four-block strand of shops, restaurants, theaters and offices, dubbed CityWalk. This is no mall, said Spungin, but rather “idealized reality,” L.A.-style.

From its inception, CityWalk’s goal has been to deliver on the unkept promise of Los Angeles. It is a grand notion, based on the presumption that a city’s essence can be distilled, enhanced and artfully packaged, like so much synthetic perfume.

MCA is not the first to try it--Disneyland has its Main Street USA, and Universal Studios Florida boasts stylized versions of Hollywood Boulevard and Rodeo Drive. But CityWalk is different: Instead of replicating mythical or distant places, it mimics the very city in which it sits.

Tired of feeling guilty about the homeless? Weary of fighting traffic or worrying about crime? When CityWalk opens this fall, its creators promise a poverty-free pedestrian promenade with plenty of parking and a sheriff’s substation on the premises.

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What is more, they insist, CityWalk--which hopes to lure mostly local residents, as well as tourists--will offer this respite while maintaining the “real” feel of a Los Angeles street. As planned, it will have the fanciful facades of Melrose, the gritty billboards of the Sunset Strip and its own faux Venice Beach, complete with sand. It will be irreverent and, in places, ugly.

MCA is confident that when given the chance, Angelenos will flock to CityWalk because the company’s market research indicates that for many people, reality has become too much of a hassle.

That idea troubles some observers, who fear that by tempting consumers with a simulated slice of Los Angeles, CityWalk may encourage the abandonment of the real city.

“This sounds like the end of L.A. history: Los Angeles finally gives up on itself and creates an idealized version,” said Kevin Starr, a USC professor who specializes in social and cultural history. “Have we so lost L.A. as a real city that we need this level of social control for anything resembling the urban experience?”

Others worry that the project, by exploiting Angelenos’ alienation from their city, will foster intellectual laziness.

Craig Hodgetts, an architect with the Santa Monica firm Hodgetts & Fung, was among many who collaborated on CityWalk. He found the attempt to “decode” Los Angeles fascinating, he said. But it made him wonder if CityWalk’s visitors, served only the choicest cuts of the real city, would still come away malnourished.

“There’s a predisposition to having an easy, bite-size piece of reality which does not challenge you,” he said, adding that CityWalk “does reinforce, I think, the tendency toward a kind of secondhand reality that’s predigested.”

Even urban planners who share Hodgetts’ reservations say they think that Jon Jerde, CityWalk’s principal architect, may be onto something.

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If CityWalk is successful in borrowing the common denominators that give standout places their verve, they say, the project could help solve a problem that puzzles much of citified America: Amid the sprawl, something is missing.

Los Angeles is similar to many other developing cities in that it no longer has a single center. Instead, growth has turned Los Angeles into a metropolitan galaxy composed of a series of constellations--smaller “urban villages” that meet most residents’ basic housing and service needs but, say many planners, still leave them wanting.

Precisely what these neighborhoods lack--charm? history? a center? a soul?--is the subject of much scholarly debate, as is what to do about it.

“How do you reconcile the fact that what you love about the great cities of Europe and to some extent the older cities of the East Coast has to do with the idea of history?” asked Richard S. Weinstein, dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, who is among those who detect a deficiency in the modern landscape. “The question is: Can you detach the process of time from your sense of what you love?”

CityWalk, which will stretch from Universal’s 18-screen Cineplex to its tour plaza, is among the first privately financed projects to try.

Jerde--a Los Angeles native and one of the nation’s most sought-after architects--says it will be its own “real-life place,” not a mock Los Angeles but a genuine new neighborhood, true to the city’s theatrical and chaotic history. As such, it will cost nothing to enter (except the price of parking).

Using decorative sleight of hand, the designers plan to wrap the brand new street in a cloak of instant history--on opening day, some buildings will be painted to suggest that they have been occupied before. Candy wrappers will be embedded in the terrazzo flooring, as if discarded by previous visitors.

“It’s as if you’ve come in in the middle--something is already going on,” said Richard Orne, an associate at the Jerde Partnership and CityWalk’s chief project designer, who said the scuffed, dented robots in the movie “Star Wars” inspired CityWalk’s simulated “patina of use.”

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CityWalk will also seek to give back what Jerde and others believe car-bound Angelenos truly miss: a place to walk around.

“Hollywood Boulevard is a disaster--you don’t go there at high noon. We’ve got to have somewhere to go,” said Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer and futurist, whose essays about the dearth of communal gathering places in Los Angeles were required reading for CityWalk’s creators.

“Gathering and staring is one of the great pastimes of the countries of the world. But not in Los Angeles,” Bradbury wrote in one essay. “We have forgotten how to gather. So we have forgotten how to stare. And we forgot not because we wanted to, but because, by fluke or plan, we were pushed off the familiar sidewalks or banned from the old places.”

CityWalk is an attempt to create a new place--the spine of a larger Entertainment City that MCA plans to build atop its hill just east of the Hollywood Freeway. It is a utopian experiment designed by an architect whose previous “urbanopolis” projects--San Diego’s eclectic Horton Plaza and Los Angeles’ Westside Pavilion--have established him as one of the nation’s most daring urban thinkers.

To discuss architecture with Jerde is to ponder human evolution, fuzzy logic and the 21st Century. The 52-year-old architect, who once suggested--in earnest--that Disneyland should install a Realityland next to its Frontierland, was unusually well-suited to address the abstract questions that CityWalk raised about his native city.

Before they could design the quintessential Los Angeles street, Jerde and his colleagues set out to understand what distinguishes Los Angeles. What they found told them a lot about what makes the city what it is.

“L.A. is not a fixed thing. It’s a moving target, an elusive energy psyche that is not physical,” said Jerde, explaining why he felt CityWalk’s biggest challenge was to capture Los Angeles’ spirit, not its architecture.

With that in mind, CityWalk’s design team first needed to fill in Los Angeles’ gaps. Quickly, they decided that much of the real city, pocked by parking structures and empty lots, was made for drivers, not for those on a stroll. They resolved that CityWalk, retrofitted for those on foot, would be a continuous street without any holes.

It would also have no famous buildings--no Schwab’s Pharmacy, no Pantages Theater or Kress Five & Dime. Instead, the designers sought out details that were familiar, but not necessarily recognizable.

“We were looking at the real corners off the alleys of Melrose and Orlando,” said Jerde, who would inspire the project with touches of California Mission architecture, Art Deco, streamlined modern, 1950s geodesic and something called Vernacular California crazy--buildings shaped like icons, such as the old Brown Derby restaurant.

But Jerde believed that Los Angeles was more than a hodgepodge of architectural styles. Using computer-imaging, his team dissected some of the city’s most vibrant streets--La Brea and Larchmont, Olvera and Westwood--searching for the key to their appeal.

They concluded that more often than not, the buildings were just “dumb stucco boxes.” Far more vital was what adorned them--the competing “Look at Me!” signs, the garish paint jobs, the awnings, the drainpipes and the tangled electrical conduits.

Some of those elements were unsightly. But the designers came to believe that, ugly or not, they were essential. Unplanned, haphazard, these details would be the glue that bound CityWalk’s disparate pieces into a seemingly genuine urban collage.

“L.A. was never a designed city. It was kind of a business transaction gone amok,” said Jerde, recalling how he and his colleagues came to realize that, more than anything else, CityWalk would have to be a place of change.

Their analysis of the Sunset Strip revealed that it had far fewer buildings than billboards. In order to attract attention, the billboards were always putting on new faces, giving Sunset Boulevard a different eye-catching look nearly every day.

Soon, CityWalk’s creators were obsessed with designing a street that would somehow provoke change. The idea was to create a subtle backdrop of buildings as a canvass for CityWalk’s tenants, who would then be encouraged to “personalize” their storefronts.

Inspired by actual eye-catching stores such as the Soap Plant and Wacko on Melrose, MCA issued a challenge to prospective tenants. At CityWalk, they said, it was not enough to tack up a sign. CityWalk would be different--bigger, brighter, weirder. And if a company--concerned about maintaining its recognizable image--was not willing to experiment, then it was not welcome.

“Generic ‘mall’ designs . . . developed for typical shopping center locations are not appropriate,” reads an MCA document that explains CityWalk’s “design intent” and “storefront criteria.” Already, MCA executives say, that policy has nixed deals with at least one national chain.

Instead of uniformity--the essence of most shopping malls--CityWalk’s designers wanted unabashed variety. And they realized that that could not be contrived.

“Rather than one person going in and trying to design the whole thing to look like it happened haphazardly, we wanted to try to actually allow it to happen haphazardly, organically,” said Bob Bangham, an architect with Olio, a Venice-based firm that helped design CityWalk’s facades and color scheme.

“We were just jump-starting it,” said Olio illustrator Charlie White, who helped design a series of “hot spots"--wacky elements, distributed throughout the project, that are intended to act as a catalyst for creativity, setting the ground-rules and giving tenants permission to be outrageous.

CityWalk’s billboards will be made in 3-D with moving parts. Its buildings, some wildly painted and textured, will be oversized--1 1/2-times bigger than normal. There will be waterfalls and light shows and even a huge blue King Kong hanging from a 70-foot neon totem pole, which will guide visitors toward the tour plaza.

Will the tenants, many of whom will likely be announced next month, meet the challenge, picking up where the designers leave off to create a rich, “real” place? Will MCA be able to exert creative control over that place without stifling its natural evolution? CityWalk’s designers are optimistic.

In search of authenticity, MCA has approached the Groundlings, a Melrose-based comedy troupe, and asked them to consider moving their headquarters to CityWalk. The lease for a UCLA Extension facility has been signed and MCA is negotiating with the Museum of Neon Art in the hopes of installing some of Los Angeles’ antique neon signs at CityWalk--including the 35-foot flame that was perched atop the Southern California Gas Co.

Most of the ambience will depend on what the rest of the tenants--among them a magic show and dinner theater, a theme seafood restaurant (Gladstone’s 4 Fish) and a bookstore-coffeehouse--do with their storefronts. MCA is running each tenant proposal by the Jerde Partnership for advice on which ones to approve.

“What I would hope for is a lot of bad taste. . . . A kind of, ‘Screw you, I’ll do whatever I want’ (attitude), which is exactly how Los Angeles was formed,” Orne said, adding that if done right, even graffiti would be a welcome part of tenants’ facades. “I think that’s the direction we’re going in and to be quite honest, I’m very happy about that.”

Weinstein, the UCLA dean who also served as a consultant on CityWalk, predicts that it will be a long time before there are answers to the difficult social questions the project prompts. Is CityWalk a solution to Los Angeles’ problems? Or will it merely help residents escape them, leaving the city to fend for itself? Is it a supplement or a substitute?

“Some would say this is just an opiate, that this is how we fail to deal with the problems we have, and in so doing we let them get worse and they come back and bite us in the fanny,” said Weinstein.

But Orne said to bash CityWalk for luring people away from what they fear is “to deny change.”

“People want to have a communal experience in a place that they feel safe and comfortable. Who cares if it’s artificially created if it does that and answers that need?” he asked. “Yes, we are creating a homogeneous environment, one that is a distillation of something else. But that’s all that Los Angeles has ever been.”

Starr, the social historian, agreed that in a sense, CityWalk’s idealized, entertaining vision is perfectly in keeping with Los Angeles’ inventive history.

“In the long run, maybe this is the most real L.A. of all,” he said. But Starr said he hopes that CityWalk’s creators, in addition to studying Bradbury’s futuristic essays, are also considering the lessons in his fiction.

In Bradbury’s novel “The Martian Chronicles,” Starr said, a group of American astronauts arrives on Mars and discovers what appears to be a charming, Midwestern town.

After their grueling journey, the astronauts find the town’s lush lawns and porch swings irresistible and agree to spend the night with their friendly human-like hosts. Once tucked into bed, however, their captain, John Black, begins to wonder about this “amazing dream of reality.”

“Suppose all of these houses aren’t real at all, this bed not real, but only figments of my own imagination, given substance by. . . the Martians,” Black thinks, suddenly fearful that he has been seduced by a flawless simulation. “Suppose. . . by playing on my desires and wants, these Martians have made this seem like my old hometown, my old house, to lull me out of my suspicions. . . to divide and conquer us, and kill us?”

Black bolts out of bed, screaming. He is murdered before he reaches the door.


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