STYLE : URBAN DESIGN : Remaking L.A.
The image is startling: A city of parkways, greenbelts, small-scale industry, lively boulevards and sheltered communities rising from the parched, post-riot landscape of Los Angeles. Fueled by immense social pressures and funded by investments that could total $200 billion within the next few decades, this new Los Angeles will emerge if a loosely knit group of local planners, designers, critics and politicians get their way.
Working more or less independently, these L.A. visionaries propose redefining the city as a multi-style, multicultural and multi-industrial place knitted together by a grid of green corridors shared by clean mass transit and public open spaces. Connecting these areas would be busy, dense metropolitan boulevards that serve quiet, sheltered neighborhoods.
These proposals may not be as far-fetched as they seem. In the next 15 years, immense public works projects including new subways, highways, electrified buses, commuter rails and public-space improvements will radically alter the face of Los Angeles. Some visionaries and even practical planners and politicians believe that, if properly coordinated, these projects could function as a catalyst for more fundamental changes in our society.
Several of next year’s potential and declared mayoral candidates--Michael Woo and Nick Patsouras, in particular--are promoting versions of this remaking of L.A. Here are six of the planners they’re listening to.
Doug Suisman: CLEAN STREETS
To Doug Suisman, there is nothing like L.A.’s boulevards. In 1989, he wrote a book describing them as the spine and umbilical cord of the city. Ask him about them today, and he still waxes poetic: “Boulevards represented our own character, what we made here: a series of small downtowns connected by these great metropolitan boulevards. They connected us.” But boulevards have changed over the years, becoming so choked by traffic that they are almost unrecognizable. And Suisman hopes to change that.
The 37-year-old architect and his firm, Public Works Design, are RTD consultants on the design of 180 miles proposed in the $1-billion Electric Trolley Bus Project. Demonstration lines in L.A. and Long Beach are expected to be in operation by 1994, and electric buses are scheduled to make up a third of the transit system’s fleet by the decade’s end.
Suisman has suggested renaming the effort the Electric Trolley Boulevard Project because he believes that electrification will dramatically alter the character of the city’s boulevards. “Electric buses are clean and quiet,” he says, “so now you can live on the street.” He envisions banners hanging from the electrical-wire support posts, well-designed bus benches and shelters, pedestrian lighting and shade trees giving a friendly rhythm and identity to the street.
He also foresees high-density, mixed-used development along the boulevards. “You have to ask yourself, what is the ideal (residential building) height for Los Angeles? In New York, except for the skyscrapers, it’s five to 15 stories; in Paris, seven. In Los Angeles, it should be one in the neighborhoods, then five or six on the boulevards: a ground floor of retail, then one or two floors of offices or light industrial, and then a few floors of residential.” The result, Suisman says, will be an active and connective spine. “Even if you don’t live above the store, you will be able to get to work easily because your work will be located somewhere on or near a boulevard and, therefore, on a transit line.”
To make this happen, he recommends the elimination of exclusionary zoning, the standard practice by which areas are designated for commercial, residential or industrial use only. In its place, he would introduce mixed-use zoning, with residential or light-industrial zoning behind that. Part of his inspiration comes from cities in Mexico, where, he says, “people know how to use public spaces. They are incredibly dense and vital places.”
Closer to home, dismal stretches of any number of boulevards could be transformed into lively landscapes by changing parking arrangements and adding cafes and trees to enhance human interaction. “The riots occurred along the boulevards, but so do our dreams and aspirations,” Suisman says. “As designers, we have spent the last decade engaged in creating private fantasies. Now we need to engage the public realm, we need to look at life in our city, and that life happens on the boulevard.”
Bill Fain: GARDEN CITY
At Johnson Fain Pereira, urban designer Bill Fain is responsible for making sense of huge projects such as Los Angeles Center, a 5-million-square-foot office and retail complex scheduled to break ground next spring in Century City West, west of the Harbor Freeway. But the firm found itself at a standstill during the economic decline, so he put his architects and designers to work studying Los Angeles’ shortage of public green space.
“As living spaces get smaller, we can no longer hold on to the idea of private gardens. We need spaces that bring us together, that define us as a city,” Fain says, noting that only 4% of the city’s surface area is public park, compared with 17% in New York and 9% in San Francisco.
His staffers created 6-by-6-foot charts of the city, detailing existing parks and the overall structure of the city, both current and planned. They mapped multi-family housing, transit rights of way and the stations and routes of proposed subway, light rail and commuter rail lines. Then they laid these drawings on top of each other for a glimpse of the big picture.
“We looked at the hits and misses, where the transit improvements actually made sense,” Fain says. And they found problems. None of the new lines serve the heart of the Westside or either LAX or Burbank Airport, so they propose a “Burlax Line” to run from LAX up Sepulveda, La Cienega and Fairfax into the Valley. Transit lines and green spaces don’t always intersect with developments, such as Warner Center in Canoga Park, so they also propose relocating a few stops.
Closer examination revealed a grid of open space formed by unused rights of way, proposed transit systems, natural washes and flood-control areas. Soon mass transit will occupy many of these areas, but Fain sees a larger potential for what have come to be called “greenways.” These sites, he says, could also be corridors for bicycling, hiking, walking or just “enjoying the natural landscape of Los Angeles that we’ve forgotten about.”
Fain is using parts of Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach along a 26-mile stretch of former railroad lines as his model. There, natural landscape has been allowed to frame a continuous bikeway. “Recently, I went bicycling down Ballona Creek and along the beach,” the 48-year-old says. “I felt like I was learning to know the city I grew up in all over again.”
Fain and his team, now studying the park possibilities in Watts, have sketched a city tied together not just by freeways but also by stands of eucalyptus trees and hedgerows that conjure up images of early L.A., of arroyos, farms and orchards. These greenways connecting a vast and undifferentiated landscape are “a chance to reinvent the city,” he says. “They would be a chance to work together, to create a true garden city based on a new kind of social contract, an agreement to use the city together.”
Mike Davis: THINK GREEN
When urban critic and L.A. historian Mike Davis looks at Los Angeles, he sees a city structure based on fear, the result of missed opportunities. And the author of “City of Quartz,” the noir history of Los Angeles, is keeping score: “The Better City proposal of 1907 imagined a city developing along the banks of the Los Angeles River, connecting the resources of the city and uplifting the poor. The Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew plan of 1930 proposed greenbelts based on the wetlands, giving us huge recreational opportunities. A 1945-6 plan for the San Fernando Valley proposed leaving 40% of the area as orchards, with intensive uses in between and mass transit connecting them. I want to refight the battles we lost. It’s like a wargame out there between different development interests. We need to take back our city.”
Davis has very definite ideas about how to go about rebuilding Los Angeles, and he is happy to spell them out for anyone who is willing to listen: “It all starts when you say that no single additional acre of land will be converted for development--not in the deserts, not in the Inland Empire, nowhere. Then you offer inducements to owners/occupiers to redevelop inner-city areas by promoting and subsidizing the construction of flexible lofts for living and working. You treat downtown as an urban frontier where homesteading is encouraged.
“The historic core of the city should be a vital place, connected to new, small industries, to the river, to the historic structures there. You have ordinances that force any owner to convert unused land for temporary uses. You establish a Graffiti Coalition that allows residual spaces in the city to become art parks. You create co-op garages that will allow people to work on cars. Then you take the hidden network of alleys, pathways and small roads and use them as an alternate network to open up a whole new landscape behind the big streets.”
His list goes on and on, summing up many of the proposals envisioned by other architects and planners, many of whom acknowledge being inspired by the work of Davis and his friend, UCLA Professor Ed Soja. But Davis adds another dimension to his urban vision: “For all of this to work, what is essential is self-government. We need to break the city up into units of between 15 and 40 thousand people, who can elect their own government and make them responsible for all issues of community planning. That way, you can create a virtuous circle of bureaucracy, in which the officials are directly responsible and accountable for the services they deliver. Self-government would make politics real, so that we can talk about issues of how each community develops.”
Though he admits that this might give more power to some already formidable and wealthy communities, Davis says that this fact is balanced by the degree of empowerment self-government would provide for a vast number of disenfranchised communities. The combination of radical changes in citywide policies on development, land use and building codes and extreme self-government will, he believes, create a more livable and socially just environment in Los Angeles.
Davis has one specific proposal to generate some much-needed changes: a World’s Fair in L.A. in the year 2000. “It could act as a kind of Archimedean lever for the re-industrialization and greening of the city,” he says. “The 19th Century ended with the White City in Chicago, the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition, where the middle-class white population defined what this country would look like. We should end the 20th Century with a multicultural Green City.” He believes that the fair, like the 1984 Olympics, could act as a catalyst for transit and landscape improvements. It could be sited on the Los Angeles River, which he sees as one of the most underdeveloped assets of the city, and set up as a showcase for sustainable, socially conscious and innovative industrial development. “It would be a communal project,” he says, “in which we could use the whole city as a laboratory and that would coalesce the movement to reindustrialize our city around collective green technologies.”
Achva Benzinberg Stein: A NEW ECOLOGY
For Achva Benzinberg Stein, remaking Los Angeles starts with education. As director of the landscape architecture program at USC, she requires students to engage in community work such as planting trees and building community parks. As a designer, she develops projects where people both learn and profit from the landscape.
Born in Israel and educated at UC Berkeley and Harvard, 48-year-old Stein has lived and worked all over the world, which has broadened her perspective. “I think it is scandalous how narrow both the educational and land-use practices here are,” she says, noting that vocational training is denigrated in American society. “In Israel, it’s an honor.” She is also dismayed by the abuse of the natural landscape. “I was walking through one of the arroyos that come right up to central Los Angeles. It was completely unused and filled with trash, yet thousands of people live around it.”
Stein wants to put this neglected land to use. “The plains and mountains of Los Angeles provide an incredible opportunity. You could create a continual network of arroyos, washes and pathways that would once again connect the mountains and the sea,” she says. Based on her experience with community groups in Eagle Rock and Highland Park, she envisions small neighborhood parks that are not just grass and trees but also vegetable gardens, fruit orchards and harvestable mini-forests. Around these, neighborhood markets and mom-and-pop manufacturing businesses such as canning operations could arise. And children would be educated in agriculture and eco-industries. “Urban wastelands can grow trees, produce fruit, be beautiful places,” she says.
No mere dreamer, Stein points to a large nature preserve she helped develop in Israel and to Uhuru Garden, a prototype Watts community park awaiting funding. Like other L.A. visionaries, Stein believes “you need to understand how you are connected to the landscape, how you are connected to a community using that landscape and how you are connected to the way things are made.”
Stein has answers to almost all objections to her far-reaching vision. Where would the space come from? If a developer lets land lie fallow for more than a few months, the community would be allowed to use it until the developer can come up with a better idea. How would it be financed? The system would be self-sustaining from the fruits of its own labors, needing only water to make the stark neighborhoods of South-Central, for instance, bloom. This would mean changing laws, educational requirements and land-use patterns, but Stein sees only enormous potential in L.A.
By revealing the landscape and putting it to work, she hopes to make Angelenos understand where they are. She also hopes to put thousands to work in helping to reclaim the land that has been long abused and buried--all through the simple acts of planting and nurturing.
Central Office of Architecture: HIGH CONTRAST
Along L.A.’s Miracle Mile, the Central Office of Architecture is busy developing a strategy for making Angelenos more aware of both their man-made and their natural landscapes. Architects Eric Kahn, Ron Golan and Russell Thomsen, all in their mid-30s, hope this act of revelation will produce not only comfortable shelter for their clients but also a better-organized, better-used and better-loved city.
“Our city is like a room full of autistic children, with nobody talking, nobody understanding, but a lot of noise,” Kahn says. “We want to take that noise, the dense simultaneity of events that occur here every day, and make an architecture out of it.”
COA follows in the spirit of the Case Study program, the 1950s Arts & Architecture-sponsored project in which architects such as Craig Ellwood and Charles and Ray Eames experimented with existing technologies and new ways of living. The firm views each of its commissions as an opportunity to conduct important urban research.
The three-man team designs buildings that are stripped down to reveal the logic behind their site, function and design. Its additions clarify a building’s role as, say, shelter or office, rather than present an ambiguous facade. And it relishes theoretical exploration such as its photographic study of “recombinance,” in which blurred and half-understood images (neon signs, windows, etc.) were captured and reorganized to offer tantalizing but somewhat mysterious views of a possible other city.
For downtown, COA proposes a five-story plinth that contains services and parking for the towers above it. The raised structure would also include a rooftop park, thus creating a new public space. On Wilshire Boulevard, the firm suggests “correcting” many of the buildings that have turned their back on the community by re-establishing street entrances. In its housing proposal east of Fairfax and north of Venice Boulevard, the firm shows how multi-family housing could be built out of the inventive combination of typically sized rooms. Locked tightly around one another, these forms would heighten the contrast between small sleeping boxes and spacious living areas inside and between densely built structures and larger-than-usual courtyards outside.
At present, COA’s proposals exist only as beautifully rendered and seductive drawings and models. What sets them apart from other utopian dreams is their fragmentary, cacophonous nature. “We reject the total-control approach to design,” Kahn says. “All we want to do is edit it, touch it up, increase the contrast between things,” Golan adds. “We want to rediscover the essentially horizontal and haphazard nature of what makes this city,” Thomsen says.
The kind of city COA envisions is not a simple one: It is one where all the visual “noise” of different uses, materials and ethnic groups is selectively amplified and pulled apart into its constituent parts. As a small example of what the architects would like to do, they point to their design for Brix, a now-defunct Marina del Rey-area restaurant, where they erected a giant billboard to both announce and screen their small structure. The empty billboard offered no advertising, only a screen through which diners could see a fragment of the landscape beyond, reorganized and filtered through this little bit of appropriated commercial engineering. Says Kahn: “We see our work as taking what is there, using it and allowing other people to see what’s there, as if through a veil of architecture.”
John Kaliski: GLOBAL VILLAGES
Just as Los Angeles’ boulevards are destined to play an important part in the city’s evolution, the same can be said about what’s happening between them. So says John Kaliski, who, as the 36-year-old principal architect of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, has spent the last five years producing general guidelines for projects such as the Hollywood Redevelopment Proposal.
Kaliski, who recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce an urban design manual for boulevards and transportation corridors, sees individual communities linked to the world at large: “I think that we need to have condensed neighborhoods opened up to a regional sense of the nature of our city. And I think I know how to do it. It all starts with the grid. Basically, the city divides into one-mile squares defined by the major boulevards and avenues. Between that, you have the neighborhoods.”
Kaliski wants to reinforce those major streets by lining them with multi-family housing as well as commercial spaces, offices and civic institutions such as schools and libraries. He also proposes creating a second level of mixed-use streets, neighborhood shopping blocks that would bisect the one-mile grid. Every half-mile, there would be a strip of stores and offices serving the neighborhood. That way, he says, “you could wake up and walk to that street to take care of your daily needs, then get into a larger network of boulevards that would connect you both literally and metaphorically with a global network of opportunities.”
While Kaliski’s model is Larchmont Avenue, a two-block strip of stores in the tony Hancock Park neighborhood not far from his home, the test case for some of his ideas will be the Hollywood project. The CRA team worked closely with the Hollywood community, soliciting feedback from residents, and developed a concept of sheltered neighborhood parks, retail areas, markets and small civic amenities as a counterbalance to the larger-scale development of Hollywood Boulevard. “We want to make Hollywood a real working city so that people won’t have to go see an imitation of how it works in Universal City,” he says.
Renderings show a Hollywood in which neighborhood features connect with but are situated behind the tourist-oriented entertainment complexes and shopping malls along the boulevard. Making neighborhoods attractive, Kaliski says, requires more than providing mixed-use streets, so he also encourages the revival of traditional courtyard housing that would increase housing density while preserving public space. “Instead of making megastructures, we need to understand the fine grain, to rediscover the good qualities of housing in Los Angeles,” he says.
Kaliski’s vision is by no means restricted to Los Angeles. “I recently drove down what used to be Route 66 in Fontana,” he recalls, “and I was appalled at how strung-out, faceless and wasteful all those strip malls and developments were. There’s such an opportunity there for dense development along the major thoroughfares, in a way that will both draw together and protect the communities beyond them. Imagine if they developed the Inland Empire as a checkerboard of orange groves and housing developments between the boulevards. As a kid, you could grow up walking to and smelling orange groves. That’s the way we should be developing places like Palmdale-Lancaster.”
Instead of an orange tree in every backyard, Kaliski dreams of communal groves, a bounty of nature and open space available to everyone.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.