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Daniel Solomon : Creating a New City and New Hope for the Urban Future

James Sanders is an architect and author. He is working on a documentary series about the history of New York City for PBS and his book, "Celluloid Skylines: New York and the Movies" will be published next year by Knopf. He interviewed Daniel Solomon in his San Francisco office

Architect Daniel Solomon, based in San Francisco, is a leading exponent of the “New Urbanism"--a philosophy that has begun to change the shape of the American landscape in projects stretching from Florida to California. An informal but passionately driven association of architects, planners and theorists, the New Urbanists are united by their belief in the value of traditional patterns of development and are seeking to restore or recreate the kind of human-scaled, pedestrian-oriented communities that flourished in the United States in the years before World War II.

While sharply critical of postwar patterns of growth--the ubiquitous tract suburbs, office parks and “edge cities” that are predicated entirely on the arterial highway--the New Urbanists do not advocate (nor think possible) the abolition of the automobile. Instead, they seek to balance the impact of the car with other means of transportation, from mass transit to walking--understanding all the while, as Solomon writes, “that the gradual diminishment of our utter dependence on automobiles demands that town planners understand cars the way lion tamers understand lions.”

Until recently, the New Urbanism was most closely associated with projects such as Seaside, a new town in the Florida Panhandle that has emerged as the most significant prototype of suburban development of the late 20th century. A picturesque community, its closely spaced houses directly front the street with porches and picket fences, and it offers a traditional “town center” within walking distance. By contrast, Solomon’s own projects--including a number of higher-density “infill” projects in the Bay Area--suggest an edgier, more urban interpretation of similar ideas.

Now the principles of the New Urbanism are being extended into the very heart of the inner city, with the creation of a new project by Solomon in South-Central Los Angeles, at 81st Street and Vermont Avenue. Sponsored by the First Interstate Bank, the $11-million development represents one of the most ambitious attempts to rebuild South-Central since the 1992 riots. It is located on a site of enormous social and physical complexity, surrounded not only by the devastation of Vermont Avenue itself but the lush residential landscape of Vermont Knolls, a 1920s planned community occupied today by a solidly middle-class African American population.

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Solomon’s proposal--developed with the Related Companies and several partners--won a 1994 competition because of several striking features. Though denser and more urban than most Los Angeles housing, its 35 apartments offer both genuine architectural style and surprisingly high level of amenity, from private yards to adjacent private parking. The project also includes a limited amount of retail space, to be used by small, local start-up businesses under direction of a satellite of the USC Business School Extension, located in the Pepperdine administration building, a historic 1930s structure on the site. Though the project has generated a measure of controversy by those who questioned whether its approach is appropriate for the redevelopment of South Central, it now seems poised to proceed: Funding is complete, drawings are being finished and construction is “optimistically scheduled,” says Solomon, to begin in June.

In conversation, Solomon, 56, is a genial and thoughtful man whose wry humor masks a true passion, rare among today’s architects, to improve the quality of life for a broad range of Americans, from the residents of the most distant exurban communities to those struggling to survive--and perhaps even prosper--in the central city.

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Question: How did the design evolve?

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Answer: We entered this and assembled a team, expecting it was a low-income, tax-credit rental project, with some retail use. We went into the very first neighborhood meeting and we immediately learned that was a complete misassessment of the situation, and of what would be palatable. There was violent objection, vehement objection of the neighbors in this Vermont Knolls district, to being the dumping ground for low-income, tax-credit rental projects. They said, “Put it in Beverly Hills.” What they needed is what they’ve lost: the commercial and institutional fabric of what was South-Central. This nice little residential enclave remains, while the whole infrastructure of services and institutions that once served it has been dispersed. They want that back--and that seemed right.

The other thing they did not want is low-income housing. They wanted ownership housing. That’s an old story, but here the argument was more than just the parochial self-interest of middle-class people. There really is the nucleus of a quite fragile and beleaguered, threatened, valuable core of middle-income housing--and it should be protected. So we reconfigured our program to be a for-sale, ownership, moderate-density townhouse project with a retail component and a lot of community services.

We saw the task as being, in the first place, putting housing there that would reinforce and not undermine this somewhat fragile existing neighborhood. Second, putting in the amount of goods and services and retail that could be served by this whole infrastructure, and do it in a replicable pattern that could grow for at least some of those 22 blocks . . . .

Q: What’s the theory behind the design?

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A: It’s a combination of ownership housing that would work in the market, that would have two cars and private yards and feels house-like and as much like a middle-class house in Vermont Knolls area as we can make it, and the pattern of retail. We had the model for doing this in a lot of our San Francisco infill, in which the car is dealt with, but dealt with as discreetly as possible, and security is dealt with, but dealt with as discreetly as possible, and the people have the amenities of daylight and privacy and security and immediate proximity to cars and so on that suburban houses have, but in a much more urban pattern.

Q: What has shaped the project’s architectural design?

A: Like many boulevards, Vermont is enormously scaled and small commercial or residential buildings tend to be engulfed in the vastness of the emptiness of those settings. One way that we overcome that is with the pattern that links these segments--each containing 1,000 square feet of retail and four housing units--with bridges at the third floor. Those bridges are the private gardens of the only units that do not have private spaces at grade. So all the residential units have private outdoor space directly contiguous. The bridges that tie the buildings together give a grandeur of scale that enables them to stand up to this very large, vast, vacant environment.

The second formal idea is derived from this particular site, which is contiguous to the former Pepperdine (administration) building. This once quite wonderful Art Deco building is the starting point for our architecture, and our building has a level of detail and exuberance that is a ‘90s interpretation of that 1930s language of decoration.

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Q: In the Pepperdine building, you’ve located an “incubator” for local businesses; why is that important?

A: The idea was to capture a piece of the USC Business School. It’s an incubator, teaches business skills, provides infrastructure support, helps start-ups, grows businesses. We said, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was such a thing?” and, lo and behold, there is such a thing--right up the street at USC, a very successful ongoing operation that wanted to come into this. So we made them the tenant for the historic building.

Q: Some people have questioned whether a combination of housing and retail is the right answer altogether for South-Central’s main avenues.

A: The counterargument, the hostility to this, came from an argument, by Maxine Waters and others, that Vermont should be all-commercial, that historically it had been a commercial street and what they need is commercial and institutional uses--not [housing and] retail. That argument is fine--except that it ignores the larger pattern of enormously overzoned fallow land; there’s more commercial land in South-Central than could be filled in 300 years.

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One fact of life is that there are miles and miles--not only on Vermont but on the other north-south streets like Central--of these very long streets that go from USC to LAX and that once were, in one form or another, fairly solid commercial fabric. It doesn’t exist anymore. There are miles and miles of commercially zoned land that is doomed to a state of perpetual abandonment because there is simply not the pattern of retail services, and the pattern of institutional uses to fill it, even if the employment base still existed in South-Central, even if the tire plants and steel plants and Fontana and all that were still there, which they’re not. The whole pattern of employment decanting that Mike Davis describes in “City of Quartz” is one fact of that landscape, and another is the big-box discount store, freeway-oriented system of distributing goods and services. So here’s all this empty land.

In addition to that is the specific 22-block stretch that has this frontage road, put in when the streetcars were removed. The retail was originally served by streetcar. Then the Red Line was taken out as part of the whole General Motors conspiracy, and replaced with frontage road--which still sort of worked for this not-very-intensive sort of retail. Until along came two things: the big box and the mini-mall. The mini-mall is a very efficient system for L.A.--totally auto-oriented, devastating to neighborhood streets, but it really works as a commercial pattern, because you have the synergy among the merchants and you have five cars per thousand square feet. So it’s a pattern with which this whole infrastructure cannot compete.

Q: Unlike San Francisco, Los Angeles has lived with the myth of the single-family house--it’s a big part of the Southern California dream. What is the impact of higher densities as the future of California; Does it mean the end of the dream?

A: It’s not radically higher. I don’t think the idea of townhouse density, which is what this is, is much of a stretch in Southern California. Certainly, it exists in Venice and Santa Monica, and in the courtyard housing of Hollywood and Pasadena. This is that kind of density.

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It’s not about suddenly importing New York kind of densities or Hong Kong densities or even San Francisco densities to L.A. It’s the kind of density that was part of the L.A. fabric of Hollywood and Pasadena, certainly. So it’s not a radical densification. It’s a little denser.

Q: One important part of the project is reusing the old Pepperdine building. How important is this for Los Angeles, which is often considered a city that erases itself?

A: Maybe it’s unlike L.A., to value L.A. But . . . it’s part of the maturation of L.A. My friend, [Stefanos Polyzoides], has an incredible lecture on the five incarnations of downtown Los Angeles. The previous incarnations of downtown Los Angeles--all of which occurred in 120 years--the previous incarnations are more eradicated than republican Rome, or the most ancient antiquity of Istanbul or Jerusalem. They’re gone, completely erased from the face of the Earth, four times in a hundred years.

That’s quite an amazing story, that there’s not an archeological remnant of a whole city fabric that was there 40 years ago. I think that’s an unhealthy condition. The record of previous generations is probably what anchors people in the world, and people in South-Central need to be anchored in their history. A movie like “Devil in a Blue Dress” is a very good thing, because it shows what that place was, and that it does have a history, and that there was a whole life that went on there--and that to eradicate it is, in a way, robbing people of something that is fundamentally theirs.

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Q: Do you believe it will be a model for additional projects?

A: Well, it’s a complicated question. The apparent answer is “no,” because the subsidy is deep to make this happen. But the reason the subsidy is deep is not because of anything inherent in the physical part of this, but because the land cost is too high. That was established before our competition and is a big drag on our project. I think, inherently, it is a replicable project.

One of the things that should go hand in hand with this, if it is to be replicable--and Con Howe, the [Los Angeles] planning director, is interested in this--is doing certain things to the planning rules. If they were actually to count the parking in this frontage road as the actual parking for the retail--which is how it really works--that would help this be a replicable pattern. And if certain design rules about the relationship of housing to retail were made “as-of-right,” this could certainly be a replicable project. And if what we’re proposing in the context of our little lot became the infrastructure pattern of how the median is reused, absolutely, it could become a replicable pattern. And that was really the basis of the jury’s assessment--in that they saw this as a kind of active community building instead of just a single project.

Q: How does this project fit in with the New Urbanism?

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A: One thing the New Urbanist group believes deeply is that the economic decanting of the inner city and the problem of suburban sprawl are one and the same. They are absolutely connected and mutually reinforcing patterns of disintegration--and you cannot deal with one without dealing with the other. So the problems of South-Central, obviously, are not disconnected to the moving of industry and employment out into the Inland Empire, San Fernando Valley and everywhere else; and remaking the physical fabric in South-Central is completely related to the problems of employment, institutions of community and so forth. The New Urbanist vision is to put everybody’s little endeavors in both a more comprehensive framework and one that let’s you understand it.

So this is a little tiny project--but it is a little tiny project that is shaped and formed by a view of it as a pattern of something much larger, as a piece of a pattern that’s much larger.

Q: I was struck by one juror’s comments. The project’s “remarkable feature,” he said. “is that it does not require people to change their minds about how they want to live.”

A: No, you try not to redesign people.*

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