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New Development Balance

By mid-century, a development-driven Southern California was in full stride, paving its bean fields, leveling mountaintops, draining waterways and filling in wetlands. By 1980, Los Angeles was said to have more private houses per capita than any other large city in the world. None of this came without a price.

In our rush to build we tolerated monumentally careless and unattractive urban design. Yes, Los Angeles has created and maintained some architectural masterpieces: the old Bullocks Wilshire store, the Bradbury Building, City Hall, the Charles Eames house, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House. But Southern California also came to be defined by the weird. Some of it fanciful, like the Googie-style coffee shops of the 1950s and the hot dog stand in the shape of the product it sells. Some of it awful--start with the “dingbat” apartment house, a boxy two-story walk-up with sheltered parking at street level and not one inch of outdoor space. Add miles of crowded freeways, acres of stucco tract homes, cookie-cutter shopping strips and Los Angeles became, as Dorothy Parker once famously noted, “72 suburbs in search of a city.”

Now L.A. is trying to change, to become something more attractive, more welcoming--one big, diverse city with a vibrant center surrounded by distinct urban neighborhoods. That means that development, especially big projects, has become an agonized affair. Plans percolate slowly through layers of city departments, commissions and the City Council; they are vetted by homeowner associations and environmental groups and in dozens of public hearings.

Our notion of what’s good has also changed. We now expect mega-projects to create jobs, add neighborhood amenities and look sharp. At the same time, in this gridlocked city, we want less traffic, lower density and less environmental degradation. This is a tough balancing act.

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The Staples Center rising downtown and redevelopments planned for Westwood Village and underway in Hollywood are good examples of this new paradigm. The projects have been improved along their long and bumpy paths toward approval. Predictions of their community benefits have grown more expansive.

The massive Playa Vista project is another case in point. The 1,100-acre parcel between the Westchester bluffs and the Marina Freeway is the largest undeveloped area in the city and one of the largest in urban America. Howard Hughes once had his aircraft company there. Now developers envision 13,000 residences, 2.5 million square feet of retail space, the DreamWorks studio, parks and restoration of 300 acres of Ballona Wetlands as a bird habitat. Preliminary construction on the first phase is underway.

Like other recent big deals, Playa Vista got better as it evolved. Earlier plans called for as much as 5 million square feet of office space, several thousand hotel rooms, more residents and more office workers. Fears of gridlock, noise and the loss of wetlands knotted up the project for years and forced developers to work with local environmental and neighborhood groups. The scale is more reasonable now, and the benefits to the city--in new recreational resources, smart design, neighborhood services and jobs--promise to be more substantial. A long time in coming, this project is part of a welcome trend for Los Angeles.


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