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For L.A., utopia or dystopia

MICK FARREN is a Los Angeles writer, musician and playwright. His latest novel is "Kindling" (Tor Books, 2004).

My cab driver informed me that an awards show was scheduled at the Kodak Theatre. The Hollywood/Highland intersection was closed, and traffic on La Brea Avenue was immobile. The ensuing delays would cost us both hard cash, so we quickly formulated alternative routes. Zigzagging through the streets south of Fountain Avenue, I cursed the planners who had made the Kodak the central diadem of the Hollywood Boulevard renaissance.

Hindsight makes city planners easy targets for curses. At best, they operate in an unhappy marriage of utopian vision and bureaucratic micromanagement. Los Angeles, which is in the midst of a broad search for a planner who can set the city on a better course, also presents a unique set of problems. It was the grand, mid-20th-century experiment in car culture, and it has never recovered. We are oil-dependent and connected by horribly overloaded freeways. Deficient in mass transit, we waste vast acres on parking lots.

Prestige developments such as the Kodak Theatre may create an illusion of grandiose urban renewal, but they are hell on surrounding neighborhoods, inflating traffic pressures and inflicting a variety of hidden costs on local residents and businesses.

Sure, the 21st century has pitched the planners some strange curves. Who could have guessed at the demands of security since 2001, or predicted how, when the Academy Awards moved to the Kodak, Hollywood Boulevard would have to be shut down for the better part of a week to protect Clint Eastwood from Al Qaeda? The problems created by such unforeseen challenges, however, don’t excuse the way many developers unrealistically accentuated the positive.

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When plans were unveiled for the Grove on 3rd Street, between the Farmers Market and Pan Pacific Park, the artists’ renditions showed an idyllic shopping mall on what had been a scruffy baseball field. The impact on traffic was glossed over, and no one seemed to have anticipated the way the high fortress wall on the Grove’s southern boundary turns its back on 3rd Street west of Fairfax, robs it of pedestrian life and compounds the bleakness of the parking expanse that serves the aging strip mall across the street. Litter, traffic stress and localized pollution have visibly increased, along with a sense of a potential for crime on deserted sidewalks. Inside the Grove, all is sweetness and Abercrombie, but the streets beyond have been rendered mean.

Heading east on 3rd Street, on past the Grove, the separation of street and structure -- and the resulting traffic snarl -- continues through the Park La Brea development, a gated and guarded combo of new low rise and older high rise, conceived by a mind-set that views the city as hostile. To cut through Park La Brea is to enter dystopian science fiction, with rent-a-cop checkpoints and defined perimeters. Side streets are closed, and you are an outsider.

But contrast the nuisance of the Kodak, the bleak exterior of the Grove and the isolation of Park La Brea with the bustling sidewalk gentrification of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, which appeared literally to grow from the ground up. In the mid-1990s, law enforcement declared this stretch of Santa Monica a “prostitution-abatement zone.” Such a thing seemed absurd at the time, but the low life actually did move off and the city installed trees, better lighting and grassy medians. The area became infinitely more pedestrian- friendly, and stores and sidewalk cafes infinitely more viable. It helped, of course, to have a population that was socially disposed and with a high disposable income, but an organic process really had been cultivated at street level -- and with an emphasis on human needs and behavior. The old “Boys’ Town” is now a real urban hub of a kind that’s crucial to the city’s health in the new century, when population density may be the critical factor, along with all its attendant behavioral stresses.

The Census Bureau already has declared the Los Angeles Basin, despite its reputation for sprawl, the most densely populated area in the continental United States, 25% more dense than even New York City. There’s no reason to believe the influx is going to cease in any foreseeable future. The worst-case scenario is again dystopian science fiction -- a “Blade Runner” skyline towering over the unplanned, 12-in-a-room, underclass flatlands. The current promotion of the affluent residential high-rise does seem to move in that direction.

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Hope, however, of avoiding the “Blade Runner” scenario may flower in the strangest places. The common concept of urban high density -- poor families crammed into small houses -- is only part of the story. The middle class and young professionals also are feeling the squeeze. The pueblo-like in-fill developments on hillsides in Silver Lake and Laurel Canyon provide homes for studio assistants, actors working telesales and computer engineers in former garages turned into cramped studio apartments. Duplexes grow where a backyard used to. What’s created may be ad hoc, and not up to code, but it’s done with energy and ingenuity.

I devoutly hope the city will study such pragmatic grass-roots responses and help ease their progress as in Boys’ Town. Better, surely, than massive, imposed developments dropped -- by a combination of Ayn Rand edict and developers’ bottom line -- into neighborhoods wholly unequipped to deal with them.


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