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No street smarts near LACMA

Times Staff Writer

Last April, the Los Angeles Planning Commission endorsed a list of 14 aggressive principles to help make the city more livable. The first sentence of the plan was blunt: “Demand a walkable city.”

But demanding and creating are two very different things. Too often in Los Angeles, city officials still give cars and the free flow of traffic almost automatic planning priority over pedestrians.

A recent case in point involves a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which will unveil its expanded campus on Feb. 16. It is an example of the left hand of the city’s officialdom not knowing -- or caring -- what the right hand is up to.

And it has had the indirect effect of killing off plans for a street-level restaurant and terrace, across Wilshire from the museum’s new buildings, by Greg Lynn, a young, unusually talented Los Angeles architect. As part of the expansion, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, the museum proposed extending a drop-off lane along the north edge of Wilshire at Ogden Drive, directly in front of its new plaza and entry pavilion. The request triggered a bureaucratic back-and-forth between LACMA and the city’s Department of Transportation. The short version goes like this: The DOT refused to approve the new lane unless the museum also was willing to remove the stoplight and crosswalks at the intersection and extend the median strip running down the center of Wilshire.

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The agency apparently worried about new traffic bottlenecks as drivers dropped off museum visitors and as pedestrians crossed Wilshire to enter LACMA.

According to Melody Kanschat, LACMA president, the museum pushed for a solution that would continue to allow pedestrians to cross Wilshire at that point.

“We went to them at least three times with design proposals that would keep the intersection open,” she said. Every time, she said, the DOT turned them down.

Eventually, fearing delays to the construction work that could jeopardize the opening date for the expansion, LACMA decided to go along with the DOT’s wishes. The sum effect of the changes to the intersection, carried out last fall, has been to seal the south side of the boulevard off from the north right where the LACMA campus has established its new center of gravity.

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Speaking last week by phone from his Genoa office, Piano sounded resigned to the changes. Of the DOT, he said, “They do love to take out traffic lights, don’t they?”

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A literal explanation

In an interview, John Fisher, assistant general manager at the city’s Department of Transportation, was eager to pin responsibility for the changes to the intersection elsewhere.

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“DOT did not do that work,” he said flatly. “That work was done by the contractor for the museum as part of its expansion project.”

That explanation is so literal as to be almost meaningless, a Clintonian parsing of reality that suggests how comfortable the DOT has become as one of the most powerful agencies in city government. Yes, museum construction crews did carry out the work on the median, but only, according to LACMA, because transportation officials would have held up the rest of the expansion project without it.

This might be an insignificant story except for a couple of factors. One is that a central priority of LACMA expansion has been to open the museum up to Wilshire Boulevard and to pedestrians. For decades Angelenos have complained that LACMA turned its back on the boulevard. Piano’s new entry plaza, which features a large installation of antique lampposts by the artist Chris Burden, was designed in large part to reverse that. Once the plaza is open, the museum’s sidewalk frontage along Wilshire promises to be livelier and more crowded than it has ever been.

Second, developers on the south side of this stretch of Wilshire, responding to the LACMA expansion, have begun taking similar steps to re-engage with the streetscape. Wayne Ratkovich, who owns the property at 5900 Wilshire, directly across from LACMA between Ogden and Spaulding, has been working with Richard Weinstein, the former chairman of the architecture department at UCLA, to redesign the lobby of the building and landscaping around it.

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The 30-story office tower at 5900, completed in 1970, was designed by William L. Pereira & Associates, the same firm responsible for the original LACMA campus. Like the museum, it stands decidedly aloof from the sidewalk. As a design consultant for Ratkovich, Weinstein has worked to change the personality of the building by coaxing it to acknowledge the street.

He and Ratkovich held a small design competition for a restaurant and outdoor terrace in front of the building, along the south side of Wilshire near Ogden. It was won by the 43-year-old Lynn, who runs a firm in Venice called Greg Lynn FORM and is also a professor at UCLA. His design is still in the conceptual stages, but it already shows tremendous richness and potential.

His proposal, with landscape work by the Pasadena firm EPT Design, calls for a trellis west of the intersection. It would be held up by columns that would gradually thicken as they neared the corner, then open to become walls for a 3,000-square-foot restaurant interior. A sloping section of floor-to-ceiling glass at the corner of Wilshire and Ogden would face the museum, offering direct views of the new LACMA buildings. The exterior would be clad in faceted metal panels.

Lynn and Ratkovich say changes to the intersection led a potential tenant for the restaurant building to pull out. That’s hardly surprising: Instead of being able to walk directly from the LACMA plaza to their tables, customers would now have to walk east to Spaulding Avenue or west to Fairfax Avenue, then cross Wilshire and double back to reach the restaurant.

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A car-centric city

While it’s disappointing that Lynn’s design may never see the light of day, its prospects are secondary to the larger urban-planning issues at play here. Los Angeles did not become a car-centric city, a place where huge stretches of sidewalk remain not just inhospitable but aggressively unfriendly to pedestrians, overnight. It earned that quality through a thousand small decisions: a widened street here, a stretch of street trees allowed to wither there.

The DOT’s decision in this case is not unlike the city’s controversial plans to remove a row of trees along 2nd Street downtown, on the southern edge of Thom Mayne’s Caltrans building, so it can add an additional traffic lane.

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Encouragingly, the DOT’s Fisher sounds open to at least partially reversing the changes near LACMA. Without removing the new stretch of median entirely, he said, it may be possible to put the crosswalks back in -- as long, he stressed, as the museum is willing to shorten its loading area and it or Ratkovich is willing to pay for the work.

“Part of this could be revised or undone,” Fisher said. “From our perspective we’d be very receptive to looking at that.”

But it’s not entirely clear that a partial reversal, opening north-south traffic back up to pedestrians but not to cars entering Wilshire from Ogden, would be the best solution in this case. One paradox of pedestrian-friendly planning is that to succeed it sometimes requires giving latitude and respect to cars.

Most lively intersections and gathering spaces don’t reject a mixture of cars and pedestrians. They embrace it. The results can be messy, with automobiles getting in the way of foot traffic and vice versa. But that messiness is precisely what gives life to cities. And many sections of Los Angeles could use a lot more of it.

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In this case, it seems clear that the DOT feared a traffic mess as drivers dropped off museum visitors at the curb, pedestrians crossed Wilshire and drivers tried to turn left onto the boulevard -- all at the same time. But the agency might want to look closely at the intersection at the corner of Wilshire and Spaulding, just to the east of the museum’s new campus, where the LACMA main entrance stood for decades (and will stand, officially, for two more weeks). Two crosswalks, a traffic light and an auto drop-off all shared space there. In fact, the crosswalks ran right into the drop-off lane -- the kind of setup that gives traffic engineers nightmares.

Yet that intersection always worked smoothly. No pedestrians lost life or limb, as far as I can gather, on their way across Wilshire to see the Rembrandts and the Ruschas.

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christopher.hawthorne@ latimes.com

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