Bulletproof public design

Times Staff Writer

Seniors in Steel Plaza’s retirement complex in Pico-Union sometimes like to take their morning walks in the building’s courtyard, protected by a black wrought-iron fence and perched 30 feet above the intersection of West 3rd Street and South Union Avenue.

“We’re quite safe here,” said Victor Gamad, 73, who has lived in the building since it opened a decade ago. “We never get frightened, except for when someone sets the fire alarm off.”

Steel Plaza, which opened in 1998, was designed to be “drive-by proof.”


It is one of the early examples of what has become a growing movement in urban sections of Los Angeles to blend public safety with architecture -- with some surprising results.

Last year, officials built a dirt hill at a new state park north of downtown aimed at shielding a play area from motorists who might commit drive-by shootings. Workers are now building a South L.A. community center with a community garden on the roof rather than at street level to protect against crime.

“If you just build boxes and windows, you’re not going to help,” said City Councilman Ed Reyes, an urban planner who has adopted the safety-by-design strategy to deal with increasingly crowded neighborhoods. His 1st District includes the Pico-Union area and MacArthur Park, some of the most densely populated neighborhoods west of the Mississippi with up to 66,000 residents per census tract in some areas.

“Every development is geared toward the people that have to live there on a day-to-day basis,” Reyes said. “When we look at the pragmatism of our neighborhoods, we have to ask questions: Where is the bullet going to come from? What projectile elevation should we adhere to in our development? Where should we situate the trees?”

Reyes said he had been wrestling with issues of density and urban development since he was chief legislative analyst for the Planning and Land Use Management Committee in the late 1980s. Project after project crossed his desk that increased neighborhood density while reducing open space.

Reyes said his goal is to reduce the effect of density. “We can either run away from it,” he said, “or we can ask how we can create relief so that we have our places of sanctuary.”

Five of 20 staffers in Reyes’ office are urban planners who are reshaping his district with design and topographical changes to parks and buildings, particularly those that combine affordable housing with social services. Another goal is to promote open space. By the end of the year, Reyes will have helped add about 70 acres of park space within his district’s 13.9-square-mile boundaries.

One example of his office’s work is a 5-foot-high dirt hill built to shield visitors at Rio de Los Angeles State Park from drive-by shootings along San Fernando Road. The 40-acre tract, better known as Taylor Yard Park, opened last year. The hill is fortified by a fence lined with bushes and trees on each side.

Then there is the new Rampart police station scheduled to open later this year. The station, which was built with tile and glass that gives it a less institutional feel, includes a large community meeting room and an expansive front lawn for residents’ picnics, Reyes said.

Others are adopting a similar design strategy. In South Los Angeles, Councilwoman Jan Perry has already broken ground on the 9th District Constituent Services Center, a $9-million community building at Central and Vernon avenues -- the same intersection where five middle school students were shot in February while waiting after school at a bus stop.

The building will have bulletproof windows and one of the city’s first public rooftop gardens.

But some area planners cautioned that although “defensive architecture” is sometimes necessary, it is not the ultimate solution to urban problems and should be subtle in its design.

“I don’t think it’s part of our obligation to go out there and design fortresses, but you do have to take some steps,” said Frank Villalobos, president of Barrio Planners, which develops community projects throughout Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Reyes said he is working on more affordable housing projects with designs like Steel Plaza’s elevated open-air courtyard, which is barely visible from the street. About one-fifth the size of a football field, it includes benches set between bushes and large plants.

The neighborhood around Steel Plaza has long grappled with crime. So far this year, one homicide, seven rapes, 60 violent robberies and dozens of aggravated assaults have occurred within a mile of the building, according to LAPD statistics.

Violence “may exist in the community, but it doesn’t happen here,” said Catalina Hernandez, the manager at Steel Plaza.

“We wanted [residents] to be able to go outside at night and see the stars and to be safe.”

Reyes said he has helped find public funding for several neighborhood projects and has worked with developers on planning and design. His buildings are generally recognizable by their bright pink, green, blue and yellow facades.

Casa Loma, a 110-unit residential facility for single parents about four blocks from Steel Plaza, was built in 1993 by the nonprofit group New Economics for Women, which worked closely with Reyes to design the building.

A year before construction, the nonprofit group asked local residents what they wanted in an apartment building.

The result was one of the city’s first child-care centers in a public housing building, apartments built surrounding a large courtyard where parents could watch their children and laundry services on each floor. The apartments are above ground-level, and there are security cameras at all entrances.

“It’s done so the kids don’t have to sleep in the bathtub,” Reyes said. “I have parents telling me that they’re resorting to this because they don’t want their child to get hit by a bullet.”

The safety-by-design strategy began to catch on and La Posada, a public housing development for teenage mothers, was built nearby a year later with similar features. Then La Villa Mariposa, a 115-unit affordable housing building similar to Casa Loma, was constructed in 1996 on Columbia Avenue.

Reyes is “a planner and he knows the consequences of space and the impact it has on the community,” said Bea Stotzer, New Economics’ chief executive.

She said most for-profit developers in the area were simply worried about “the biggest bang for the buck.”

But Stotzer said an increasing number of city leaders and nonprofits are taking a different approach to development and looking for better and safer ways to provide housing, social services and open space in some of the densest and poorest parts of the city.

Para los Ninos, a nonprofit that provides educational facilities for at-risk children, opened a child-care center at West 3rd Street and Loma Drive about five years ago. The agency has dozens of buildings throughout Southern California and one of its goals has been to provide children an “oasis.”

The building on Loma is on a hill, and classrooms are set back far from the street. The playground is sunken and surrounded by a wall, and a security guard is on duty during school hours.

“You have to go upstairs to our castle,” said Maria Cornejo, 58, a teacher at the Para los Ninos center.

“I think [the children] feel pretty safe.”