Los Angeles’ major public spaces remain broken works in progress

Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Los Angeles, more than most cities, has defined itself by continual bursts of expansion and an unflagging optimism about its place in the world.

But as the city has grown to a population nearing 4 million, we’ve neglected some major holes in the civic fabric. Los Angeles has become as well known for its high-profile architectural and urban-planning failures — for the buildings, institutions and public spaces we can’t seem to get right — as for its innovations or breakthroughs.

This is particularly true for our civic architecture, which has never matched the ambition and allure of the region’s private houses and high-end commercial enclaves.


ON THE BOULEVARDS: Lankershim boulevard

So far the major candidates for mayor, moving cautiously and even ploddingly toward Tuesday’s primary, have advanced few visionary plans. The race has focused on competence and cost-cutting.

But the city needs far more than small improvements around the margins. It is broken in some fundamental ways.

Here’s a look at the most glaring embarrassments of all — and some straightforward ideas about how the next mayor can start fixing them.

A fumbled entry

As a gateway to the city, Los Angeles International Airport could hardly be more dispiriting. A jumble of mismatched, outdated terminals, LAX gives visitors a resounding first impression of civic dysfunction.

The city, which owns the airport, has tried several times to remake LAX. The latest attempt is a master plan by Fentress Architects, which is also designing the nearly $2-billion Tom Bradley International Terminal.

But the truth is that the airport’s biggest liability is not simply architectural. Somehow Los Angeles built a major rail route, the Green Line, past LAX 20 years ago without adding a stop at the airport.

And guess what? We are about to build another light-rail route — this time the $1.7-billion Crenshaw Line — near the airport and make precisely the same mistake again.

Why? In part it’s because squeezing a station beneath the existing airport complex would be expensive and complicated. And in part because the operator of LAX, Los Angeles World Airports, has not always seen eye to eye with transit planners at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Plans are underway to build a “people mover” automated train that would take passengers to the airport from a Crenshaw Line station at Century and Aviation boulevards, a mile east of the terminals.

The people mover would be a sadly inefficient compromise. The worst-case scenario, which can typically be counted on at LAX, is that passengers on the Crenshaw Line would have to drag their suitcases over a pedestrian bridge before getting on the people mover.

The next mayor should push for a station at — rather than merely near — the airport, even if paying for it means delaying other rail projects or putting another sales-tax measure for transit funding on an upcoming ballot. And even if Metro claims that planning for the Crenshaw Line is too far along to be changed.

Cities around the world have figured out how to build light-rail or subway lines right to their airports. Even Dallas will have a direct rail link to DFW by the end of next year.


River woes

If you think we’ve ruined LAX, what about the Los Angeles River? After a series of floods, including a particularly deadly one in 1938, engineers put the river in a concrete straitjacket.

It was a decision made in the name of safety and predictability. But in the process a natural amenity became an eyesore, a punch line. We love concrete so much in L.A., the old joke goes, that we even paved the river.

Since 32 of the river’s 51 miles are within the L.A. city limits, the mayor has a powerful say over its future. The goal should not be to take the river back to some idyllic, preindustrial past. Instead we should look for a few places where we can crack open its hard shell and interact with it in new ways.

ON THE BOULEVARDS: Sunset boulevard

A number of intriguing ideas have already emerged, building on advocacy by the Friends of the Los Angeles River and a master plan the City Council adopted in 2007. Among the most promising is a proposal by landscape architect Mia Lehrer and three architecture firms for the so-called Piggyback Yard, a 125-acre site across the river from Union Station.

It would add walking and biking paths along newly green riverbanks, as well as a park with soccer fields and a botanical garden. It would also act as a powerful pilot project, helping the public see the river’s larger potential.

Pushing landowner Union Pacific to sell or make the site available to the city should be high on the next mayor’s agenda. So should making sure that the construction of a new Sixth Street bridge, spanning the river between downtown’s Arts District and Boyle Heights, stays on pace. The design for that bridge by architects HNTB and Michael Maltzan, which prevailed in an unusually ambitious city competition last year, includes significant new open park space along the river.

There’s at least a built-in excuse for our failures to repair the L.A. River: Its massive scale guarantees that any attempt to fix it will be piecemeal.

Not squared away

No such defense can be made of the city’s repeated missteps at Pershing Square. The 5-acre park in the heart of downtown is manageably small and self-contained. It is also a perfectly depressing symbol of L.A.’s neglected public realm.

The square was once the most vibrant public space in Los Angeles. The decision to build a parking garage beneath it in the 1950s added entry and exit ramps that cut the square off from the sidewalks around it. A 1993 redesign somehow made that sense of disconnection worse.

Now entertainment giant AEG, the company that brought us L.A. Live, owns the Staples Center and wants to build a pro football stadium downtown, has pledged $700,000 in seed money to reimagine Pershing Square. City Councilmember Jose Huizar, who represents much of downtown, has said that when it comes to a redesign, “everything is on the table.”

Here’s one thing that shouldn’t be: AEG’s direct involvement in the revamp, given its track record of sleekly generic architecture and design. The last thing we want to do is turn Pershing Square — not just the city’s oldest park but the one with the richest history — into a miniature L.A. Live, ringed with video screens and scrubbed clean of any real sense of place.

The next mayor should write AEG a nice thank-you note and make sure that a redesign task force now being set up is free of the company’s influence. And then put everything else back on the table, including ripping out the parking garage that helped doom Pershing Square six decades ago.

Transit’s rough surf

When it comes to transportation in Los Angeles, no dream has remained as stubbornly out of reach as a subway to the sea along Wilshire Boulevard. A spur was built to Western Avenue in the 1990s, but by then the rest of the line had been delayed by worries about tunneling in an area with seismic activity and underground pockets of methane gas.

Now the subway has been revived, its financing largely secured by 2008’s Measure R sales-tax hike. But obstacles remain. Beverly Hills has fought bitterly to block tunneling beneath its high school.

As the backbone of a thriving new mass-transit system, the subway is worth its admittedly sky-high cost. The subway we build now will be a bargain compared with the one we try to build several decades from now.

And the truth is that opposition in places such as Beverly Hills is not just about safety. (Tunneling of this kind has become routine for subway builders around the world.) It is also driven by fears of the changes a subway line through the city might bring.

The same anxieties kept Bay Area’s BART system out of Marin County and the Washington, D.C., Metro out of Georgetown decades ago. (And the subway out of Beverly Hills in the 1980s, for that matter.) If they were patently offensive then, they are indefensible now.

Grand machinations

If the subway to the sea is an expensive dream worth sticking with, the same can’t be said of the city’s fantasies of turning Grand Avenue into our Fifth Avenue or Champs-Élysées.

For more than 50 years we’ve used the section of Grand that runs atop Bunker Hill as a petri dish to test new theories of city-making. In the 1960s it saw widespread demolition in the name of urban renewal. Then it became a kind of murderers’ row of buildings by famous architects, with only Walt Disney Concert Hall living up to expectations.

Now it features an attractive but hidden green space, 12-acre Grand Park. A museum holding Eli Broad’s collection of modern and contemporary art, a $130-million building atop a publicly subsidized parking garage, will open next year. And when Metro’s underground Regional Connector is finished by 2020, Bunker Hill, with a station at 2nd and Hope streets, will be tied fully into the mass-transit network.

What has all that investment added up to on Grand Avenue? A street that barely has more urban vitality than it did two decades ago.

The next mayor should drop the pretense that Grand Avenue deserves lavish subsidy and extra political attention. If the city does sink more money into Bunker Hill, it shouldn’t be earmarked for more parking structures or trophy buildings. It should pay for direct improvements to public space — redesigning the sidewalks along the edges of Grand Park or adding public art along the avenue itself, perhaps in a program overseen by curators from Broad’s museum or the Museum of Contemporary Art.

It would be easy to conclude that these problems will always seem intractable, or that the chance to solve them has come and gone. But the city charter gives the mayor more power than many realize. Through a combination of legislative savvy, smart appointments and canny use of the bully pulpit — along with an effort to give the planning department here the same broad, effective authority it enjoys in other cities — the next mayor could make headway on every one of these issues.

Cities around the world are now in direct competition with one another, for employers and employees, for tourists and investment dollars. In an age of globalization, it’s easier than ever to see what improvements other cities are making to their parks, transit networks and infrastructure.

And easier than ever to measure all the ways Los Angeles is falling behind.


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