High-density housing doesn’t have to lack a grand design


Not that many years ago, if you drove east toward downtown Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard, you came to BBQ King at Figueroa Street. It looked more like an auto repair shop than a restaurant, and the food wasn’t the best I’ve ever had. But the joint had character, and I liked it a lot better than what’s there now.

Pork ribs have been replaced by a colossal whole hog, also known as the Orsini. The GH Palmer Associates “Premier Apartment Resort” now consists of more than 1,000 units that crowd both sides of Sunset. I’m not an architect, but I’m told the style is faux Italianate, which I believe translates as “tacky.”

Geoff Palmer has several of these Death Star monstrosities on the west side of downtown. They’re all essentially the same, occupying entire blocks and remarkably devoid of the slightest hint of authenticity. Instead of blending into their surroundings, they alienate and demoralize with their fortress design, under-utilized ground-floor commercial space and hidden interior green space with underground parking.


Last week, Palmer got unanimous City Council approval — he and his cohorts write lots of campaign checks and hire the most powerful City Hall lobbyists — to build a pedestrian bridge between two sections of yet another apartment complex currently under construction at Temple Street near the 110 Freeway. This one is called the Da Vinci, an unabashed insult to Leonardo. And the approval came despite objections of the city Planning Department and area planning commission, which are trying to implement more pedestrian-oriented designs in the downtown area.

Palmer’s company argued, however, that future tenants needed the bridge to protect them from the threat posed by transients.

Can you think of a better candidate for citizen of the year?

Geoff Palmer has a history of butting heads with historic preservationists and affordable-housing advocates. But he’s also got a history of getting his way, so the bridge victory was no surprise. In this case, Councilman Jose Huizar — a past recipient of campaign donations from Palmer — helped lead the charge to give Palmer exactly what he wanted, claiming this wasn’t really about any homeless issue. Huizar argued that this project is on the periphery of the downtown rebirth, so pedestrian-oriented street-level interaction was not a valid concern.

It’s that kind of thinking that has given us a hundred years of bad planning in L.A..

Note to the City Council:

You don’t plan for what’s there now. You plan for 10, 50 and 100 years down the line, and in the process, you help design and contribute to the full organic potential of the neighborhood.

Huizar seemed to be expecting congratulations because as part of the deal, Palmer agreed to spend $25,000 for upkeep on other pedestrian bridges.


Twenty-five grand?

Last time I wrote about Palmer, he had a private jet. I don’t know if he still has it (he declined my interview request), but I’m guessing $25,000 is chump change to him. And if he’s so fond of bridges, the city should have made him build a series of spans connecting the disjointed sections of Grand Park.

But for all that, the bridge is not my main beef here. My main beef is that a developer can repeat the same abomination over and over with help, rather than interference, from City Hall. And that’s not just true of downtown; it’s a citywide problem.

Don’t get me wrong. Downtown L.A. has some very attractive housing in old and new buildings alike, and the area is still in the midst of arguably the most dynamic renaissance in Southern California. That means it isn’t cheap to live there, and Palmer was one of the first developers to build apartments for those who might not have been able to afford pricier downtown digs.

We’ve got a housing shortage, and denser development must be part of the city’s future.

But that’s no reason for City Hall to keep rubber-stamping buildings so banal that developer and architect alike should be arrested for indecency. L.A. Live already fills the downtown quota for grossly impersonal design, and we don’t also need a growing constellation of eyesores to define the northwestern gateway to the historic core.

“They make you feel absolutely nothing about L.A.,” said Will Wright of the L.A. Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “If it’s something that can survive anywhere in the United States, then it’s a Holiday Inn, it’s a strip mall. It becomes a lost opportunity.”

Peter Zellner, a downtown L.A. architect, said no single developer has cornered the L.A. market on unimaginative design. The bar on what’s acceptable needs to be higher, he said, but private and public players need to figure out what the future of housing can and should look like across the city, not just for young professionals but for families who can’t afford single-family detached houses.

“Density is an inevitability, and something we need to learn to do better,” Zellner said.

For instance, he suggested, you can fill an entire block with a six-story apartment building that offers limited views. Or you can take up only a quarter of the same block with a 24-story building that offers great views, and use the rest of the land for a plaza, kiosks, a bandstand, stores and cafes.

“Sometimes it helps to have written codes and guidelines in place, and I think they’re getting better at that,” said Leigh Christy, another downtown architect.

The city Planning Department provided me a “downtown design guide” that emphasizes “walkability, sustainability and transit options.”

That’s all well and good, and the same principles should extend to Palmer’s faux zone and beyond. But it won’t make a difference unless the mayor and council stand tall instead of bending over.