This update is long overdue. Thank you all for following along. You can now find my planning-related observations at Planetizen.com, where I am the Managing Editor.
On Monday, I attended the first of two Open Houses and Public Hearings to be held this week for the Department of City Planning’s updated Community Plan for Hollywood. At the Open House, city staff from multiple departments were on hand to answer questions about the plan. At the Hearing, members of the public were invited to submit oral and written comments on the plan, for the record. Listening to the often contentious comments from the public regarding the additional development proposed in the plan provided me with a few insights regarding the planning process and the planner’s role in that process.
First, I imagine it’s extremely hard for any community to imagine the benefits that increased density brings to existing residents. And the residents who raised questions about the ability of the area’s infrastructure to support such growth probably have a valid point. I imagine the conversation might go a bit differently if Hollywood were its own city with its own services, or perhaps if there was a city-wide visioning document that established each community’s role and responsibilities in contributing to the greater development of Los Angeles.
If residents and city staff accept the population and job growth figures projected in the document as valid (20,000 additional residents and 18,000 additional jobs by 2030), and there is much debate about the accuracy of those numbers, then it is imperative that the planning staff develop plans to accommodate such growth. Therefore the arguments made at the meeting in opposition to allowing any additional development seem like an invalid proposition. However, the argument that current zoning, as adopted in the current Hollywood Community Plan of 1988, is adequate to accommodate such growth may demand consideration in light of the community objections. Not having had the chance to do thorough research on that argument and not remembering any such reference in the updated plan, it’s hard for me to comment on the validity of the argument.
Secondly, observing this community plan process reaffirms, for me, the crucial job that planners have in creating and articulating compelling, attractive, and achievable visions for the communities in which they work. Such visions, achieved through an open, aggressive, and engaging consensus building process, can galvanize a high percentage of stakeholders in support of a common goal.
The process and plan also highlight, for me, the difficult position planners occupy in mediating between those individual existing stakeholders who have invested time, energy, and capital in their community, and whose products create an attractive location for speculative investments. And on the other hand, the developers who, taking advantage of that opportunity, seek to invest their own time, energy, and capital in implementing the vision set forth. In Hollywood, the city planning staff has the difficult task of speaking for another important stakeholder group as well: the 20,000 “silent” future residents who do not have a voice in the current process.
While some communities may have a valid argument in wanting to severely limit future development, I don’t think Hollywood is in that position. For Hollywood to remain a global symbol of Los Angeles and a vibrant physical home to the entertainment industry, and not just a dying mnemonic association, the revitalization that has occurred over the last 10-20 years must continue. Hollywood is not Larchmont Village, it has global cache, and a Hollywood that cannot retain and perpetuate the tangible manifestations of everything that word signifies would have dire results for greater Los Angeles.
One issue I have with the Community Plan document itself is its relative silence on the multitude of disparate private surface parking lots in Hollywood. These surface lots negatively affect circulation, quality of life (public safety for instance), and quality of the physical environment in the area, and I’d like the Plan to include specific policies and/or procedures to address their proliferation and appearance. Hollywood would be the perfect setting for a coordinated and consolidated approach to parking management, the best local examples of which can be found in Pasadena and Santa Monica. Strategically located public garages can provide parking capacity and simplicity of use for residents and visitors alike (an issue in any urban environment). Use of such lots would inevitably decrease profitability for the private lots and hopefully encourage owners to sell those vacant properties to interested developers or develop the parcels themselves.
There may be other ways to make the use of vacant parcels for parking less valuable (thus encouraging redevelopment) such as city-wide regulations to license and/or tax providers. It’s an issue I’m not terribly knowledgeable about, so if any readers have any possible solutions, please comment. To me, it’s a huge problem for the neighborhood and one that other cities have found creative ways to address.
The final meeting will be held tomorrow from 4:30 onward at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood (the public hearing begins at 6:30). Approval of the plan will be formally taken up by the Planning Commission next month.
Late last week, I had the opportunity to view the newly opened exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) titled California Design, 1930-1965: “Living In A Modern Way.” This period of cultural history being what initially drew me to relocate and study architectural history in Los Angeles, some 10 years ago, I’ve been looking forward to the opening of this exhibit for quite some time.
The exhibit is billed as the first major study of California mid-century modern design. It is also one of the centerpiece exhibits in Pacific Standard Time, “an unprecedented collaboration of more than sixty cultural institutions across Southern California, coming together to tell the story of the birth of the LA art scene.”
Divided into four thematic, somewhat chronological, sections (Shaping, Making, Living, and Selling), the exhibit is an ambitious attempt to capture the feel and accoutrements of an entire era. The exhibit is largely successful in this regard, perhaps through the sheer number and variety of items on display. More than 300 objects are showcased including: album covers, necklaces, magazines, catalogues, chairs, tables, light fixtures, desks, posters, architectural drawings, toys, clothes, textiles, surf boards, board games, books, photographs, an Airstream trailer, an Avanti automobile, and even the entire living room from Charles and Ray Eames’ house in the Pacific Palisades (to which I’ll return). Although the categorization of the objects into each of the four sections seems almost arbitrary at times, no matter how disparate the item, the exhibit does a good job of connecting each of them to California. One particular item in the exhibit raised an interesting question however: what came first, Barbie’s inclusion in the exhibit or Barbie’s corporate sponsorship? Just wondering.
While there are plenty of gorgeous Julius Shulman photographs and architectural drawings on display, what is missing from the exhibit is the architecture itself (aside from that famous living room). Of course, through no fault of the museum itself, much of the great midcentury architectural specimens are private homes, many in exclusive neighborhoods, and are rarely accessible to the general public aside from a longing distant peek from a sidewalk or driveway.
Which brings me to a general gripe with how architecture is presented in museum settings. Most other artistic productions are available to first hand experience in a museum exhibition; the art object is there in front of you with minimal mediation. However, unless site specific pieces are built on a small scale for an exhibition, or the museum itself happens to be related to the exhibition’s subject matter, architectural objects are usually mediated through photographs, plans, and models. For an art form for which functionality, context, and occupation are its key measures, anything short of walking around and in a building just doesn’t suffice for understanding the artistic value or meaning of the item. With so many of the foremost examples of mid-century architecture still standing only miles from the museum, perhaps it would have been a good idea for the curators to arrange some type of home tour or self-guided tour in coordination with the exhibition.
Now about that living room, which is clearly a centerpiece of the show. I’m of mixed opinion about its presence in the exhibition. I tend to think that it’s more of a gimmick than a highlight, especially when surrounded by countless other artifacts of the era, including many of the Eames’ own products. Out of the context of the rest of the house and its setting, the room seems a bit lifeless. Although admittedly, having been lucky enough to have seen the actual living room in the actual house previously (unlike most museum visitors, I’m guessing) may color my opinion on the matter. Perhaps, on the positive side, it does provide an opportunity for large numbers of people to view a portion of the famous house, to which access is tightly controlled.
While some individual pieces were revelatory (screens by Millard Sheets and Greta Grossman, a table for the Bullocks department store by Jock Peters, a Neutra “camel table”, a cocktail table by Milo Baughman, and a stunning comparison of two aerial photographs of Wilshire and Fairfax from only 7 years apart), I didn’t think the exhibit as a whole broke considerable new ground. Perhaps it’s that I’ve heard the story told before; perhaps it would help to be able to understand the exhibit within the broader context of the Pacific Standard Time series; or perhaps the story wasn’t told well enough. It certainly works as a mantra of self affirmation for Californians and, from some of the conversations I overheard at the museum, it works as a nostalgia trip for those who lived through those times.
Where I think the exhibit falls short is in showing the larger or lasting effects. While its aim is to show the “state’s role in shaping the material culture of the entire country”, it seems to me that this is more inferred than made explicit. The exhibit certainly makes the case for the “California” in “California Design”, the questions remains, however, whether any non-Californians will care about the story being told, or rather should they.
On a recent trip back to New York City I had the pleasure of exploring the recently completed second phase of the High Line, the city’s celebrated new park. The High Line, which in its former life served as a freight railway from the 1930s to the 1980s, cuts through the west side of Manhattan from the Meatpacking District to the West Side Rail Yards.
Saved from demolition after rail operations ceased, the successes of the park (built on the elevated infrastructure supporting the tracks) are multiple, featuring innovate design and financing, and have created an economic engine resulting in more than $2 billion in private investment surrounding the park. It is now a model for cities seeking to similarly transform their abandoned infrastructure. Although the stunning and successful Promenade Plantée, built two decades ago atop an abandoned railroad viaduct in Paris, was perhaps the first redevelopment of this type, for those cities now following New York onto the elevated park bandwagon, the old “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” creed must ring true.
The transformation of the High Line into a park was originally advocated by the Friends of the High Line, a non-profit group founded by Joshua David and Robert Hammond in 1999. The first official support for the project by the City came three years later, and in 2004 a team led by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro was selected to complete designs for the park. The first phase of the park opened in 2009 and the second phase opened in June of this year.
Having visited the first phase numerous times while living in New York, I was surprised, thrilled, and re-energized by visiting the newly opened portion. By doubling its previously accessible length, the park feels more substantial and more rewarding in both the variety of experiences and environments available within the boundaries of the platform and in the variety of ways one can observe and interact with the surrounding cityscape. Whereas the opening of phase 1 seemed like an appetizer and a promise of exciting things to come; with the opening of phase 2, the whole now seems much more like a main course.
The design of the park is simply spectacular: a delicate mix of natural and hard surfaces, contemporary furnishings and historic remnants, polished finishes and industrial elements.
One of my favorite environments in phase 2 is the “Flyover”, a levitated metal walkway that rises above an urban jungle of sumac trees. The compression of the space created by the old heavy high-rise warehouse buildings, combined with the lightness of the walkway and the long distance view of ultra-modern apartment buildings, creates an exhilarating experience.
For me, some of the most enjoyable areas of the park are the places, such as the Flyover and the areas adjacent to the Chelsea Market and the Standard Hotel, where the city itself encroaches upon the space, creating an interesting friction and opportunities for public art.
Other spaces are molded around creating opportunities to observe the city from a distance, and from a unique perspective.
Unfinished at the time of my visit, the 23rd Street Lawn will provide a wonderful vantage point to appreciate the aggressive architecture of HL23, design by Neil Denari, and its contrast with the historic viaduct and surrounding city.
The opening of phase 2 gave me a renewed and expanded appreciation for the High Line as a resource for the residents of New York and as the newest addition to the city’s must-see list of tourist attractions. The fact that these tremendous experiences are available to anyone, and without fee, is an exceptional accomplishment.
The High Line is an important piece of the public space renaissance that has occurred in New York over the last few decades, beginning with the rejuvenation of Central Park in the 1980s, continuing with the development of the Hudson River Park and Battery Park City, and looking towards the future completion of Brooklyn Bridge Park and the East River Esplanade.
One element these projects all have in common is their reliance for construction and maintenance on innovate financing, and the High Line is no exception. It leveraged the financial support of private donors, the cache of celebrity supporters, and the energy and creativity of dedicated activists to provide the momentum needed to encourage larger investment and political support by public and private entities. A cynical view would see the private funding of these public resources as the just re-appropriation of a fraction of the exorbitant sums of capital earned on Wall Street and would fret for the ability of municipalities to supply their residents with valuable amenities in the future. A more optimistic view would recognize the continued appreciation for good design and innovation in transforming the city’s neglected assets, regardless of the funding source, and would appreciate another extraordinary opportunity to stop and smell the roses.
Fall foliage peaks in October. Halloween is in October. I was born in October. October is Architecture Month. Need anymore reasons to love October?
While not as comprehensive and, frankly, fun as the way New York City celebrates Architecture Month, the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA|LA) will be hosting “a slew of events across the city that educate the public about architecture and architects, celebrate the profession and encourage the dialogue between those interested in the built environment.” I plan on attending a bunch of these events, including the Designing Healthier Lifestyles symposium and the roundtable discussion on the Urban Transformation of Los Angeles.
Let me know if you want to join me. I may even let you take me out for a birthday cocktail afterwards.
The genesis of the title for this blog is at least partly attributable to one of the major forces in the redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles over the past decade: L.A. Live. The centerpiece of a district that includes the Staples Center (home to three professional sports franchises), the convention center, and numerous live entertainment venues, restaurants, movie theaters, offices, broadcast studios, hotels, and condominiums; L.A. Live has been the focus and engine of downtown’s expansion southward.
Reported to have cost $2.5 Billion, L.A. Live opened in successive phases from 2007 to 2010, during the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. One of the surprises I encountered on my return to Los Angeles was the continued development of Downtown, despite the economic disaster (rooted in the real estate industry) that has put the brakes on development across the country. In fact, since 2000, Downtown LA has added more than 15,000 residents, an increase of more than 40%. Furthermore, the median income for a downtown resident is $86,300. Although several new construction and condo conversion projects were undoubtedly delayed or cancelled as a result of the Great Recession; new restaurants, bars, and stores continue to there every week. Downtown LA is still clearly on an upward trend and L.A. Live is surely a key piece of that. With the proposal to build a new NFL Stadium adjacent to L.A. Live gaining momentum by the week, the area will continue to be a focus of planning and design, investment, and controversy.
From a planning and design perspective, L.A. Live joins the company of the Grove and CityWalk in the pantheon of manufactured, homogenized, privatized, thematized, inward facing cityscapes. A thorough academic analysis of these types of spaces can be found in Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space, edited by Michael Sorkin (which I admittedly have not read in its entirety). One question I have is why these types of places (theme parks included) have been and continue to be so successful in Southern California. Is it the relative lack of urban history? Is it a fear of the neighbor living across town?
Although differing in style from the bland commercial contemporary to the bland historicist, L.A. Live, the Grove, and CityWalk (and others) share several key traits. Some of my issues with these types of spaces are their lack of a true mix of uses, control and privatization, population by chain stores, commercialization, and lack of adaptability. They are often inauthentic in not reflecting their unique settings and not woven into the fabric of their surrounding neighborhoods. They are developed as regional destinations, often to the detriment of their local communities. Their attempt to simulate the energy, dynamism, and density of cities within this context somehow seems to cheapen authentic urban experience; or perhaps seems cheap and disturbing in comparison to the experience of authentic cities.
Part of my interest in the concept of “authentic” spaces relates to my interest in history and historic preservation, and partly to my interest in public participation in the planning and design processes. The study of history defined my undergraduate education and the study of public participation defined my graduate education, and both have continued to inform my professional interests and practice.
In developing this blog I hope to dig deeper into how being Alive in L.A. can be different from L.A. Live. How can planners, designers, politicians, and citizens work to create vibrant, sustainable, livable, and unique places in Southern California. How can we build more pedestrian friendly spaces, more public places, more public transportation, more neighborhood serving retail, and less L.A. Live.
Last week I had the pleasure of returning to the Getty Center to view an exhibit of photographs of Cuba from 1933 to the present. The exhibit itself is not the focus of my attention here, but rather what makes the complex one of my favorite places in Los Angeles. Designed by the office of Richard Meier, with a central garden by Robert Irwin, the campus consists of the J. Paul Getty Museum and offices housing the Getty Research Institute, Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Trust, and the Getty Foundation. Located on a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains, it opened to the public in 1997.
While the Getty has some drawbacks from an urban planning standpoint (i.e. its detachment from the street, relative inaccessibility via public transit), its serene perch is among its primary attractions. Its hilltop location offers spectacular views of LA’s greatest assets: its beaches, mountains, and built environment. The opportunity to view the city from on high is one of the great pleasures of living in Los Angeles, giving one the chance orient themselves both locally and to its incomprehensible vastness.
In fact, I often find myself spending more time outside the museum’s galleries than inside of them. Although the museum’s photography collection often provides the most rewarding exhibitions, whether the content of the art being showcased is great or falls short of expectation, the grounds themselves make any trip worthwhile (as at the Hollywood Bowl).
Although its natural setting gives the campus an inherent beauty, all credit must be given to its designers for fashioning an exquisite environment. The forms are so perfectly manicured and manipulated that the presence of people tend to decrease their effect. When trying to capture the Getty’s beauty in photographs, one is perpetually waiting for people to move through and beyond the picture frame. I dream of having the place to myself one day to shoot an endless series of people-free pictures.
The beauty of the Getty’s man made environment lies in the deft balance of multiple dualities:
As a planning professional, it’s an exciting time to return to Los Angeles.
Southern California seems to be at a critical juncture in its history, with an incredible opportunity to rethink and reform the paradigms of development that have guided its unsustainable growth. Several mechanisms, including the state’s passage of AB32 (mandating greenhouse gas emission reduction) and SB375 (tying greenhouse gas reduction to integrated land use, housing, and transportation planning) and LA County’s passage of Measure R (a sales tax increase to fund transportation projects and improvements), have created an incredible opportunity to link transportation planning to land use planning in order to provide a new framework for development in the region. These mechanisms create the opportunity for more compact development focused around an expanded and improved public transit network; ultimately resulting in more livable, vibrant, and sustainable communities.
While these measures lay the necessary regulatory and financial groundwork for such a transformation, many obstacles could prevent their successful implementation. Among these is the region’s history of insular and piecemeal planning. Greenhouse gas reduction is, of course, a global issue requiring integrated solutions. While it’s important that individual municipalities and communities do their part, the State of California’s goals cannot be met without coordinated regional planning. Furthermore, the transit improvements planned under Measure R, coupled with the planned state-wide High Speed Rail network, will require coordinated planning to make the most of the opportunities for redevelopment and maximized ridership associated with their implementation.
At the local level, planning should integrate stations into their surrounding neighborhoods, not just within the 1/4 or 1/2 mile walking distance to the station, but further out, to assess and plan for impacts to traffic, parking, open space, and development intensity and type. An example of visionary, large scale planning can be found in the recently updated Land Use and Circulation Element of Santa Monica’s General Plan (LUCE), where the city has taken proactive steps to plan for the community-wide impacts and opportunities presented by the arrival of the Expo Light Rail line in 2015. In the City of Los Angeles, Community Plans are the primary vehicle by which this integrated planning should take place. Unfortunately, most of the city’s 35 community plans have not been updated since the 1990s, prior to the most recent wave of transit construction; and the glacial speed at which these plans are being updated is a daunting impediment to maximizing the benefits of the public’s investment.
Another obstacle is what Reyner Banham described as “the dream of the urban homestead,” in his seminal work Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Many prospective Angelenos were drawn to the area by the opportunity to live in a small slice of suburbia within an urban setting, where the dream of owning a detached house with a little land (and hopefully a pool) was possible within an expansive and more traditionally urban density of development. The densification and urbanization projected to accompany the expansion of the transit network can be seen as a threat to this pattern. However, most people understand, at least philosophically, that the city cannot keep expanding outward (hence the support for Measure R). The perceived threat of increased density to the urban homestead ideal is the key sticking point between the theoretical benefits of transit-oriented development and community support for specific projects as they make their way through the approvals process. In fact, many politicians and design professionals refuse to utter the dreaded “d-word” (density) at public meetings.
However, many planning professionals understand that the necessary increase in density can be achieved with little effect on the vast percentage of residential neighborhoods. SCAG (the regional MPO) estimates that improvements to mobility, livability, prosperity and sustainability can be achieved through modest changes to current land use and transportation trends in only 2% of the land area of the region.
In the places where redevelopment is proposed, impacts can be minimized. As Neal Payton succinctly argues, this density must be targeted, blended, and well designed. The increase in density must be accompanied by an increase in the amount of high-quality public spaces. The reduction in private space (decreased unit size and lot size) must be offset by public places that are safe, functional, and attractive. High quality public spaces are not only important to the success of a densified vision for Los Angeles, they are also critical elements in the success of the transit investment itself. As Jan Gehl points out in Cities for People, “a good public realm is a crucial factor for good public transportation.” Riders must be able to walk from a station in style, comfort, and safety day and night.
At the present, the opportunities to transform Los Angeles are immense. The challenges are evident, but conquerable.