Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Residential Planned Developments: Yea and Nay

 Would you place a mixed-use development in this residential neighborhood?

The City of Los Angeles is proposing to change the City's Zoning Code to modify the existing Residential Planned Development (RPD) supplemental use district definition and process. If adopted as being presented by the Planning Department, the singular RPD would evolve to become the more plural Planned Developments or PDs. PDs, as described in the Planning Department's September 2011 Draft Version of the ordinance, will be defined as follows:
  •  A group of buildings and appurtenant structures located and arranged in accordance with requirements established by ordinance per Section 13.04, "PD" Planned Development Districts, of the Los Angeles Municipal Code.
Section 13.04 evolves from existing ordinance language that provides for the design manipulation of residential-only tracts to enabling language that permits a far greater range of mixed-use, i.e. residential and commercial, projects. Notwithstanding that this type of development flexibility might be a good idea in certain circumstances, the flexibility of the proposed zoning regulation needs to be carefully considered, and probably constrained, to both build support for the proposal as well as to ensure that the uniqueness of Los Angeles' existing residential neighborhoods -  particularly single-family neighborhoods are maintained.

    Planned residential developments were originally conceived in the years after World War II when planners were searching for ways to encourage more design creativity and environmental consciousness regarding the design of single-family tract home neighborhoods. The suburbs were in full bloom and there was a sense that the sameness of endlessly repeated identical lots and houses was dulling. At that time only a small cadre of landscape architects, architects, and regional planners were developing urban design ideas that countervailed predominant suburban development patterns.

    Planned Residential Developments were one important response to the uniformity of standard suburban planning, such as seen throughout Southern California. In the Los Angeles basin, a ceaseless grid of major boulevards defined vast neighborhoods, where 1000 square foot houses on 5000 square foot lots repeat to the horizon, the ocean, and the mountains. Planned residential developments, as adopted in the late 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and reaching a height of popularity in the mid- to late- 1970s,  allowed for flexibility with regard to the zoning standards used to design tracts. Instead of the typical minimum lot areas, prescribed building setbacks, and maximum heights associated with typical zoning designations, one could propose alternative standards. To borrow from the language of the Los Angeles Zoning Code that is being eliminated, the intent was to, "...encourage well planned neighborhoods with adequate open space..", something that clearly was not realized in this city utilizing the standard residential tract process.

    The idea for Los Angeles' residential planned developments was to allow for the clustering of housing, provide for townhouses and other types of more compact development forms, and in return for the increased intensity of housing, provide public benefit in the form of increased density of parks. The existing Los Angeles code explicitly requires that no less than 25% of a residential planned development's land area, exclusive of streets, be common open space. This requirement, in combination with the simultaneous provision that a residential planned development, "...not exceed the maximum number of dwelling units permitted by the underlying zone...", suggests that the intent of the existing ordinance is to maintain the overall concept of the land use recorded in the City's General Plan and Community Plans, and to allow for creative designs that realize open space benefits. These in turn allow for retention of land and environmental features, providing for passive and active residentially oriented open space. Perhaps these ideals and standards were too stringent. According to the Los Angeles Planning Department, only three residential planned developments were ever implemented.

    If mid-Twentieth Century planning worked towards the separation of land uses, Twenty-first Century planning embraces mixed uses. The proposed Planned Development ordinance follows this latter day logic and allows applications for planned development zones in a broad range of land use types including C (commercial), M (manufacturing), P (the now antiquated parking), and even R (residential) zones. At first read this new ordinance allows housing in industrial districts, despite concern that jobs rather than housing should be the City's priority, and commercial uses within R1 single-family zones. In practice implementing these types of surely controversial mixes would not be as easy as a cursory read of the ordinance suggests.

    Establishment of a planned development district would require an action of the City Planning Commission and City Council, which in turn would only be after the full range of typical public hearings. More importantly, if a planned development zone included uses that were less restrictive than the underlying zone, for instance commercial in a R1 zone, a General Plan Amendment would be required, typically an even more time consuming and costly process. Still, and despite these legislative obstacles which are prohibitively expensive, one has to wonder why Los Angeles' prime order of single-family neighborhoods surrounded by commercial boulevards and scattered commercial districts need be opened up and challenged.

    At the same time that the proposed PD ordinance prospectively introduces land use flexibility within Los Angeles zones that have been previously thought to be inviolate, the language of the reformulated code also suggests that existing density standards contained within height district restrictions can be stretched. Section 13.04 C 1 (b) states that, "(i)n approving a Concept Plan and Development Standards for a PD District, the City Council may modify zoning regulations relating to height, setback, and area requirements (i.e. density)..." No upper limits or definitions are placed on how much modification or increase in underlying standards is allowed, only general provisions for public benefits including increased open space and ",,,other desirable features that are not regular requirements of the zone (see Section 13.04 1 (b) (3))".

    PD districts, as proposed by the Planning Department do require the submittal and approval of concept plans and renderings, suggesting that design considerations will be highlighted during approval processes and pegged to minimum thresholds of design performance. PDs are also proposed to have minimum sizes, at least 200,000 square feet of non-residential floor area, 200 or more dwelling units and/or guest rooms, or a minimum three acres of land area, suggesting larger land assemblies and/or projects. Additionally, where communities have already established specific plans and special planning districts, PD districts will not be allowed. Unlike many special planning district types, which can only be initiated by Council offices, the Planning Commission, or Area Planning Commissions, this ordinance allows individual property owners to initiate planned developments, as long as they control the land.

    There are many nuances and wrinkles to the proposed PD ordinance, yet the policy direction is clear. Mixed-use districts with perceived public benefits of compact form, reduced vehicle trips, support for emerging transit infrastructure, and increased pedestrian orientation should be encouraged throughout the City of Los Angeles. Greater flexibility in terms of project initiation, and land use and density standards should be allowed as well. Flexibility should be exchanged for higher quality and creative design outcomes ensured through specific design approvals that are attached to land entitlements.

    The PD Ordnance is part of a larger long-term effort by the Los Angeles Planning Department to not only increase the flexibility of the existing zoning code, but to make it simpler, bring it up to date in relationship to best practices, remove conflicts in the language of the code that plague interpretation, and make the Code more developer friendly and "smart" by creating more tools and certainty in the land use entitlement and development process. The PD ordinance does this, at least from the perspective of the Planning Department, by allowing project advocates to initiate projects instead of being dependent upon Council offices, letting project proponents consolidate the numerous variances associated with development approvals into one application, and shifting the emphasis of planned developments from residential-only projects associated with past times to mixed-use projects associated with the present and the future. All of these are worthy goals, but in practice gloss over critical Los Angeles realities, making the ordinance as written problematic.

    Los Angeles, is still fundamentally a vast spread out City of residential communities surrounded by lines and nodes of urbanism. Admittedly it is evolving towards a more urban lifestyle and image of itself. Granted there are destinations and places of great and emerging intensity that belie older visions and ideals. But regardless of the nuances of present Los Angeles or future Los Angeles urbanism, and these are fought over every day, few argue that Los Angeles' urban future will or should be urban in the sense that an east coast city or European city or even emerging Asian city, is urban. Opening the door to intrusion of commercial uses within low density residential neighborhoods - even if accepting that the hurdles of General Plan amendments and required community input make this unlikely - seems to both contradict Los Angeles' overarching image of itself, and needlessly needle advocates for the conservation n of single-family and low density neighborhoods.

    Concern for neighborhood integrity also leads one to question why a planned development ordinance, whether in a residential, commercial, or even industrial area needs to undermine through flexibility allowances underlying land use constraints as established in the General Plan and Community Plans of the City. The original planned residential development ordinances, both in Los Angeles and elsewhere, were about gross design flexibility, not about land use or density flexibility. They were also pegged to a perceived design good, open space. Nothing this specific exists in the proposed ordinance. Each project becomes a deal separately negotiated. This type of transactional land use process is precisely what neighborhoods groups in Los Angeles resist, leading to a climate of rightfully objected to development uncertainty.

    A modern planned development ordinance can provide a needed tool for the zoning menu. As proposed, consolidation of the pluralistic variance process makes perfect sense. The use of a tool which can from a design perspective allow for creative urban design solutions for both residential and commercial projects also is wise. However, as propose the Planned Development Ordinance is too broad, not Los Angeles specific enough, particularly with, regard to its theoretical impact on residential neighborhoods, and written in a way that perpetuates the notion that development is only an economic transaction, not a social and design transaction as well.

    To shape this tool so that it better fits the Los Angeles situation will require tinkering at both its core and its edges. First, the notion that commercial and/or mixed use development should be allowed in lower intensity neighborhoods should be dropped. Limited commercial intrusions should only be considered in perhaps R4 and R5 multifamily neighborhoods, and only with clearly defined concepts of what the design benefit is, i.e. public space, wider sidewalks, community centers, etc. At the same time, serious consideration should be given to limiting the establishment of Planned Development projects to ttransit oriented districts and within reasonable distances, perhaps a quarter of a mile from major transit corridors. This would in one stroke conserve vast tracts of land to residential only projects and probably build more support for passage of a Planned development ordinance. Restricting density to underlying land use intensities would also create more confidence that uncanny development juxtapositions would not be created nor jar neighborhood sensibilities.

    Most important, assuming the design ordinance gets tweaked, more focus should be placed on the underlying historic intent of planned developments to be designed, high-quality developments. If the goal of a planned development is to first and foremost realize quality that can not be achieved under the normal statutes, don't immediately allow for increased density, breaking of height limits, etc., all under the guise of flexibility. This is development, not design flexibility. Accept the limits as they are and let designers, on parcels of all shapes and sizes, come up with creative and supportable ideas that mix up the existing puzzle of zoning towards better designed results. If the goal and objective is design flexibility and creativity respectively, why limit the ordinances to large parcels and large projects? This is inherently unfair and boxes out of existence the incremental type of beauty that is characteristic of many great cities and places, and especially defines the magic of Los Angeles.

    Planned development is a concept that the City of Los Angeles should update and expand to encompass commercial and industrial areas as well as limited residential areas. The zoning code needs tools such as this that encourage design flexibility. However, as written the City's proposed planned development tool emphasizes development flexibility more than design flexibility and needlessly challenges the underlying logic that makes Los Angeles unique. At this moment in time, the ordinance should be taken back to the drawing board and adjusted so it becomes a tool worthy of the specific circumstances of the Los Angeles scene.

    Sunday, April 3, 2011


    At this Forum Fest 2011, I have been asked to speak about John Chase. So many have written wonderfully of his personality, his sartorial predilections, his loves and greatest love, and even his sometimes difficulties, both professional and personal. John clearly was a captivating presence in our lives and we miss him. But rather than dwell again on loss, I want to concentrate on his legacy - his cogent everyday design intelligences that will continue to influence.

    Through his writings and through knowledge of how these writings translated into design practices, we learn specific methods of observation, criticality, and design technique that mark a specific moment in the history of architecture and urban design. But these writings, taken as a whole, are not just timepieces, they are a call to design today and in the future with an exacting sense of social and cultural smartness, awareness, fairness, and openness to the full spectrum of forces that shape the contemporary urban scene in a contemporary American democracy.

    John had many well-known mentors and teachers, David Gebhard, Esther McCoy, Charles Moore, Charles Jencks; a compendium of UC and UCLA influences and ideation of a now bygone era. While his writings are reflective of these individuals, there was one ephemeral presence, the author and educator John Beach, who John comes back to time and time again. In an afterword to “The Stucco Box”, an essay he co-authored with Beach, he talks about Beach’s approach. In Chase's words:

    • If high-art architecture supplies heroes; then John Beach, with his finding of equally cogent and complex products in the world of vernacular architecture, (such as the Drive-through Donut Hole in La Puente), supplied the other personae that any decent novel or movie requires: the fascinating villains and the memorable character actors. These Beachian universes made a compelling argument for considering high-art architecture as merely one part among others of a system of production and consumption of the built environment, rather than the top of a pyramidal value structure.

     The drive through Donut Hole in La Puente, California memorialized by John Beach and John Chase.

    In this fragment that celebrates Beach’s contribution to his education, John describes many of the themes that led him to an equanimous view of architecture in general and the Los Angeles urban landscape in particular; the importance of narrative, the capacity of Los Angeles movies to shape the actual landscape, suspicion of a singular avant-garde canon, fascination for the vernacular as well as the commercial and most important, and the potential for the commercial and the vernacular to be connected in the public mind and thereby realize  a seamless and populist architectural and urban experience that is valued.

    John Chase felt John Beach, more than any other individual, taught him to deliberately embrace parallel architectural story lines of both popular and elitist landscapes and see them as equals, a neat post-modern trick that exposes the full semiotic of the built environment, and that belies the cartoon image of this era, from the seventies through the nineties, and its architectural and urban works.

    John took this Beachian approach as a starting point to observe the city and then related it to a deeper reading of the creation of the architecture and urbanism of Los Angeles (as well as Houston, San Jose, and finally Las Vegas). John Chase, utilizing simultaneous environmental and urban narratives, was able to see not only the narrowness and diminishment that results when an environment or a city is commercialized and consumed, but the possibilities for architects to engage these negative consumptive  forces and turn them into something positive.

    In another of his essays, “You are What You Buy”, he describes this process and the architect's role in ameliorating its negative impacts.

    • The intensely meaningful imagery and the shared public values that consumerist architecture harnesses endows it with conflicting powers. It is capable of producing architecture with genuine civic and public characteristics, but its manipulative exploitation of forms for commercial purposes tends to contradict and undermine this potential. The task for architects and designers of consumerist architecture is not to avoid the task of addressing consumerism, but rather to invest consumerist architecture with both traditional populist and architectural values.”

    In John’s world, the architect, as well as the conscious individual, would always discover a sense of place through not only observation but practices of architecture, sometimes but not always designed by architects. He imagined these observations as critical and the practices that resulted as potentially uplifting. In this world, architects and individuals could always design, create something of value, even if the circumstances at first glance appeared reduced.

    Thus John brought to his work, particularly his work as the urban designer for the City of West Hollywood, a sense of design hope and generosity. He could place himself in the shoes of architects and when they did not know how to respond to public demands encourage them to attend to start with acutely observed local needs and desires, and to do so within their personal design languages. But, he also could steer developers and individual property owners who presented casual efforts the work of the broadest range of architectural masters, pushing them to realize higher orders of aspiration. For John, and for those influenced by John, the world, architecture, and city design was rich with possibility because he could truck in all design traditions all at once; whether Neutra and Schindler, or Woolf and Dolena. The goal was always to realize an urban landscape of heightened intensity and richness, whatever the tradition and whatever the means.

     John Chase reveled in the intelligence of period-style architecture and was one of the first contemporary architects to notice and write about James Dolena, an advocate in the 1930's through the 1950's of the stripped down, almost severely modern Hollywood Regency style. The public loved this architecture which still lies outside the canon of architectural history as typically taught in architecture schools.

    I suspect that John's gravitation towards this particular type of intensity was shaped by his recognition and personal interest in supporting the right of the individuals to construct their own specific place and identity in the world. John worked hard to construct an identity for himself, a gay man in Los Angeles, and he connected this personal struggle to a larger belief that architecture could liberate the soul of the individual as well as society. For John, Los Angeles, with its grab bag of ever emerging diverse populations each seeking to construct a place of purpose, was the perfect American urban canvass to realize in a public manner personal rights – yet another theme that John returned to again and again. In his essay, “Knocking off the Knock-offs”, John describes the modeling and remodeling of single family homes in West Los Angeles as having a human importance that exemplifies the Jeffersonian idea of the pursuit of happiness. He writes in this essay;

    • The constant that has held for each era of miniature remodel has been the replacement of an outmoded or non-descript façade with a design that clearly conveyed that the occupant had made a conscious design choice to live life elegantly, by their own lights. Even if the results may not be to everyone’s tastes, surely the remodelers deserve credit for that all-American attempt to construct an identity by choosing among alternatives, to be self-made individuals by living behind a self-made façade.

    Self-made identity, self-made façades, the construction of a free individual; these were ideas integral to John, both as an architect, an urban designer, and as person. This constant call for self-expression in the context of a polyglot urban environment was both an expression of how John lived his life, and an invitation to those he came in contact with to more closely observe cities, streets, and sidewalks, and thereby uncover the unexpected and discover through architecture and cityscapes the surprise of the urban. Indeed for John, life and architecture, with a small as well as a capital “A”, was a constant urban derive with positivist lessons.

    A common complaint of those who reject what in essence is John Chase's post-modern approach to architectural diversity is that it somehow must eschews selectivity and thereby wallow in relativity. There is for them in this approach no ability to discriminate. For John Chase this could not, in both his ideas and practice, be further from the truth. In “How can I miss you when you won’t go away”, he points out that design discrimination is in the eye of the beholder, even as he describes how in American democracy, quality is derived from an open discussion that has to be based upon respect for all who participate. He writes here:

    • Just because there is no universally accepted worldview doesn’t mean that there are not sets of cosmological beliefs accepted by subsets of the public. Many well-defined sub-groups within America have strongly held worldviews, from fundamentalist religious sects to Hells Angels and members of the Thousand Oaks PTA. And despite the apparent diversity of belief among subgroups within the American public, one seems to find a surprisingly great coherence around matters of architectural form and its symbolism – as proved by the success of consumerist architecture. Works of architecture may begin as private statements of taste, but they inevitably become, to some degree, public artifacts that are part of everyone’s daily life.

    When architecture becomes public, it becomes subject to the public will. At least in the United States this means the crush of public meetings and consequent public design decisions that John Chase spent the last decade and a half of his life managing with great skill and aplomb. In John’s urban design cosmology, quality, excellence, and endurance resulted, most of the time, both the capacity of the individual creator to amaze and stun through individual talents, as well as concise public discourse that either reified these talents, or told the talented to try harder to meet a public interest. From an interest in a self-constructed house and a self-constructed facade, John found himself the design stager of a self-constructed city, West Hollywood.

    John Chase's work clearly is an homage to and extension of the “both/and” philosophy of Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, but his is a projection that eschews the latter’s sense of  irony and elitism in favor of the former’s love for the right of all to have a say in the production of urban heterogeneity, whatever the starting point. John reveled in architectural history but he took on the everyday world as it was. He did not need to distance himself from it through strategies of abstraction or elitism. He encouraged all to contribute, but most of all he encouraged all things urban and architectural to be debated, believing that the ugly and the bad would then surely become the good.

    The everyday in design is best described as an attitudinal acknowledgement of inside to outside, bottom to top, observation of the daily, honoring of routine, respect for diversity, delight in multiplicity, revelation of the polyglot, equation of low with high, sensitivity to cycles and rhythms of weeks, days, nights, and seasons, simultaneity of past, present, and future, recognition of struggle, the knowing of history, making do and mashing up, acceptance of the feminine, the masculine, the ethnic, the queer, color and otherness; the everyday relates always the stuff of the environment to a sense of openness, fairness, and justice.

    The everyday that John practiced in his professional and personal life allows all to state that I - the particular me - is alive, here, present.  Try writing or designing architecture and cities with this as crutch and collar; not an easy task. Yet John was able to do it. For him no formal discipline or fixed set of values to fall back on; just query and critical projection and sorting through the consequences and opportunities of chance, in paranoid moments conspiracy, always looking for glimmers and gleans and finding thereby moments of pure clarity, clarity of human intelligence, clarity in history and memory, clarity in dreams of the future and through all clarity in architecture and urban design.

    Perhaps I just described one aspect of John Chases’ theory of the everyday. But more accurately, perhaps the theory of the everyday which resulted in Everyday Urbanism was in large part a result of the manner by which John, at first unknowingly, but later most deliberately, lived his life and lived his work. His was a consciously constructed life, a consciously constructed façade that resulted in a uniquely American identity. This John Chase endures in my heart and in my practice, and for these lessons - so richly taught with smiles, winks, half-whispered secrets, tours, walks, conferences, studios, breakfasts, lunch, and dinners, and enduring essays - I am most grateful.

    Tuesday, January 4, 2011

    Seen and Architecture 4 - Critique Those Plans

    Christopher Hawthorne has a point to make when he states in his December 30, 2010 review of planning in Los Angeles that, "...the extra-large deals always seem to get hammered out...while a more thoughtful, forward-looking and comprehensive brand of planning continues to lag behind, underfunded and undervalued." He is also not wrong to note in this article about the proposed AEG stadium next to Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles that much of this city is planned one project at a time. As a result, it is difficult to often understand how the pieces add up to a larger urban whole.

    But I am not so sure, as Hawthorne states, that there has been a "lack of strong and coherent planning creating a vacuum into which powerful individuals - developers, moguls, patrons and even architects - have rushed". Rather, I would argue that there has been a surfeit of political leadership in Los Angeles that has too consistently chosen to ignore, over ride, not be aware of, not be serious about, and/or contravene a plethora of plans and urban design concepts, some very good.

    There are many plans in Los Angeles that the public as a whole is mostly unaware of; the Westwood Specific Plan, the Park Mile Specific Plan, the Downtown Urban Design Guidelines, the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan, the Playa Vista Master Plan, to name just five. Each was done utilizing large amounts of public input over long durations of time, and each, even accounting for sometimes inappropriate variances allowed by City officials, has managed to establish a modicum of place that marks each of these areas as distinct.

    There is also in Los Angeles constant tweaking of the zoning code that directly impacts the shape of this City. In recent years there have been major debates about signage, hillside housing, and mixed-use accessory zones. At present there are major debates about adult residential care facilities and their impact on single family neighborhoods. A bit over a decade ago the City adopted a new General Plan Framework that directed growth to boulevards. Ten years before that Zev Yaroslovsky sponsored a referendum that reduced density along these same corridors. In the past three decades Metro and its predecessors have planned and implemented 80 miles of rail transit and the largest bus rapid transit program in the country. The 30/10 effort promises to greatly add to these planned mass transit totals.

    Within the region there is also no lack of planning and urban design to both talk about and possibly review. The City of Pasadena and Santa Monica are both considered to be national models of planning innovation and have implemented many strong, innovative, and demanding plans. The recently adopted Land Use and Circulation Element in Santa Monica, not without controversy, is one of the most design-oriented and detailed general plans ever adopted in the State of California. Pasadena's Civic Center Specific Plan went through years of public debate and reinforces and builds upon the success of Old Town Pasadena, again a planned effort. This same City adopted the City of Gardens standards, three times. More recently, the City of Santa Ana adopted one of the most ambitious form-based zoning ordinances in the country.

    Ironically considering the point of Hawthorne's Times piece, a lot of developers think that Los Angeles, and the smaller cities that surround it, are chock full of plans and overlapping regulations that both shape their projects to too great a degree and at the same time choke them. The truth of the situation is probably somewhere in between my overly enthusiastic belief in the efficacy and impact of the planning that is being done and Hawthorne's sense that Los Angeles never passed a plan soon enough.

    Given just how much planning and urban design work is out there, I do wish that newspapers like the Los Angeles Times covered it to a greater degree. In fact, I think that Christopher Hawthorne should cover it to a greater degree. By covering it I mean really digging into the ideas that are being generated, critiquing the numerous draft guidelines and documents while they are before the public, celebrating the codes that win prizes, and most important, calling out as mediocre the planning and urban design stuff that just doesn't cut it.

    Perhaps this is not Hawthorne's job. He is, after all, the architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times, not the planning and urban design critic. Still, he has to his credit steadily related the state of planning Los Angeles to the state of its urbanism and its architecture. At this point it is time to go one step further and concentrate to a greater degree on the specificity and details of the plans and codes that are being produced, put them in their proper place, and define more often the nexus between them and the architecture and environments that result. It is even more vital to describe when the planning and the architecture are at variance with the plans and why this is ok, or not.

    Contrary to opinion, Los Angeles and the region are flooded with plans, some good, some not, and it is time the plans, the urban design concepts, and the citizens, leaders, and indeed planners and designers behind these plans get more exposure, and as necessary more grief, for the work that is actually being undertaken everyday.

    Monday, January 3, 2011

    Seen and Architecture 3: So Long to Pinkberry

    I must confess I was not sad when I noticed that the Pinkberry on Larchmont Boulevard had vaporized over the holiday, vacated, gone, cute metal facade dismantled and shipped off for scrap, only a forlorn 25' wide yellow stucco facade with show window and Herculite glass door covered with brown paper and awaiting the next tenant who will pay way too much rent for the privilege of selling something you really don't need, or need to eat. My misanthropic feeling at the demise of this shop had little to do with the quality of the Pinkberry product; I confess I stopped and bought a frozen yogurt or two during the store's duration on my neighborhood shopping street. I do the same thing when I visit the beach, or Mackinaw Island. However, Larchmont is not really a tourist destination. Or is it?

    No, rather than disappointed at a vacancy, perhaps a sign of the ever collapsing local economy,  I saw it as an optimistic sign that maybe every corner and nook in Los Angeles, or at least in my neighborhood, was not doomed to be another trendy chain, all brand and no soul, another venture that made my street that much closer to being like every other mall and every other street.

    At one time there were lines of eager patrons on the sidewalk in front of Pinkberry jostling to get in, waiting for a tart treat. But even early on, even as Pinkberry was expanding like Starbucks onto numerous corners throughout the wedge of Los Angeles I call home, I noticed grumblings. I have now reached the age where brand cool is not defined by what I think or what I do, but by what my daughter consumes. In this regard at least Pinkberry was quickly supplanted by Yogurtland, a storefront that occupied decidedly more humble settings on La Brea Boulevard, one mile to the west. Even as Larchmont became more polished, more slick, more full of "shoppes", each trying to appeal to a local demographic in the hopes of defining a national brand - for me an empty vessel of a neighborhood street - La Brea somehow became more authentic. The kids got it and the lines moved to another neighborhood that wasn't quite so shiny and predictable.

    Larchmont is left with is one more empty storefront. There are quite a few these days, the result of real estate speculation hell bent on defining the street as a mini-Robertson Boulevard. Perhaps the property owners and the commercial brokers and the brand concept marketers are right, this is the street to be on. For those of you who need a frozen Larchmont delight you could try Twirl (again, frozen yogurt), or Baciami (gelato), or the old standby Baskin Robbins, and prove them right. Yet, on December 1, 2010 there were four icie treat purveyors on one longish block in the middle of a wealthy upper middle class community in the middle of Los Angeles, and that was finally one too many.

    Is it any wonder we are overweight and have an ever-increasing incidence of diabetes? And what about the children? I am not that far from young dadhood and my memory at least was struggling to control sugary temptations. Now Larchmont is a street that is increasingly all temptations all the time. It has all the quality of a food court, a quality food court, but a food court nevertheless. I want to think that the burghers of Pinkberry looked up and down Larchmont and came to the conclusion that their brand would suffer if they remained. So, in this fantasy at least, they took off to pinker more authentic pastures. And, now that they are not in my backyard, I might finally seek them out.

    Sunday, January 2, 2011

    Seen and Architecture 2: The Big Red Loop

    Looking over Lake Hollywood on a rainy day and imagining a Red Line loop from Hollywood to Burbank, Glendale, and then along the Los Angeles River to Union Station.

     For about fifteen years now there has been a focused discourse in the design professions about infrastructure. Infrastructure, that dimension of urbanism that for more that half a century has been the almost exclusive domain of engineers.  Infrastructure, the stuff of highways, sewers, high-tension electrical grids, fiber optic networks, etc. Infrastructure has become a fashionable pursuit of designers. A quick trip to an architectural book store such as William Stout in San Francisco or Hennessy and Ingalls in Los Angeles will unveil a plethora of magazines, books, and pamphlets, each extolling the opportunities of infrastructural urbanism. In these design manifestos, more often than not, infrastructure, often buried, is made manifest, and designed and writ large over the city landscape.

    Infrastructural schemes for giant parks, buildings as landscape, or the ad-infinitum insect-like meta-structures self-constructing themselves on top of the topos are at once visions of the future and expressions of a desire by designers to re-engage city building beyond the four walls of an individual building or the fence-line of an open space or park. In an age of climate change, population explosion, dire poverty, fabulous wealth, and with more than half of the world's people now living in cities, designers want a piece of the extra large construction pie. The profusion of infrastructural drawings, schemes, and concepts connect the design of cities with the design professions who have largely, even today, been left out of the infrastructural decision-making tree.

    I will admit to a bit of cynicism when I see many of the ideas that purport to show a designed-by- architects infrastructural future. Too often the extra-large scale of the ideas, the magical thinking with regard to materials and structure, the naivety with regard to any understanding of resource requirements, all combine to make it too easy to dismiss the visions as utopian, i.e. nowhere. Yet this impulse to describe a future, and do it in terms of a drawing or model, can not be totally discounted because aesthetics has the capacity to bring the challenges and optimism of progress towards a more livable city to the foreground, and allows even those of us with somewhat Luddite everyday tendencies to re-imagine for the better the place where we live.

    Today, my freind Nevin and I took a hike in the rain, wind, and cold from the top of Beachwood Canyon to the Hollywood Sign. While the clouds were low and the atmosphere damp, nevertheless the views were long and wide below the gray cover. One could see all of the mountains through the mists for a distance of up to seventy miles. Below us sprawled all of greater Los Angeles; the spine of Wilshire, the clusters and concentrations of Hollywood, Glendale, Burbank, Downtown, Century City, and beyond were all visible. Our center for these panoramas of course was that great stretch of open space, Griffith Park and its wilderness surrounds. From its peak we could see and imagine the whole city at once. The rain in our faces only made the intensity of the moment more acute. We were standing at the navel point of Los Angeles infrastructural urbanism. At that moment a flash came into my head, an infrastructural snapping that while divorced from the parametric meanderings of advanced architecture and landscape urbanism logics, was nevertheless dependent upon their constructs and insights.

    I imagined that the Metro Red Line subway did not terminate in North Hollywood. Rather, after its journey from Downtown to Hollywood, and then north along Lankershim Boulevard, the train turned east on Chandler Boulevard, an abandoned rail-right-of-way, and rolled on and into Burbank. Once in Burbank the train could turn north, again on existing heavily used rail roads, and head to Bob Hope Airport, or, turn south and link to Glendale running parallel to both San Fernando Road and the Los Angeles River. On this journey soon enough our subway crosses the Glendale Freeway and heads towards the confluence of the Los Angeles waterway with the Arroyo Seco. We pass Taylor Yards, the new Los Angeles State Historic Park, and the Cornfields, all subjects of planning studies that imagine redevelopment of historic rail yards into places of work, living, and play. Moving further south the trains curls home into Union Station, refinding its starting point and completing a grand Red Line loop; a loop that can be easily imagined from the roof of Griffith Park.

    The completion of this infrastructural dream would hardly be inexpensive, but it has a type of material pragmatism that is approachable over the course of two or three or five decades. It ties together Downtown, Hollywood, Burbank and Glendale, along with numerous other communities, with some of the largest undertakings in the Los Angeles basin, such as the Los Angeles River Master Plan.

    In many ways this is a modest proposal. While I am sure I am not the first person to imagine this, the impact of such a proposal, its ability to change the way we experience the urbanism of Los Angeles, the manner that completed infrastructure allows for intensification in new neighborhoods and conservation in older communities, is as big as any bloburb drawn or illustrated in a book. While one can be at first dismissive of designers that draw infrastructural visions that look unobtainable, the culture of the extra-large, as exemplified by the imagining of a giant Los Angeles loop below and at-grade, has the capacity to make even those of us who think from the ground up, and from the inside to the outside, conceive of neccessary ways to build and rebuild at giant increments of scale and scope previously unexplored and unimagined.

    Saturday, January 1, 2011

    Seen and Architecture 1: Same Old Same Old

    The Metro bus stop at Wilshire Boulevard, Fremont Place, and Rossmore Avenue in Los Angeles, California.

    I love our community newspaper, the Larchmont Chronicle. Even though I live in the second largest city in the United States, Los Angeles, and am a daily and faithful reader of the Los Angeles Times,  if one wants to know what's happening in this city's Mid-Wilshire, Miracle Mile, Hancock Park, and my neighborhood Brookside, communities, you need to peruse the Chronicle. Here one can find the local crime blotter, news from each of the schools in the area, advertisements for Mom and Pop stores, comings and goings of an increasingly diverse Hancock Park social set, and, at least in the past, my favorite, the columns of the irreplaceable and now deceased, Mr. Blackwell.

    Jane Gilman, the editor, also publishes letters that reflect well the fears and hopes of community residents. These tend, at least in my opinion, to run the gamut of present day NIMBY-ism. Over and over the letters bespeak a sense that things are just fine the way they are in our little town, or more accurately the way they were; nothing should change.

    For the first issue of the new year Jane publishes a letter titled, "Lack of lanes", by Tony Medley, a resident of Fremont Place. Fremont Place is a gated and secured cul-de-sac of private streets off of Wilshire Boulevard, features turn-of-the-20th Century mansions as well as upper middle class homes, and is a quiet "Model T" suburb amidst the bustle of a still intensifying city. While Fremont Place is a defining feature of the Wilshire Boulevard landscape as one travels east and west along this major thoroughfare past the southern terminus of Rossmore/Vine Street, few actually cross through its threshold and behold its broad green lawns and architectural treasures.

    On several occasions I have used the bus stop located at Rossmore and Wilshire at Fremont Place's main gate. Mostly one sees working people waiting at this stop, many of whom no doubt serve the local gentry who live beyond the guard station. I doubt too many of the residents of this community have actually ever taken a bus, which brings me to Mr. Medley's thoughts.

    Mr. Medley states in his note to the Chronicle that he is, "astounded that there isn't more outrage about Los Angeles' plan to destroy Wilshire Boulevard by taking two lanes away during rush hour, limiting them to the buses." He goes on to describe his chagrin in conspiratorial tones using words and phrases such as, "intentionally refused to repave the street, "I don't think politicians think for one minute", "far too important an issue to be left to a few politicians", and a "foolish idea"; perhaps he has a point, but on second thought no.

    Mr. Medley has gotten on this bus way too late and more unfortunate expressed his outrage in an inflaming manner that assumes elected officials, professional planners and engineers, and citizens who have taken the time to testify for, and sometimes against, this forthcoming improvement, must all be stupid, despite having attended, or attended to, the dozens of public meetings (at least three meetings were held just blocks from Mr. Medley's home), the long process, the massive number of public documents, the alternative discussions, and on and on.

    Where was this guy for the past ten years while this project was discussed and planned? Why is my local newspaper giving Medley, who is fortunate enough to live behind gates that shut the City and its problems out, an opportunity to express an opinion that is not in the least informed by the facts of the situation? His is an attitude that undermines civil discourse about the the design of the City. His very late thoughts are a manner of negative expression that does does not contribute to the design and making of a better City, only stasis. This is an attitude that is presumptuous in its sense of entitlement, shooting from the hip without ever looking up a website, attending a public meeting, or reading a fact sheet. This is raw and misguided NIMBY-ism expressed in its most problematic form.

    I respect the right of anyone to disagree. My experience is that most of the time disagreement about the design of a city leads to better more thoughtful place-making. At the same time, each of us who choose to contribute to these public discourses have an obligation to at least in a cursory manner learn about the issue before we shoot off our mouths. And, newspapers who are stewards of public discourse, should think twice before publishing an opinion, regardless of whether they agree with it or disagree with it, without providing some context, or insisting that the writer demonstrate some sense of grounding in the issue at hand.

    I think it is amazing that after ten years, exploration of many alternative approaches, implementation of a pilot bus lane project in West Los Angeles that failed to persuade people of the efficacy of rush hour restrictions in this part of town,  the opting out of the bus lane option by other communities along the route, that nevertheless progress towards more efficient rapid bus transit was achieved that will shave many minutes off the commute.

    I know the young people in my office who ride the bus will appreciate this. I know the thousands upon thousands of working people and commuters who use the Wilshire Rapid Bus will appreciate this. And, I know that some people who drive their cars during rush hour on Wilshire Boulevard will be certainly inconvenienced between 7:00 AM and 9:00 AM and 4:00 PM and 7:00 PM. This is urban compromise, and compromise we must in the big city.

    Whatever its limitations and compromises, the Wilshire bus lane represents a positive evolution of Los Angeles towards a city where public infrastructure, such as streets, is reconfigured to better serve more of the public. While Mr. Medley, and the editors of the Larchmont Chronicle - who hopefully unwittingly published his letter - may not agree from an individual perspective, even they will benefit if increased numbers of Angelinos are able to move quickly, in smart and sexy buses, east and west along this aptly named "Fabulous Boulevard" (see Ralph Hancock's 1949 eponymous book).