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).