Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Awful Tower

While less tall than the U.S. Bank Tower or Aon Center, L.A. Live's 54-story hotel and condo complex nonetheless dominates sightlines, immodestly isolated on downtown's Southwestern edge.

The sleekly framed Q-tip mass, designed by big project poobahs Gensler, is the latest big city skyline marring "signature structure," joining the ranks of San Francisco's One Rincon.

Checkboarded in blue tinted glass, the structure rises, exclamation point like, along the 110 freeway, defying scale, defiling scale.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Density Dogma (Part 2)

Please see Density Dogma Part 1 (12/14/2009)

Only density, charge the growth shills, can forge the new mecca: v
ibrant, walkable communities, like immoderately wealthy land islands Manhattan and San Francisco.  Density dendrites, linking decentralized purlieus, offer salvation, sustainability, more bakeries, a trattoria.

But what of Maywood then, I ask, to a sea of blank faces.  Maywood: California's most densely populated city.  More densely populated than Santa Monica, San Jose, or San Francisco.  Have the residents of Maywood forsaken the combustion engine, biking to nearby jobs, past corner close farmer's markets and keen shops, enkindled by vitalizing street life?


Are basic services, life's little necessities, nicely arrayed along the main drag, East Slauson?
Necessities perhaps, but little else, and many storefronts appear lifeless or relegated to automobile uses.  Recreational opportunities, meanwhile, are nearly non-existent for Maywood's 40,000 residents, limited to a pocket park and a thin strip of L.A. River badlands. Maywood hasn't a movie theatre, or performance space, gym, toy store, libreria, cookwares shop, art supply source, or athletic fields.  

The ideal urban construct, apparently, requires a bit more than up-zoning. 


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Gold Line Eastside

The city's latest addition to a burgeoning rail system, the Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension (or La Linea De Oro, Edward R. Royball), debuted November 15th, at an oft-reported cost of $898 million.  

The oddly-named Extension, features eight new stations a mere six miles apart, including two subterranean stops (at Mariachi Plaza and Soto).   

From Union Station, the line travels South into the Little Toyko/Arts District, then East along a disturbingly sanitized (the kinship of development is development) First Street to Boyle Heights, eventually passing to Maravilla, and East Los Angeles proper.

The stations feature artful embellishment: seating and shade structures, mosaics, and sculpture.  

(The top three images are from the Indiana Station, credited to Paul Botello, a founding member of the East Los Streetscrapers, key contributors to the 1970's muralist movement. Titled Syncretic Manifestations, pierced, stainless steel panels resemble Mexican papel picados, complex, perforated paper designs.)

The Eastside extension feels neither revolutionary, nor likely to create new patterns of use; and it offers not, a different vantage of the city like the grid skewering Pasadena connection.  

Still, the sisyphean task continues... 

Next stop: Expo Line and westward ho!


Monday, December 14, 2009

Density Dogma (Part 1)

Density is enjoying a heyday, back from the urban planning scrapheap, the manifesto de jour.

'Mixed use, multi-story in-fill, near transit': the current planning charge, a mantra for the development gryphon. 

The re-engagement is understandable, amidst suburban disillusionment, the tireless push of affordable housing advocates, and increased concerns over the resource intensiveness of ever-expanding beltways. 

Still, the urban occurrence is being fueled by more than just green jeans and a reprinting of the Jane Jacobs oeuvre.  It's because our cities are safe once again, or at least (statistically) safer than they've been in recent history.

Planners understood sustainability and the merits of density in the 1970 and '80's; but were also mindful of "defensible space" (Oscar Newman's study that examined high crimes and high-rises), and the perceived failure of supra quadras like Igor-Pruitt.

The violent crime rate in the United States (as measured by the Bureau of Justice Statistics) soared from a metric of 160.9 in 1960 to 758.1 in 1991; decreasing since.  The degree of urbanization, its perceived connection to lawlessness, and middle class flight, often drove policy prior to the onset of trend reversals in the 1990's.



Thursday, November 26, 2009

Looks Like Teen Spirit

The University Gateway Project, latest in the Figueroa facelift,  jettisons its hijab.

Bricks and chunky massing, Brutalism with a masonry veil, giantic volumes masquerading as decoration.

Neo-trad(itional) to the max, bookending the more laudable Galen events center, shunning revered, Islamo eccentric neighbor, The Shrine Auditorium.  

Ugly.  Effective?  TBD.....


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Sub Modern (Part One)

"How dangerously bourgeois," I wise assed to the latest kid Corbusier, "a few strips of teak on the face of el bloque.  A little charity for the ol' hammer and nail guys?"

"Even if I wanted to build one of your Beaux Arts fantasies," the architect spat, "I couldn't find the craftspeople--they're under six feet of dirt, along with your aesthetic."

(A common lament, blame not my inability to compose the picturesque, to enroll the broad grammar of architecture, sayeth the builder, I am limited by my charges.)

"That's funny," I returned, "because only a couple blocks away is the Queen Anne inspired Stein Building (second and fourth images), erected not in the 1880's, but in the 1980's.  You reckon the finish carpenters were mummies?"

Los Angeles actually boasts dozens of neo free classicals, design throwbacks, and revival revivals; inspiring novelties in a landscape dominated by nuevo Mediterrauseums, and Machine Age rip-offs.

"Stick-n-stucco rules," one custom builder allowed, "because it's fast, cheap and the popular taste."
"Is the blind, leading the blind," I asked.
"You're the critic," he responded, "you tell me."

End Part One 


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Zanjas Follow Up

My Zanjas entry (9/24/09) generated two informative responses.  (The images, yet more shots of crenellations, are unrelated.) 

The first rejoinder from Double G: "My daughter attended Phoenix HS on Zanja (ditch in English).  There used to be a ditch from Washinton Blvd. to the ocean along now what is known as Zanja Street."

The second from Qualified Condition: "There is an portion that has been preserved along the Gold Line route adjacent to the Cornfield park--next time you happen upon the Gold Line have your camera handy on the westerly side as you enter the park. The Lincoln Heights/Cypress Park station also has a pretty decent art installation on the topic."


Monday, August 24, 2009


There is little remaining evidence of the shallow irrigation ditches, or Zanjas, that once carried water to parts of the city center.  A plaque here, a street sign there, a small stretch of channel along Figueroa Boulvard.  

Similar to acequias, these gravity chutes were originally earthen, lined later to improve performance amidst explosive growth.

Between the St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church and the Stimson Mansion on Figueroa Boulevard, a section of Zanja endures (image bottom).  Several brick lined sections of the aqueduct have been uncovered, or re-discovered, in recent years in and around Chinatown, or by MTA construction crews.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Communities Under Siege

From Windsor Village to Rancho Higuera, neighborhoods are challenging the developer friendly hegemony. Frequently at the center of the rancor, the latest planning fad or mandate: density along transit corridors. Familiar sounding mantra, sometimes paired with transit village, density appropriate, and smart growth.

Of course, transit corridors often ring neighborhoods with detached single family housing. Many, even well-to-do addresses like Windsor Square, are being encircled by scale disrespectin', shadow casting boxominiums and the like.

But wait, haven't we gone this route before? All those ugly dingbats built to the freeway's edge in neighborhoods like the West Adams Avenues and Sugar Hill. Density near transit, that was the idea then too. Only it contributed to the destabilization of those neighborhoods; non conforming "improvements" at the expense of established home owners; encroachment not rapprochement.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Field of Folly (Part 1)

L.A. Live, a 5.6 million square foot mixed-use development on 27 acres, North of the Staples Center, continues to rise, heedless of the prevailing scale, as if magically relocated from some 21st century wunderberg, like Shenzhen or Abu Dhabi. Imposing, like a drunken sumu at a Viennese Waltz ball.

Where Do the Commissions Go? Remember that topic line, dominated by housegoods and Japanese pull saws? Of late, the commissions have been CD bound, determined am I to grab a pequeno piece of Pico Union real estate, poised to absorb the value of downtown's swell. Turn of the century munificence amidst, well, the recentering, the urban rapture. Jogging distance to that ultimate destination: L.A. Live.

Then without warning last week, I began to reconsider the colossus, "will this be the height of folly?"
At least one of my planning wonks harbored similar concerns, "there's no retail, it's billed as an entertainment campus, and the mix may prove lacking."
"The next Grove," I asked, "or a tourist tourniquet, like Hollywood and Highland?"
"Pack the tower with millionaires and they'll be fine," came the response and a wink.

Still, I teeter. Certainly the reflected heat of the Staples Center, North America's most active arena, could be better captured. Yet, other downtown entertainment options like the ImaginAsian Center have failed to catch fire.

Will parking make the difference? I once offered in an interview, "the popularity of downtowns Culver City and Santa Monica have everything to do with parking. Cheap, plentiful, access easy, parking." Downtown Burbank offers the same. Parking planning in downtown L.A. on the other hand, despite the sort of off-street requirements many urban purists deride, exists as an exercise in premium pricing and little else.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

University Gateway

Site prep continues for University Gateway, a mixed use development at the NW corner of Jefferson & Figueroa. Gateway is slated to provide 421 student apartments and 83,000 square feet of ground floor retail (including reportedly a major bookstore chain).

While some are concerned with scale, market impacts, and the conjunctive threat to the Felix Chevrolet showroom, the project might benefit preservation pursuits in the immediate University and North University neighborhoods, by providing more student specific housing close to campus.
University and North University Park boast some of the best 19th century housing stock in Los Angeles, a fair percentage of which serve ingloriously as a student dumping ground.

One Eastlake Manor, offered recently for sale, but long deployed as a jv flop house, featured a rare pully driven dumbwaiter, littered with empty bottles of Modelo and Carta Blanca. "Shameful," my client muttered, intended for the insensitive landlords happy to offer endangered architectural carrion to a rotating class of third-year buzzards.

That property sadly passed from one investor to another, and continues to host all manner of co-ed queens, New England run aways, and Carta Blanca lovers. In the meantime Urban Partners, the Gateway developer, expect to open by fall 2010.


Saturday, July 05, 2008

What's in a Name?

How to get a project built? Start with the right name, like Martin Luther King Estates, Cesar Chavez Courts, or John F. Kennedy Condos. If the project has an "affordable" component--nowadays they call it "worker housing"--that'll help. Projects for seniors usually elicit sympathy too.

Rosa Park Villas. I guess it's better than Hitler's Haciendas, or Pol Pot Plaza.

Hopefully, they'll maintain the walk path against the freeway.

Yes, I'm open tomorrow at 2892 W. 15th ST from 2 - 5 pm, and oftentimes, just a bit longer.

Follow the green signs, 2 blocks North of Venice, 2 blocks South of Pico, 2 blocks West of Normandie, and 2 blocks East of Western.

The house has central heat, and these beautiful Art Nouveau registers, or vent covers. I hesitate to call them grilles, because they do boast a louver like system, adjust, and close.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Expo Line Cometh

As work on the Expo Line advances, inquest deepens. What will the Expo Line deliver? Disappointing ridership, passing along the fringes of sleepy bedroom communities, and an also-ran manufacturing corridor? The beginnings of a vital East-West rail route, paralleling the 10 freeway, whisking commuters in-and-out of downtowns L.A. and Culver, USC, and the Hayden tract? Dizzy development, as suddenly incentivized builders makeover moribund Exposition Boulevard? Rising land and home prices, buoyed by a major infrastructure improvement and the hip factor. A massive uptick in crime, as undesirables breach the residential sanctum, get-aways performed on the hour and half-hour?

It's hard to predict ridership, particularly for the limited phase one section terminating in downtown Culver City, but officials project a healthy 43,000 non weekend boardings a day by 2025. Perhaps those numbers are politically augmented; still, the MTA has often been accused of low-balling predictions, and several lines have exceeded expectations.

While the ultimate phase two alignment is undecided, the target terminus is 5th and Colorado, in Santa Monica.

Developers, drawn by density bonuses and other perks, will likely contemplate projects along the industrial hinterlands between Arlington and La Cienega and beyond.

Overlooked amongst those factors contributing to the appreciation of LA real estate this decade: the completion of the Metro Red Line (or "the Subway to Somewhere" in 1999-2000) and Gold Line (2003). Studies concerning the impacts of rail transit in the bay area (BART), along the Miami-Dade system, in suburban Philadelphia (SEPTA), across the Eastside Metropolitan Area Express (Portland), and in DeKalb county (Georgia), show almost without exception higher property values (per square foot) in those areas served. The extent of property value increases appears tied to market penetration, i.e. ridership. (I'll write more about this apparent relationship soon)

The Cheviot Hills NIMBYS apparently foster a security concern, a stilted conkerbill of '70's urban warfare films, waves of lumbering, crime-committing zombies and icy cool pachucos, mysteriously excluded from other forms of transportation--even buses--waging gang sanctioned siege, overwhelming blubbery, leaden law enforcement.

Hmmm, puts me in the mood for a good Western.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Death of the Empty Lot

Remember the empy lot of your childhood? How it functioned, even minus picnic benches, a corkscrew slide, and spring rider as a defacto park, a sandlot, for unorganized games and adventure play?

But when was the last time you saw that? As the original horizontal city tilts vertical, as the term high-density infill becomes a councilman's mantra, empty lots are being devoured like hot dogs at a Nathan's event. They're inaccessible besides, wrapped in tall, liability-staving, chain link.

While the city becomes more dense (adding an average 30,000 new residents a year), rarely are the remaining un-built parcels commandeered for municipal use. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy will sometimes acquire an acre of two, protecting its holy land, in the canyons or passes, inaccessible to most, practical for none.

The Cornfield or Chinatown Yard, the city's first state park, is a notable exception. The 32 acre site, former Tongva village, and Southern Pacific train yard, funnels into the LA River, near the Brewery Art Colony and Lincoln Heights.

Of course urban infill is supposed to be about less resource intensive sustainable (is it a chant or a drone....) access to urban amenities--like parks! Really it's about units man, units, units, units. Is it smart growth or just big growth?

Which is why we need more parks, particularly if we've lost its poor cousin--the empty lot.


Monday, February 05, 2007

The Expo Line

Why I am so optimistic about the future of neighborhoods like Jefferson Park, King Estates, and Expo Park West, amongst others?

In part due to the upcoming Expo line. While the ultimate terminus of the future MTA rail line (also sometimes dubbed the Aqua line) is still undecided, the first phase, scheduled to begin service in 2010, will run 8.6 miles, mostly along the Exposition Boulevard right-of-way (ergo the name), linking downtowns Los Angeles and Culver City.

The Exposition right-of-way, formerly the property of Southern Pacific Railroad, hosted passenger trains, including a Pacific Electric Red Car line, linking downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica until 1953. The right-of-way continued to carry freight service until 1990.

A neighborhood is like an industry, it needs to continually attract new people with commitment and concern. I'm not talking about gentrification, displacement, or any of the like. Neighborhoods suffer turnover: people move away, people pass away.

What does your neighborhood offer? The neighborhoods paralleling the 10 freeway have long offered attractive house styles and centrality (and in some cases, relative affordability). Now they'll also offer easy access to L.A.'s burgeoning inter-urban rail system. Stops will include: Flower at 23rd and Jefferson, and on Exposition, at Vermont, Normandie, Western, Crenshaw, LaBrea, LaCienega, and lastly at Washington and National.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Ugliest Residential Block in Los Angeles?

One More Billboard Rant

The billboards pictured are the smaller poster panels, or "junior" panels. Although these signs are located on private property, they clearly derive their use--or value--from road traffic. (Otherwise, let them be oriented away from the commons!) They benefit from the investment society has made in roads. (To be clear, these signs are not advertising services or goods sold on-site.)

Does this not constitute a franchise on the public right-of-way?!

These images were captured on the 5800 block of San Pedro (South of Gage). A block of mostly single-story houses, dispicably checkered with off-premise outdoor advertising signs. The signs crane, giraffe-like, over preposterously high fencing and yards of barren soil, smelter waste, battery casings, and burnt clover.

An effort by landowners to maximize diminished economic abilities, a parasitical social practice, or another example of contested space in the urban landscape?

Or all of the above?


Monday, January 08, 2007

Civics Lessons

Billboards as civics lessons.

Ethical obligations, in storey-high lettering.

Sometimes these messages are sponsored by churches and civic organizations, or national foundations.

They mark territory as surely as other physical features, as surely as graffiti, possibly underscoring or deflocking special community needs or issues. The messages, incidentally, seem mostly intended for males, particularly the many advisories about parenting.

Is my community being debased by these towers of advocacy, presumed guilty, grouped into a mass, misunderstood, ghetto melange? Do outsiders presume the worst, and might those presumptions do further harm, particularly in a society guilty of uneven investment?

Should we discourage murders by chalking bodies on the sidewalk, and by using shell casings to form snowman-like eyes, ears, and mouth?

Didn't pop music used to deal with this stuff?


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

How Now Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's, the discount gourmet food chain, has nearly 300 outlets in 18 states. There are at least eight locations in Los Angeles, not including two in West Hollywood, thirteen blocks apart. Pasadena, a city of 140,000 hosts three, with others nearby in South Pasadena, La Canada-Flintridge, La Crescenta, and Monrovia.

Trader Joe's doesn't yet have a location in Council Districts 8, 9, or 10. The combined population of CD's 8, 9, & 10 is nearly 750,000, greater than Wilmington Delaware, Annapolis Maryland, or Newport News, Virginia. Much greater than San Clemente, San Carlos, or Santa Barbara (home to three stores).

Possibly there's a bit more moola in Santa Barbara than in "South Center City". But there would seem to be some moola here as well, as evidenced by the price of homes in Country Club Park, Western Heights, and LaFayette Square, to say nothing of View Hills, Kinney Heights or Victoria Park. Moreover, one doesn't need a lot of moola to afford a 69 cent pack of pasta, a 19 cent banana, or a loaf of multi-grain bread ($1.89).

For arguments sake, the Figueroa corridor might offer the most opportunity for the/an aspiring retailer. Close to U.S.C's grub-happy student population, downtown's soft-lofters, and a better option than the 32nd Street market for University Park's well-to-dos.

But who needs 'em? I buy most of my produce, and some of my other essentials (rice, beans, and tortillas) at Mercado Numero Uno. The warehouse style market is high-ceilinged, with broad aisles and open space. The in-store soundtrack includes zippy Cuban music. The location I like best is at 701 East Jefferson, where San Pedro and Avalon split. The Jefferson store hosts a pocket branch of the popular full sevice food provider Gallo Giro, with an exhibition-style kitchen offering traditional Mexican dishes like guisados and tamales, a bakery (panaderia), and juice bar (Aguas Frescas).

I'm addicted to the Platano incidentally.