Transforming a lane of traffic into public space in the heart of downtown LA 

Story by Nate Berg, photos by Ruben Diaz

It’s 6:00 pm on a Thursday in downtown Los Angeles, and the streets are unsurprisingly jammed. Commuters are inching their way out of the city’s historic core towards its abundant freeway connections. With all the cars and buses and honking, it’s easy to think of downtown’s streets as just streets – the lanes of asphalt lain for the sole use of carrying automobiles through the city as quickly as possible.

But new efforts are underway downtown and in a growing number of other neighborhoods around the city to broaden the idea of what L.A.’s streets can and should be. Transportation officials and urban designers are reshaping the city’s streets to serve not just as transportation corridors for cars, but to better accommodate cyclists and pedestrians and even to create new public spaces.

On this particular Thursday rush hour, a group of about 25 people have gathered on Broadway Street outside Grand Central Market to see the city’s first major streetscape revision. As part of de LaB’s Making L.A. event series, the group is standing on a patio, surrounded by folding chairs and tables and umbrellas, on what just months earlier would have been a traffic lane crowded with cars.

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The new patio is part of a “complete streets” makeover running about 10 blocks down Broadway that’s removed a lane of traffic and replaced it with outdoor seating areas, linear pocket parks, additional pedestrian space and new plants and street trees. Beige decomposed granite marks out the new public space, which stretches about 10 feet from the old curb in some spots, and is protected from the street traffic by strategically spaced planters and bollards. This new streetscape, completed in September, is a pilot project, or “dress rehearsal,” to test out streetscape interventions that will eventually be made permanent as a part of a downtown revitalization initiative launched in 2008 called “Bringing Back Broadway.”

“Broadway, for far too long, was the street you used to get from one place to another. We want Broadway to be the destination,” says Jessica Wethington McLean. She’s in charge of economic development for downtown city council member Jose Huizar, and executive director of Bringing Back Broadway. The 10-year initiative includes high profile efforts like luring chic new businesses to Broadway and building a looping 4-mile streetcar route. But Wethington McLean says that a big part of making the street attractive to new businesses and tenants relies on improving the pedestrian experience. “We decided that we wanted to prioritize people over vehicles, which in 2009 in the car capital of the United States was a somewhat radical idea.”

 

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What resulted is the Broadway Streetscape Master Plan, designed by downtown L.A.-based landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm Melendrez. The new street furniture and patio spaces are the first steps of that plan, developed over five years of working with local business owners and community members, and coordinating changes to the street with traffic engineers and the L.A. Department of Transportation. Melendrez principal Melani Smith says there was a “palpable difference” between this project and other urban planning projects she’s been involved with. “You had a lot of owners, you had a lot of residents coming to our meetings early on who knew that things were going to change here, and who welcomed it,” she says. “They were saying bring it on. Bring on the change.”

What’s on the street today is really just a test run of how Broadway will eventually be transformed. Rather than spending the project’s entire estimated budget of $30 million at once, the designers and city officials rolled out a simplified test version that cost only $1.5 million. Though less than permanent, the so-called dress rehearsal has made it easier to tweak the design and master plan as it’s being implemented. Taking out a lane of traffic might look simple in a computer model, but Smith says it becomes a little more complicated on a crowded L.A. street where cars are turning, buses are stopping and trucks are unloading goods. Smith says the design will continue to evolve as it’s gradually implemented. Agreements with developers building new projects and restoring old ones along Broadway will contribute funding for the master plan’s buildout. The next phase will include the addition of more pedestrian lighting, increased wayfinding signage, a water drainage and filtration system and permanent paving materials.RVD_2937_WEB

The streetscape makeover on Broadway is intended to be just the start of a dramatic citywide effort to rethink the way streets look and work. Valerie Watson, assistant pedestrian coordinator at LADOT says the Broadway project is serving as a test case for the department to try out new ways of redesigning the public right of way. In conjunction with recently launched programs like the community-driven public space creation project People St and the corridor-focused Great Streets initiative, the lessons being learned on Broadway may soon be implemented in projects all around the city. “It’s helping to catalyze bigger conversations about urban design,” says Watson, who calls downtown an incubator for complete streets in L.A. “We want to see how we can build on this and start to transform streets all across Los Angeles.”

See all photos from the event here.

Nate Berg is a writer and journalist covering cities, architecture and urban planning. 

Ruben Diaz is a photographer and a DP based in Los Angeles who shoots for many artists and galleries.

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This is the ninth event in our Making LA series, which is made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Making LA consists of ten free programs hosted throughout the city between fall 2013 and fall 2014 that focus on designers and architects working closely with communities and civic leaders to improve Los Angeles. The series will culminate in the Making LA conference in fall 2014, a one-day event where creative leaders from across Los Angeles will share best practices and investigate new ways to make their burgeoning civic, architectural or design projects a reality. Want to sponsor an upcoming event? Learn more.