Friday, March 06, 2015

Density: Nowhere to Go But Up

By Jessica Ritz

“L.A. is having a moment” was an oft-repeated phrase during Making LA’s morning sessions. Long-held attitudes are shifting, with residents’ habits and the built environment following suit. Talking about matters related to density reminded the crowd of the need to pause and allow for nuanced, careful thought as we collectively surge towards change.

Is density good or bad? Do we need more or less of it? What might a denser city look and feel like? The answers, as always, are complicated.

In conversation with de LaB’s Marissa Gluck, musician-cum-architecture-aficionado Moby confessed to not being exactly sure what density means to him, but he knows for sure it’s part of why he left Manhattan, where he was born and returned to as an adult after growing up in the Connecticut suburbs. Other reasons for his cross-country move included dodging the fate of being “the Woody Allen of electronic music” and becoming sober.

“New York was at its best when people didn’t want to live there. Then it fell under the weight of its own popularity,” he said. California has its own daunting challenges, such as water and agricultural mismanagement that he discussed as part of a brief detour onto a “vegan soapbox.”


Photo by Monica Nouwens


But there’s much more to love. Southern California winters, easy access to nature, and a creative community were among the selling points that lured him out west. After decades in Manhattan, Moby finds less density conducive to creativity. By way of example, he’s a big fan of The Springs in the Arts District, a new sprawling multipurpose wellness center that houses a health- and eco-conscious restaurant. It takes a considerable amount of space to build a place like that.

After the presentation from Dr. Lucy Jones of Caltech and the US Geological Survey, AKA the “Earthquake Lady,” about urban resilience in the face of seismic dangers, the question might be: Why would anyone want to?

Thankfully, Dr. Jones, a fourth-generation Californian, is also Mayor Garcetti’s Science Advisor for Seismic Safety to help the city plan better instead of coasting along in our current default mode: denial. (One quick bit of takeaway advice, BTW: stock up on more emergency water. Think you have enough? You probably almost definitely don’t.)

“You’ve got to accept risk in California,” she plainly laid out. And given that a dense urban center like L.A. is “a system of systems,” the chances we take are indeed scarier. Look at our water infrastructure, for example: 85% of the city’s supply is imported and crosses the San Andreas fault to get here, and those systems won’t survive without imminent reengineering. We can learn from the past, but we have to envision unknowns in the future; the ’94 Northridge earthquake happened when landlines were the norm and only computer scientists knew what the World Wide Web was. Now we rely on cell phones and Internet connectivity for most aspects of modern life, including how water reaches our taps and toilets, and yet we have little idea of how these systems will fare in a major seismic event.

Recent studies have also exposed the vexing threat of aging concrete buildings, but even accepting a mere 1% failure rate of code-compliant structures—the equivalent of approximately 10,000 structures collapsing—with many more off-limits due to red and yellow tag designations does not make up a pretty picture.

Without water, standing buildings, and other necessities, it’s hard to get people to stay here. So in order to avoid protracted devastating economic impacts—New Orleans still experiences multi-billion annual losses from Katrina, for example—a rating system tooled for resilience is needed ASAP. And we all need to get real about it.


Photo by Monica Nouwens


“The earthquake is inevitable, but the disaster is not,” Jones assured the audience. Feel better now?

It’s encouraging to see L.A. government being proactive about seismic safety in a new way. Peel back the lid on a jarful of frustrations that real estate developers share about bureaucracies and the regulatory environment, however, be prepared to stand back. (The same can be often said of the communities impacted by developers’ projects.) Architect Julie Eizenberg of Koning Eizenberg Architecture in Santa Monica moderated the exchange among panelists Rudy Espinoza of the non-profit community-based organization Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN), Yuval Bar-Zimer of Linear City Development, Kevin Wronske of Heydey Partnership, and Casey Lynch of Local Construct. While a densifying Los Angeles is generally considered to be a positive development in the zeitgeist, Bar-Zemer warned that it “can be a little bit dangerous” given the undesirable aesthetic outcomes that often result.

Referring back to the afternoon’s first speaker, Espinoza doesn’t share Moby’s enthusiasm for raw juices and reiki services being proffered in ample square footage downtown. “We need housing!,” he exclaimed, to which Eizenberg countered by asking if the city can move towards a Yes/And dynamic, or are competing interests perennially damned to be Either/Or choices? (Bar-Zemer clarified that the Springs exists in that particular location because of the area’s M3 zoning.)

As gaps in the city fill in, the need to find a sustainable balance between quantity and quality will grow in what would ideally be a Yes/And climate. “It’s going to be a pretty boring city to live in” if density trumps “other values in the built environment,” Bar-Zemer said.

So how to make L.A. more livable for more people? Espinoza advocates for communities to “learn alternative tools of capital.” (The demise of redevelopment agencies has largely decimated public funding for affordable housing, Eizenberg noted.) Bar-Zemer offered the “unconventional” opinion that affordability can’t be effectively legislated. Lynch groused about the requirements that “force bad design” for multifamily housing, a broadly shared sentiment. From the standpoint of being both an architect and a developer, Wronske had earlier stated his belief that “spec homes don’t have to suck,” even if they’re harder to realize.


Photo by Monica Nouwens


So what might some of the panelists immediately do if given a magic wand? Wishes included eliminating parking requirements, altering restrictions on numbers of units, strengthening the planning department’s commitment to community planning and adding staff, and changing tall building mandates, such as the recently jettisoned helipad regulation. Given the inspiring examples of L.A.’s evolution seen throughout the day, these aren’t pie-in-the-sky concepts.

“Vibrant cities aren’t perfect cities,” Eizenberg said. So yes, maybe we can have our raw vegan cuisine alongside al pastor tacos in a neighborhood boasting new infill development… and eat it, too.

Making LA is working to transform Los Angeles by bringing together designers, architects, artists, and city leaders who are making a difference in their neighborhoods across four critical areas of focus. Read more recaps from the November 7 conference on the themes of TransportationWater, and Community.

Jessica Ritz is a writer who contributes to the Los Angeles Times, Sunset, Tablet and KCET. Her blog Taster Tots reviews the best family-friendly restaurants in L.A.

Photos by Monica Nouwens and Tara Wujcik

Water: A River Runs Through It

By James Brasuell

How refreshing to participate in several hours of discussion about water in Los Angeles without anyone making the mistake of calling Los Angeles a desert.

That’s not to say that the participants in the Making LA event hosted by de LaB on November 7 ignored the daunting challenges of water facing Los Angeles. But when gathered to present their work, these representatives from the public sector, the design professions, academia, and environmental advocacy provided compelling evidence of the city as a leader in 21st century investments in water infrastructure.

The water portion of the agenda was only one of several topics covered by Making LA, but given the location of the event (the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens in Northeast Los Angeles) and California’s ongoing drought crisis, extra elements of both seriousness and celebration contributed to the quality of the discussion.

Chief Deputy City Engineer Deborah Weintraub took the stage first and quickly set aside the familiar refrain about Los Angeles’ history of importing water from sources located to the north and east. Instead, Weintraub focused the session on the challenges presented by the 870-square-mile drainage of the Los Angeles River.

The geography of that drainage defines Los Angeles’ rainwater problem, according to Weintraub. In addition to the historic drought currently facing the city and the state, Weintraub mentioned other potentially catastrophic consequences of the city’s tenuous relationship with rain. “Too much rain and the hills slide,” said Weintraub. “Too little rain and the hills burn.”


Photo by Tara Wujcik

Weintraub specifically noted the large impacts made possible by small water projects. She quoted the Book of Ecclesiastes—”There is nothing new under the sun”—to describe the future of water infrastructure in Los Angeles, citing green roofs and underground storage as examples of how intuitive water supply solutions can be.

Deborah Deets, a landscape architect with the city of Los Angeles, was next on stage, in conversation with Sam Lubell of The Architect’s Newspaper. Their discussion also focused on stormwater, but from the perspective of Deets’s work in designing green streets. Deets noted that the process of urbanizing Los Angeles has transformed the region’s streams into different organisms, and now the city must find ways to slow and filter flowing water. Deets challenged the audience to think of green streets as a verb, rather than a noun. “You are all a part of the verb,” she said. As an example of the city’s progress on water infrastructure, Deets informed the audience of an ordinance under consideration by the Los Angeles City Council that would require stormwater infrastructure for all street construction projects.

Much of the discussion during the session’s anchor panel (participants included Juan Devin of KCET, Jan Dyer of Mia Lehrer + Associates, Ashley Atkinson from the Mayor’s Office, Omar Brownson of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, and Alex Ward from the Friends of the Los Angeles River) expanded the concept of the Los Angeles River beyond its role as a stormwater channel. Panelists described the river as open space and a shared asset and asked that the river be considered just as much for the uses along the river as for the water in the river.

Frances Anderton, KCRW radio host and producer, joined Evelyn Wendel to discuss the work of WeTap, an organization dedicated to repairing and installing public drinking fountains and reducing the use of bottled water. WeTap’s success in installing drinking fountains near playgrounds is a particularly poignant example of how easy is to take for granted that the public should always have easy access to high quality drinking water.

Peter Arnold of the Arid Lands Institute was also on hand to provide the final piece of the Los Angeles water management puzzle—a data- and visualization-rich study of the permeable soil in the San Fernando Valley. Arnold and his colleagues are exploring the surface of the Valley for access to the massive groundwater tables that lie underneath. That information can inform a strategic game plan, grounded in science, for infrastructure that takes advantage of the water storage capacity available in those groundwater basins.


Photo by Tara Wujcik


A measure of celebration regarding the city’s progress on water issues is clearly warranted. As pointed out frequently during the session, Los Angeles has only just commenced a new era in water policy, most famously exemplified by a recent decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to back a $1 billion restoration of the Los Angeles River. Moreover, the city just celebrated the tenth anniversary of Prop O. At the time of its adoption, the Prop O stormwater infrastructure bond was the first program of that scale to rely on natural infrastructure for water quality improvements, and its positive impacts are now visible all over the city.

Like much of the public discussion about the water challenges facing Los Angeles, much of the discussion at Making LA focused on large-scale efforts in the public realm. The responsibilities of private landowners for repairing the city’s water system, however, are seldom addressed. Many of the city’s millions of property owners have already sacrificed their lawns or have made other, incremental water conservation efforts. But the vast majority of private properties around the city require retrofits of obsolete stormwater and water supply infrastructure to move the city toward water independence. Although the city’s 2012 Low Impact Development ordinance requires construction projects to include water quality and conservation measures, the scale of investment encouraged by such requirements pale in comparison to the potential represented by the remaining sum of private properties in the city.

The future of the water conversation in Los Angeles must include a discussion about how to combine self interest with public interest in the form of permeable pavements and other water conservation technology on private property. Or, asked another way, how can the philanthropic and political mobilization recently focused the banks of the Los Angeles River also inspire individual responsibility for the health of the Los Angeles River watershed?

Where closer, after all, do the challenges of water hit than at home?

Making LA is working to transform Los Angeles by bringing together designers, architects, artists, and city leaders who are making a difference in their neighborhoods across four critical areas of focus. Read more recaps from the November 7 conference on the themes of TransportationDensity, and Community.

James Brasuell is Managing Editor of the planning and urbanism blog Planetizen.

Photos by Monica Nouwens and Tara Wujcik

Community: We’re All In This Together

By Caroline Chamberlain 

Designers, architects, politicians, artists, local business owners and other creative leaders descended on the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens on November 7 for the Making LA conference, an engaging day centered around a series of discussions about some of L.A.’s challenges. Organized by de LaB, a non-profit that regularly hosts smaller events of a similar nature, the day offered a fairly comprehensive and adamantly local take on how the city can creatively address many of its problems that have festered over generations.

Following a lunch catered by Heirloom LA of scrumptious and light sandwiches and salads, attendants gathered in the cheerily decorated conference room to discuss Community in Los Angeles in the context of Pershing Square, mobile communities and Skid Row.

Pershing Square is viewed by many in L.A. concerned with civic design and public space to be the apotheosis of L.A.’s shortsightedness. The five-acre park’s current iteration was erected in 1992 by Mexican landscape architect Ricardo Legorreta who won a design competition the previous year. Its current design has been criticized for shielding the park from its surroundings (including the Biltmore Hotel) with its concrete edifices and its nauseatingly bright colors.

But many perceive the main culprit of the park’s failure as a public space as originating in 1952, when, at the height of automobile enthusiasm in Los Angeles, the city installed a three-story parking garage below the park’s surface which elevated the park above street level.

Leading the discussion around Pershing Square at Making LA was urban designer Brian Glodney of international design firm Gensler and Sara Hernandez of city councilman Jose Huizar’s office who are both leaders in a private-public partnership known as Pershing Square Renew, a group that is working to make Pershing Square a thriving public space that reflects the changes occurring in downtown.


Photo by Monica Nouwens

Glodney began the discussion about the future of Pershing Square from a Gensler’s broader view of the firm’s project of studying and improving on existing public open spaces around the world. After outlining the broad conclusions that Gensler has drawn about the role of public space as a whole, Glodney gave a brief overview of Pershing Square’s history and how the park has shapeshifted over the years to reflect changing demands. And today’s demand of Pershing Square, as Gensler sees it, is for a thriving, open public space to serve downtown’s surging population.

But what is the city’s role in redesigning Pershing Square? And why did they suddenly take interest? “Gensler’s work really shone a light on the need,” Hernandez said. “Downtown Los Angeles is one of the most park-poor urban centers in the country.” And after emphasizing the enthusiasm she and councilman Huizar have for Gensler’s work on Pershing Square, she emphasized the challenges Huizar’s offices will face in implementing a future design. They face budget constraints and harsh political realities, including the fact that the parking structure will have to stay, because all of the revenue from the parking structure goes to the Department of Rec and Parks.

But despite the many iterations that Pershing Square has undergone, Hernandez emphasized that she is optimistic, because what’s new is that Pershing Square Renew is a public-private partnership that is involved in extensive public outreach and will hold a design competition to decide what comes next.

The conversation then shifted to mobile communities in LA. Jeremy Levine of Side Street Projects, David Russell of Mobile Mural Lab, and Tara Maxey of Heirloom LA outlined the joys and surprising road bumps they met in instituting their respective mobile communities in a panel moderated by Bettina Korek of For Your Art. Much of the focus was on navigating issues like getting insurance and engaging children creatively.


Photo by Monica Nouwens

Then the panel shifted once more to the topic of Skid Row, which immediately became an emotional and raucous discussion moderated by Gale Holland of the Los Angeles Times. The panelists included the formerly homeless SRHT resident Lawrence Horn, Becky Dennison of LA Community Action Network and Mike Alvidrez of the Skid Row Housing Trust, and the emotional tone of the panel began with Lawrence’s Horn introductory comments on how he ended up on Skid Row, how he brought himself back up and why he still maintains an intense connection with the space today. During Becky Dennison’s introduction, she expressed anger about how the previous Pershing Square discussion was framed in its exclusion of the homeless and said that Los Angeles as a whole has been guilty of divesting in the public realm over the course of decades. Dennison contended that there needs to be sustained funding at the federal level over a long period of time in order to seriously combat homelessness in Los Angeles.

For those who care merely about cost in terms of mitigating homelessness, Alvidrez pointed it’s actually much more cost-effective to simply provide housing for the homeless instead of leaving them on the streets. A chronic homeless population is oftentimes coupled with extensive use of police, emergency room visits and costly street cleanup.

As the conversation proceeded, Holland asked the panelists about whether they thought it would be a good idea to disperse Skid Row’s homeless population throughout the community as opposed to having entire buildings dedicated to housing the homeless exclusively. This suggestion inflamed Dennison who asked in response: “there’s a huge concentration of wealthy people in downtown LA now, is anybody talking about dispersing them?”


Photo by Monica Nouwens

Overall, the Skid Row panel highlighted that Los Angeles has long struggled to properly help its large homeless population, and this continues today. There are many feasible solutions available in terms of cost, but it would require a shift in public opinion.

The topic of “community” in Los Angeles could have consumed the entire day. While Making LA provided three great themes to explore the concept of community in Los Angeles, it would have been useful to explore how Angelenos will forge communities as they retire. Are segregated retirement communities the future? Will retirees be able to age in their own homes? Will design shift to accommodate the coming wave of aging baby boomers? These are questions that will be of crucial importance in coming decades for not only Angelenos, but residents of any city.

Making LA is working to transform Los Angeles by bringing together designers, architects, artists, and city leaders are making a difference in their neighborhoods across four critical areas. Read more recaps from the November 7 conference on the themes of TransportationWater, and Density.

Caroline Chamberlain is the Digital Producer of DnA: Design and Architecture and Good Food, two excellent shows produced by the Santa Monica-based public radio station KCRW.

Photos by Monica Nouwens and Tara Wujcik

Transportation: What Moves People

By Kristopher Fortin

“If we say that LA’s having a moment, I would say that LA was sort of in the dark ages just four or five years ago,” said Melanie Smith, director of landscape architecture and urban design firm Meléndrez at Making LA.

Many speakers agreed: Los Angeles transit is in the midst of a renaissance. And on November 7 at the Making LA conference, an event both a love letter to urban design in the city and a forum to discuss its state, the audience got to meet its leaders as speakers reported on their work in reshaping streets all across Los Angeles. Whether they were speaking about their work on installing plazas in neighborhoods, the MyFigueroa Complete Streets project or the power of CicLAvia as a community building tool, the general philosophy was the same: Creating or enhancing transportation spaces that cultivate intimate human interaction.

Coming from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Reynolds’ recent addition into LA’s transit scene has received a lot of excitement from media and peers. A couple months after she was approved by city council, Reynolds started leading the department’s new strategic plan that included a Vision Zero element—a plan to eliminate pedestrian deaths by 2025—modernizing design standards and changing the culture within city staff by prioritizing the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists.


Photo by Tara Wujcik


“Streets are spaces that belong to people,” said Seleta Reynolds, general manager of Los Angeles Department of Transportation. “They are public spaces and we shouldn’t think about them any differently than we think about our favorite places in the city.”

In Reynolds’ talk, she emphasized how design will be emphasized in the coming years. In describing last year’s installation of bulb-outs, road diets and plazas on Broadway in downtown, she said that while many of the materials used are functional, such as the white plastic bollards, “they are ugly,” she said. “If we want these things to stick, they have to be loved. And if we want them to be loved, they have to be beautiful.” And Reynolds didn’t shy away about what she visions for the type of legacy LADOT will leave: “I’m going to put hundreds, thousands of bike racks on the street.”

Multiple speakers agreed that local transportation innovations have been influential in connecting parts of the city not normally visited. CicLAvia going to South LA was a chance for residents to show off their neighborhood, and to give businesses the opportunity to tap into new consumers through cultural tourism, said Tafari Bayne, principle of EMH Creative Group, a strategic planning, communications and production consulting firm.

A big part of shifting the mindset of the general population to support pedestrian and bicycle-oriented developments is having people experience them first hand, Bayne said. With the addition of a project like MyFigueroa that runs through South Los Angeles, Bayne added, local community members can learn what the benefits are by actually using it once the project is complete.

While it was tempting to call this period LA’s Golden Age of transit, that would ignore the problems that many still face.

Near the Glassell Park-Cypress Park border, a proposed traffic station at the intersection of North San Bernardino Road, Eagle Rock Boulevard North and Verdugo Road has been in the works for the past 10 years, yet still remains in limbo, said Helene Schpak, a local community activist. Though the transit island serves roughly five different bus routes, and has history as a walkable hub for commerce and small shops, the island itself lacked benches or even shading.


Photo by Tara Wujcik


“I didn’t know a single person in the community that I talked to who didn’t pass by that traffic island and think to themselves, damn, that place is a dessert, and then feel terrible about it and drive past it,” Schpak said.

The team of Schpak, Michael Pinto, professor at Southern California Institute of Architecture, and Pinto’s students began working on the project in 2004 and were checking off many of the requirements they felt they needed to get the project done. They were able to secure a Federal Transportation Administration Grant to further develop the project, and get the backing from multiple local and civic organizations including Los Angeles Cultural Affairs, Bureau of Engineering, community associations and members. Former council member Ed Reyes connected the working group with Rep. Xavier Becerra in order to secure the FTA funding.

When council member Reyes termed out, Pinto’s students eventually graduating, and with the project stuck in city bureaucracy, momentum was lost. “The project continues, but hangs by a thread at the moment,” Pinto said.

However, another grassroots transportation effort has seen a brighter fate. Valerie Watson, assistant pedestrian coordinator at LADOT, said that city officials have joked that she was hired because she was causing too much trouble as an active citizen. She grew four parklet pilot projects into People St, a streamlined city program that allows residents to apply for plazas, parklets and bike corrals to be installed in their neighborhoods.

Over the course of a year, Watson developed People St by getting the approval from different city agencies, Watson said. The goal of making a simplified process was so residents didn’t have to deal with the dense engineering issues that come with street improvements, and so they could focus on how they could make each project unique to their neighborhood, Watson said. All the People St documents, including applications, preapproved designs, and even technical specifications are available online, and, once people apply, people can track the progress of the application.


Photo by Tara Wujcik


“The projects you’ll see coming across every corner of LA in the next year from Pacoima to South LA, it’s really going to start to change how the way a design can factor into community building,” Watson added.

Reynolds said that in her department one of her biggest challenges is staff morale: “I have bright spots of amazing genius and collaboration surrounded by large modes of apathy and cynicism.” While many in transportation manage and design around project costs, increasing the number of cars funneled through an area or the safety of a street, these priorities are limited in scope, Reynolds said. “Where we’re headed is to get to more questions around how these projects impact local business.”

So far, Reynolds’ efforts in changing city transit culture seems to be catching on.

“I had one of my most old school engineers ask me for the NACTO Urban Streets Design Guide yesterday, and, it just filled my heart with song,” Reynolds said.

Making LA is working to transform Los Angeles by bringing together designers, architects, artists, and city leaders who are making a difference in their neighborhoods across four critical areas of focus. Read more recaps from the November 7 conference on the themes of DensityWater, and Community.

Kristopher Fortin is an urban planner and journalist who has written for the OC Register, Streetsblog and Planetizen. 

Photos by Monica Nouwens and Tara Wujcik

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