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