Although it is vilified for its apparent lack of planning, the suburban landscape of greater Los Angeles is actually a quilt of planned communities and neighborhoods. Viewed in sequence, these communities represent a veritable history in 20th century town design, from Victorian streetcar suburbs, neighborhoods of Sears-Roebuck mail-order bungalows, picturesque towns of the Olmsted tradition, mass-produced tracts for aerospace employees, to representations of the 1960s New Town movement.
Angelino Heights, located just northwest of Downtown L.A., and Boyle Heights, east of Downtown, are two of the city’s earliest streetcar suburbs. The former is now a historic district and its Victorian houses are some of the most sought after properties in the City. The latter, maligned and neglected for years, and dissected with freeways, is now experiencing a revival of investment. Its collection of public housing – rendered dysfunctional by the usual problems – has recently been rebuilt with HOPE VI funds. The Gold Line light rail will soon be extended on First Street from Little Tokyo across the L.A. River into the heart of East LA, with a station at the historic Mariachi Plaza.
Many of the other residential neighborhoods in the basin also trace their origins to the streetcars and interurban trains. Communities like Leimert Park, Carthy Circle and Torrance were designed in the traditions of any early 20th century streetcar suburb – an arrayed pattern of streets and houses converge on small squares and mixed use centers that once focused on Pacific Electric trolley stops (the trains – often financed by real estate sales – were removed in the 1950s). During this time, simple subdivision on rectangular grids also provided sites for the order-by mail bungalows – Bungalow Heaven in Pasadena, West Adams near USC, and Vinegar Hill in San Pedro, among other historic neighborhoods.
In this early period of the basin’s subdivision, there are town designs of stellar quality that rank amongst the best-designed communities nationwide. Rancho Palos Verdes, designed by the Olmsted sons from 1913 to 1922, is situated on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean at the southwest corner of the basin. Like Olmsted Sr’s plan for Riverside, Illinois, Rancho Palos Verdes is a picturesque pattern of streets, arranged around pedestrian-oriented shopping courts and schools, including the romantic Malaga Cove Plaza. Further up the coast north of Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades represents yet another neighborhood designed in the Olmsted tradition.
From this time period, perhaps the iconographic tree-lined streets that create the City of Beverly Hills are the most famous. Subdivided in the early 1920s, historian Reyner Banham described the Beverly Hills street grid as “a regular pattern of lightly curved roads running north-west from Santa Monica Boulevard, maintaining an approximate symmetry about a double axis of Canon and Beverly Drives, which cross when they intersect Sunset Boulevard, exchanging position in order to create the triangular site for the Beverly Hills Hotel.” The picturesque and curvilinear pattern of Beverly Hills provides prominent sites for civic buildings, gently absorbs the rising terrain in a pure transect from center to edge – from the angular street grid of its downtown to the secluded enclaves in the Hollywood Hills – and in all respects is a plan any mainstream New Urbanist planner would be proud of.
With World War II came a massive expansion in the defense and aerospace industry, and an equally massive influx of population in need of housing. Employing the same manufacturing methods used to build airplanes, tanks and ships, defense contractors like Henry Kaiser created new neighborhoods overnight on land near their plants according to the latest neighborhood planning principles as articulated by the Federal Housing Authority. Industrialized and assembly-line production created communities like Westchester near the Los Angeles Airport, Panorama City in the San Fernando Valley near Lockheed’s factories in Burbank, and Lakewood near Douglas Aircraft’s Long Beach plant. Lakewood, twice the size of Levittown, went from bean fields to a town of 17,500 homes in three years.
This pattern of development would be characterized as “sprawl” in the 1960s through a variety of indignant books – God’s Own Junkyard by Peter Blake, and its California counterpart, How to Kill a Golden State by William Bronson. In response, the “New Town” movement produced Columbia, Maryland; Reston, Virginia; Lakelands, Texas; and on the edges of Los Angeles, Valencia and Irvine (designed by the offices of Victor Gruen and William Pereira, respectively).
By the early 1980s, a new approach to neighborhood design was emerging. Or rather, an old approach that sought to revitalize and reinvigorate the neighborhood planning and design techniques practiced in the 1920s thru 1940s. Less than 10 years after Seaside Florida, and some 1000 acres larger, the Playa Vista plan for West Los Angeles represented one of the most ambitious attempts to define traditional neighborhood design.
But the built results of Playa Vista fail to measure up to the intentions of the design. Whether blame should be laid at the feet of finances, environmental lawsuits, complicated city approval procedures, inflexible fire departments, or the lack of a binding architectural code within the plan itself, the legacy of Playa Vista looms large over neighborhood planning in greater Los Angeles. Other large-scale greenfield plans in the region so far seem destined to repeat Playa Vista’s compromised history. In Azusa, an invited competition and public design charrette for the site of the Monrovia Nursery led to a sophisticated and sensitive plan by the firm TortiGallas, but this design was ultimately reduced to a conventional suburban design through the engineering and approval process. RiverPark in Oxnard and Liberty at Lake Elsinore are now both under construction, although few of the original architects involved in the planning process will vouch for the integrity of the final design. Other neighborhood plans in the region that aspire to New Urbanism are even younger in the approval process, and it is too early to judge their veracity. Unfortunately, if recent history is any guide, none of these plans will be built as designed. In the Los Angeles region, the forces of conventional suburban development still dominate town planning, and reclaiming the traditions that brought us the region’s most beloved historic neighborhoods remains an uphill struggle.
Published in Los Angeles: Building the Polycentric Region (Los Angeles: Congress for New Urbanism XIII / Moule & Polyzoides / Reconnecting America, 2005) | © 2005 Alan A Loomis | Congress for New Urbanism