A Decade of City-Making in Los Angeles
In 2015, Christopher Hawthorne, then architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, introduced the concept of the “Third Los Angeles” to describe the current epoch of LA city- building. In contrast to the First Los Angeles of the streetcar era (1880s-1945) and the Second Los Angeles of the freeways and suburbs (1945-2000s), Hawthorne proposed the Third Los Angeles to describe the denser, more transit-oriented, more civic-minded city emerging around us. In the past decade, 2010-2020, the completion of a significant number of projects and initiatives illustrate what the Third Los Angeles may look like. This is my take on the most influential city-making projects of the past decade, including this most recent and consequential year.
Lancaster Boulevard, 2010
Located in the high desert on the outside edges of greater Los Angeles, Lancaster is an unlikely place for some of the region’s best urban design. But the redesign of Lancaster Boulevard, the city’s eight block long main downtown commercial street, in fact foreshadows many issues still relevant today, ten years later. Remarkably simple, the design by Moule & Polyzoides retained existing curbs and sidewalks, but reconfigured a five-lane of traffic into a two-lane street with a center zone of diagonal parking, lighting and shade trees. Evocative of Las Ramblas of Barcelona, the center of Lancaster Boulevard can be re-programmed for farmers’ markets, street festivals, and other civic events – and suggests a solution to current debates about the use and rights of the street as a public space.
Inspired by Ciclovía in Bogotá Columbia, LA inaugurated its own Open Street event in October 2010. Now occurring two or three times a year in varying locations across the County, CicLAvia has motivated and inspired a pedestrian and cycling movement across the region.
Sunset Triangle Park, 2012
Like CicLAvia, the inspiration for Sunset Triangle Park came from elsewhere – in this case, New York City’s Pilot Pedestrian Plazas. The closure of this slip-lane in Silver Lake and the colorful neon-green paint scheme by Rios Clementi Hale Studios created a local template for similar pedestrian plazas and other “tactical urbanism” interventions such as parklets, play streets, bike corrals, and colorful crosswalks under the umbrella of LA’s People Street program and other local initiatives.
Grand Park, 2012
Sandwiched between inert government buildings on four sides and sitting atop a massive underground parking structure, Grand Park is hardly the ideal location for a “central park” for all of Los Angeles. Yet despite these challenges, the design by Rios Clementi Hale Studios (and the thoughtful programming by the Music Center) creates one of the most successful urban design projects of the past decade. By restoring the “grand” civic axis between the LA DWP building down the hill to City Hall, Grand Park is LA’s version of the National Mall in Washington DC, notwithstanding whimsical pink furniture. The proof that Grand Park is heir to a long tradition of City Beautiful planning traditions lies in its annual use for New Year’s Eve celebrations and as the destination for the many mass political rallies seen in the past seven years since the park opened.
Tongva Park / Bel Mar Village, 2014
A remarkable combination of public and private development, the Tongva Park and Belmar Village neighborhood just west of Santa Monica City Hall represents one of the most holistic urban design plans built in greater Los Angeles this decade. Situated on land previously occupied by parking lots and RAND Corporation offices, Field Operations’ Tongva Park is the showpiece, a modern interpretation of a nineteenth century botanical garden that creates a direct link from City Hall to the famous Santa Monica Pier. A constructed landscape in the Olmsted tradition (and with Olmstead’s civilizing and democratizing agenda for parks), Tongva Park features a variety of framed views, including a pair of romantic ocean overlooks atop an artificial hill. Framing the park edge and interconnected with a series of public pedestrian paseos is a complex of mixed-use, mixed-income multi-family housing by Moore Ruble Yudell, Koning Eizenberg and KTGY. Rounding out the neighborhood is a new (and not so public) office building for RAND by DMJM.
One Santa Fe, 2015
An impressive “landscraper” as long as the Empire State Building is high, One Santa Fe apartments by Michael Maltzan Architecture creates monumentality out of the generic stucco-on-wood-frame-over-concrete-podium construction that typifies most new multi-family housing in Los Angeles this decade. Its elongated form generated by a narrow site sandwiched between Santa Fe Avenue and the rail yards adjacent to the LA River, One Santa Fe creates a definitive eastern “edge” to the Arts District. With a small commercial plaza tucked under the building’s mid-point, One Santa Fe helped establish a neighborhood center recognizable to non-District residents. Indeed, this unmistakable building signaled the emergence of the Arts District as one of LA’s most dynamic neighborhoods, with designers such as LOHA, Shimoda Design Group, Herzog & de Meuron, BIG following Matlzan with evermore adventurous architecture.
Expo Line, 2012-16
The return of rail service to West LA is without a doubt a significant event in remaking the mental and physical landscape of Los Angeles. First running in 2012 from Downtown LA to Culver City, and then in 2016 the full distance to Downtown Santa Monica (and a mere four blocks from the Pier and Beach), Expo Rail promised relief to crippling traffic congestion on the 10 freeway and Westside streets. While traffic relief hasn’t materialized, riders did and Expo consistently out performs other rail lines in the Metro system. Future development at Expo Rail stops is likely to increase ridership and create new epi-centers, neighborhoods and districts between Downtown LA and the beach. Santa Monica, pioneering as it often does, demonstrated the place-making potential of Expo Rail with the impressive Colorado Esplanade streetscape linking the rail terminus to the Pier.
Ballot Box Planning, 2016-17
Voters in 2016 and 2017 were asked to opine on a wide range of planning initiatives that collective created funding and policies with decades-long ramifications. Most of significant of these is Measure M, a County-wide half-cent sales tax to fund another wave of transit infrastructure including new rail and bus lines across the Valley and Central LA. Measure A established a similar agenda for parks and open space. Funds from Proposition HHH promised to build hundreds of houses for the region’s homeless population (a promise frustratingly unfullfilled four years later). Meanwhile in 2017, Measure S threatened to freeze in place the City of Los Angeles’ 1950s-era zoning restrictions, but like the similar anti-growth Measure LV in Santa Monica, was soundly defeated. Collectively, the election results suggest a strong preference for a more urban, more civic-minded Los Angeles than the suburban car-oriented city that still seems to dominate our collective image of the region.
Wilshire Grand, 2017
The tallest building in Los Angeles; the first LA tower with a “spire”; the highest open-air bar in America – Wilshire Grand by AC Martin racks up the superlatives and demands attention. The dynamic light display across the tower’s “sail” and crown creates a new visual icon for Downtown, and while the architecture is somewhat ordinary in the end, but as Christopher Hawthorne remarked it is hard to dislike a building that is trying so hard to be likable. More significant than its presence on the skyline, Wilshire Grand opened the door for a new wave of Asian investment money, sparking a wave of high-rise construction to the south towards the Convention Center and USC.
USC Village, 2017
USC Village is the University of Southern California’s ambitious attempt to create the “town” side of the town-gown relationship on the north side of the academic campus. The redevelopment of a 15-acre site previously occupied with low-level shopping center and parking lots, the new Village combines new student apartments and dorms, with college- and neighborhood-serving retail, including the areas first grocery store (Trader Joes). In plan, USC Village is loosely based on Italian piazzas and villages, and its pedestrian paseos align with campus walks, promenades, and nearby streets. But the 6-story brick and manufactured stone clad buildings are designed in a “collegiate gothic” that has more in common with Harry Potter than the traditional Romanesque Revival and Modern buildings of the USC Campus. The pathways and grand piazza at the center of the Village, are paved in yet more brick but far too few shade trees for a warming climate.
The Streets of Long Beach, 2017
“The Streets” is the third, and if early results are any indication, the most successful effort, to revitalize some eight blocks on the north side of downtown Long Beach. Built on the footprint of the ill-fated Long Beach Plaza mall, later remodeled and rebranded CityPlace, “The Streets” departs from the open-air shopping mall typology that defined its immediate predecessor Instead of relying upon the usual inventory of chain stores, “The Streets” mixes local retailers with new housing, office and civic uses. Master planned by Studio 111, who moved their offices to the vacated Nordstrom Rack store, “The Streets” also includes a lively streetscape design informed by “tactical urbanism” techniques, drawing upon the Studio’s extensive experience building parklets. Still to come is a satellite campus for Cal State Long Beach, featuring a 21-story residential tower, the University Art Museum, and related educational uses.
Deployed on the streets of Santa Monica without permits or press announcements, and quickly expanded not just nationwide, but worldwide, Bird’s dockless electric scooters were the planning/transportation/tech story of 2018. Outright banned in some cities, embraced through pilot permit programs in others, and simply accepted in others as a laissez-faire capitalist enterprise, the more convenient customer experience offered by Bird’s e-scooters and its many imitators up-ended carefully laid plans by Metro and other agencies for shared bike programs built around fixed docking stations. By the end of 2019, “micro-mobility” was everywhere and a significant feature – for better and worse – on the streets and sidewalks of most cities. The most enterprising cities leveraged the presence of e-scooters to dramatically expand existing bike lanes and infrastructure for two-wheeled personal mobility vehicles.
My Fig, 2018
The most anticipated street design of the decade, the reconfiguration of Figueroa Street from Downtown LA to USC was imagined as a high-profile demonstration of “complete street” principles – reconciling and integrating pedestrians, cyclists, and bus transit with cars while also beautifying the streetscape itself with trees and coordinated wayfinding signs. The finished result, notwithstanding new bus-boarding islands, some protected bike lanes, and new landscaping, seems diluted by compromises generated in the many layers of bureaucratic review inherent with complex public works. Nontheless, “My Fig” prefigured a variety of other, and more successful, roadway and bike lane configurations in the City of Los Angeles such as Main and Spring Sts, Avalon and Reseda Blvds, and 5th, 6th, and 7th Sts.
Most commonly tucked unseen in a backyard, ADUs, or Accessory Dwelling Units, at first seem unlikely to have a significant urban design impact. However, the proliferation of “Backyard Homes” is starting to have a meaningful dent in the region’s housing crisis, especially after the legalization of ADUs across the State by AB68 (and with it, the effective end of single-family zoning). As many housing policy wonks have long advocated, building small-scale (500-1000sf) houses on existing single-family lots could potentially generate thousands of new homes. But in contrast to the large 5-story mixed-use developments popping up near transit stations, ADUs have virtually no visual impact on existing neighborhoods, and open the door for small scale real estate investment and wealth generation.
Culver Steps, 2019
With a plaza by the SWA Group that rises up an amphitheater-style grand staircase to the second-floor terrace of a new retail/office building by Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects, Culver Steps is the latest vainglory attempt by Culver City to establish a “there there.” Opposite the historic Culver Hotel, building upon previous place-making efforts and expanding a series of street closures at the awkward bowtie intersection of Culver and Washington Boulevards, Culver Steps creates significant public space to anchor Downtown Culver City. A few blocks from the Culver City Expo Rail station, and the highly photogenic Platform mixed-use complex, Culver Steps will be joined in 2021 by the larger Ivy Station complex (also by EYRC) and a plethora of creative office structures, including the massive Culver Studios for Amazon. After years in the shadow of the more glamorous Santa Monica, Culver City seems to be finally overtaking its Westside neighbor as the “it” place for LA’s creative industry, leveraging its more central location and experiencing the “overnight success” that comes from decades of focused planning.
Long Beach Civic Center, 2019
The total reconstruction of the Long Beach Civic Center ranks as one of the most ambitious works of public architecture in the past decade. The centerpiece is the new Billie Jean King Library, a light-filled hall of engineered wood and white metal columns and pickets by SOM that produces a vaguely nautical – albeit somewhat repetitive – effect. The Library, public spaces, adjacent City Hall and Port office towers are impeccably detailed and engineered, as one expects of SOM. However, the overall design has been criticized as “more pinstripe than iconic” and it does feel more corporate than civic. Perhaps this is the public architecture we deserve today – Long Beach Civic Center is the product of an innovative privately financed P3 turn-key delivery contract, reflecting the “government should run like a business” mentality of our era, in contrast to the heroic concrete brutalism of the Kennedy-Johnson era or the Art Deco of the WPA period.
The Street, 2020
Not any specific street, nor project branded with that name, but “The Street” as a spatial typology and forum for public life was the defining urban place of 2020. As the covid pandemic took hold of LA, cities instituted “slow streets” in residential neighborhoods to encourage physically-distanced social interaction as a substitute for closed parks and playgrounds. In a similar fashion, cities quickly implemented informal parklets to accommodate outdoor dining as indoor restaurants closed their doors. While some critics decried the “privatization” of public streets for commercial uses, “streateries” clearly demonstrated that far more of our rights-of-way could be dedicated to people instead of cars, and one hopes that such temporary installations may foretell permanent infrastructure. More dramatically, the spring and summer of 2020 also saw wave after wave of protests, as thousands took to the streets in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Armenians in Artsakh, or in opposition to Mayor Garcetti’s policies and political ambitions. Some of these protests descended into vandalism and violence, with the May 31 melee in Santa Monica one of the most well publicized.
All told, the gatherings in the streets demonstrated an inherent, almost obsessive, desire to commune in public with other human beings, the pandemic be damned. In fact, the nature of the covid pandemic seems to have unleashed this desire. This, in my opinion, seems to be an immensely positive sign to take from the events of 2020. It is cause of great optimism for the city and the urban design project to see such an overwhelming strong demand for community life in the public spaces of our cities. Of course, who has the authority and rights to define what that public space is, decide whom it is designed for, and in the face of the crippling municipal budgets brought on by pandemic shutdowns, who pays for it, will be a fraught, difficult and contested discussion. But this discussion is likely to define city-making in Los Angeles, and the country, for much of the coming decade.