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Sam Hall Kaplan

Woodsman, Spare That Billboard!

June 23, 1985

One of the many wonderful things about landscaping is that it has the potential of mitigating the visual pollution of an encroaching, man-made world of concrete and steel.

Cultivated and protected, it can in time, block from view architectural and planning outrages, while also lending our cityscapes and freeways texture, tone and color.

The landscaping along freeways is particularly critical. In addition to being pleasant to look at, the growth tends to have a cooling effect, reduces air pollution and tempers noise pollution.

All this apparently was overlooked a few weeks ago, when the state Assembly quietly approved a bill (AB 1279) requiring Caltrans "to trim or replace vegetation on a landscaped freeway for a distance of 500 feet from an advertising display"--if the vegetation obstructs the view of the billboard from the freeway.

The next stop for the bill, introduced by Assemblyman Louis Papan, is the Senate Transportation Committee, headed by John Foran. Both legislators, who are Democrats, hail from Daly City, a sprawling, raw suburban tract south of San Francisco. Perhaps it is no coincidence that their community is not exactly in the forefront of the "City Beautiful" movement.

The Senate committee is scheduled to vote on the bill July 2, just before the long Fourth of July recess and a favorite time for special interests, such as the billboard industry, to lobby for their favored legislation.

"The billboard lobby is at work again," observed local graphic designer Ted Woo, who has monitored the industry's "nefarious" efforts here and across the country.

"Similar bills have been passed in other states with disastrous effects," added Woo. He noted that in Florida, according to a spot check by the federal Department of Transportation, the bill resulted in the destruction of thousands of trees.

Los Angeles Beautiful, a local environmental group, added that if the legislation is approved, "the result would be a proliferation of billboards along our freeways and the destruction of trees, shrubs and other vegetation that have made our freeways much needed greenbelts in communities and the countryside throughout our state."

It called on other beautification and conservation groups to defeat the legislation. We assume that this also includes landscape architect and architect institutes and associations, and all others concerned with the shape and look of our city and landscapes.

For Artists . . . be they visual or performing, the city is the place to be. It is in the city where there is opportunity to display one's creativity, and also draw off the creativity of other artists. That is why artists tend to like living in proximity to each other. It has been found to be good for them, and also good for the city.

This fact of city life, and the fact that most artists have limited incomes, prompts one to seriously consider the proposals generated by students in the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning for the the joint housing committee of the Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA and Actors Equity. (See Ruth Ryon's story, Page 1.)

The proposals were prompted in part by the success of a project known as Manhattan Plaza just west of Times Square in New York City. Most of the 1,688 apartments in the towering complex were set aside for performing artists and other show business persons.

The key to success were substantial local and federal subsidies, which unfortunately, are no longer available.

However, this should not deter the unions and the city from embracing the student concept and moving it forward by exploring other forms of financing. This is housing that is desperately needed, not only for the aspiring artists, but for the city's emerging cultural identity.

Artist Housing . . . is just the type of student project that should please Richard Weinstein, the very-New York urban designer who is rumored to have been chosen as the new dean of UCLA's embattled architecture and planning school.

Weinstein has long been involved in efforts to find creative financing for cultural endeavors, including the expansion of New York's Museum of Modern Art and the restoration of landmark theaters in the Times Square area.

Though these projects eventually slipped away from Weinstein, he did achieve the reputation of being a hard-headed, action-oriented urban designer very much involved in the shaping and misshaping of cities. This has not exactly been the cup of tea sipped by the ethereal polemicists protected by tenure and dabbling in design at UCLA.

Definitely Not Ethereal . . . are the dozens of mini-malls or convenience centers sprouting up across the city. Usually plunked down at a busy intersection where a gas station once might have stood, the centers tend to slice up sidewalks with curb cuts, destroy the scale and massing of streetscapes and generally discourage pedestrian life.

The centers are indeed a real problem, and therefore a very appropriate choice for the first in a series of so-called "Real Problems" competitions sponsored by the associates of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Those interested in participating are asked to call (213)-749-6982.

According to the announcement, "entries will be judged on how well they acknowledge business realities while at the same time employing economical materials to make an appropriate architectural statement, and manipulating the site design to encourage street life--both in the car and on foot."

Now that is a real problem, the solutions to which I look forward to seeing when exhibited late this year.

Both the UCLA project and the AIA Associates competition are encouraging signs that local design resources are increasingly being focused on some very real local problems. The increase augurs well for the city.

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