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Sam Hall Kaplan

Strip Mining the Urban Lode

August 25, 1985|Sam Hall Kaplan

One only has to drive through the north Westwood neighborhood to see why residents there have demanded a building moratorium.

The rolling, verdant, square- mile area bounded by Gayley, Veteran and Le Conte avenues is pockmarked by vacant lots recently cleared of buildings, buildings marked for demolition and new, overscaled and ostentatious apartment complexes.

According to Bob Breall of the neighborhood association there, within the last year about 30 apartment buildings have been demolished and an estimated 900 persons displaced to make way for a wave of oversized and overpriced apartments.

Of course, if developers want to construct overpriced apartments-- and there are people who want to rent them--that is just fine. The entire Los Angeles region needs housing in all price ranges.

But developers should pursue the market with infill projects, on vacant land, with imagination and sensitivity, not at the expense of existing housing and the character of a neighborhood, particularly a stable one.

Ironically, it is the pleasant character of the north Westwood neighborhood--a mature, multiunit area that has long provided a housing resource to the adjacent bustling UCLA community--that no doubt attracted the latest rash of avaricious speculation and insensitive development.

And, if the development is allowed to continue unchecked by a moratorium, in time, no doubt, it will destroy the very character of the neighborhood that initially made it so attractive to the speculators.

But by then most of the speculators probably will have "cashed out" and moved on, repeating what has occurred in the past in other neighborhoods.

What we are witnessing is a sort of ugly urban strip mining, in which sound, well-scaled structures providing needed housing are being demolished for a short-range gain.

One can also see examples of this insidious practice along Ventura and Wilshire boulevards and in pockets of Hollywood and West Los Angeles, as well as in north Westwood.

What is needed, of course, is planning. Planning, and the zoning that gives it muscle, are supposed to protect the residential character of a neighborhood, hopefully improve it.

Planning is not supposed to provide incentives for developers to demolish sound structures so they can build oversized buildings. But that is what is happening under the present zoning for the north Westwood neighborhood, and for this we can thank those who drafted the Westwood Community Plan.

And until that planning and its resultant zoning can be corrected in a new plan to serve the area, and control and shape development, a moratorium is a necessity.

A moratorium may be an imperfect and at times unfair tool, but it can provide the time necessary to repair the planning process and help the community before both are buried under a pile of construction debris.

Livable Streets . . . is what the Beverly Hills Planning Commission has labeled a program exploring ways "to return residential streets to the safe and quiet enjoyment of the residents by reversing the present emphasis on vehicle rights over residential rights."

The program will consider how through traffic can be discouraged by the construction of landscaped areas that will improve the look of streets and act to divert vehicles "which do not have a destination within the neighborhood."

Also to be examined is the continuing problem of parking.

The effort deserves watching, for in addition to Beverly Hills, more and more communities throughout the entire Los Angeles region are finding their residential neighborhoods beset by increasing through traffic and parking problems.

How these problems can be eased without unduly inconveniencing residents will be the challenge, as Pasadena learned a few years ago when its noble experiment with a traffic diversion program collapsed under the weight of outraged drivers.

Still, the concept is quite valid, having successfully been implemented in cities elsewhere. Perhaps with its resources and imagination, Beverly Hills can make it attractive enough for residents to embrace.

After all, small landscaped parks, even if really just well-appointed traffic diversions, and the ambiance of quiet neighborhoods, have been shown to increase real estate values. While residents may be confused about a concept called livable streets and ignore the rhetoric of planners, they tend to understand appraisals well and listen intently to realtors.

Livable Streets . . . also is the focus of sort of the recently released "The Beach Towns" by Robert John Pierson, (Chronicle Books, San Francisco: $7.95). Appropriately subtitled "A Walker's Guide to L.A.'s Beach Communities," Pierson suggests 13 engaging walks in Santa Monica, Venice, Manhattan Beach and points south blessed by ocean winds.

With the help of maps and photographs, Pierson points out local landmarks, landscaping and life styles in a friendly, local booster style. The total makes for a pleasant, if ingenuous, companion with which to explore and appreciate the city's diverse streetscapes bordering the beaches. And on foot, too.

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