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Around the South Bay

Fallen Arches Are the Legacy of Lawndale's Grand Ideas

August 29, 1985|GEORGE STEIN

"Through the centuries," grandly declaimed the architects who wanted to design an entrance for Lawndale, "the arch has welcomed emperors to peasants, tourists to residents."

On the other hand, no arch has ever welcomed South Bay commuters crawling along Hawthorne Boulevard.

And now no arch will.

Hung up on federal guidelines for the use of redevelopment money, Lawndale officials now are scrambling to spend before a Sept. 30 deadline the $44,000 they allocated for the arches.

"We got put into an uncomfortable position," said Mayor Sarann Kruse. "I don't think any of us want to be accused of just spending money. . . . That wasn't what it all started out to be."

Instead of a monument to the "everlasting commitment to Lawndale's civic pride and prosperity," as the architects put it, the arches have become more a symbol of--take your pick--bungling at City Hall or maddening federal red tape.

It started out so differently.

True, the arches designed for the Hawthorne median at Rosecrans Avenue could not have matched more famous arches--the Arc de Triomphe in Paris where an eternal flame burns in sacred memorial to France's fallen, the 630-foot stainless steel Gateway Arch in St. Louis that commemorates the opening of the West, or even those ubiquitous, if more pedestrian, golden symbols of you-know-what.

Yet in their own way, Lawndale's arches would have served a civic loyalty burning as brightly, if less largely, on Hawthorne Boulevard. For it is on Hawthorne Boulevard that Lawndale has a sign for municipal notices, where four-foot rectangular concrete slabs resembling tombstones welcome motorists at the city limits, where the trackless Lawndale trolley rolls--and where city officials sought to raise the civic profile at the city limits.

Thus was born the Gateway Project--"On that river of Hawthorne Boulevard, where you can't really tell where one city stops and another starts, that you could tell where Lawndale starts," said Mark Winogrond, the former planning director who worked on the project.

With $44,000 in federal redevelopment money in hand, the city settled on the arches. The money could be used for "landscaping and other improvements," according to the terms of the grant. Believing that an entrance to the city fell under the rubric of "other improvements," the city held a design contest this spring. The city advertised in sign magazines. It notified design firms. A committee evaluated the entries.

The design contest alone generated a certain measure of recognition for the city--at least, says Winogrond, among the community of other local officials.

"We would go into other cities and they would say, 'Oh yeah, you are the guys that had the design competition for the Gateway Project,' " he said.

The arches won. Designed by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Rothenberg-Sawasy, one arch was to be 24 feet high, the other 18 feet. Made out of 16-gauge steel, both were to span 16 feet. Metal panels with recessed lighting and back-lit signs were to complete the picture.

The design committee's recommendation passed the five-member City Council in June by a 3-2 vote. Council member Jim Ramsey, one of the dissenters, criticized the arches as gaudy. "I would not have pointed to that with pride," he sniffed.

But Ramsey was on the losing side and plans rolled along until Aug. 14 when Acting Planning Director Paula Burrier called Marco Garcia, who checks out projects for the Community Development Commission for Los Angeles County. Garcia's agency is in charge of handing out the federal money and making sure that projects follow federal guidelines. Burrier was calling to see about the deadline for using the grant.

Garcia learned about the arches during the conversation--"the first time I heard," he said.

Winogrond said county officials had earlier approved spending the money for a pilot project to beautify the Hawthorne Boulevard median. "We never thought they would care how we would beautify it," he said.

They did care.

"It did not appear to meet . . . the national objectives--elimination of slums and blight," Garcia said. "In our opinion, construction of the arches would not address the blighting influences in the area."

Burrier checked with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development directly and officials confirmed what Garcia had said: No arches.

City officials now are drawing up landscaping plans for the medians that do not include arches or similar structures and expect to have them ready in time for the Sept. 30 deadline.

"I am very happy because I didn't like it to begin with," declared Ramsey.

But to Kruse, "it is a disappointment." She blamed vagueness in federal guidelines for leading city officials astray.

"Once again information is not written accurately enough that you are fully apprised of what it means," she said.

The winning architects have been left without a contract, or even the award money that designers taking second place ($500) and third place ($250) received.

"We were first yet we received nothing," said Mitchell Sawasy.

"We would like at least a wall certificate."

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