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Sam Hall Kaplan

Experts Cloud Housing Plan

September 22, 1985|Sam Hall Kaplan

There is nothing like a well-intentioned panel of experts descending upon Los Angeles to help clarify a problem and then cloud it up even more with some presumptuous and contradictory recommendations.

That seems to be the net result of a noble effort by a panel sent by the Urban Land Institute to evaluate--in five days--plans that the city has been nurturing for 15 years to create a residential community known as South Park, just south of the downtown business district.

To be fair, the panel was invited by the board of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, which had been having some second thoughts about whether the residential effort is worth the millions of dollars of subsidies it was consuming, and that perhaps the money should go elsewhere.

Also casting shadows over the ambitious and urbane South Park plan have been the sluggish sales of apartments in the area's first new condominium, the Skyline. More ominous, because of their clout downtown, have been real estate interests that would rather see the land go for more lucrative commercial development.

With Willard Rouse acting more as master of ceremonies than as chairman, the panel, to its credit, did come down squarely for developing South Park as a residential community, and recommended that the area be appropriately and expeditiously rezoned to discourage speculation.

The panel noted the obvious, which was that as much and as broad a range of housing as could be produced in walking distance of downtown was needed to support cultural and commercial endeavors there, ease the strain a bit on our transportation systems and, generally, create a lively and well-balanced central city community.

To accomplish those admirable goals, which not coincidentally echo numerous past studies and reports, the panel urged that a so-called critical mass of housing of at least 800 units be developed as quickly as possible. But then came the clinkers and the contradictions.

Making all sorts of assumptions about the city's life style, the panel recommended that the housing be low rise, and that the city pursue what would amount to a new development program with all the time-consuming and inherent problems of additional land acquisitions, relocation and redesign. And in doing so, the panel also suggested that the agency scrap plans for about 600 units of mid-rise housing for which it is currently soliciting development proposals.

From there, the panel became more and more presumptuous, commenting on delicate developer negotiations, marketing strategies, a public relations campaign and even hinted that the name of the area be changed to Olympic Park and its image to attract "muppies," mature urban pioneers.

It is not that some low-rise housing mixed with retail is not needed to lend the South Park plan more human scale and character. It is, but the critical issue right now is for the CRA to move forward as quickly as possible with its current plans to build 600 more units to achieve that important critical mass of housing.

With a target of 6,000 units of housing for the 80-block South Park, and with only 200 built so far and another 600 in planning, there are certainly enough additional development sites and time for redesign. Indeed, any plan worth the paper it is on should allow for constant redesign.

However, the agency's board already has delayed South Park for nearly a year, debating the housing question and then calling in the ULI to file yet another report--just what the city does not need any more of. The time for talking about housing has stopped. It is now time for some building.

UPDATE on the Texas chain-saw massacre of the historic Blacker house in Pasadena, designed by Charles and Henry Greene and considered one of the finest examples of the California craftsman bungalow style that the brothers perfected:

For those who might have forgotten, the melodrama involves the purchase of the house last spring for $1.2 million by Texas cattleman Barton English. It seems that English then stripped the house of an estimated 40 to 50 light fixtures and other furnishings of Tiffany glass and crafted wood and leather that had been designed expressly for the house by the Greenes and is valued at up to an estimated $25,000 a piece.

Outraged, preservationists across the country protested, with their echo being heard in Texas, where English said he would consider returning the fixtures and selling the house, presumably to a preservationist group for safekeeping.

This quieted things down as preservationists scurried about trying to line up support, some funding and perhaps a "fat cat" or an institution that would like to make the Blacker their home.

But no sooner had the media stopped calling and marched off, so did English. Negotiations have stalled, with the fixtures being said to be in Texas at English's ranch, or in New York City with an art dealer, or with some at both. Wherever, they are not in the Blacker house where they belong, and English is not at the bargaining table, where he belongs.

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