Back in the 1950s, Hal Bernson recalled recently, the "big joke" about the Los Angeles City Council was that it was going to put a gas station at every intersection in the city.
The council was approving zone changes for service stations almost as fast as they could be processed, said Bernson, then a community activist and now a council member.
But in the last 20 years the number of service stations in the county has dropped 46%--from 7,081 to 3,811. The new joke for the council and the city, critics have said, is what has happened on many of the plots of land that have come on the market as the stations closed.
Hundreds have been filled with 5,000- to 25,000-square-feet convenience shopping centers, with a handful of businesses such as dry cleaners and restaurants that cater to drivers in a hurry.
Since the parcels are zoned for commercial establishments, developers have been able to build these centers without public hearings or approvals from city officials.
As the number of centers has grown, however, nearby residents have complained of litter and spillover parking problems.
Some say the centers are ugly.
In response to these complaints, Councilman Bernson, who represents the San Fernando Valley, has proposed an ordinance that would attempt to buffer the impact of such commercial development on residential areas. And the associates of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects are sponsoring a competition to design more attractive convenience centers.
Bernson's ordinance would prohibit early morning trash collections and require outdoor lighting, walls and landscaping at the centers. It would also require 20% more parking than the city's usual standard. And centers that stay open after 11 p.m., or that offer drive-through, fast-food restaurants, would have to meet the demands of a zoning administrator, who could require even more landscaping, parking and other improvements.
Bernson said no one foresaw the closures of hundreds of gas stations, which were overbuilt in the 1950s and 1960s and then failed when oil company subsidies were outlawed in the 1970s. "What this ordinance attempts to do," Bernson said, "is provide a measure of control in what heretofore was a zone with a given right to development: the C-2 (commercial) zone. (In that zone) they could go in and build anything, without concern for whether there was adequate parking and without regard to whether they were near a residential area."
The proposal is a "Band-Aid solution, but it does deal with the problem," Bernson said. Eventually, the city should rewrite all of its commercial zoning to guide the types of businesses it wants in particular areas, he said.
Bernson's proposed ordinance has won the backing of City Councilman Michael Woo, whose Hollywood district has been flooded with the centers.
"A lot of people are surprised that these small centers are springing up all over the place, and it calls attention to the need for some kind of action on a citywide level," Woo said.
Woo, who has been asked to help judge the AIA's design competition, added that there is a "rising tide of discontent" with the malls because of their unpleasant appearance, inadequate parking and poor maintenance.
Bruno Giberti, who conceived the AIA contest, said architects object to the centers because the parking lots in front break the strips of buildings that line most major commercial avenues. "They break up the kind of continuity on a street; the textures that you like to see," Giberti said.
Curb cuts that give access to the lots also disturb pedestrian traffic, Giberti said. "It is a big urban design problem for the city. It's like a brush fire, and if it's uncontrolled it tends to spread outward."
Only "one or two" centers in the entire San Fernando Valley are "architecturally sensitive," said Al Landini, a planner for the city of Los Angeles. "Most are built strictly on terms of an efficiency of economic return. They minimize parking, maximize the square footage of the building and have lots of signs, to the maximum allowable, and without landscaping.
"They are such stark sites. There is no attempt at softening them."
These are examples of "the fast-food mentality in architecture," said Rick Joseph, a Hollywood community activist and member of an architectural revitalization group.
Charges that the centers are ugly rankle developers.
"I take great offense at that," said Sam Bachner, president of La Mancha Development Co, the top developer in the field with 278 centers completed and 19 more under construction. "All of our centers are designed with an artistic and aesthetic thought in mind."
La Mancha centers range in style from California frontier, to high-tech, to a "pagoda-style" center in Koreatown, Bachner said. He blamed "neophyte" developers for building unattractive, low-cost centers.