SEATTLE — While the national preservation conference held here recently was engaging and, at times, even controversial, more enlightening was touring the city and seeing the vital role preservation has played in making it so livable.
There are important lessons to be learned from Seattle, especially for Los Angeles as it struggles to reshape downtown, ponders the fate of various historic landmarks, contends with the incursion of unsympathetic developments into residential neighborhoods and generally tries to deal and manage its ungainly growth.
At the heart of what Seattle has experienced is preservation in its broadest interpretation. Seattle is not studded with architectural landmarks that have been meticulously restored. Los Angeles has a much richer architectural history.
The concept of preservation as practiced in Seattle goes beyond that limited definition to embrace entire retail, commercial and residential neighborhoods, instilling in its residents a healthy respect for the elements of the city that make it enjoyable. Those elements could be buildings or benches, trees, the treatment of sidewalks or well-designed office towers.
As a result, a delightfully authentic, thriving farmers' market, Pike Place, and a sturdy, weathered historic commercial district, Pioneer Square, was saved, savored and celebrated, and a dated waterfront enlivened with walkways, parks, restaurants and an aquarium.
Emerging is a downtown with a distinct personality, not a bland collection of towers that need tacky signs on their roofs to help identity them.
Helping Seattle is a concerted city policy to encourage people to get out of their cars, take public transportation and walk. Buses downtown are frequent and free (a one-way street system aids their flow), sidewalks wide and clean, and public art plentiful and engaging.
They even covered over a portion of the freeway with a lush park, and have cultivated other sparse open spaces for sitting and people-watching. This is a city that cares about its pedestrians.
It is all very urbane, even in the rain that seems to be falling lightly or threatening to fall on Seattle most of the time. Imagine how nice these pedestrian amenities would be in a sunny, benign climate as in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, in Los Angeles the major concern of transportation officials seems to be how to cut down trees and widen streets.
Also helping Seattle is a policy to encourage new, high-density housing to be squeezed into downtown's so-called in-fill housing, and to discourage the march of heavy-footed new commercial and office development elsewhere. The result is a compact downtown growing more compact, and adjoining residential neighborhoods remaining pleasantly low scale and being spared the traumas of speculation and traffic.
All this did not happen in Seattle because of enlightened city leadership. In fact, neighborhood groups and gutsy preservationists had to battle for years to turn back various grand plans borne out of well-intentioned center city associations that would have sanitized downtown, no doubt, destroying in the process Seattle's soul.
The battles were aided by the feeling in Seattle that downtown was everyone's neighborhood, and that the neighborhoods themselves were the strength of the city, not just another hurdle for developers.
Once city officials got the word through referendums and elections, they became responsive, and now puff with pride telling visitors how the heart and soul of Seattle was saved, and how great it has been for business and tourism.
Citizen participation is at present privately tolerated and publicly applauded by the powers that be in Seattle, with neighborhoods, not bureaucrats, given the power to allocate funds for local improvements. As a result, monies are said to go for such items as traffic diverters, tree plantings and park improvements, instead of street "improvements."
Another innovation that Seattle initiated was establishing an office of urban conservation with its head a so-called city conservator, equal in the city's pecking order to the planning and transportation directors.
"It's important to have someone within government on a high level fighting for preservation, be it for neighborhoods or landmarks," declares Art Skolnick, who was Seattle's first conservator 10 years ago.
"You just cannot depend on private groups or once-a-week commissioners to do the job," adds Skolnick, who now directs the preservation of the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego.
The time is certainly ripe for Los Angeles to establish a city conservator.
For nearly two decades, the city's Cultural Heritage Commission had been conscientiously served by Illeana Welch. Though classified as a secretary, Welch acted as an administrator, and in time became, for all intents and purposes, a preservationist of the first rank. But she recently left to become an aide to Councilman Michael Woo.
The commission is hurting. Composed of Mayor Tom Bradley appointees, none of whom is an architect, planner or historian, the commission is supposed to be aided by the city's Cultural Affairs Department.
But that department under Fred Croton has become one of the more entangled bureaucracies in the city. Croton does say he is working on a plan to hire a preservationist, though it might take six to nine months to do so. At City Hall, they don't call Croton "Fast Freddy" for nothing.
The city needs a preservationist. It also needs a stronger commission. And it needs more. Observed Skolnick:
"Call it a city preservationist or a conservator, you need an advocate for livability; someone who will have the support of the mayor and a staff to work to preserve those elements that lend Los Angeles a sense of place and pride."