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Sam Hall Kaplan

Tragicomedy of Errors Plays on

December 01, 1985|SAM HALL KAPLAN

There was another scene a few weeks ago in the long-running tragicomedy of downtown urban design.

The script for this episode involved another rueful attempt to hack away at the promised urbanity of the proposed Library Square project.

The femme fatale of the tragicomedy is the $1-billion project. Imaginatively pieced together by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), it consists of two distinctive office towers, a monumental stairway, a renovated and expanded central library and a reshaping of its parking lot and lawns into an attractive park.

The plot is involved. The rejuvenated landmark library no doubt will better serve the public, and the 65- and 73-story towers should lend verve to the city's spartan skyline.

Park Area Threatened

But it is the park, with its sitting areas and scenes inviting pedestrian activity, the stairway and sidewalks that most people will experience. It is also these elements that are being threatened in the continuing tragicomedy.

The latest scene was staged at a meeting of the Public Works Committee of the City Council, where after some embarrassing buffoonery by Chairman Gilbert Lindsay, the attempt to hack away at the project's Flower Street frontage was tabled, but the assault on the 5th Street and Grand Avenue frontage was not.

As for the actors, there was the city's Transportation Department, in its usual role as the villain. With a view of the city as straight and narrow as a concrete drain pipe, the department under the direction of Donald (Hackaway) Howery, wants as much sidewalk and park area it can sink its pneumatic drills into to turn into more traffic lanes that usually become illegal parking zones.

It asked the committee to "dedicate" 10 feet of the Flower Street frontage for a second left-hand turn lane, and up to 10 feet of the Grand Avenue and 5th Street frontages, for more lanes. The takings would come off the space allocated for the sidewalks and park.

But with Flower Street earmarked for one-way traffic, negating the need for left-turn lanes, the department did not press its request for the dedication there.

That was the "compromise" Lindsay indicated was worked out in his office before the meeting and before the eloquent, rational appeals by the library board, Los Angeles Conservancy, committee member Michael Woo and others to reject the dedications.

'Loved' European Walks

Wanting all the frontage hacked away was Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who complained about how bad it was driving in and out of downtown these days. Though Flores professed to enjoy cities, noting she had just come back from a trip to Europe and "loved" walking there, her contradictory remarks were those of a parochial suburbanite.

Critical to the "compromise" was the CRA, which prior to the meeting had agreed to let the frontage be hacked away in return for the Transportation Department allowing a crosswalk on 5th Street and other concessions.

It was a tragic performance by the CRA. Here was the agency that had conceived and nurtured the project, one of the more ambitious and impressive undertakings in the nation, allowing it to be compromised, just like a pathetic, desperate parent in a Third World country maiming a child so it can beg more effectively.

Mayor's Intercession

Unfortunately, just a minor actor was Mayor Tom Bradley, who sent a message to the committee through aide Fran Savage, urging the dedication be rejected and the land reserved for pedestrians. But obviously his own department heads were more persuasive in their quiet appeals. If the meeting had had a campaign fund-raiser or a ribbon-cutting, perhaps the mayor would have attended and been more effective. Perhaps.

While articulate in his statements concerning a "new" and vibrant downtown Los Angeles, taking great pride and credit for such projects as Library Square, the mayor seems quite reluctant to get involved in the critical decisions that actually shape the projects. Just as the park is being nibbled away, so is Bradley's credibility as mayor.

And there, at the end of the meeting, as the curtain came down on the scene, was one of Howery's henchmen proclaiming that the Transportation Department had "won," as if the event had been some sort of athletic contest. What was clear was that the public had "lost."

Downtown for Everyone

But the tragicomedy is far from over. The committee's decision to dedicate the frontage now goes to the full council, where there has been a rising design consciousness and concern for the pedestrian.

The hope is that Woo can be joined there by others who realize that downtown is not Lindsay's district, but everyone's district, and that if Los Angeles is ever going to fulfill its magnificent potential as a vibrant city, it is going to have to better encourage and accommodate pedestrians.

A good way to start would be by saving a few more feet of sidewalk and park in the center of downtown.

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