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Sam Hall Kaplan

Some Concerns Deserve Attention

December 21, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

The temptation is to use the last column of the year to list the best and worst of design of the last 12 months, or as I did last year, make a holiday gift list of design items.

But the constant calls and letters of readers allow no such frivolity, supplying a steady stream of planning and preservation concerns that deserve attention. And meriting mention also is a seasonal residue of books about architecture and planning.

Out of Studio City comes an appeal to help save the landmark Laurelwood apartments.

One of the last and most ambitious projects designed by modernist master R. M. Schindler, the 20-unit complex is a designated city cultural-historic monument. It also is designated for demolition by the owner, who thinks he can get a better price for the land if it is cleared and prepped for a more dense development.

There are echoes here of the sad fates of Irving Gill's Dodge House and Richard Neutra's Von Sternberg House, two landmarks that were lost to the base, bottom-line tradition of real estate development.

But the battle for Laurelwood is not over. Tenants there, working with architect Mark Hall and the Los Angeles Conservancy, have gotten an extension of a moratorium on the demolition permit from the city's Cultural Heritage Commission. It has a few months to run.

Meanwhile, they have been scrambling to find a way to purchase the complex; a reasonable solution if the owner was not so unreasonable. Undermining their effort is the sweetened R-3 zoning of the site in the midst of a single-family neighborhood.

If the city--with some imagination--could finesse zoning to protect historic landmarks and the quality of neighborhoods as well as speculators finesse zoning to extract the highest and not necessarily best use of the land, that would be exciting.

You can hope, but don't hold your breath.

Some imagination also would serve the Department of Water and Power well. There just must be another way for the offish agency to protect its Elysian reservoir other than to cover it with a crude aluminum roof.

While the proposed cover might protect the seven-acre reservoir from air pollutants, it certainly would create visual pollution for those who use Elysian Park. And though the DWP notes that the reservoir is not legally part of the park, one would think a public agency has the obligation to be a good neighbor with a modicum of aesthetic sensibilities.

Certainly neighborly was the donation by developer J. H. Snyder of 100 trees to the Miracle Mile Residential Assn. The trees are being planted with the help of the city's Bureau of Street Maintenance as part of an expanding program by the association to beautify the Wilshire district.

And though some community activists noted that it took nearly seven years of lobbying to get the city to cooperate on a relatively modest program, it is a heartening step forward. Perhaps with some precedents set in the Wilshire district, it now will be easier for other neighborhood groups to pursue similar programs.

But a note of caution must be sounded. As neighborhoods struggle to improve themselves, they also are going to have to find better ways to protect themselves from a rush of unsympathetic development.

What is happening on such streets as Detroit in the Wilshire district is that speculators--drawn to the area because of its increasing attractiveness--are threatening to destroy it to make way for out-of-scale apartment complexes.

More housing is needed, and neighborhoods do change. But one would think that with some imagination new development can be accommodated on in-fill sites without demolishing existing, sound and attractive housing.

Again, what is needed is some sensitive, street-specific planning, with teeth, and, of course, leadership with a vision. Are you listening Mayor Bradley? Planning Commissioner Dan Garcia? Planning Director Dan Topping? Santa Claus? Anyone?

It seems I just cannot avoid wish lists when reviewing design in Los Angeles.

With that in mind, the following are a few more books for consideration this gift-giving season that did not make my lists of the previous weeks:

With extreme prejudice I recommend Architecture, Anyone? by Ada Louise Huxtable (Random House: $27.50), a collection of columns she wrote as architecture critic for the New York Times from 1963 to 1982.

My prejudice is prompted by the fact I once was a colleague there of Huxtable, sharing with her concern over the destruction of historical landmarks, the construction of insensitive, ego-involved designs, and, generally, the whittling away of the quality of life of our cities.

As I found myself in time at the Los Angeles Times writing more and more about these concerns, I would, on occasion, be solaced by scanning earlier collections of her insightful, uncompromising columns. As Huxtable has written, being a critic "is a lonely and even eccentric work." Now there is more of her mettle to draw upon.

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