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Sam Hall Kaplan

Housing: the Good, Bad and Ugly

February 14, 1988|Sam Hall Kaplan

Almost everywhere you look in Los Angeles these days it seems that an overblown apartment complex is being squeezed onto some site, like a size 14 trying, with embarrassment, to get into a size 10.

And even if some of the complexes are not necessarily out of scale, they tend to be over-designed, badly designed or out of place. An appropriate architectural adage to describe the situation might be that more is less.

For an example, take a look at Bundy Drive between Idaho and Ohio avenues, in West Los Angeles. There, a wall of apartment buildings in styles that include folksy, muted, clapboard-sided Cape Cod; stark, white Late-Modern with a touch of Italian tile, and soft, peachy nouveau-Spanish, elbow each other as if they were reaching for free hors d'oeuvres at a press luncheon.

While the views from the well-detailed, spacious apartments on the upper floors of the modernistic 1555 Bundy, designed by JCA Architects, are nice, the views from the sidewalk of the building and its neighbors are not. They fight each other, and the street, with everyone losing.

Such fortress-like housing, with no usable open space, no breathing room for themselves or their neighbors, just a dark double-loaded corridor linking the garage to the apartments, seems to be the trend these days.

You can see these depressing hulks not only in West Los Angeles, but also in other multifamily residential pockets in Mar Vista, Westwood, the mid-Wilshire and Fairfax districts, Highland Park, Studio City, Sherman Oaks, and North Hollywood, among others.

So much for sympathetic siting and imaginative designs among some private developers, and conscientious design review by our public servants. In defense of such developments, they argue that the housing is needed.

There is indeed a need for housing, but sensitively designed housing, as well as affordable, comfortable and convenient housing; reasonably priced near where people work or can work.

That, and not more street widenings and freeways, is the only way the region's growing traffic problem will ever be eased.

That, and not more flimsy shelters and frail excuses, also is one of the ways we might begin to meet the myriad needs of homeless families. The more housing built, even the overpriced and ostentatious, the more that will be available.

But the housing also should work for the surrounding neighborhoods as well as for those who will live in it. Certainly, developers want to preserve, indeed enhance, the character of the neighborhoods that I assume prompted them in the first instance to build there.

It can be done, and done well, as demonstrated by some select projects recently orchestrated by the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency and the City of Beverly Hills. That all of these projects were built within strict budgets to provide affordable units make the examples even more dramatic, and sweeter.

What distinguishes the recently completed 2207 6th St. in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica is that, at first glance, it appears like most other small, stucco-clad apartment complexes in the area: boxy and boring.

Only when you look at the moderately priced six-unit rental development closer do you notice that behind the boxy structure with the flat roof is a second structure with a curved roof, separated by a courtyard, and further individualized with varying materials and detailing.

As designed by the firm of Koning Eizenberg and developed by the Community Corporation, the complex is a practical, imaginative update on an awkward sloping site of the courtyard housing concept that served Los Angeles so well for so many years.

Also developed by the same architects and the Corporation in the same mode is a six-unit complex two blocks away at 2400 5th St. There, to overcome the parking and setback requirements and create the desired private and communal spaces, the apartments were sited in two buildings served by a central deck. It seems to work and not overwhelm the site or the street. Another modestly scaled project by the team is nearing completion at 1427 Berkeley St.

Promising also to be both user- and neighborhood-friendly is a 43-unit low-income cooperative housing development now being constructed by the nonprofit corporation on five separate sites in a two-block area in Ocean Park. In response to concern raised in community planning workshops, the in-fill project was designed by the firm of Appleton, Mechur & Associates in a Craftsman aesthetic, reflecting the bungalow-type housing that marks the area.

With the same concern for a neighborhood's sense of place the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency a year ago blocked the demolition of three historic houses in the Pico Union area, and provided the financing and incentives to have them rehabilitated into nine low-rent apartments.

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