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Some Small Steps for a Better City

November 19, 1989|SAM HALL KAPLAN

Few weeks go by without another symposium, conference or event sponsored by a business and professional association or school here exploring, celebrating or promoting Los Angeles as an emerging center of culture and design.

Rounded up are the usual local suspects and a few carpetbaggers to describe the Los Angeles scene as a wave of sorts rising out of the Pacific basin to splash the established enclaves of taste makers on the Atlantic seaboard.

The talk tends to be either light self-advertisements illustrated by indulgent designs straining to be different, obtuse scenarios featuring high-tech cocoons or heavy commentaries on easing traffic problems by encouraging a more equitable jobs-housing balance.

Viewed as a marketing event for ideas and products, the gatherings can be generally interesting, especially if the participants are pleasant, the dialogue open and the breaks and buffets well catered.

But as for their impact on the Los Angeles that most people experience, it is about par with a frozen yogurt in a Santa Ana wind.

With this in mind, and perhaps having attended one gathering too many, the rank and file of the planning, design and development community are increasingly eschewing the generalities bandied about by theorists to concentrate on specific solutions to specific problems.

"What cities want to know is what will work, now and in the immediate future, preferably before their next election," observes Mark Winogrond, director of development for West Hollywood and coordinator of a popular "what's happening and how-to" workshop for planners.

"Big plans and theories frighten most people," adds Marsha Rood of the Pasadena Housing and Development Department.

"We are finding much more satisfaction focusing in on the details, such as tree-planting programs, a small housing project here and there, installing the right street furnishings and making parking structures more friendly by including stores on the ground floor," such as was done off Colorado Boulevard in Old Pasadena.

Adds Jane Blumenfeld, planning adviser to Mayor Tom Bradley:

"If you want to make Los Angeles more livable, bring some cohesion to its communities, I am convinced you must concentrate on a few small projects and let the big picture take care of itself."

Once very much involved in long-range planning efforts for the city, Blumenfeld has shifted gears. She is now championing some very specific short-range projects that have long-range implications.

These include a pilot program in which city-owned parking lots would be redeveloped to combine both parking and needed housing, without the loss of any spaces.

An initial 10 lots in select locations have been identified as potential sites, with the hope that their development will spur others. The lots are off major shopping streets such as Figueroa Street in Highland Park, Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, Chandler Boulevard in North Hollywood and Pico Boulevard in Beverlywood.

The concept already has had a few successes in Los Angeles, most notably in Beverly Hills, where a large surface lot was redeveloped as a municipal parking garage combined with a large supermarket, and topped by a senior citizens' housing project that was desperately needed.

Also being pursued by Blumenfeld is blocking through streets to create traffic diversion cul-de-sacs, particularly where residential streets intersect with major commercial avenues.

Such projects, she believes, would discourage traffic and transient parking on the residential streets, an increasing community complaint, while also creating open space for sitting, a playground or similar amenities. Among the targeted commercial strips is Melrose Avenue.

Variations of traffic diversions have proved quite successful in a variety of situations and neighborhoods. In Carthay Circle, where barriers were erected to prevent traffic off Fairfax Avenue from entering three local streets south of Wilshire Boulevard, the streets are quieter, safer and friendlier. And not coincidentally, property values have increased.

In the same spirit are other proposals in scattered communities to use vacant lots as temporary parks, playgrounds or gardens (Hollywood); encourage sidewalk cafes (Pasadena); allow benches to be placed in front of stores (Fairfax District); narrow less-used streets by a few feet to create landscaped parkways (Hollywood); use abandoned railroad right-of-ways for bike paths and jogging trails (West Los Angeles and parts of the San Fernando Valley), and to try angle parking to create needed new spaces as was done on Larchmont Boulevard instead of having to expand lots behind stores.

And then there are such efforts as the "Lookin' Good Program," in the city of Paramount, which involved 2,000 volunteers working 9,000 hours over a two-year period to paint their own houses and to clean up their neighborhoods. All it needed to be launched was a little seed money and encouragement by the city. Citizen involvement did the rest.

The suggestions for such incremental improvements have come from everywhere--from small neighborhood groups, such as Melrose Hill; visiting architecture students from the University of Calgary, who recently held a design studio here on Hollywood; the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club, and just residents commenting at meetings and in letters to newspapers.

No great theories of architecture and design--illustrated by glittering models and slick renderings and explained at heralded conferences--were involved; just modest ideas to make a neighborhoods and anywhere people gather a little more attractive, congenial and memorable, and the city more livable.

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