For decades, architects and design experts have surveyed Los Angeles' undistinguished landscape and asked: Why does the city look the way it does?
Why are there so many mini-malls, so many bland, boxy apartments built over gaping garages, so many featureless office buildings? When older structures in Los Angeles are demolished, why are they often replaced by lesser buildings that do not fit in with the neighborhood, buildings that often are uninspiring at best and blighted at worst?
After the first comprehensive report on the city's planning process, some answers to these questions are emerging: Los Angeles looks the way it does, the report and design experts suggest, not only because of the avarice and shortsightedness of developers but because city government has provided little leadership or vision. City planners, the report stated, have often followed a policy of benign neglect, missing numerous opportunities to impose even minimum standards on development.
Paul Zucker, author of the highly critical management study, said Los Angeles has some of the weakest design guidelines in the country.
"Virtually every city I looked at has gone more toward an emphasis on design than Los Angeles," said Zucker, who writes a national newsletter on planning departments. "For a city the caliber of Los Angeles I expected to see more of an urban-design function. But it simply doesn't exist."
The report, authorized by the city and released last summer, comes at a critical time for the Los Angeles Planning Department. City officials are searching for a new head of the department, a powerful position that could shape the look of the city into the next century.
Most planning departments in other major cities have staff members with strong architectural backgrounds. Many proposed projects must meet extensive design guidelines or pass a design review by a board of community representatives and architects. But for the vast majority of Los Angeles neighborhoods there are virtually no design guidelines of any sort, no review and few planners with any design training, planning experts say.
If a builder in Los Angeles meets the most basic zoning and building codes, "he can let her rip. . . . He just picks up the building permit and builds what he wants," said city planner Terry Speth.
San Francisco, by contrast, has few mini-malls, has highly regarded new architecture and has kept its neighborhoods cohesive largely because of the strong design requirements in its Planning Department, Bay Area planners say.
Design is not "simply aesthetics, like what color we paint a building. . . . It has a much broader context," Zucker said. The wrong design can reduce neighbors' light, increase noise, eliminate views. Design can "change the scale and feel of a neighborhood, make a city more or less humane to live in."
In cities that have strong design review guidelines--such as requiring parking behind commercial structures and apartments--residents see landscaping, innovative buildings and cafes when they walk or drive down the street. In Los Angeles, oil-stained parking lots and rows of parked cars are often the most visible images.
Some planners said the city has gone beyond merely ignoring urban design issues; it has been hostile to the process. Two of the most outspoken design advocates in the recent history of Los Angeles have been removed from their positions.
Merry Norris, who received numerous awards from architectural groups and was well respected in the design community when she headed the city's Cultural Affairs Commission, was asked to resign in 1990 by Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani. The commission, which has final design authority over all projects built on or over city property, long had a reputation for passivity. Norris transformed the group into an activist board that raised the standards for design.
"We ran into a lot of resistance from developers and the city," Norris said. "The city thought we were holding up projects. The mayor's office put a lot of pressure on us. I don't want to say any more about it."
Deborah Murphy, who was named urban design adviser to the mayor, also was replaced recently. Murphy, who remains a city planner, said she was told by Fabiani "that he needed to cut the budget and that urban design was not a priority for the mayor's office."
Los Angeles design experts say it is no coincidence that the two were replaced by less outspoken staff members.
Fabiani contends that Norris was asked to resign because she had served more than six years and "the mayor wanted to give others the chance to serve on the board." Murphy was replaced, Fabiani said, solely for budgetary reasons--the new staff member had a lower salary.