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ARCHITECTURE : Driving Santa Monica Boulevard May Seem Like Connect-the-Dots

August 06, 1992|AARON BETSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture and urban design.

I drive along Santa Monica Boulevard almost every day; I am not alone in this activity, nor is the landscape that reveals itself to me particularly remarkable. Santa Monica Boulevard is not as fancy as Wilshire and not as glamorous as Sunset. It is an in-between landscape, a street that strings together the barrios of Hollywood, the gay bars of West Hollywood, the glitz of Beverly Hills, the towers of Century City, the students of Westwood and the neighborhoods of Santa Monica. It doesn't really have a consistent character. That is exactly its charm: It tells you about other places.

One section of this boulevard, between La Cienega Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard, is of special interest because it is broader than most major arteries in Los Angeles. That section, like Exposition Boulevard and other broad streets, was opened up to accommodate a piece of the old Red Car system. At some points, you can see the actual tracks coming up under worn pavement. At others, the tracks are buried beneath a green median planted with flags or public art. And at still other stretches, dirt parking lots and billboards inhabit the center of this freeway-sized stretch of road.

There are only a few traces of that superb mass transit system left in our city; Santa Monica Boulevard is one of them. It continues to offer the city a major (though already overloaded) transportation opportunity just by the presence of the Red Car right of way down the middle of the street.

The mere presence of this open space serves to make Santa Monica more than just a road. It is a seam that runs through the city, exposing the backs of buildings and slicing through the fabric of streets at odd angles.

Driving down Santa Monica Boulevard, you always feel as if you are in between whatever communities and activities are occurring on either side of you.

This sense of dislocation is heightened by the way the street rides along fairly severe grade changes. Santa Monica snakes its way along the edge of the foothills that rise out of the Los Angeles Basin. This results the kind of cliff-like drops that you see between Century City and Westwood, where the road in fact has spawned a narrow twin, Little Santa Monica.

The rises and turns that the street makes to follow the contours offer you a continually changing panorama. Only in West Hollywood (and farther down in West Los Angeles) does an area actually focus on Santa Monica Boulevard: Century City, Beverly Hills and Westwood all resolutely turn their backs on the street. Too broad to create dense shopping or living corridors, Santa Monica instead offers odd juxtapositions and views into other places.

Santa Monica Boulevard stitches the northern Westside together. In fact, it has become a route connecting what amounts to a series of little villages, each of them spaced a mile or two apart.

It now appears that this arrangement may soon be formalized by the construction of some sort of mass transit system on the old right of way. In a decade or so, you should be able to take a train between each of these little communities, so that the linear arrangement of the Westside might further develop into a series of dense clusters surrounded by what one hopes will be more open space. If the communities involved give some thought to the design of this system, and encourage mixed-use development (including housing) at the stops, we might even have a Santa Monica Boulevard that helps weave the disparate pieces of Los Angeles together into an urban fabric.

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