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STYLE : URBAN DESIGN : Remaking L.A.

December 13, 1992|Aaron Betsky

The image is startling: A city of parkways, greenbelts, small-scale industry, lively boulevards and sheltered communities rising from the parched, post-riot landscape of Los Angeles. Fueled by immense social pressures and funded by investments that could total $200 billion within the next few decades, this new Los Angeles will emerge if a loosely knit group of local planners, designers, critics and politicians get their way.

Working more or less independently, these L.A. visionaries propose redefining the city as a multi-style, multicultural and multi-industrial place knitted together by a grid of green corridors shared by clean mass transit and public open spaces. Connecting these areas would be busy, dense metropolitan boulevards that serve quiet, sheltered neighborhoods.

These proposals may not be as far-fetched as they seem. In the next 15 years, immense public works projects including new subways, highways, electrified buses, commuter rails and public-space improvements will radically alter the face of Los Angeles. Some visionaries and even practical planners and politicians believe that, if properly coordinated, these projects could function as a catalyst for more fundamental changes in our society.

Several of next year's potential and declared mayoral candidates--Michael Woo and Nick Patsouras, in particular--are promoting versions of this remaking of L.A. Here are six of the planners they're listening to.

Doug Suisman: CLEAN STREETS

To Doug Suisman, there is nothing like L.A.'s boulevards. In 1989, he wrote a book describing them as the spine and umbilical cord of the city. Ask him about them today, and he still waxes poetic: "Boulevards represented our own character, what we made here: a series of small downtowns connected by these great metropolitan boulevards. They connected us." But boulevards have changed over the years, becoming so choked by traffic that they are almost unrecognizable. And Suisman hopes to change that.

The 37-year-old architect and his firm, Public Works Design, are RTD consultants on the design of 180 miles proposed in the $1-billion Electric Trolley Bus Project. Demonstration lines in L.A. and Long Beach are expected to be in operation by 1994, and electric buses are scheduled to make up a third of the transit system's fleet by the decade's end.

Suisman has suggested renaming the effort the Electric Trolley \o7 Boulevard \f7 Project because he believes that electrification will dramatically alter the character of the city's boulevards. "Electric buses are clean and quiet," he says, "so now you can live on the street." He envisions banners hanging from the electrical-wire support posts, well-designed bus benches and shelters, pedestrian lighting and shade trees giving a friendly rhythm and identity to the street.

He also foresees high-density, mixed-used development along the boulevards. "You have to ask yourself, what is the ideal (residential building) height for Los Angeles? In New York, except for the skyscrapers, it's five to 15 stories; in Paris, seven. In Los Angeles, it should be one in the neighborhoods, then five or six on the boulevards: a ground floor of retail, then one or two floors of offices or light industrial, and then a few floors of residential." The result, Suisman says, will be an active and connective spine. "Even if you don't live above the store, you will be able to get to work easily because your work will be located somewhere on or near a boulevard and, therefore, on a transit line."

To make this happen, he recommends the elimination of exclusionary zoning, the standard practice by which areas are designated for commercial, residential or industrial use only. In its place, he would introduce mixed-use zoning, with residential or light-industrial zoning behind that. Part of his inspiration comes from cities in Mexico, where, he says, "people know how to use public spaces. They are incredibly dense and vital places."

Closer to home, dismal stretches of any number of boulevards could be transformed into lively landscapes by changing parking arrangements and adding cafes and trees to enhance human interaction. "The riots occurred along the boulevards, but so do our dreams and aspirations," Suisman says. "As designers, we have spent the last decade engaged in creating private fantasies. Now we need to engage the public realm, we need to look at life in our city, and that life happens on the boulevard."

Bill Fain: GARDEN CITY

At Johnson Fain Pereira, urban designer Bill Fain is responsible for making sense of huge projects such as Los Angeles Center, a 5-million-square-foot office and retail complex scheduled to break ground next spring in Century City West, west of the Harbor Freeway. But the firm found itself at a standstill during the economic decline, so he put his architects and designers to work studying Los Angeles' shortage of public green space.

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