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COVER STORY : A Walk on the Mild Side : CityWalk's critics say it's a placebo. But tell that to the throngs it's attracting.


If they had built CityWalk to look like Rome, or a corny version of the Champs Elysees, it might never have caused such a fuss.


But this elaborate strip of shops and restaurants atop Universal City evokes a locale much closer to home. With its jumbled neon and audacious storefronts, with a giant video screen looming over an artificial beach, CityWalk offers a version of the very city in which it resides.

And that is what started the fire, all the hype and criticism.

A few enthusiastic comments from within the MCA Development Co.--colored by the city's growing concerns over crime and decay--gave birth to an image of CityWalk as an abracadabra solution to Los Angeles' woes. "Idealized reality," MCA President Lawrence Spungin called his tightly planned and controlled complex that sought to act like a new brand of town square.

Hollywood Boulevard with a child-proof cap. A sanitized Venice Beach for a populace grown weary of looking over its shoulder.

The critics howled.

Never mind that a thoroughly contrived "boulevard" seemed Orwellian. CityWalk faced graver charges. It smacked of an elitist enclave, with its private guards shuttling panhandlers and suspected gang members off the premises, the critics said. It offered a tempting placebo at a time when people should be working to revive the real city.

These perceptions ignited such ire that Kevin Starr, a USC professor and local historian, was moved to announce: "This sounds like the end of L.A. history."

A year has passed since CityWalk's cacophonous debut, and still the debate smolders, if less publicly. So excuse the complex's chief project designer, Richard Orne, if he sounds a touch wary when recalling the past 12 months.

"The notion of CityWalk being a new Los Angeles was an unfortunate bent," said Orne, an associate at the Jerde Partnership, the private firm that served as principal architect. "But there has also been a fearful overreaction--'Oh my God, this is "1984," and private corporations are going to build fantasy versions of cities and manipulate the population.'

"CityWalk has become," he says, "a lightning rod for a lot of emotional reaction."

"Perhaps there are no longer real occasions for social congregation in the square. The larger transactions of business occur at a distance by 'communication,' not face to face. Politics is by press, radio, and ballot. Social pleasure is housed in theaters and dance halls. If this is so, it is a grievous and irreparable loss. There is no substitute for the spontaneous social conflux whose atoms unite, precisely, as citizens of the city."

--from Communitas, by Percival and Paul Goodman. If nothing else, CityWalk has proved successful.

Millions of people have come here after taking the Universal Studios Tour or seeing a film at the adjacent multiscreen cinema. An estimated 2 million more, many of them Los Angeles residents, have come specifically to see the complex. That is twice the number that MCA had hoped for. Executives announce this as if reducing all the criticism to so much theoretical hand-wringing.

On weekend nights, their promenade boasts a carnival atmosphere, bristling with couples and clusters of teen-agers who hurry to dinner or merely stroll from shop to shop. The ethnically and geographically diverse crowd has dispelled predictions that CityWalk would attract only tourists and white suburbanites.

"It's a good place to hang out and not spend too much money," said Jansen Granflor, an 18-year-old from Riverside who brought a date on a Saturday night. "There's a lot to look at."

An immense, midnight-blue King Kong dangles over the entry. Rows of neon signs, placed there by the Museum of Neon Art, dance above the throng. Street musicians provide a soundtrack.

This sensory texture represents the most obvious distinction between CityWalk and other commercial plazas such as Old Town in Pasadena and downtown's Olvera Street. The Jerde Partnership sought to distill Los Angeles and its architectural array, from California Mission to ZigZag Moderne, in a way that would seem instantly familiar if not specifically recognizable.

Doug Suisman, an architect whose firm, Public Works Design, is consulting on the RTD's proposed Electric Trolley Bus Project, said, "When you see people walking around, there is not that look of the dazed, manipulated consumer." An early critic of the project, he has been partially swayed by recent visits. "People seem to be relaxed and enjoying the place for what it is."

The central courtyard serves as an unexpected example.

MCA initially fretted over a fountain in that courtyard. Because it was designed like the fountain outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with ground-level jets that spurt water at irregular intervals, the management worried that visitors might wander through and get soaked.

Instead, crowds now gather around, cheering as more adventurous souls take turns sprinting across, dodging the jets.

Such unintended use is a hallmark of successful public spaces, designers say.

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