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Los Angeles Times Interview

Daniel Solomon : Creating a New City and New Hope for the Urban Future

April 21, 1996|James Sanders | James Sanders is an architect and author. He is working on a documentary series about the history of New York City for PBS and his book, "Celluloid Skylines: New York and the Movies" will be published next year by Knopf. He interviewed Daniel Solomon in his San Francisco office

SAN FRANCISCO — Architect Daniel Solomon, based in San Francisco, is a leading exponent of the "New Urbanism"--a philosophy that has begun to change the shape of the American landscape in projects stretching from Florida to California. An informal but passionately driven association of architects, planners and theorists, the New Urbanists are united by their belief in the value of traditional patterns of development and are seeking to restore or recreate the kind of human-scaled, pedestrian-oriented communities that flourished in the United States in the years before World War II.

While sharply critical of postwar patterns of growth--the ubiquitous tract suburbs, office parks and "edge cities" that are predicated entirely on the arterial highway--the New Urbanists do not advocate (nor think possible) the abolition of the automobile. Instead, they seek to balance the impact of the car with other means of transportation, from mass transit to walking--understanding all the while, as Solomon writes, "that the gradual diminishment of our utter dependence on automobiles demands that town planners understand cars the way lion tamers understand lions."

Until recently, the New Urbanism was most closely associated with projects such as Seaside, a new town in the Florida Panhandle that has emerged as the most significant prototype of suburban development of the late 20th century. A picturesque community, its closely spaced houses directly front the street with porches and picket fences, and it offers a traditional "town center" within walking distance. By contrast, Solomon's own projects--including a number of higher-density "infill" projects in the Bay Area--suggest an edgier, more urban interpretation of similar ideas.

Now the principles of the New Urbanism are being extended into the very heart of the inner city, with the creation of a new project by Solomon in South-Central Los Angeles, at 81st Street and Vermont Avenue. Sponsored by the First Interstate Bank, the $11-million development represents one of the most ambitious attempts to rebuild South-Central since the 1992 riots. It is located on a site of enormous social and physical complexity, surrounded not only by the devastation of Vermont Avenue itself but the lush residential landscape of Vermont Knolls, a 1920s planned community occupied today by a solidly middle-class African American population.

Solomon's proposal--developed with the Related Companies and several partners--won a 1994 competition because of several striking features. Though denser and more urban than most Los Angeles housing, its 35 apartments offer both genuine architectural style and surprisingly high level of amenity, from private yards to adjacent private parking. The project also includes a limited amount of retail space, to be used by small, local start-up businesses under direction of a satellite of the USC Business School Extension, located in the Pepperdine administration building, a historic 1930s structure on the site. Though the project has generated a measure of controversy by those who questioned whether its approach is appropriate for the redevelopment of South Central, it now seems poised to proceed: Funding is complete, drawings are being finished and construction is "optimistically scheduled," says Solomon, to begin in June.

In conversation, Solomon, 56, is a genial and thoughtful man whose wry humor masks a true passion, rare among today's architects, to improve the quality of life for a broad range of Americans, from the residents of the most distant exurban communities to those struggling to survive--and perhaps even prosper--in the central city.

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Question: How did the design evolve?

Answer: We entered this and assembled a team, expecting it was a low-income, tax-credit rental project, with some retail use. We went into the very first neighborhood meeting and we immediately learned that was a complete misassessment of the situation, and of what would be palatable. There was violent objection, vehement objection of the neighbors in this Vermont Knolls district, to being the dumping ground for low-income, tax-credit rental projects. They said, "Put it in Beverly Hills." What they needed is what they've lost: the commercial and institutional fabric of what was South-Central. This nice little residential enclave remains, while the whole infrastructure of services and institutions that once served it has been dispersed. They want that back--and that seemed right.

The other thing they did not want is low-income housing. They wanted ownership housing. That's an old story, but here the argument was more than just the parochial self-interest of middle-class people. There really is the nucleus of a quite fragile and beleaguered, threatened, valuable core of middle-income housing--and it should be protected. So we reconfigured our program to be a for-sale, ownership, moderate-density townhouse project with a retail component and a lot of community services.

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