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A More Walkable Los Angeles

September 06, 1998

We have long wanted it both ways in Los Angeles. Give us ever-broader boulevards for our cars but nothing that will impede our strolls or safe crossing of the streets.

It hasn't worked that way, alas. In place of walkable neighborhood shopping, Southern California has perfected the mall. Outlet malls, mini-malls, entertainment malls. That's where we walk and linger over coffee. Otherwise, we drive, ever onward. Little wonder that we lament the lack of community and that a friendlier model of development is yet to take root here.

Extensive renovations now underway at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, focused on luring museum visitors--on foot--to adjacent attractions, could be a welcome move in this direction. LACMA's confusing central plaza, now torn up for reconstruction, is being configured to help visitors find their way to exhibits more easily. What makes this project so unusual--for L.A. anyway--is the museum's effort to upgrade and link two underused facilities.

Through a cooperative venture with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which governs the adjacent Page Museum on Wilshire Boulevard, LACMA is helping to revive Hancock Park, now in disrepair. When work is completed in March, the 28-acre park will have new lighting, more than 300 new trees and a 150-seat amphitheater. Fences will be shifted so museum visitors can easily move onto the park grounds.

The third element in this project could be the trickiest. Will museum visitors cross Ogden Drive, on LACMA's western border, and walk half a block to the former May Co. building, now part of LACMA, for educational programs and tours of additional galleries? Annexes to major malls have withered for want of customers willing to cross a street. LACMA hopes to beat the odds by reorienting entrances to both facilities and with landscaping.

LACMA's Miracle Mile location has a lot going for it. Despite the heavy traffic on Wilshire Boulevard, the Carole & Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures, the Peterson Automotive Museum, restaurants and shops already draw large numbers of visitors. And since it opened in 1965, LACMA itself has been one of L.A.'s most important cultural institutions. Others are reaching out for similar patronage.

For instance, the California Science Center, which opened in March, is just one element in a broad, ongoing renovation of aging--and some new--facilities at Exposition Park. The goal there, as with the LACMA project, is to draw visitors into the Science Center and beyond to the Natural History Museum and the Afro-American Museum, all in easy strolling distance.

Behind the decision to locate the Staples Center near the Convention Center was the hope that the snazzy new sports arena, now taking shape, would revive the faded south end of downtown. Backers predicted the arena would also draw conventioneers who would, in turn, walk to nearby commercial ventures. Recent lease negotiations for new downtown restaurants and shops may be a sign that they were right. A walkable Los Angeles may not be so wild a notion after all.

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