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A Welcome Home

Architect returns to make crime-riddled East L.A. projects of his youth more attractive and livable.

January 31, 2002|TED JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Three young men darted past 21-year-old architecture student Ricardo Rodriguez, across the unkempt crab grass and sprawling parking courts that served as public space for the Maravilla housing projects in East Los Angeles.

It was 1984, and Rodriguez still lived in this place where he'd grown up. He had never joined a neighborhood gang, but many of the gang members were his friends, and he was used to hearing of fights that ended in gunfire. But this night he and several others witnessed a friend being shot--a youth named Ernie who had passed out on the ground in a drunken stupor. Ernie never knew what hit him when one of the three men fired a bullet through his skull.

By the time police arrived, a few minutes later, the men had fled through the cars in the sprawling parking courts.

The incident left him with a theory on what may have helped the assailants get away: The barracks-like design of Maravilla, with its windowless walls and high fences, allowed criminals to hide out and go undetected by the police.

Seventeen years later, Rodriguez has returned to the housing projects. He's among the architects revitalizing Aliso Village, one of Los Angeles' largest collections of public housing, at 1st and Clarence streets, a few miles from Maravilla, east of downtown Los Angeles. Some 685 units in a cluster of two-story concrete apartments--dating back to the early 1940s--were virtually cleared away in 2000 to make room for a new neighborhood of 376 rental units and 93 single-family homes that will be for sale. Nearly one-third of the homes will be sold at special rates to former public housing residents.

Rodriguez's Quatro Design Group--in which he's partnered with architects David Stokes and Javier Molina--is one of four teams that have collaborated on the new community, scheduled to begin construction this summer. The new units will be much closer in design to suburban townhomes than the giant apartment complexes that have become associated with public housing.

Quatro is serving as the "architect of note" for the project, responsible for the details of construction documents. Two other firms, William Hezmalhalch Architects and Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh, were the lead housing designers, while Quatro is creating the park and management buildings. If funding comes through, Quatro also will design retail space along 1st Street.

Walking through what is left of the old Aliso projects--a cluster of buildings southwest of 1st and Clarence streets--Rodriguez points to rooftop fences placed there to keep gang members from staging gunfights between buildings. Then he walks among rows of rusted-out clotheslines, spread out over a wide area of dead crab grass. "The clotheslines won't be there in the new place," he says firmly. "We got them to put a washer and dryer into every unit."

Dressed in a mustard-colored shirt and a checked tie, Rodriguez, 38, at first appears shy. But he proudly explains how he and the rest of the team championed some of the ideas that will go into the new Aliso Village. For example, large swaths of common grass areas--"a no-man's land," as he calls it--will be eliminated in favor of smaller yards, well-defined areas for which each resident is responsible for the upkeep.

"In Maravilla we had 61/2-foot fences that you couldn't see through," he recalls. "In the nighttime, the gang members would climb over to our patio and hide from the cops. You couldn't find them. One of my ideas was that we eliminated the fences so you couldn't do that anymore."

William Witte, a partner in Irvine-based Related Cos., one of the Aliso Village developers, says that Rodriguez "probably gave us more thoughts and ideas in how to [create a safer community] than anyone else. He drew on his design experience and his neighborhood experience in terms of [a building's] staying power and how it serves the community."

Rodriguez's role is unusual in a profession that still bears remnants of an old-boys' network. According to Statistical Abstract for 1999, Latinos made up 4.4% of the country's 194,000 architects.

Although he and his partners have worked on a variety of projects--just before Aliso Village, they designed a 37,000-square-foot home in Newport Beach--some of their bigger assignments have been in the Boyle Heights area. In addition to public housing, they are designing an 11-unit affordable apartment complex being built at Whittier Boulevard and Record Avenue by the East L.A. Community Corp., as well as the East L.A. Civic Center Plaza, a 29,000-square-foot shopping center being built on Mednik Avenue. The latter will feature block-like buildings in colors that recall a Mexican fiesta, with flat roofs of varying heights. "The slippage in planes is to emphasize the integration of generations," Rodriguez says of the design.

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