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It may be time to hit the brakes

Putting homes, schools and parks by freeways was seen as a final frontier in L.A., but a USC study on pollution could force a rethinking.

January 30, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

A new study from researchers at USC about the effects of local highway pollution on children's health would be alarming under any circumstances, especially for parents. But it happens to arrive just as Los Angeles is building or planning scores of projects -- including housing, parks and schools -- right on the edge of major freeways.

Seen in that light, the study carries significant implications not just for antipollution efforts but also for the future shape of the city. It should make us think not just about cleaning the air but about how and where we build.

In the last few years, we've come to view land near freeways as a last frontier in a Los Angeles that grows more crowded by the year. When developers and public agencies such as the Los Angeles Unified School District are searching for large, empty parcels of land, they often find that the only ones that they can afford are freeway-adjacent, in the unlovely jargon of the real estate business.

And when planners, architects or academics get together to talk about and sketch designs for the Los Angeles of the future, their proposals inevitably call for new buildings swarming like kudzu along and across freeways.

In the same way that the futuristic city plans of the last century looked to the air, calling for buildings on stilts or stacked like pancakes or connected by floating zeppelins, architects these days tend to see L.A.'s ribbon of highways as the unlikely foundation for a new kind of post-sprawl urbanism.

Last month, Eric Owen Moss won a competition sponsored by the History Channel that asked architects to imagine and help design the Los Angeles of 2106.

"We intend to build over, under, around and through the freeways" of the city, he declared in his winning entry.

Of course, it's hardly surprising to learn that pollution levels are higher near freeways than in other parts of the city. But the data from USC are compelling enough to suggest that when it comes to zoning, we should give up the idea of that land as a means for reshaping L.A. and increasing density and see it instead as territory to be avoided -- at least when it comes to placing facilities where kids spend a good portion of the day.

Proposals such as Moss' may anticipate the day when we'll no longer use cars, at least in their current form, and the freeways that once carried them will be empty and ready for reinvention. But even in the most optimistic scenarios, we still face several decades of highway pollution.

The USC study, which tracked 3,600 children for 13 years, found that those living within 500 yards of a highway faced risk of permanent health damage, including stunted lung growth and respiratory problems.

"Someone suffering a pollution-related deficit in lung function as a child will probably have less than healthy lungs all of his or her life," the study's lead author, USC epidemiologist W. James Gauderman, told The Times last week.

Even within that fairly tight 500-yard radius, we are building a number of high-profile projects, quite a few of which are designed for children or would be used heavily by them.

Housing continues to sprout along the edges of the region's highways -- including stucco boxes and high-end, themed apartment complexes such as the Medici, which practically leans out over the 110 as it cuts through downtown.

And the LAUSD's massive construction campaign includes a number of new schools next to some of our busiest roadways. Nearing completion is a new high school designed by Perkins + Will at the so-called Metromedia site. Commuters on the 101 have watched the school rise on North Wilton Place, no more than 100 feet from the freeway. The architectural flagship of the construction effort is a new high school for the arts, designed by the Austrian firm Coop Himmelblau. It will be built facing another stretch of the 101, across the freeway from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown.

As architectural solutions to tricky, overlooked sites, the schools are impressive. But through the lens of public health, they look altogether different.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, planners are working to gain approval for a new park that would be built directly atop a curving portion of the 101, between Bronson Avenue and Wilton Place. Preliminary designs for the park have been greeted as an ingenious solution to the open-space crunch in Los Angeles -- and, in many ways, a sign of things to come. Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents the neighborhood, said as much three weeks ago, after the City Council voted to spend $100,000 studying the feasibility of a park in that site.

"We've come to a place in Los Angeles [where], for better or for worse, it's actually cheaper to look at putting a cap over the Hollywood Freeway to build a park than buying land in the middle of Hollywood," he told a broadcast reporter.

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