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Faux New World At Glendale's new mega-project, is a park really a park? Maybe not.

May 04, 2008|Christopher Hawthorne | Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic of The Times. Contact him at christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com.

The Americana at Brand, the new mega-project by mega-developer Rick Caruso, was set to open two days ago. Maybe you've already twirled some spaghetti at its branch of the Cheesecake Factory or taken your kids for a ride on its trolley, which runs in a loop around the 15-acre property in the center of Glendale. If so, you probably marveled at the effortless melange of architectural styles, which run from gritty, rusted-steel industrialism to prettified mansard roofs from Paris (by way of Las Vegas). Maybe you found yourself thinking that it looks like a classic Caruso shopping center--a place essentially designed to print money.

At the very least, it is the biggest thing to hit the 'Dale since the 134 Freeway went up.

But Caruso has tweaked his formula this time around, adding 100 condominiums and 238 rental apartments to the mix. That combination is not unheard of: Paseo Colorado in Pasadena is among a handful of other open-air shopping centers built in recent years in which apartments have been stacked above retail outlets.

But in the case of the Americana, which was designed by Caruso's in-house architects and Boston firm Elkus Manfredi, along with other firms for certain storefronts, the cheek-by-jowl proximity of residential and retail architecture raises fascinating questions.

After all, Caruso is famous--or infamous, depending on your point of view--for building his shopping centers around a particularly successful brand of faux urbanism. At the Grove, which is his masterwork and now attracts 18 million people each year (about 3 million more than the Disneyland park in Anaheim), a paved and perfectly proportioned street, complete with decorative curbs, forms a kind of urban spine. Lined by national chains as well as a number of stand-alone kiosks, this space gives people in Los Angeles a chance to do something rare: stroll outside in the company of other Angelenos.

But as any student of L.A. architecture and urbanism can tell you, that street, despite its fine imitation of a public space, is in fact private and patrolled by its own security force. You can't ride a bike or a skateboard on it, let alone set up a soapbox and tell passersby about China's actions in Tibet or about the political campaign of Ron Paul (still going!) or Ralph Nader (ditto!). Even wearing a T-shirt with a risque slogan might be enough to get you tossed.

That story has been told by architectural scholars and journalists alike. But the addition of apartments and condos at the Americana at Brand gives it a twist. So does the fact that the Glendale project, which cost $400 million, includes 2 full acres of landscaped green space at its center that, by law, belongs not to the developer but to the city's redevelopment agency. Glendale insisted on keeping control of that little patch of public realm when it was recruiting potential projects for the site.

That makes the distinction between public and private in the final product almost impossible to untangle. At the Americana, the park is public space masquerading as private space that is masquerading as public.

Got that?

It will be intriguing to watch how the Americana's shared space--particularly the park--evolves and is used over time, particularly by residents of the complex. Will they treat it as their own front yard--which it basically is? What about the kids who live--and grow up--there? What if they want to ride a bicycle or skateboard there--will they be allowed to?

According to Dave Williams, Caruso's executive vice president for archi- tecture, they will not. "The open spaces will be handled the same way they're handled at the Grove," he told me. "Operationally, we have a safety threshold we want to maintain." That means no bikes and no skateboards, no dogs heavier than 25 pounds, plus a slew of other restrictions.

My guess is that those restrictions will prove to be more of an issue in Glendale than they've been at the Grove. It may not happen right away, especially if the first wave of residents includes more twentysomethings than families.

But as the Americana evolves, those residents may start to wonder why a public park at the foot of their apartment buildings is patrolled by Caruso's security team (if indeed that's what happens). If the private cops, who will be backed up by a substation staffed by Glendale police, start breaking up pickup soccer games or taking away skateboards, they may even start resenting it.

The result may be a real contretemps inside Caruso's smooth, smiley world--and maybe even a conversation about why Glendale, during the planning and construction of the project, allowed the developer to take over the park to the degree that he has, adding kiosks along its edges and otherwise treating it as private, Grove-like space.

That conversation may never happen; the cash registers at the Americana may simply continue to ring uninterrupted. But we can always hope. After all, isn't such debate a kind of Americana too, as worthy of revival as Chuck Taylors and trolley cars? *

Residents may wonder why a public park at the foot of their apartment buildings is patrolled by Caruso's security team.

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