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Lankershim Boulevard rides to prominence in the Valley

The momentum that has built up along much of Lankershim, especially in the North Hollywood Arts District, illustrates what can arise from a mass-transit network.

December 21, 2012|By Christopher Hawthorne | The Times Architecture Critic

Twenty years ago, nobody would have included Lankershim Boulevard on a list of the most significant streets in the San Fernando Valley.

Passing the front gates of Universal Studios was pretty much its high point; beyond that, as it ran north for seven miles toward Sun Valley and Interstate 5, Lankershim was a grim parade of gas stations, windowless storage warehouses and rundown motels.

Today, the boulevard is emphatically on the rise, energized by a pair of Red Line subway stops, a rapid-bus route packed with riders and the flourishing North Hollywood Arts District. As Van Nuys Boulevard and other car-dominated routes endure a slow fade from their post-war prominence, the stretch of Lankershim between the Red Line stations now ranks as the most vital north-south corridor in the Valley.

Its ascent makes clear that the hierarchy of Southern California boulevards is being reshuffled by the growth of the region's bus and rail network.

But there are obstacles in Lankershim's way, some of which suggest that Los Angeles is struggling to integrate new mass-transit lines into the life of the city — and still turning almost reflexively to outdated planning strategies that bow to the automobile.

Changing direction

In the L.A. Basin, boulevards tend to grow wealthier and more manicured as they move north. On the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains, in the San Fernando Valley, the opposite is true.

The hills are the city's equator, flipping the geographic relationships upside down. In the Valley, privilege is concentrated along the southern end of nearly every north-south boulevard.

That's certainly the case on Lankershim, named for the German immigrant Isaac Lankershim, who bought 60,000 acres of ranch land, essentially the southern half of what would become the San Fernando Valley, in 1869. The seller was Pio Pico, the last governor of Mexican-ruled California.

Today the boulevard's southern end is stuffed with history and signs of wealth. Directly across from Universal Studios but unknown to many Angelenos is the fenced-off site of the Campo de Cahuenga ranch house, unearthed during excavations for the Red Line in the 1990s. A treaty signed there in 1847 paved the way for the end of Mexican rule in California and the dawn of Anglo Los Angeles.

It's a half-hearted monument, to be sure, open just one day a month. Looming over it from the other side of the boulevard is a more conspicuous and more modern landmark: 10 Universal City Plaza, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and finished in 1984. At 36 stories it is not only the tallest building in the Valley but among the more underrated skyscrapers in Los Angeles.

Lankershim passes the Los Angeles River at one of the river's widest points before arriving at the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, where Bob Hope's funeral was held in a sunrise ceremony in summer 2003. Built in 1959 at the height of modern architecture's influence in Los Angeles and around the country, the church was designed by J. Earl Trudeau not simply to suggest the Spanish Colonial Revival; with its chunky, oversized ornament, it looks almost cartoonishly pre-modern.

A mile past the church lies the North Hollywood Arts District, an encouraging case study in the effect that new transit lines can have on a neighborhood. In the 1990s, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, or CRA, began investing heavily in North Hollywood, financing real-estate development and subsidizing renovations by a number of theater companies along Lankershim.

With the 2000 extension of the Red Line into the Valley, with stops at Universal City and in North Hollywood, those investments began to pay off. A CRA-aided project called the NoHo Commons, begun in 2003, brought new shops and apartments within a few feet of the Red Line.

In 2005, the opening of the Orange Line rapid-bus route, running east-west across the Valley from Warner Center to the corner of Chandler and Lankershim, provided another boost. It carved out a 14-mile-long dedicated right of way, part of which once moved Southern Pacific trains and Red Car electric trolleys, for extra-long Metro Liner buses.

Extended over the summer north to Chatsworth, the Orange Line now carries 30,000 passengers on an average weekday, significantly outpacing early projections. Much cheaper to build than rail, the rapid-bus route is the clearest success story in the great Metro expansion of the last two decades.

Today the sidewalks in front of the new Laemmle movie house just south of the Orange Line-Red Line junction are often crowded. In the evenings so is the Federal Bar in a restored brick building across the boulevard. Actors mumbling their lines hurry to auditions as groups of martial-arts students spill out of karate and tae kwon do studios.

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