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In Long Beach exhibit, urban planning is art and play

Urban planner James Rojas constructs a model of Long Beach, on display at a gallery in town, for residents and business owners to illustrate a vision of the city's future.

January 10, 2012|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • James Rojas built his model of downtown Long Beach for people to rearrange, add to and generally envision what the future of the city could be.
James Rojas built his model of downtown Long Beach for people to rearrange,… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)

Most urban renewal projects require piles of cash and armloads of permits and blueprints.

All that's needed for James Rojas' makeover of downtown Long Beach is imagination.

Rojas is an urban planner who has constructed an 80-square-foot scale model of the city that residents and business owners can tinker with to illustrate their own vision of Long Beach's future.

The city's high-rises, retail shops and residential buildings are represented by movable blocks of wood, scraps of plastic and pieces of castoffs that Rojas has salvaged from garage sales and thrift shops.

Those taking part in the hands-on city-building can check out their results from street level, from an elevated area that simulates nearby Signal Hill or from below by peering up through the model's clear plastic base.

"It's completely interactive. You can crawl underneath and get a worm's-eye view of the city," said Rojas, 52.

The scale model has been on display in an airy art gallery space at 421 W. Broadway for about two months. The curious can try their hand at city planning from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends through Jan. 22.

The $5,000 cost of the exhibit's display tables and its looming version of Signal Hill — with 10 oil wells depicted on its sides — has been covered by the Museum of Latin American Art and the Arts Council of Long Beach.

Although the project has no connection with Long Beach's Department of Development Services, Rojas said he has invited city planners who work nearby to visit the exhibit. It's unknown if any of them have dropped in, he said.

Rojas, of Alhambra, said groups of school pupils have worked side-by-side with adults around the model to create new park space, redesign parking lots and reposition office towers. Some have returned repeatedly.

"One lady comes in nearly every day. She cuts greenery and foliage photographs from magazines and arranges them on the model to represent open space," he said. "People get creative. One person uses little marks on popsicle sticks to show where parking lots are located."

The process is more than child's play, Rojas says. Over the years he has created 43 scale models to stimulate public interest in things such as restoration of the Los Angeles River shoreline.

"It's a great exhibit," said Alan Huyhn, a private planning consultant from Culver City who has seen the Long Beach model. "Urban planning can be intimidating. People don't always go to city planning workshops because they think they won't understand the process or it will be boring."

Huyhn said Rojas' use of abstract items such as hair rollers, Chinese checkers pieces and glued-together blocks of wood to simulate buildings helps adults be more creative than they might be if more realistic scale-model pieces were used.

Rojas agrees. "I've done models all my life with found objects. We didn't have Legos when I was a kid, just a few boxes of stuff from my grandmother's," he said.

About 2,000 of those recycled objects are being used in the Long Beach exhibit, which means Rojas will dip into his supply at home from items to use at a workshop planned for Echo Park residents Saturday. "Rethinking Glendale Boulevard" is planned from 10 a.m. to noon at the Echo Country Outpost, 1770 Glendale Blvd.

"That's a heavily trafficked stretch of street that is changing dramatically," Rojas said. "We're looking for a friendly exchange of ideas."

Just like in Long Beach.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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