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Los Angeles' major public spaces remain broken works in progress

For the next mayor, advice on how to fix the worst examples of L.A.'s faulty civic vision: LAX, the L.A. River, Pershing Square, the subway to the sea and Grand Avenue.

March 02, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne | Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • Los Angeles at dusk as seen from on top of City Hall. The city has grown to a population nearing 4 million.
Los Angeles at dusk as seen from on top of City Hall. The city has grown to a… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles, more than most cities, has defined itself by continual bursts of expansion and an unflagging optimism about its place in the world.

But as the city has grown to a population nearing 4 million, we've neglected some major holes in the civic fabric. Los Angeles has become as well known for its high-profile architectural and urban-planning failures — for the buildings, institutions and public spaces we can't seem to get right — as for its innovations or breakthroughs.

This is particularly true for our civic architecture, which has never matched the ambition and allure of the region's private houses and high-end commercial enclaves.

ON THE BOULEVARDS: Lankershim boulevard

So far the major candidates for mayor, moving cautiously and even ploddingly toward Tuesday's primary, have advanced few visionary plans. The race has focused on competence and cost-cutting.

But the city needs far more than small improvements around the margins. It is broken in some fundamental ways.

Here's a look at the most glaring embarrassments of all — and some straightforward ideas about how the next mayor can start fixing them.

A fumbled entry

As a gateway to the city, Los Angeles International Airport could hardly be more dispiriting. A jumble of mismatched, outdated terminals, LAX gives visitors a resounding first impression of civic dysfunction.

The city, which owns the airport, has tried several times to remake LAX. The latest attempt is a master plan by Fentress Architects, which is also designing the nearly $2-billion Tom Bradley International Terminal.

But the truth is that the airport's biggest liability is not simply architectural. Somehow Los Angeles built a major rail route, the Green Line, past LAX 20 years ago without adding a stop at the airport.

And guess what? We are about to build another light-rail route — this time the $1.7-billion Crenshaw Line — near the airport and make precisely the same mistake again.

Why? In part it's because squeezing a station beneath the existing airport complex would be expensive and complicated. And in part because the operator of LAX, Los Angeles World Airports, has not always seen eye to eye with transit planners at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Plans are underway to build a "people mover" automated train that would take passengers to the airport from a Crenshaw Line station at Century and Aviation boulevards, a mile east of the terminals.

The people mover would be a sadly inefficient compromise. The worst-case scenario, which can typically be counted on at LAX, is that passengers on the Crenshaw Line would have to drag their suitcases over a pedestrian bridge before getting on the people mover.

The next mayor should push for a station at — rather than merely near — the airport, even if paying for it means delaying other rail projects or putting another sales-tax measure for transit funding on an upcoming ballot. And even if Metro claims that planning for the Crenshaw Line is too far along to be changed.

Cities around the world have figured out how to build light-rail or subway lines right to their airports. Even Dallas will have a direct rail link to DFW by the end of next year.

Dallas!

River woes

If you think we've ruined LAX, what about the Los Angeles River? After a series of floods, including a particularly deadly one in 1938, engineers put the river in a concrete straitjacket.

It was a decision made in the name of safety and predictability. But in the process a natural amenity became an eyesore, a punch line. We love concrete so much in L.A., the old joke goes, that we even paved the river.

Since 32 of the river's 51 miles are within the L.A. city limits, the mayor has a powerful say over its future. The goal should not be to take the river back to some idyllic, preindustrial past. Instead we should look for a few places where we can crack open its hard shell and interact with it in new ways.

ON THE BOULEVARDS: Sunset boulevard

A number of intriguing ideas have already emerged, building on advocacy by the Friends of the Los Angeles River and a master plan the City Council adopted in 2007. Among the most promising is a proposal by landscape architect Mia Lehrer and three architecture firms for the so-called Piggyback Yard, a 125-acre site across the river from Union Station.

It would add walking and biking paths along newly green riverbanks, as well as a park with soccer fields and a botanical garden. It would also act as a powerful pilot project, helping the public see the river's larger potential.

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