Vacant on the strip

Meadow by default, on the commercial strip

Prior to the economic downturn, it looked as if every underutilized space along every commerical strip in Los Angeles was slated to be purchased and redeveloped into mixed-use housing and retail. Post-boom, full-on bust, the commercial boulevards look as unproductive and tired as ever, riddled with vacant lots and storefronts, half-parked parking lots, and empty auto dealerships. It was a nice idea to imagine them as mixed-use corridors of housing and retail, pedestrian activity, and transit-o-plenty; however, the vision fell and still falls short. Other uses need to be imagined and allowed on the strip, including – dare we say it – the seemingly “unproductive” fallow meadows, and other iterations of open space.

Typically abrupt transition between commercial and residential

Adjacent to the vast majority of LA’s commerical boulevards lie low-density residential neighborhoods. The simple fact that so few people – and thus so little spending power – live adjacent to the boulevards translates into a virtual economic impossibility that the boulevards can be commerically viable from end to end. Enter then the proposal for higher-density housing along the strip, which could add much-needed, and geographically concentrated, dollars and feet (aka pedestrians) to the commerical boulevard. This is a necessary planning and design endeavor and should continue to be pursued; however, it needs to be seen as one prong of a much larger effort. In part the fickleness of the real estate market makes focusing solely on mixed-use and residential less-than viable. Other, less apparent barriers include the perennial problem of commercial boulevards by and large abutting single-family-home neighborhoods. Not even the most elegant of designs can do much to ease the abrupt spatial transition between these two zones.

Housing on Sunset Boulevard, where now sits a McDonald’s

To be sure, this condundrum of transitions wouldn’t exist were it not for modern-day planning and its penchant for efficiency and bottom-line thinking. Many of Los Angeles’s now all-commercial boulevards once contained a mix of housing types, commercial uses, and open land; it is only in the later half of the 20th Century that the boulevards were reduced down to one zone, the C (for Commercial), and the adjacent streets the R (for Residential). It is high time we considered moving beyond the oversimplified C and R and envisioned new spatial possibilities for the boulevards, one of which being open space. The introduction of open space along boulevards could aid in concentrating commerical and residential in more targeted areas – namely near transit and within planned districts. It would help move us away from the excessively oversimplified but conflict-ridden dichotomy of commerical abutting residential. And finally, it would help to strategically unpave what has to be one of the largest swaths of paved land on the planet.

Happy Earth Day.


Neutral grounds

Huntington Drive in El Sereno

Many of Los Angeles’s boulevards measure in at over 100 feet from side to side. Some, such as Huntington Drive, stretch out to almost 200 feet – which is, quite simply, huge. The vast majority of these 200 feet comprise traffic lanes, while a small portion of the width is devoted to planted median strips. As a city, Los Angeles has historically shown great hesitation in relinquishing carpspace and transforming it into generously sized medians and wider sidewalks. Quite the opposite, the prevailing modus operandi has been to widen roads early and often, including widening those streets and roads adjacent to rail stations, the very places where pedestrians travel most.

To learn about the wide, wide world of varying uses for streetspace, many an Angeleno (and American, for that matter) could benefit from a trip down south to New Orleans – both the birthplace of Jazz, and home to the famed neutral grounds. Neutral grounds are what New Orleans residents refer to their medians as. Originally developed for drainage purposes, the neutral grounds have become the city’s emerald jewels, bisecting streets with swaths of greenery, wildlife, and calm.

Neutral ground in New Orleans spanning some 30 feet

The neutral grounds range in size, with some measuring a miniature three feet, and some spanning over thirty feet. Some of the larger neutral grounds have become home to playgrounds, impromptu games of volleyball, fountains, and public gathering areas. Others double as space for streetcars. Whatever the case, they are a reminder of what many of our streets once were: public spaces for a whole host of activities, only one of which being vehicular traffic.

One of the narrower neutral grounds

There has been growing talk of late of bicycle lanes, transit, and walkable streets, all of which are integral components to 21st Century city, but none of which can be realized if municipalities simply cannot get serious about relinquising some carspace to other uses. Merely painting a bicycle lane along the side of Sunset Boulevard while not redesigning the street so that motorists do not drive at 45 mph is insufficient. The push-back within the conversation has come from those who claim that constructing medians, bike lanes, wider sidewalks will lead to worsening traffic, which will lead to economic decline. This line of reasoning sounds mildly convincing until one considers New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong – all cities with horrendous traffic, and all major financial centers of the world, not to mention some of the most-visited cities of the world.

Saint Charles Streetcar within neutral ground

-Written by PRAIRIEFORM’s John Kamp, and James Rojas of Place It!

The Plan and the State

Chicago’s Cabrini Green, on its last breath

An ongoing question PRAIRIEFORM has been examining is what role the institution of planning can and should play in shaping our modern city (see post on the Los Angeles Fashion District). Witold Rybczynski offers up food for thought in suggesting that planning should take a bit of a back seat, or at least stop dreaming of returning to its heydey of urban renewal and sweeping control over the physical form of our cities. The essay has generated quite a bit of furor. See what you think, ponder, discuss.


Unplanned urbanity

The Los Angeles Fashion District contains some of the highest pedestrian counts in the city, is packed wall-to-wall with street-fronting retail, and its businesses pay rents that rival those on Rodeo Drive. It contains a level of street-centered vibrancy and urban vitality relatively uncommon to Los Angeles – and virtually none of this vitality has ever been planned into existence by city planners.

The epicenter of the District is Santee Alley, which, in the ’80s, became a hub for those seeking cheap deals on the latest fashion trends. Prior to being a low-cost fashion hub, the area simply consisted of wholesale fabric suppliers and sweatshops. As clothing manufacturing invariably produces seconds, owners discovered that they could open up the backsides of their establishments onto the alley and sell the seconds to weekend shoppers seeking out the best bargain. Capitalizing on growing pedestrian traffic, businesses began opening up retail stores along streets adjacent to Santee Alley, and developers began moving in to build buidings that would further attract retail and wholesale customers.

Rather than favor a suburban-style building type set back from the sidewalk with ample parking provided in front, developers have by and large favored a more pedestrian- and city-friendly building type: ground-level retail lining all building street frontages; a mix of retail and wholesale on the second floor (oftentimes accessible by a network of exterior stairways); wholesale on the third levels and above; and parking always placed on the rootop.

The building form can in part be attributed to City Planning and their decision to downzone the area to an FAR of 3:1, thereby severely restricting the buildable area of each parcel (especially given its location in highly urbanized Downtown Los Angeles). However, the intent of Planning was never to produce a pedestrian-friendly building type via the new restrictions; it was simply to limit development. Developers and consumers have played a much more active role in the physical evolution of the district. Fashion District developers tend to be from Korea, Iran, and Armenia, places where building up to the street with street-fronting retail is practically a given. Then, given the presence of large volumes of consumers traveling on foot (many of whom coming by bus to the district), the high demand for retail and wholesale space, and a demand for parking, the birth of the Fashion District building type makes pitch perfect economic sense, as it simply capitalizes on all of the aforementioned forces at work.

If you have a chance to take a stroll through the Fashion District, polish it off with a trip up to Bunker Hill, perhaps the most planned, designed and contested district in the entire city. You will notice that it is virturally devoid of pedestrian life, despite it being home to some of the great Acropolises of high culture in Los Angeles. While the contrast could not be more stark, the conclusion should not be that planning should be thrown out with the proverbial bathwater; rather, we simply need to develop planning approaches and techniques that can successfully enhance growing economic and pedestrian vitality where it exists. This requires a serious, serious paradigm shift within planning, as it will require a move away from crafting code designed with the sole intention of precluding certain development types and towards a code that aims to encourage new development and design typologies that can be the building blocks towards a more livable, walkable city.

John Kamp

The story behind a near-postcard-perfect streetscape. . .


This tiny one-block stretch of verdant goodness in the heart of Downtown LA is a rare find in this city. At one time in the not-too-distant past, this street was set to be widened, the row of trees within the parkway (or, “boulevard,” if you are from Minnesota) to be removed. I am still a bit incredulous that it wasn’t widened, given the cards stacked against it. Street trees are not under the jurisdiction of LA City Planning, nor are streets and sidewalks in general. In the City’s General Plan, City Planning simply set all Los Angeles streets to desired widths, and DOT and Public Works have since then enforced these designations by requiring road widenings to match the required street widths. Any attempt at narrowing a street or not widening a road now causes quite the kerfuffle, as DOT and Public Works are simply not keen on giving up their power of enforcement.

The good news is that LA City Planning, in conjunction with the CRA, and a host of urban design and transportation consultants, have been working to revise Downtown’s street standards so that future road widenings don’t occur, and, in some instances, so that over-widened roads can be narrowed, as is the case along Grand Avenue at Olympic, where a future park might be placed.

Godspeed, narrow street.