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.
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.
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.