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

Landscape curmudgeons. . . disband, por favor

A lovely landscape outside the CECUT, Tijuana, MX

There is unfortunately a pervasive trend amongs landscape afficionados to be a bit haughty and snooty when it comes to knowledge of plants and what’s best for them. Two recent scenarios illustrate the point.

1. On a recent excursion to a nearby nursery to scout out containers for a client, PRAIRIEFORM witnessed the classic, completely disappointing interaction between burgeoning plant lover and believed plant expert:

Giddy Customer (box full of potted herbs in hand) to Owner: So, can I plant all of these together?!

Curmudgeony Owner (without looking at the customer in the eye), in deadpan, grumbly voice: Thyme absolutely cannot be planted with cilantro, the other two plant together.

Giddy Customer: So, the Basil and Cilantro are cool together; Thyme separate?!

Curmudgeony Owner: That’s what I said.

Giddy Customer: Great!

Curmudgeony Owner never looks up to acknowledge the customer’s enthusiasm.

2. J-Dog, the Chicago-based gardener who will be growing fresh vegetables on site for a downtown Chicago restaurant, was recently installing her raised beds in the parking lot when a passer-by stopped to presumably chat with her about how groovy and forward-thinking the project was.

Passer-by, grumbly and in an oh-so-patronizing tone: You know we have rats here, so I don’t know how you plan on getting those vegetables to grow.

J-Dog: Oh, it’s cool, I’ve had good luck with growing vegetables in the city. There are always various elements to be braved.

Passer-by: *silence, rolls eyes*.

J-Dog: If need be I’ll get a cat. It’s not the end of the world.

Passer-by, turning around and starting to walk away, looking victorious, says to the wind: The rats are as big as cats.

We are infinitely perplexed by the presumption that working with plants should be reserved for those who belong to a proverbial club with membership requirements. Granted, some knowledge of plant care is crucial if you are planning on pruning trees or larger shrubs, but the notion that that body of knowledge cannot be shared is quite preposterous. Plants themselves are the only ones who know what’s best for them; we just try and figure out what they might want. If gardening and spreading the good botancial news are the objective, then by all means get rid of the VIP-only attitude. PRAIRIEFORM observes this members-only attitude time and time again with various social movements – urban bicycling a key culprit – and wonders then just how committed its “members” are to the movement if they really don’t want anyone but a select few to join. Lose the dress code, open your doors, welcome newcomers with gusto.

Texture and the modern urban landscape

San Gabriel Boulevard

To many, Los Angeles contains some of the ugliest commercial boulevards in the world (perhaps rivaled only by those of Phoenix or Las Vegas (outside the Strip, mind you)). They stretch out for miles and miles, are egregiously wide, and tend to contain a jumbled hodgepodge of low-rise strip-commerical development coupled with above-ground powerlines and freeway-style streetlights. They exhibit a kind of coarse, jagged, oftentimes harsh texture that has become almost synonomous with the city itself. It is in part this harsh and jagged texture that people are responding to when they say the boulevards are ugly.

Recent streetscape efforts aimed at retexurizing the crummy commerical strip are well-intentioned in their efforts to insert some consistency within the clutter. Enter the evenly spaced, more pedestrian-friendly street lamps, design guidelines for buildings and signage, street furniture, and street trees. Such is what is proposed for San Gabriel Boulevard in San Gabriel.

Vintage signage on Main Street, Alhambra

However, the question arises as to whether efforts at smoothing out the coarseness of the commercial strip do little more than make things a little bit “less ugly” while in the process simultaneously eliminating some of the kitschy whimsy that characterizes the boulevard in the first place. And are urban designers simply attempting to make things “pretty” rather than fundamentally transform how people move through the city on a day-to-day level (re: reconfiguring streets and transportation to allow for walking, bicycling, scooter-riding, etc.)? Some of the greatest streets to walk through are not the prettiest to look at, and some of the prettiest streetscapes still give one little reason to walk down that particular street. A meaningful approach to urban design needs to hone the core reasons why we aren’t walking in the first place. Aesthetics are part of it, but the puzzle is much more vast and complex than mere window treatment.

Plant of the week

For an electric-blue swath of color, coupled with a feathery texture, nothing does it better than Helictotrichon sempervirens / Blue Oat Grass. Hardy down to Zone 4a, this grass is tough, drought-tolerant, and, as always, low on fuss. And, for people who have been frustrated with the short lifespan of Festuca glauca, Blue Oat Grass makes the perfect, long-lived alternative. The key to success with this grass is good drainage and sun. Amend the soil with organic matter and a cactus-like mix when planting and you should have good luck. This is a cool-season grass and thus will grow in spring and fall (or winter and spring in the Southwest) but will go dormant during the hot summer months. Just prior to the growing season, cut the grass back to about an inch above the ground to encourage fresh new growth; otherwise, the plant can become overwhelmed with dead blades. For those in Minnesota, stop by the Zenith Avenue and Wooddale Avenue landscapes this spring to see Blue Oat Grass in all its glory.