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