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Crit: Cahill Center for Astronomy
The building is clad in tilted, sliced, and angled cement-board panels.
Photographs by Roland Halbe

Morphosis’ newly opened Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Caltech in Pasadena is among the firm’s more subdued works. Low-slung and clad in Swiss Pearl cement-board panels the color of aged terra cotta, the three-story building lies along California Boulevard like a chunk of displaced red-rock sandstone. Although the facade is cracked and tilted, its small scale, combined with the soft, warm color, lends the science facility a sense of repose—an attitude not usually associated with the brazen architect Thom Mayne. The building looks restrained, but not too much, as if it had recently suffered damage in an earthquake. Anyone driving along the boulevard looking for the Caltech Seismological Laboratory can be forgiven for thinking he’s arrived at the world-famous earthquake lab—which is actually next door in a rather plain and decidedly un-seismological Spanish colonial revival.

The confusion is cued by the features that make the Cahill building unique. On the exterior, vertical planes not only list to either side of 90 degrees, but also appear to have shifted horizontally relative to one another, much the way two pieces of the Earth’s crust slip along a fault. Dark, deep, diagonal voids, left without the cement-board cladding, emphasize these thrusting plates.

Inside, the $50 million, 100,000-square-foot center contains classrooms, offices, underground labs, a public auditorium, and a library. The initial focus is a dramatic, white, central staircase that is supposed to be about astronomy. The stair is what you notice first upon entering the lobby, and it’s all about light—the key component to understanding the cosmos. The firm developed a circulation shaft made up of walls that look like shards of light refracted through the lens of a telescope. These fractured walls cascade and collide, come to a knife’s edge, or seem to extend to infinity. Windows allow sunlight to fall on the walls, casting long, flat beams and truncated wide ones, as well as trapezoids of shadow, depending on which piece of wall the light hits. At the pinnacle of the stairs is an oculus, an undisguised reference to the telescope and to the human desire to ponder the heavens. Meanwhile, stair treads alternate between concrete and steel mesh, between solid and void, impenetrable and clear, meant to suggest the dance of scientific exploration.

Deep, diagonal voids (top) emphasize the thrusting plates. the central stair (above) transports, and disorients, visitors.

On the upper two floors, the hallways jog and bump, never following a straight line along the 350-foot length of the building. Mayne has said he wanted to “attack the institutional nature of an entity. The wiggle (in the corridors) is more relaxed, more like a medieval city, like Sienna.” The idea, really a commonplace, makes offices less isolating by making the hallways more collegial. The firm has placed large windows with window seats at the ends of four hallways that bisect the floors. Mayne has dubbed these physical breaks “stitches.” The windows frame views of the campus and the soaring San Gabriel Mountains to the north and the flats of San Marino to the south. These are pleasant, quasi-public spaces in which you can imagine overhearing chit-chat on the imponderable essense of, say, dark matter.

Throughout the project, Morphosis has transferred the tilts and slants of the exterior to the interior, producing a strange, dizzying effect. East-facing walls slant east, west-facing walls slant west. The hallway walls tilt in one direction from the floor up and another from the ceiling down—creating a modified chevron, or boomerang-shaped space. Those corridors are also painted in powdery hues (one floor sports an aqueous blue reminiscent of Neil Denari’s palette). Of course, there is nothing new about sloped walls, just as there is no surprise that such walls can throw the human body off-kilter.

It is unclear if Mayne wants these walls to actually put the body off-balance or if he sees them strictly as metaphors for the dynamic, unsettling forces at work in the universe. Unfortunately, the metaphor, intended or not, has become reality, and the question is whether the congenial window-seat hang-outs will provide a sufficient antidote to the vertiginous walls that line every hallway, conference room, office, and grad student’s cell.

At bottom, Mayne is an architect who isn’t especially comfortable using form to induce feeling. When he delivers a sensation, he does so with a body-blow—such as the doom you feel as a lonely pedestrian, passing beneath the overhanging weight of the Caltrans building in downtown Los Angeles. More often his work is about conveying a visual punch. His buildings are generally experienced as an in-your-face wallop, and less as a subtle accumulation of critical moments or passages more felt than seen.

The new Caltech building is agreeably lively as a surface and as a volume that looks as if it is falling to pieces. The central staircase speaks eloquently to the search for knowledge buried in the mysteries of deep space and time. Yet the building lacks Mayne’s characteristic bravura, his willingness to take a great leap, however messy the result. The building looks like a repetition of so many other Morphosis projects, only scaled down and scaled back. Several decades ago, the intellectual historian Thomas Kuhn wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that science, like evolution and history, grows by leaps and bounds, rather than in a steady, linear fashion. Mayne knows this to be true about architecture.

Q&A: LA Urban Design Studio

Launched in 2006 by LA planning director Gail Goldberg, the Urban Design Studio was created to address the city’s lack of urban design standards and to create a more pedestrian-friendly city. The small studio, headed by planners Emily Gabel-Luddy, and Simon Pastucha has already spearheaded the recent creation and approval of a set of Downtown Street & Urban Design Standards and Guidelines, which encourages wider sidewalks (at least 15 feet on some downtown blocks) and the possibility of street life, and a set of Walkability Guidelines. The Architect’s Newspaper sat down with the duo to discuss these, as well as their most ambitious endeavor: 11 Urban Design Principles, a set of values to which developers would be required to subscribe when seeking entitlements.

The principles range from “reinforce walkability and well-being” to “nurture neighborhood character” to “bridge the past and the future.” They are intended as “the first step to the creation of great streets, open spaces, and a more livable city.” If adopted by the City Council, these principles will be included in the city’s general plan, become part of the findings required for any discretionary action by the city, and eventually be interwoven in the 35 community plans throughout the city. The Planning Commission will consider them within the next two months.

AN: The truth underlying the Urban Design Principles is that all the great cities of the world came into being based on the human scale and prior to the advent of automobiles, and it’s the design studio’s intent to focus back to the human scale. Give me a practical example of what sort of implementation that might entail.

Emily Gabel-Luddy: Let me go to the Street Standards in Downtown Los Angeles. It was our goal that the city move away from an auto-centric proposition to one that emphasizes the pedestrian and mass transit. And so we spearheaded the idea of 15-foot-minimum-wide sidewalks in the dense urban core of our city. The reason this is so significant is because it lets all the developers and property owners have so much more room to put their outdoor café accessories—their tables and chairs—which in turn begins to cultivate the kind of social commerce among neighborhoods, residents, and office workers that was really part of cities prior to the automobile playing such an overriding part in how the public realm is defined and utilized.

AN: How will the Urban Design Principles dovetail into existing neighborhood plans?  Don’t architects have enough regulations on their plate already?

Simon Pastucha: Both the Urban Design Principles and the Downtown Design Standards are set up as a set of ideas to incorporate into your design. They’re not a set of standard requirements saying that you have to have ‘this’ at a certain point or a certain place. They just say: How do you meet the intent of these?

EGL: It’s not a design review, it’s not an ordinance. It says: Here’s the value, now tell us how your project has achieved that value. I don’t think true design comes from telling architects how to design their buildings. True design comes from having the architect reflect on how that building achieves value that is expressed in a way that is appropriate to a local community. 

AN: When we talk about design that reinforces a neighborhood’s character, aren’t we entering the realm of the taste police?

EGL: I disagree with you on that. To me, what we’re talking about when we’re nurturing neighborhood character is, when a new project comes in—and sure, it may be a little higher density, because that’s what the zoning allows—but the articulation of the houses and the townhouses, they still face the street. Because we still want that street to have the sense that there are people in relationship to one another when they come out of their doors in the morning. Now, to me, that’s not the design police. That’s wading into a larger issue of community building or community sustaining without saying you must do absolute replicas of bungalows or absolute replicas of what’s across the street or on the other side of you.

AN: Each of you has a strong connection to design and yet both chose to be planners. What is that about?

SP:  I love going to other cities and I love exploring cities that are not aesthetically so pretty but the streets are full of life. And the people are using the buildings just like they would a really pretty building. It’s still about the bones and functioning well. People can adapt the building. I look at it and go, “my role as an urban designer is to make the street successful and the buildings relate to the street” and that makes people use it.

EGL: And that is 98 percent of the kinds of development we see in the city. The two percent are going to be the Rem Koolhaas-es, the architects that are going to be afforded a big commission to do a significant piece of architecture like a Broad Museum. Those come along two percent of the time. And I think architects and architectural critics tend to focus on those. One of the dangers of that is having architecture continue to be irrelevant to the masses of folks, who actually use and appreciate buildings that function on their behalf.

Peter Eisenman was giving a lecture about a building that he did in Tokyo. And.. he was having such delight in the fact that the floors and the stairs were uneven and that they would force the patron to keep an eye on where they were stepping and walking. So his whole idea was playing games with the form which I think is okay, but it wasn’t about the ease of use and the ability for folks to…enjoy the atmosphere. Architects always run the risk of becoming completely irrelevant.

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Checking In
Frames encircling fine art and fantastic views of the Hollywood Hills are trademark Philippe Starck moves for the rooftop pool of the SLS.
James Merrell

A slew of new hotels have debuted in California over the last year, riding what will likely be the last big wave of development for some time due to a slowing economy and dismal travel forecasts. They’re the lucky ones: The results from the November 2008 STR/TWR/Dodge Construction Pipeline show that 93,219 hotel rooms nationally have been abandoned in various stages of development, from preplanning to in-construction. That’s a 75 percent increase in such abandonments since 2007. Other data from the Pipeline also point to a slowdown: Through November 2008, 1,565 hotels nationally were in construction, down from November 2007, when there were 1,609 hotels in construction.

In California, most new properties were a long-time-coming response to hotel room deficits in many tourist-heavy areas. In Beverly Hills, for example, a luxury hotel had not been built from the ground up since the early 1990s, while in San Francisco, the 32-story InterContinental is the largest hotel to open in the city in two decades. Two major California cities saw massive and much-needed room additions adjacent to their convention centers: the 420-room Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, and the aforementioned 550-room InterContinental San Francisco, located near the Moscone Center in SOMA. (Los Angeles will have to wait until 2010 for its 54-story Ritz Carlton, part of the downtown development LA Live.) Across the U.S., this seems to be the case as well: The country has seen an exceptionally slow growth of only five percent in new rooms since 2001, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

This cautious expansion led to an age of conservative design for California hotels. Even the most anxiously anticipated debut in the state, the SLS Hotel—the first venture into the hotel niche from nightlife wunderkinds SBE Entertainment (famous for their Philippe Starck-designed LA bars and restaurants like Katsuya, S Bar, and XIV)—went for wit and whimsy rather than over-the-top, cutting-edge design. It’s a huge departure from the sleek, cold modernism of the recent past—think the Standard or Mondrian of the late 1990s.

A baroque moderne white-on-white palette at the SLS private lobby (top) and the hotel's rooftop pool (above), designed by philippe starck.
James Merrell

“Instead of a very sparse, modern design, the approach we took is multi-layered in color and texture and decor and accessories,” said Theresa Fatino, chief creative officer for SBE. “Guests can come back over and over and feel that same sense of discovery, these feelings of rejuvenation and delight and wonderment and surprise.” This sensation—that they’ll discover another Starck design pun, or find a new favorite dish on José Andrés’ menu—aims at bestowing upon guests a feeling of belonging to some perpetual in-crowd.

Hotel palomar by gensler with cheryl rowley
David Phelps

Starwood's aloft by rockwell group
courtesy starwood

London west hollywood by collins design
courtesy lxr

montage beverly hills by HKS Hill Glazier Design Studio
courtesy montage

While the boutique concept is alive and well—Thompson Beverly Hills and London West Hollywood both nod aesthetically to their New York predecessors—these properties have seen the same style evolution, towards warm, sumptuous luxury and a sprinkling of nostalgia.“In the LA area, there’s a trend of capturing the glamour of old Hollywood and incorporating it into a design relevant to today’s lifestyle,” said Bryan Oakes of Gensler, project architect for the Hotel Palomar in the Westwood neighborhood of LA. The Montage Beverly Hills is modeled after the Mediterranean-influenced estates that sprang up in the city during the Golden Age of Hollywood, while Hotel Palomar and the London West Hollywood reference the same period with dramatic, sparkly interiors and Hollywood-referencing art. The Thompson Beverly Hills indulges a noire-ish theme, with deep, dark interiors that are signature of the designer Dodd Mitchell. Here, black leather upholstery, black lacquered wall panels, and glossy black wood floors convey Chinatown chic.

California continues to capitalize on the renovation of its older hotels by elevating former discount motel-like properties to luxury status, said Oakes. “One of the successes of Palomar is that we took a dated 1970s building, originally built as a Holiday Inn, and elevated it to a chic four-star hotel.” This seemed to work best for new boutique operations like the Thompson Beverly Hills, which inhabits a crisp white modernist box that was once a 1960s Best Western, and the London West Hollywood, a revitalization of a tired, nondescript Wyndham Bel-Age. For the green-aspirational, a renovation could also be spun as a huge sustainable selling point: The Good Hotel in San Francisco combined two aging hotels into one eco-friendly property, complete with room appointments made from reclaimed materials and the option to contribute to a carbon offset program upon check-in.

While the hotel pool has traditionally been the place for designers to show off, a growing emphasis is focused on creative public spaces that are twists on the hotel bar. Whether these are seamlessly melded indoor/outdoor lounges or multi-functional lobbies, designers are giving guests more reasons to come out of their rooms and hang out. “Trends ebb and flow, but I think that one area that should always be emphasized is that of the social gathering space,” said David Rockwell of the Rockwell Group, who calls for public spaces that are “open, transformable, and comfortable.” He outfitted the first W’s for the Starwood chain and designed the Aloft (scheduled to roll out 500 locations worldwide over the next five years) with three major areas that encourage congregation and socialization: a communal lobby area with gaming and pool tables, the wxyz bar, and a 24-hour snack bar. The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel is broaching yet another approach: a warren of spaces blending bar, lounge, restaurant, and boutique for design retailer Moss, allowing guests to nibble and sip (and shop) in a variety of environments throughout an evening.

The Carrier Johnson-designed Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter provides a transition to the city's fun-loving entertainment district.
Courtesy Hard Rock 

One trend perfectly timed with the sagging economy is that of the discount design chain, which has swept into Southern California with the opening of two new ventures: Andaz is Hyatt’s first design hotel, and Starwood’s Aloft designed to deliver W-level accommodations at Holiday Inn prices. “One major trend in the last few years has been the recognition that the everyday traveler also appreciates a high level of design,” said Rockwell. (Aloft’s first California location is in Rancho Cucamonga). “We transformed this type of otherwise nondescript hotel into a chic oasis by using materials and amenities that are state-of-the-art, but simple and affordable.” The 257-room Andaz was designed by New York–based Janson Goldstein to give personality to the former “Riot House” Hyatt on the Sunset Strip in LA, with a variety of colorful appointments from local retailers that add high-end flavor to simple, modern rooms. (Of note to music fans: The hotel’s famous balconies, once launching pads for televisions and other after-party detritus during the hard rocking years, have been replaced with glassed-in sunrooms.)

According to trend-tracking site, 2009 national occupancy is only predicted to dip slightly, down 3.9 percent, but that’s where the discount design trend might win over guests: In a December 2008 survey of business travelers by Orbitz for Business and Business Traveler, only half of the respondents expected to travel less in 2009, but 79 percent of travelers said they have been pressured to cut costs. For those hitting the road, there still might be a few new places to write home about.

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Protest: Sam Hall Kaplan
Courtesy Palazzo Westwood Village

After two decades of contentious community debate and fierce parochial politics, a major mixed-use development, Palazzo, has opened its doors in Westwood Village. Let the debates continue, for if nothing else, the project points to a disturbing drift in the design world, where heralded mixed-use projects do not necessarily translate into accessible urbanity as promised, but rather into economically isolating banality—at least in this less than inspiring instance.

Woe to Westwood, now promoting as its new heart the Palazzo’s 350 luxury apartments, an array of gilt-edge amenities, a cavernous 1,252-space garage, and 50,000 square feet of mostly high-end retail and restaurants. Shoe-horned onto the four-plus acre site and shrouded in a nauseating canary yellow, the heavily hyped development has all the charm of an extended-stay mid-city hotel residence. It is more citadel than community.

A Casden Properties conceit, it was designed with an experienced if predictable hand by the venerable firm of Van Tilburg Banvard & Soderburgh in the all-too-familiar Spanish colonial style that has carpeted swaths of sprawling Southern California over the last quarter century.

To be sure, the apartments seem to work, deftly maximizing light and air in limited interiors in no fewer than 17 different floor plans. The now-standard gourmet kitchens replete with granite countertops and spacious closets are attractive. But the attempt to clad the exterior in an Andalusian mode of bygone Westwood is more boorish than Moorish. The detailing that distinguishes the style is just not there, no doubt a budget consideration by the infamously cost-conscious CEO Alan Casden, with whom Van Tilburg has worked before.

The project’s aggressive sales pitch may play off of the cultural attractions and conveniences of the adjacent UCLA megacosm, but with rents in the $4 per square foot per month range—one bedrooms are listed starting at $2,940, two bedrooms at $3,875—the Palazzo is more in tune with NYU and New York real estate prices than LA’s. And let us not forget the rock climbing wall and concierge service. We are talking here of “a secluded five-star resort with the advantages of stepping out your door into a vibrant and dynamic cityscape,” in the words of Casden that hint at [Grove developer Rick] Caruso envy.

How “dynamic” that cityscape will be is questionable. Clearly, neither Palazzo’s residences and retail nor its streetscaping are designed to serve the penny-pinching, poor-tipping college crowd that in the past so animated Westwood and made it particularly attractive to that forever-18 crowd. Especially fun were the weekend nights when the village’s array of first-run landmark movie theaters existed. For a while, it was LA’s premier pedestrian scene.

But that scene has long languished, following several nasty incidents over the past few decades that prompted a security-concerned UCLA to try to keep its students on campus by providing more on-site housing and diversions. Meanwhile, the obtrusive wannabe Bruin teenagers from the Valley who used to hang out in the village flocked to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and elsewhere to act out.

Casden was quite direct in his remarks at the opening, declaring that the hope of the Palazzo is that it will attract deep-pocketed residents and visitors to the faded village, and spur its revitalization and property values, even in these tough times. Echoing this hope for a new community in Westwood of “new people and new top-tier retailers” was Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, ever alert to both old and new campaign contributors.

Conversely, that heralded revitalization was the paramount fear of those objecting to the project during its protracted planning stage, as they quixotically clung to a nostalgic vision of the area’s past as a comfortable college town catering to both students and the surrounding community of postgraduates and professionals. In addition, the feeling was that Westwood did not need to become a regional attraction to pump up its real estate, and in fact was potentially more valuable as a modest yet distinctive development.

Westwood Village was indeed once a village, designed in a fanciful Spanish style and in a suburban spirit to serve a burgeoning Los Angeles in the Roaring '20s. Planned by one of the more acclaimed land use designers of the time, Harland Bartholomew, the village was the focal point of a high-end housing tract developed by the Janss Corporation, adjacent to a new campus for UCLA that had outgrown its downtown location. Nevertheless, the hyped development dollars and anticipated local taxes that an ambitious high-end mixed-use project would divert from the adjacent wealthy municipal enclaves of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica was too much for the city of Los Angeles to ignore, even if it meant enduring some raucous public hearings and nasty press and turning its backs on UCLA’s fast-food and fast-forward crowd.

The politically-connected Casden persevered, cheered on by local real estate interests and city economists, who see the village’s future and their profits pinned to high-end development. And if the mixed-use Palazzo doesn’t quite work as hoped, and Westwood slips further into somnolence, perhaps a streetcar going up and down Glendon Avenue would help, just like at the Grove and the Americana. They are all beginning to look the same, anyway.

Measure for Measure

On Election Day across the country, citizens registered their votes for major changes in the White House and Congress. But change will also soon come to California’s built environment, as several major initiatives facing California transit, infrastructure, and development were approved or denied. 

On the statewide ballot, Proposition 1A passed with 52.3 percent approval, meaning a high-speed train linking San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento—and most major cities in between—could be ferrying passengers at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour by 2030. While a whopping $9.95 billion in state bonds was allocated by the proposition, development cannot continue until matching funds are secured from federal, local, and private sources. A business plan for the program was released on November 7, equating it in scale to the State Water Project, the world’s largest public water and power system, funded by a 1960 bond measure. California High Speed Rail Authority chairman Quentin Kopp called the proposition’s approval a “21st-century golden spike." 

Once funding is secured, the Authority will focus first on the LA-to-San Francisco “backbone” segment. Environmental impact reports have been completed for the route and alignments chosen, with the exception of the Northern Mountain Crossing connection between San Jose or Oakland and the Central Valley.

In Los Angeles County, another major transit proposal, Measure R, reported 67.93 percent voter approval when a 2/3 majority was needed. The 30-year, half-cent sales tax increase will fund improvements and expansions for light rail and subway lines, HOV lanes, freeways, and traffic reduction. According to Metro spokesman Rick Jager, the tax will go into effect next July, and citizens could start to see evidence immediately, since a portion of the funds will go directly to LA-area city governments. “The local return is an important element because these 88 cities will start getting their 15 percent share from the tax that’s generated,” he said, noting that many cities had plans for street resurfacing, pothole repairs, improving left-hand signals, pedestrian improvements, and bikeways. It also postpones a planned Metro fare increase to 2010.

The rest of the funds generated by Measure R will be available in 2010, when the major projects up for funding will be an extension of the Gold Line that goes to Azusa (the first six-mile extension of the Gold Line, begun in 2004, is on budget and on schedule to open in the summer of 2009), the Green Line extension to LAX, and the second phase of the light rail Expo Line stretching from downtown LA to Santa Monica. The first segment of the Expo Line’s route from downtown to Culver City is scheduled to open in 2010, and with this burst of funding, it could reach Santa Monica as early as 2013. Later, funding will become available for the Purple Line or “Subway to the Sea” extension in 2013.

In Santa Monica, the hotly-contested Proposition T, which would have limited development in the city to under 75,000 square feet annually, was defeated 55.92 percent to 44.08 percent. This was a relief to many architects and developers who had fought hard against the measure, including Gwynne Pugh of Pugh + Scarpa, who, in his role on Santa Monica’s planning commission, will address Proposition T’s concerns in the city’s new Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), which is currently in environmental impact reviews. “The LUCE has addressed this issue by stating that there will be a goal of ‘no new net trips,’” he said. “Unlike previous plans, this will be monitored, and development phased as resources are developed such as the Expo Line.”

After Beverly Hills’ city council approved a 12-story, 170-room Waldorf-Astoria hotel and two condo buildings on the site of the Beverly Hilton in May, opposed residents gathered enough signatures to put the decision on the ballot as Measure H. After results were too close to call for several weeks, on December 2 the city certified that Measure H had been approved by 129 votes, meaning that an architectural design review and tract map will move forward as planned.

In San Francisco, Proposition B, which would have required the city to set aside 2.5 cents for every $100 of assessed value over the next 15 years for affordable housing, failed 47.4 percent to 52.6 percent. This was disheartening to housing advocates and the city’s Board of Supervisors, who strongly urged its approval to prevent what they called an “affordable housing crisis” due to budgetary concerns. Proposition B would have allocated $30 million to help house those making less than $18,000. According to housing advocate Calvin Welch, the budget currently only reserves $3 million for affordable housing. Mayor Gavin Newsom was one of the strongest opponents of Prop B, arguing that it was unnecessary.

And while its outcome did not directly impact architects, another Measure R, this one also in San Francisco, was certainly a topic of conversation for anyone working in infrastructure: This ballot initiative that would have renamed a Bay Area sewage plant in honor of President George W. Bush was soundly defeated.

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Rough Waters
Locals fear the aging marina, once a
courtesy Marina Del Rey CVB

With proposed development in Marina Del Rey that could add more than 3,700 residential units and 630 new hotel rooms, the County of Los Angeles has officially begun a process to determine whether it would adopt recent California Coastal Commission recommendations to limit and examine development and bring the marina’s Local Coastal Plan (LCP) into compliance with the California Coastal Act.

On October 29, the county held a meeting to gather public input about the Coastal Commission’s 67 recommendations—made on October 16—concerning density and urban planning. These included changing land use designations of parks or parking lots; a comprehensive study of anticipated future development; and incentives for free or lower-cost public uses on waterfront parcels. While the county is not required to follow the recommendations, it must provide the commission with a report specifying its reasons for not following them.

As the aging marina—once a bastion of stewardesses when air travel was the sleek new way to travel—has been slated for updates and new development, the county has faced increasingly contentious opposition to its handling of the roughly 950-acre marina, initially financed through a publicly-funded bond measure.

Underlying community objections is the fact that the county both owns the marina’s property and controls all planning in the area. Officials negotiate terms of leases with developers in closed-door sessions, leaving the public and urban planners with little capability to adjust those terms once they reach the design process. The Coastal Commission has therefore been viewed as a non-partisan decision-maker.

“The county is the landlord on every property, and development partner on every property,” noted Steve Freedman, a Venice resident who lives just feet from the marina’s property line. “I think there’s a term for that—conflict of interest.”

Freedman’s assertion is disputed by David Sommers, a spokesperson for County Supervisor Don Knappe, whose 4th district includes the marina. Sommers said the dual role, which dates back approximately 50 years, was “not a conflict,” and all decisions made by the Board of Supervisors are reviewed by several other entities.

But in October, the Board of Supervisors shifted some responsibilities, as well as the meetings of the local review board known as the Design Control Board (DCB), to the county’s regional planning commission downtown. A person familiar with the decision who agreed to speak with AN on condition of anonymity believed the move was partially to limit decisions that ran against developer interests, as in the case of the Woodfin Hotel. initially slated to be situated on protected wetlands. Though the project is now moving forward, the Design Control Board delayed its approval, requiring that its site plan be changed.

In an e-mail to AN, Susan Cloke, the Design Control Board’s chair said, “The recent action, removing site plan and conceptual review from the board’s authority, diminishes our ability to help the marina become all that it could be.” Cloke cited recreational activities like boating, walking, and cycling, essential to producing income for the area, that had been sidelined in favor of residential and commercial development.

“The magnificent thing about the marina is that it was designed as a resort for daily life,” observed John Chase, co-author of the book Everyday Urbanism. “But because the marina is county territory… there is little local control and accountability for the nature and quality of development there.”

According to Gina M. Natoli, supervising regional planner with the County of Los Angeles, the county will address the commission’s recommendation for a comprehensive study of development and the DCB will continue to exercise design review authority after the county has approved site plans. Among those on the DCB are planners like Simon Pastucha, whom Gail Goldberg appointed to the Urban Design Studio to set a design criteria system for walkable streets in the City of Los Angeles.

Additionally, the county’s Department of Beaches and Harbors is planning a study on the cumulative effect of all redevelopment projects that are in the proprietary or regulatory processes, according to Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director. The review will study the impacts of such large projects as the 19-story, 424-room and time-share unit Woodfin, large residential projects like a 544-unit apartment complex, and large-scale restaurants, retail, and mixed use.

The county’s October 29 public meeting also kicked off a series of working groups organized to review the Coastal Commission recommendations and report their input to the county’s Board of Supervisors. Natoli anticipates the county will complete its response to the Coastal Commission’s recommendations by October 2009.

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LA Live! (ugh)
LA Times critic Christopher Hawthorne yesterday summed up the problems with L.A. Live!, the behemoth development in Downtown LA's South Park district, whose second phase is now opening. Hawthorne decries its "placelessness," its buildings that "have almost nothing to say to or about downtown Los Angeles," and worst of all, its inability to help the rest of the area. "When we trap the energy of an urban crowd inside this sort of self-contained world," he writes, "and when we allow developers and their architects to heighten the differences between that world and the streets around it so dramatically, we help keep the rest of our blocks underused and, as pieces of the city, undernourished." Amen brother. While the development, with its mix of residences, hotels and entertainment venues, should certainly bring activity and money downtown in tough times, it is still a wasted opportunity.
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Port Promenade
The promenade will borrow design cues from San Pedro's maritime industrial history.
Courtesy EDAW

A surreal area long dominated by towering steel shipping facilities may be about to get a friendlier, more community-oriented focus. The Los Angeles Harbor Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in October released the Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for their San Pedro Waterfront plan. The 400-acre project is set to replace the Port of Los Angeles' now-relocated industrial ports and docklands along the west side of Los Angeles Harbor's Main Channel with a new promenade, bike paths, park spaces, commercial spaces, and cruise ship facilities.

Following a public review phase that ends on December 8, the plan would take about five to seven years to complete. Groundbreaking is set for summer 2010. LA-based Tetra Design is coordinating the project. EDAW's LA and San Francisco offices are developing the master plan, landscaping, and urban design. And Oakland-based Hood Design and Pasadena-based Cityworks are assisting with landscape and urban design. Costs are still being estimated, but the port is setting aside $60 million for the project. The port said the scheme would help revitalize San Pedro in addition to providing much-needed recreation opportunities. According to estimates provided by the port, the plan would provide over 1,000 new jobs, about $38 million in new wages, and about $30.8 million in passenger spending.

The plan's waterfront promenade would include an 8-mile-long, 30-foot-wide pedestrian path stretching from the Cabrillo Bath House at the south end to the Vincent Thomas Bridge to the north. The plan also proposes two new harbors—the 75,000-square-foot Downtown Harbor, and the slightly smaller 7th Street Harbor—to accommodate visiting cruise ships and other vessels. Among the plan's several (and interconnected) new public parks would be the Town Square, at the foot of San Pedro's Sixth Street; the 7th Street Landing, adjacent to the new 7th Street Harbor; and an 18-acre central park that would include an amphitheater seating up to 3,000 people. The area's existing ports of call would be enhanced with 375,000 square feet of complementary development including commercial, retail, and restaurant uses. Finally, the plan calls for two new two-story, 200,000-square-foot cruise ship terminals along the area's outer harbor.

While architectural choices have yet to be made (schematic design begins in January), EDAW says the plan will focus all uses on the water, with a continuous waterfront and various districts within this stretch merging the public realm with the area's already-existing waterfront activities. Part of that, pointed out Sacha Schwarzkopf, senior urban designer for EDAW, is drawing on the existing drama that the channel presents.

"One of the things that San Pedro has to offer is that you can have ships at the curb," he said. "Cruise ships. Tall ships. Industrial ships. Having that sense of awe looking at them is a very unique experience." According to the EIR, plans would also draw for inspiration on the city's "maritime industrial history" as well as on the unique character of San Pedro.

To help people get to all of these new facilities, the plan will include a series of transportation improvements, including the expansion of existing roadways; intersection, landscape, and parking improvements; extension of the Waterfront Red Car Line (which will run parallel to the promenade); and water taxi berthing facilities. And to protect the environment the plan pledges to use recycled water for landscaping; drought-tolerant plants; LEED certification for all buildings over 7,500 square feet; solar power; and pedestrian and bike connections throughout.

Yet to some in the area, these efforts are not enough. Local web site Curbed LA described the plan as a "Disneyesque happy land of shops, tourists, and cruise ships," and pointed to comments by June Burlingame Smith, who heads up a port advisory panel overseeing the waterfront planning. "The current plan is a 'drive-by' plan," she said. "Drive by the waterfront; drive by downtown San Pedro; drive by the museums, monuments, restaurants and shops, to get to a cruise ship where dreams of happiness will be found in faraway foreign playgrounds."

Schwarzkopf disagreed: "We're not trying to make this themed. There wants to be a nice waterfront layer to it, but it has to feel real. San Pedro is about muscle and it's about working ports that are right at your doorstep. It's about honest, genuine development."

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House of the Issue: Belzberg Architects
Clockwise from top: Inside the entrance wedge; dynamic geometries in a hallway; the house entrance.
Benny Chan

One of the biggest challenges for architect Hagy Belzberg in creating his Skyline residence in Laurel Canyon was getting permission to build. It took him two years and several public meetings to convince officials at the Mulholland Scenic Corridor to allow him to site his home on a thin ridgeline with panoramic views that include Downtown Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and even the Pacific Ocean. But it was worth the effort.

After securing the site, Belzberg was able to create a budget and eco-conscious home for his family of four that maximized the location’s breathtaking views and comfortable breezes from the west while minimizing sun glare. The keys to both limiting and profiting from the elements are two structures to the south: a large, folded concrete armature and a screen made of long, thin, pressure-treated wood panels (which allows air to penetrate the house) in front of a translucent fiberglass screen. Hence the dramatic living room, which has floor-to-ceiling fritted glass on three sides and looks down on the rocky canyons below. The room receives no direct sunlight, nor does the wide open kitchen and adjoining entertainment room, from where a long row of windows looks over the landscape abutting the house, containing a thin pool edged up against a sheer drop. Three bedrooms provide uninterrupted views and direct access to the pool area. Spaces that don’t “require” views, like bathrooms and closets, are located along a long core in the house’s center.

The simple home—both the main house and the guest house are enclosed by a single folded surface with infill glazing—was built by younger associates at Belzberg’s firm, serving as a valuable training tool. The crew, who stabilized the house by digging 22-foot piles, was able to create a house that is naturally green while using inexpensive, low-tech materials like storefront windows and off-the-shelf parts that kept costs to a minimum.

All images: Benny Chan

THE SOUTH FACADE WITH BAFFLING SCREEN (TOP); The guesthouse is positioned west of the main house (middle); and the house's cinematic courtyard (ABOVE).
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No Building Left Behind
Michael Maltzan Architecture's Inner-City Arts.
Iwan Baan

Inner-City Arts
Los Angeles, California
Michael Maltzan Architecture

Inner-City Arts was founded in 1994 to supplement arts and cultural education for downtown Los Angeles students at schools where such programming had been cut. The final phase of its new campus opened on October 2 with a parade of pinwheel-waving kids led by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Located on a one-acre site in the heart of Skid Row, one of the city’s most economically depressed neighborhoods, Inner-City Arts represents a 15-year collaboration between Michael Maltzan Architecture, landscape designers at Nancy Goslee Power and Associates, and environmental designers at Ph.D, who each donated their time over 15 years to the continuously-evolving project.

Iwan Baan

The first phase, completed in conjunction with Marmol Radziner + Associates in 1994, included an adaptive reuse of a 10,000-square-foot abandoned auto body shop. The most recent additions—which include the Rosenthal Theater, a state-of-the-art black-box performance space, a ceramics studio, and a DreamWorks-sponsored animation studio—are raw spaces that employ inexpensive materials like stucco, wood, and concrete, and are painted defiantly and completely white with abstract orange lettering by Ph.D. The angular, low-lying buildings are arranged into a unique indoor-outdoor layout that “cracks open,” according to Michael Maltzan, along the perimeter. Students catch glimpses into the outlying neighborhood, and locals can see in, said Maltzan, so “it doesn’t feel like an isolated incident in the middle of Skid Row.”

The indigenous gardens within the courtyard include elements like a tiled fountain, a dry creek bed planted like a local arroyo, a teaching garden, and a labyrinth, all inspired by drawings the students made when asked to sketch their visions of the new school. The completed design of Inner-City Arts creates a place for serious art making, said Maltzan, but is also an example of how an optimistic environment can impact a depressed area. “We’ve tried to make an entire campus which can be seen as a microcosm for a transformative experience,” he said.

Alissa Walker


AF Payne Photographic 

Bioscience School
Phoenix, Arizona
Orcutt/Winslow Partnership 

Under the design leadership of local firm Orcutt/Winslow Partnership, with input from science specialists and the local community, the Phoenix Union High School District recently opened their new comprehensive Bioscience High School in the heart of downtown Phoenix. Orcutt/Winslow’s design is strategically located within the Biomedical Research Campus, including the Translational Genomic Institute, where students participate in internships. The school’s pedagogical and physical organization models itself after these research laboratories, encouraging collaboration, team teaching, independent learning, and a “rigorous and relevant” science and math focused curriculum. It also integrates a historic one-room school house that now serves as the school’s administration center.

AF Payne Photographic

Seven laboratories (six indoors and one on the roof deck) are the focal point of the campus, and around these are clustered the student “studios” (not unlike architecture studios), teacher work areas, and, at the extremities on two levels, naturally illuminated, flexible-dimension classrooms. A multi-level space called Town Hall is the heart of the school—serving as the locus for presentations, the cafeteria, and a link to the desert courtyard.

In support of scientific understanding, the open-web structure and mechanical systems are laid bare to the eye. Desert-specific environmental strategies include solar heated water, east and west facing tilt-up concrete “fossil” walls, and provisions for a photovoltaic array.

Beth Weinstein


Gary Wilson Photo/Graphic 

Rosa Parks Elementary School
Portland, Oregon
Dull Olson Weekes Architects 

Since it opened in 2006, Rosa Parks Elementary in Portland has been a community magnet. Part of the broader New Columbia neighborhood, a large and formerly run-down affordable housing enclave that has become the largest redevelopment project in Oregon history, the 66,863-square-foot, LEED Gold–rated K–6 school is also host to a Boys & Girls Club that opens when classes end and is available to other organizations in the evenings.

The school, designed by Portland’s Dull Olson Weekes Architects (DOWA), is oriented around a series of existing legacy trees. As a result, said DOWA’s lead designer Karina Ruiz, “It doesn’t take the shape of a traditional double loaded corridor building.”

The classroom wing is divided into what are called “neighborhoods,” two per floor, with five classrooms, a resource room, and a shared common area. The glass-enclosed west side of the building also opens out onto the trees with a small park-like green space and a bioswale. The configuration allows classrooms to receive natural light on both sides.

The school’s sustainable features include a stormwater management system that keeps all water on site, an array of photovoltaic solar panels, displacement ventilation, and extensive daylighting. Designed to be 25 percent more energy efficient than code and in actuality performing 30 to 35 percent better, Rosa Parks is the most efficient building in the Portland Public Schools system. “It’s not just to save energy, but to connect students to their world,” Ruiz said.

Brian Libby

Tim Griffith

Trinity School
Menlo Park, California
Mark Cavagnero Associates 

Mark Cavagnero Associates designed a 1,200-square-foot expansion for one of the K–5 school’s existing 1960s Bay style buildings, as well as a new 4,800-square-foot Enrichment Center containing classrooms for music, science, and the arts.

The project, pointed out Cavagnero, creates a much-needed connection between the school and its lush new yard and play areas, which are separated by a steep slope. A dramatic, canopied stair between the existing and new buildings has become the center of campus life. Large landings on either side of the stair as well as weaving terraces serve as perfect places to rest or eat lunch, and also function as places to sit for assemblies.

Tim Griffith

The glazed, rectilinear addition to the existing building—which provides a much-needed extra classroom—edges into the hill and abuts the left side of the stair. Meanwhile the new building, clad in stained cedar with copious glazing, welcomes plenty of light and cross breezes thanks to its narrow floorplate and its orientation perpendicular to prevailing ocean breezes. Building this structure against the hill, said Cavagnero, was meant to make it feel as if it were “floating out from the hill and reaching out to trees.” None of the new construction uses air conditioning, and heating is by means of an underfloor system.

Sam Lubell

David Wakely 

The Nueva School Hillside Learning Complex
Hillsborough, California
Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects

With this 27,000-square-foot addition to an independent pre-K–8 school, Leddy Maytum Stacy has created a multifaceted environment that encourages learning and curiosity. Guided by the school’s mission to instill “a passion for lifelong learning” and a commitment to the environment, the design takes every opportunity to engage students with the world around them.

“Our goal was to create a great educational environment,” said William Leddy, design principal. “Sustainability was a crucial element, but to succeed, we needed a more layered design response that considered the role that day-to-day experience plays in education.”

David Wakely

The new complex expresses a strong connection to the 33-acre campus landscape and community. The three program elements—classrooms, library, and student center—occupy separate buildings, arranged around a plaza to form a hub of student life that stitches the 40-year-old campus together. The open, single-loaded buildings benefit from natural light, and living roofs totaling 10,000 square feet provide new habitats for native species, including an endangered butterfly. “X-ray” windows expose the building systems within, and a man-made “arroyo” activates the plaza during rainstorms. Finally, the LEED Gold complex teaches by example, using 65 percent less energy and 50 percent less water than a typical new school in the U.S., and generating 21 percent of its electricity needs through a 30kw photovoltaic array. Resource-efficient materials, 36 percent sourced locally, include non-native cypress trees removed from the site and milled for the building’s benches, screens, and decks.

Yosh Asato

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Protest: HOV and Bothered
A map of METRO's proposed road and rail extensions, pending the passage of Measure R.
Courtesy LA METRO

One of the handful of state and local initiatives on the ballot this November, Measure R, sponsored by Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), looks to provide $40 billion over 30 years to fund both future and ongoing transportation projects within the county. Before I get into the ineptitude of Metro’s long range planning and their lack of a system-wide approach to providing transportation to the region, let me say first that any vote for public mass transportation is a good investment. Therefore, I support Measure R on the November 2008 ballot. However, Metro is pondering other funding sources that I oppose, several projects that should not be funded, and several other projects that need some serious guidance.

It has been said that if you build it they will come. If Metro successfully builds its planned expansion of the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on every freeway in Los Angeles County as stated in their 2008 Draft Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP), released this summer, then we will certainly have more cars and congestion to deal with (20 percent of funding from Measure R will go to HOV lane expansion and other highway improvements). The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a six-county Metropolitan Planning Organization that includes Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial counties, expects over six million more people in the region by 2035. With every major freeway built to its right-of-way, and virtually no support to bulldoze entire neighborhoods to build more freeways, it seems like southern California has reached its limit on freeway expansions. So Metro has decided to make our highways more efficient with a seamless HOV lane system. God help us if every freeway becomes a double decker I-110 knock off where instead of the current impermeable trench dividing our community we have large impermeable walls of loud, polluting automobiles. While we should be encouraging people who do not have any options other than the automobile to carpool, why does Metro not seek to get at the heart of the problem and build more transit to more places, making the entire transportation system more efficient, instead of just our freeways? And why can they not see that creating more efficient freeways increases the capacity for more cars on the road, creating more congestion and a continued land use nightmare of single-family home subdivisions gobbling up dwindling farmland and desert at our urban periphery?

Now Metro tells us that we should seek more funding to expand transit by generating new sources of revenue on top of their latest ballot initiative. Their answer is to take some of these existing HOV lanes and transform them into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. Again, why would we now tax those who are doing what we want them to do, carpool, and then allow other single occupancy vehicles to pay to enter these specialty lanes? Metro transit engineers and policymakers claim that an HOT lane is more efficient then any free HOV lane because you can essentially price out much of the traffic during peak times, allowing a free flowing HOT lane. This congestion pricing scheme would make total sense if there was not already an existing HOV lane, plus thousands of carpoolers who already use these lanes, reducing the congestion on our freeways. The fact that these HOV lanes are becoming more and more congested is a positive sign that we are changing people’s habits, and more HOV lanes should be built to accommodate this shift. Instead of the HOT lane, why not create a countywide congestion pricing zone, and charge everyone who drives into the county except for those who use our HOV lanes? This would surely make more money than any other congestion pricing scheme for Metro, and it would deter the number one culprit of our congestion problem, the single occupancy vehicle. And similar to the HOT lane strategy, all funds from this toll would then go into building alternatives, i.e., more mass transit.

This brings me to my second point. Metro is currently studying a Regional Connector transit line that they claim is needed to join the 7th and Metro transit station, which is the terminus of the Metro Blue Line light rail, to Union Station, connecting all three transit lines (Metro Blue light rail, Gold light rail, and eventually the Expo Line light rail to Culver City) in downtown Los Angeles. Well it just so happens we do have a train that links the 7th and Metro station to Union Station and the Gold Line. It is called the Metro Red Line subway. So, why are they spending millions of taxpayer dollars to study a route that would duplicate existing infrastructure, add only two or three more stations, and not even extend to Union Station but to the Gold Line station on 1st and Alameda Streets (currently under construction as part of the Gold Line eastside extension project)?

Why not take that $650–$800 million and use it for more worthy and pressing projects? City Council member Jose Huizar is having trouble funding his streetcar down Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. With an estimated cost of around $90 million, why not build the Broadway street car line plus eight or nine other street car lines in downtown? This would be a much more logical use of the allocated funds to the poorly conceived regional connector. I can think of several other streets of equal length that could use a rebirth of the streetcar in addition to the proposed Broadway line: 1st Street, 4th Street, 7th Street, Olympic/9th Street, Grand Avenue, Main Street, and Alameda Street, with one or two more lines to spare. Or what about using the money for Metro’s proposed Purple Line extension? The Purple Line subway currently runs west from Union Station heading along Wilshire Boulevard to Western Avenue. An extension west along Wilshire would be the primary east-west arterial through the county, and Wilshire would have all the appropriate density and infrastructure to support a subway. It would connect an extensive part of the Westside to downtown, and it would immediately pull thousands of people out of their cars everyday. An extension that should be all subway, all the way to Santa Monica along Wilshire.

I know I have posed a lot of questions for Metro, but they have given me—and the general public—even fewer answers.

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The New Green Zone
Courtesy CRA

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA/LA) have big, green-tinted development dreams for a 20-acre property bordering the Los Angeles River. On September 23, the city announced the formation of a clean technology manufacturing center in downtown LA, and began seeking “green” firms to populate the CRA/LA-owned site.

According to Alex Paxton, the agency’s manager of policy analysis, the city hopes to tap into a rapidly growing economic sector to drive new job creation, revitalize a former polluted brownfield site, and help inspire other such green tech zones across Los Angeles.

“This is where everyone sees how the U.S. can revitalize its manufacturing economy,” Paxton told AN.

Among the businesses being courted are firms engaged in creating products in clean energy generation, sustainable building materials and furnishings, clean water technology, reduced emissions vehicle technology, manufactured products using recycled or organic materials, and similar clean tech initiatives. According to Paxton, the agency envisions a campus-type environment with a large anchor tenant, a cluster of firms that would manufacture related products, and a clean tech incubator. The project is intended to create not just an industrial zone, said Paxton, but a place where ideas can be shared.

The CRA’s Request For Interest (RFI), due by December 1, explicitly favors larger companies that require between 40,000 and 400,000 square feet, and will participate as owner/users in build-to-suit development or as tenants in developer-owned buildings. The CRA, which will retain ownership of the property, intends to issue RFPs in early 2009, with occupancy expected as early as 2011.

Qualifying companies will receive ample financial and development assistance, such as infrastructure grants, low interest CRA/LA loans, and permit expediting, in addition to access to city, state, and federal financial incentives. Tenants will also need to brush up on their green building guidelines: At minimum, all development must target a LEED Silver rating.

The project was originated by agency CEO Cecilia Estolano, who was exploring the highest and best use in terms of job creation for the 20-acre site, which lies downtown between 12th Street and Washington Blvd., and between Santa Fe Avenue and the Los Angeles River.

But the center promises to do much more. Given Los Angeles’ and California’s mandates for sustainability, Paxton said the CRA/LA sees Los Angeles as not only providing middle-class employees for the project but, also, a steady stream of customers in need of sustainable components and elements. For example, the city itself has a goal of generating 20 percent of its power from renewable resources by 2010 and 35 percent by 2020. The Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest container port, also has ambitious goals to decrease carbon-dioxide emissions.

The CRA said that construction and operation of the center would mesh with the goals of the LA River Revitalization Master Plan, which largely preserves industrial zoning along the river. But that has led some observers to wonder whether there might be even greener uses for the site. “The CRA’s goals and our goals can work together,” said Lewis MacAdam, founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, a group that has worked since 1986 to bring back natural river habitat in Los Angeles, “but I have not seen anything yet about how this project works with the river.”