Over the course of its history Los Angeles has abandoned so many of its wildly ambitious dreams only to see them replaced by a.) nothing or b.) something far less innovative. Trust me, I know. This provided exquisite fodder for the exhibition I co-curated, Never Built: Los Angeles, but not for our city.
Once again we’re staring at some thrillingly visionary schemes for the metropolis, devised by some of its most creative people. This wave, if completed, could begin to re-connect the dark fissures—from freeways to concrete channels—that were driven into the heart of the city over the last century.
These include plans to restore the natural habitat of the Los Angeles River, which the Army Corps of Engineers recently endorsed, albeit suggesting the least ambitious option; the barely breathing Grand Avenue Project, which would bring retail and housing into the still-lifeless, although architecturally rich, spine of the city; a new master plan for Union Station, which has for years been marooned behind a wall of multi-lane roads; new plans to turn dozens of thoroughfares into “Great Streets,” containing pedestrian and bike-friendly design; and several freeway cap parks, which are just beginning to move their way through environmental reports and fundraising.
All of these plans are far from becoming reality, and none will be easy to implement. The river plan, for instance, depends on hundreds of millions in federal funds not to mention support from a woefully inept congress. The others, too, will require rich investments and the navigation of myriad agencies and regulations. But they are vitally important to the health of our city. LA, as always, has the potential to become a truly great world metropolis, but thus far that potential has yet to be realized. While New York completely rebuilds its waterfront, Boston buries highways in favor of parks, and San Francisco transforms part of its Central Freeway into bustling Octavia Boulevard, Los Angeles is sitting in limbo, indecisive on which way to move.
Any major game-changing project is not easy. Disney Hall took almost 15 years to realize. The Third Street promenade in Santa Monica took more than a decade. These kinds of projects require more than just money. They require will. It’s this will that Los Angeles often seems to lack. These kinds of projects—as well as precarious architecture schemes like Frank Gehry’s and Rem Koolhaas’ proposed buildings in Santa Monica—need you to provide that will. Get to a rally to demand the most ambitious alternative for the LA River. Tell Related that you won’t settle for a watered down plan by Robert Stern for Grand Avenue. Get your hands dirty at meetings for Union Station. If you don’t show up, the opponents certainly will.
Sure we’ve got other things, from an urban point of view, to worry about besides big projects. Our zoning is still woefully outdated and our bureaucracy still way too slow and impenetrable. But important projects don’t just transform the cityscape, they bring about more widespread change, raising expectations about design and innovation. Besides an unbelievable talent base, we have a city that is not yet fully formed. This is the chance to make Los Angeles what it really can and should be.