It’s been more than four years since popular West Hollywood Urban Designer John Chase passed away. His successor, Stephanie Reich, has been actively promoting an agenda stressing design and practicality, working with her staff and city leaders to cope with the demands of a rapidly densifying city. She’s also known as a tough cookie, sending anything less than the best back to the drawing board. AN West editor Sam Lubell sat down with Reich to discuss her agenda, the city’s tradition of collaborative design, and what’s coming next.
Sam Lubell: Tell us about how your role in West Hollywood, and about taking the torch from John.
Stephanie Reich: I am very proud and very honored to have my dear friend John Chase’s job. We were very close friends, and we had a really strong connection. The city waited two years before advertising his position. We were all pretty traumatized by his sudden death. I’ve been here for over two years. Our styles are very different, and this is a very different time in West Hollywood.
We actually seem to be in the middle of quite a boom. As the city gets denser there’s even more demand for excellence in design. I feel very fortunate to have talent like Craig Hodgetts, Lorcan O’Herlihy, Patrick Tighe, Rios Clementi Hale, Johnson Favaro, and Christian Robert all designing projects here.
Because John created a great tradition and expectation of design, I think that may be why developers understand that they need to play their best game here. We also have a great deal of support of design from the city council. That public support is essential to the partnerships we make with architects. The structure sets the expectation for good design.
What makes West Hollywood different?
We’re called the creative city, and that’s reflected everywhere. The process for design review is actually quite different. It seems more fully integrated into the process because the planning commissioners review design as part of their design review subcommittee. There’s not a separate architectural review board. The decision makers for the overall entitlements are actually reviewing the design and influencing the design.
We try to give city commissioners coaching and feedback. I do memos for the commissioners with full design analysis of projects. But design review is based not on my opinion of a project, but on sound architectural principles. We try to find out what the applicant teams are striving for and help them strengthen whatever they’re trying to do. Sometimes there’s not a clear architectural idea. We help guide them to a clearer architectural idea that can be informed with other materials, concepts, and so forth.
How do you attract architectural talent?
Developers come to us. I’m an architect, my husband is an architect, and all my friends are architects. I can’t recommend this or that architect. If someone asks for a “recommendation, I send them to the AIA/LA. I have a good relationship with the AIA/LA, having chaired their urban design committee from 2001 to 2010. They will develop a list of award-winning architects for any of our clients who go to them. I’ve asked them to do that and they will do a special list based on the project and client. I think they should do that for everyone.
So you’re an architect?
Yes, I’m a registered architect. I worked for about 20 years as an architect with Morphosis, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Daniel Libeskind, and larger, more corporate firms like DMJM and NBBJ.
How do you support development teams?
The system is designed to support really good, really progressive work in a lot of ways. We’re a very progressive city, and design, affordable housing, etc. are embedded in our general plan and codes. It’s also in the ethos of the city. I have a great title, but I’m just a small part of a system that fosters this kind of innovation.
West Hollywood is known for having an outspoken community. Is that challenging?
Members of the community are not always so comfortable with change. In a community as dense as ours we have serious issues, for instance, with traffic congestion. As we continue to grow I think we have to make sure that the environment and quality of life also continues to grow. Design is a part of that and I think the community recognizes that. We have a very smart, sophisticated, involved community. Also being a small city we have the ability to be very responsive to them.
What are some of your other challenges?
As we continue to get denser, the balance to continue to provide affordable housing is something that is an ongoing challenge for all cities. There’s also a challenge for open space in a city that is so dense, and we’re taking that on at WeHo park. We take our streetscapes very seriously, and you can see that on Santa Monica Boulevard, and in our new streetscape master plan for the design district on Beverly and Melrose and Robertson. I think we’re, in a very progressive way, trying to meet the demand of a very dense city.
Tell me more about the city’s solutions for affordable housing?
We’re very focused on making sure affordable units included are equal and spread throughout each project, not siloed within a project or substandard. We also have a very active community housing corps, the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation. For instance we’ve just completed a beautiful new affordable project by Patrick Tighe and John Mutlow.
Do you have design guidelines for the city?
We’ve developed new zoning code standards in the West Hollywood West Overlay District, with thorough design guidelines. They’re focused on that neighborhood (I don’t know if we’ll continue to develop those for other neighborhoods), but they deal with quintessential issues. As we make projects larger than the neighborhoods around them, how do we make sure they fit in? Even if they’re the largest thing on the block. The design piece is not about style. It’s about scale and proportion, and managing those fundamentals of architecture to make sure it’s responding properly to its neighborhood.
Having that as a tool, especially for that neighborhood, will enable folks to understand the demands so there’s a greater level of predictability. It doesn’t tell you what the answer is. Sketches can be misinterpreted, as this is what we want you to design. We have pictures. It’s very important to give broad guidance to an architect development team to allow them to bring their best designs to the city. If it looks like I designed it, the whole city would become very boring. We’re in an exciting place to be because you see there’s an exciting and diverse population here and that’s what the architecture reflects.
Are you more rigorous in your expectations than other cities?
I hope people feel that way. I think that you can see by the results. We have some excellent projects moving through the process. I think that’s a credit to the development teams that come here, and to the city process and to our commission and elected officials that all support high quality development.