The Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Hawthorne and Occidental College are wrapping up the Third Los Angeles Project, a series of topical conversations “examining a city moving into a dramatically new phase in its civic development,” including long-overdue updates to public transit, the public realm, cultural facilities, and housing.
These domains haven’t been completely ignored in Los Angeles, and it’s impossible to accurately break down a city’s progression into easily digestible eras. But Hawthorne is right that the city is transforming, radically renewing its emphasis on design and the public sphere. The question arises, then: Where do we go from here? How do we take this knowledge, and these debates, and use them to help implement a coherent, coordinated, efficient, and effective plan for this new phase for the city? For all the well-intentioned concepts that have been discussed over the years, implementation is where we continually slip in LA.
Los Angeles is not a city that lends itself well to unified thinking and execution. Its huge size compromises ideas, which are difficult to apply to an astonishing diversity of neighborhoods and regions, not to mention the more than 70 independent cities that make up its surrounding county. Another issue is LA’s balkanized political structure, in which individual city council people, mysterious supervisors, and scattered departments have more power than the mayor or any other centralized authority.
In planning, the city is making progress as it moves to add transit, improve its streets and street life, install parks, and focus denser development around transit and commercial zones. But it still has a long way to go. It needs a push. For one, its long-outdated zoning code, first passed in 1946 and subsequently added to in a piecemeal fashion, desperately needs updating. City planning is undertaking the first comprehensive revision of that code, called re:code LA, but the effort, years in the making, won’t be done until 2017 at the earliest. The city’s community plans, which will finally help guide land use in its widely varied neighborhoods, have been in the works for years (they are part of the city’s general plan, which began in the 1990s), but thus far not one has been passed. The closest—Hollywood’s—has been held up in lawsuits, and its status is still questionable.
For architecture and design, the city badly needs direction to guide it into a new era. Many have called for a “design czar,” overseeing design in all of the city’s departments. Perhaps a more realistic step, at least for now, is a regular meeting of all departments—planning, engineering, water, and power, etc.—to get on the same page and reconfirm (and demand) their design commitments. In the private realm, developers need a way to take design risks without sacrificing their bottom line and getting mired in bureaucracy. They need more incentives to follow City Planning’s Urban Design Principles, which are common sense guidelines to improve architectural quality (without dictating style) and enhance connections between buildings and the spaces around them. Finally the procurement process needs to be reformed, streamlining RFPs, encouraging competitions, and opening up on-call lists to include more talented firms, regardless of their ability to check off the usual boxes.
Until a unified plan for enacting the ideas discussed in the Third Los Angeles series emerges, it will continue to be an interesting discussion hub, following the development of the city in its many iterations. But it has the potential to become much more than that. Coupled with strategic and practical implementation, it could lead the way for such development, setting the stage for a renewed LA.