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The Los Angeles River Is Pointing To A New Future

Los Angeles Times

Published December 3rd, 2000 by Wade Graham

The Los Angeles River is Pointing To a New Future For The Region. The Soulless Waterway That Made This a Bigger Place Now Could Make It a Better One.

By the time the last steelhead trout was pulled from the Glendale Narrows in 1940, the Los Angeles River was nearing perfection–transformed from an unpredictable, flood-prone wash into a streamlined, super-efficient machine for moving rainwater to the sea as quickly as possible. Visionary and rational. The first modern American river.

The proud fisherman who hooked that last steelhead might have worked for one of the aircraft plants in the area, plants whose chromium wastes were first noticed in the river one year later, in 1941. Soon swimming would be banned. But the re-engineering of the river, begun in 1936 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, marched on. Between the Los Angeles and its twin, the San Gabriel River, joined together at the hip by the Rio Hondo channel in South Gate, the balky, sandy guts of a 1,700-square-mile watershed were replaced with concrete: 100 miles of main stem channel, 370 miles of tributary channel, five major dams, 15 small dams, 129 debris basins and tens of thousands of storm drains, each unit playing its part in an elaborate opera of engineering. At peak capacity, the L.A. River moves 183,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Pacific–the equivalent of 80 million garden hoses, 14 times the flow of New York’s Hudson River.

This plumbing helps keep 10 million people high and dry in what is otherwise a dangerous floodplain encompassing more than half of Los Angeles County, minus the mountains. Getting water out has been as crucial to the creation of the Southern California metropolis as bringing water in. And the synergy has been just as perfect: flood control enabled growth by protecting property values; growth in turn financed flood control with property-tax rolls and bonds approved by fearful homeowners. “Without the presence of the flood-control system,” one former county chief flood-control engineer has said, “80% of the intense development within the county could not have taken place.” If growth has been God in Los Angeles County, the flood-control engineers have been his priestly brotherhood.

That’s why it would seem unlikely casting today for this perfect excuse for a stream to become the vehicle of our communal redemption.


BY MOST DEFINITIONS OF A RIVER, THE LOS ANGELES HAS NEVER MEASURED up. It is occasionally too full, but is almost always too empty, no more than a bleak concrete channel of garbage, graffiti and toxic runoff, its only year-round flow provided by a rivulet of treated sewage. Its barren box channels seem the image of the alienation and racial, ethnic and class divisions that fracture the metropolis, scars across its brittle skin where its navel ought to be.

Actually, engineers have conjured the City of Angels from the unlikely chalice of the L.A. River not once, but twice. When the Spanish came through in 1769, they found “a most beautiful garden” of lush willow thickets rife with roses, grapevines and bears; its cool, shaded pools nurtured big steelhead–now nearly extinct in Southern California. L.A. River water, diverted in gravity-fed irrigation channels, watered first the old pueblo, then California’s first nationally acclaimed wine industry in the area now east and south of downtown.

Though it seems surreal today, L.A. first became known to the rest of America as the “City of Vines,” supplier of bulk wine and brandy. Later, in 1877, the first boxcar of oranges sent east was grown on the river’s banks with diverted river water. Such fecundity guaranteed a flood–of people seeking their mortgaged piece of the new garden paradise. The city doubled its population every four years–too quickly to remember that the river flooded every eight or so years.

During storms the lowly Los Angeles morphs into one of the most dangerous rivers in America, with the potential to put no less than 336 square miles under water. Where the Mississippi falls 605 feet in 2,000 miles, the L.A. drops 795 feet in 51 miles. It and its tributaries have killed more people in the county than have earthquakes. After three days of rain, the New Year’s flood of 1934 killed at least 49 people and destroyed 600 houses. Woody Guthrie made “the wild Los Angeles River” famous nationwide. The ’38 flood killed 87 and flooded 108,000 acres. These floods led to New Deal legislation that put the Corps of Engineers into the flood-control business, with the L.A. River the first and biggest item on its agenda. (It remains the largest Corps project west of the Mississippi.)

So in Los Angeles, the river is a “water freeway,” in the words of one of its creators, complete with on-ramps metered during rush hour (detention dams to catch heavy rainfalls) and fast, smooth straightaways to keep “runoff” from slowing, swerving, or backing up as it glides safely away from parking lots and streets at speeds of up to 45 mph–like commuter traffic on the 405 Freeway, only faster. Diversions from the river, sole source of the city’s water until 1913, stopped entirely in the 1980s because the water was too polluted. Now the new, improved river flows in summer with runoff from lawns, roads and industry, and 90 million gallons a day of tertiary-treated waste water from the Tillman and Glendale sewage plants.

By comparison, it is hard to find a city that has not already put its rivers at the core of building a new identity: Boston, Denver, San Antonio, Washington, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Seattle, to name a few. Many have been greened–restored to ecological balance by taking concrete out and putting biology and riverine processes such as meanders and sandbars back in. Others have been cleaned–“revitalized,” lined with parks and public spaces. In either case, rivers have been put back at the center of civic life they occupied for centuries, until America in the late 19th century turned its back to, and on, its rivers and lakes.

In L.A., the most park-poor major city in the country, parks occupy just 2% of the area. (Not much has changed from the 1930 survey that provided this figure.) The river is about all that is left of “public” open space in the urban core–though concrete, barbed wire and high-tension lines overhead stand in for grass, paths and trees. “It’s the only thing we’ve got that ties us all together, besides the freeways,” says Melanie Winter of Friends of the Los Angeles River, the first of several groups to envision a remade L.A. River at the heart of a regional renaissance. “The lack of contact, lack of urban parks, lack of public transportation all contribute to our twisted world view here. Imagine a 52-mile-long green way and bike path from Long Beach to the Valley.”


THE CHALLENGE IS TO SEE A RIVER WHERE NOW THERE IS ONLY A DRAIN. For Winter and others, you can already see it, if you squint–and if you understand the region’s complex hydrology.

The San Fernando Valley’s immense ground water basin–capable of holding more water than all but two of California’s huge man-made reservoirs, Oroville and Shasta–is injected with water pumped over the mountains from hundreds of miles away–a paradox of import and export pioneered and perfected in Los Angeles. The flood-control paradigm is a little like Oz: Behind a curtain of real technical virtuosity, the illusion is held together mostly by belief. In the end, it has come up short in the face of its own success: Every square meter of concrete poured in the river has created yet more vast expanses of pavement, preventing more rainwater from percolating into the ground, sending still more water into the river and increasing the flood threat. Before flood control, 215,000 acres in L.A. County were subject to inundation. By 1940, 325,000 were at risk–50% more area. In the west San Fernando Valley, seven miles of river appeared where none had been before–courtesy of development’s paving over the soil.

Carl Blum, who recently retired as deputy director of the L.A. County Department of Public Works, has conceded: “The river was designed in the ’30s. The design assumptions were made way back when they thought there would be a lot more agriculture, orange groves still out there. And they are not out there.” Since then, nearly the entire non-mountainous portion of the basin has been built out. Ecologists warn that when a watershed becomes more than 15% impermeable, it begins to crash. In the urban part of the L.A. River’s watershed, we have hardened 70% on average–which is to say, overkill, a 100-car pileup. In fact, in a calculation that still holds true, the Corps determined in 1960 that the river couldn’t handle the statistical event of the “100-year flood,” putting at risk the low-lying cities south of the Rio Hondo, including Pico Rivera, Downey, Paramount, Lakewood, South Gate, Lynwood, Compton, Carson and Long Beach.

In the Glendale Narrows, a three-mile stretch from Griffith Park to Elysian Park, the Corps left the bottom of the channel unpaved, or “soft,” because shallow bedrock there forces the underground flow to the surface year-round, making it impossible to pour concrete. Here, near where the last steelhead was caught, nature has staged an improbable comeback: 40-foot-tall willows and cottonwoods have taken root, forming a forest festooned with shredded trash.

The river bubbles in little rapids around polished boulders but remains oddly silent beneath the unearthly roar from I-5, which it squeezes up against. Birds, migratory and resident, swirl in the air and paddle in the water–the river shelters hundreds of species of swallows, ducks, shorebirds, herons. Fifty or so are rare or endangered, likely to be seen nowhere else in Los Angeles.

Taking in this scene, it is not hard to imagine what the river could look like if concrete were taken out along its entire length: a slow stream wandering through lush riparian forest rooted in honest mud, its banks lined with walking and riding paths. At the limit of optimism, some even see a revived run of steelhead trout in deep, slow-moving pools and eddies. But trees and pools back up the rush-hour traffic on the water freeway, and storm water delayed on its journey, just like harried drivers, will get off and flood the surrounding neighborhoods.

If the river is to be slower, it will have to be wider. Blum estimates that a naturalized river would have to be three to six times wider, depending on slope and location–meaning thousands of people and structures would have to be moved. “Where do I put the Long Beach Freeway?” he asks. “Where do I displace all these people?” Retreating from this conceptual precipice, the walking and biking paths are attainable without tempting the fates of flooding–and are relatively cheap. Already a lighted bike path runs through the Glendale Narrows.

Work is set to begin soon on several miles of landscaped bike path along the box channel in Studio City, complete with native plantings, shade trees, benches and pedestrian bridges, at a cost of $10 million over 25 years paid for by a county bond measure approved by voters. To many activists, this amounts to no more than tarting up the drainpipe. But the cosmetic approach shouldn’t be dismissed. Chris Kroll of the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, says: “Just because there’s concrete doesn’t mean a river can’t feel natural.” After all, he points out, Paris and Rome have full, hard-jacketed rivers running through them, flanked by roaring, frenetic roads. But in each case, the first difference is human scale: mature trees, boat docks, lighted quays for strolling–all integrating the river into the daily fabric of the city. The second difference is that the Seine and Tiber flow placidly year-round. The Los Angeles decidedly does not.

“What can happen that will allow concrete to come out,” says Blum, “is if enough water is guaranteed not to come into the river.” Since at least the 19th century engineers have known that rivers are dynamic systems: against the yin of straightening the channel for more speed is the yang of detention–keeping the water upstream longer and releasing it slowly. Back in the 1930s, the Army Corps even provided the blueprint for an alternate future on the rest of the river: the Sepulveda Basin, a flood-control structure complete with dam but also home to picnic tables, ball fields, a golf course, lakes, parking lots, a bit of nostalgic agriculture at the Tapia Bros. vegetable fields and stand–and habitat, including one stretch of the river that might not be out of place in the wildest wilderness. Best of all, say both engineers and river-reform activists, the basin provides detention–it, too is soft-bottomed–slowing down flood flows long enough for them to percolate into the ground, taking pressure off the system below the dam. Another example is Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax district, where the city dug out a vast hole, then greened it with ball fields, paths and lawns, all of which are designed to swim during big storms so that the neighbors won’t have to.

With more such basins repeated at different scales up and down the river, activists see a reduced flood threat, less reliance on imported water and, eventually, less concrete and more trees and fish in the river. The problem is, more where?


AT THE BASE OF A STEEP, DUSTY, BOTTLE-STUDDED SLOPE BELOW BROADWAY in Chinatown, barely visible beneath trash and head-high anise, are the last few remaining bricks of L.A.’s first umbilical cord: la zanja madre, the mother ditch, the Spanish engineers’ irrigation system, recently unearthed by amateur archeologists. My guide is Lewis MacAdams, the poet and journalist who founded Friends of the L.A. River 15 years ago. Stretching away from us is a grim swatch of land striped with steel lines, once called the Cornfield, more recently referred to as the Union Pacific Railroad’s Chinatown Yards, 47 acres southeast of Broadway from College Street to the river. Of those, 32 acres are up for grabs.

To MacAdams, this place is the last best opportunity to reclaim downtown’s once-intimate relationship with its river. Beyond its historical link between downtown and the river that made it possible, the land is between a future Blue Line station and Union Station, linking the surrounding communities to one another and the rest of the city. Among the most park-poor in a park-poor city, the neighborhood is in dire need of housing and economic development. MacAdams describes his vision: a park, doubling as flood-water detention–useful because downtown is a flood-hazard zone–housing and perhaps a school. The L.A. Unified School District needs to build 210 schools in six years, but it passed on this site.

The city has other plans. Majestic Realty (its president is Ed Roski Jr., who helped bring us Staples Center and tried to entice the NFL to the Coliseum) is in escrow on the parcel, intending to build nearly 1 million square feet of warehouses. Mayor Richard Riordan has been generous with his support: The city helped Majestic get nearly $12 million in federal money for the project. The planning commission accepted the developer’s assurance that the project will have no environmental downside.

The Riordan administration sees the last developable piece of industrial land near downtown and hears about the 1,000 jobs promised by Majestic. It is the old paradigm: tax breaks in exchange for tax base; industrial development in the city center, housing in distant suburbs. “This is how [the city] has been run forever,” MacAdams complains. “No planning, no civic or urban agenda–just the assumption that what’s good for business must be good for L.A.”

Converting other parcels along the river into detention areas is daunting. Most are slipping away. Taylor Yard, the former 200-acre railroad-maintenance facility in the Narrows, has been whittled down by development to about 100. The Headworks, a 31-acre former water well field across from the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, has been targeted for women’s soccer fields by Riordan, who is under pressure from Title IX activists to provide more space for women’s sports. The idea of relinking that parcel to the neighboring river has been dismissed. Add to this Southern California’s historical governance problems of fragmentation and gridlock, and the welter of jurisdictions along the river–13 cities and 26 government agencies–and the outlook would seem grim.

But the fate of Chinatown Yards may not be settled. A coalition of environmentalists and community activists has stepped forward with Friends of the L.A. River to challenge the planning commission’s ruling, on environmental and other grounds. They promise to make the Cornfield an issue in the 2001 mayoral election.

“The battle over Chinatown Yards I would compare with the battle over Robert Moses trying to put an expressway through Washington Square Park” in New York City, MacAdams says. “He ended up being defeated by a coalition of artists and moms. It was the first defeat for the Forces of Progress. This battle is symbolic for the future of Los Angeles. The future is not building warehouses at the core of the city.”

Earlier this year, springtime might have finally come for the L.A. River. In March, state voters approved two stunning bond issues for parks and water projects: Propositions 12, at $2.1 billion, and 13, at $2 billion. March bonds brought April politicians in full bloom–some of the smiling faces at press conferences were Gov. Gray Davis, Sen. Barbara Boxer, former State Assembly Speaker and L.A. mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, state Resources Secretary Mary Nichols, County Supervisor Gloria Molina and City Councilman Mike Hernandez.

In part this signals what MacAdams calls “a huge coming together of forces and politicians on the issue of urban parkland.” In part, it shows a realization that ignoring the issue may mean political death. Suddenly the land logjam seems to be breaking, washed away by torrents of cash, including $83.5 million from state bonds earmarked for creating a fragmented Los Angeles River state park scattered in various bits and pieces along its 52 miles, plus $10 million to $20 million for projects on the San Gabriel.

The California Coastal Conservancy is funding two studies of major properties that are likely to lead to their acquisition as state parks. They would be remade into showpiece demonstrations of the new mixed-use park and detention thinking.

The first is Taylor Yard, 62 acres of which will become parkland. The remaining 41 have been approved for industrial development, but activists hope to overturn this decision. The second is the Arroyo Seco, where river advocates see the best opportunity to fully naturalize a stream, removing concrete from 11 miles of the drainage from Devil’s Gate dam in Altadena to the confluence with the L.A. River–itself a historic site now buried under railroad tracks, a street and two freeways. On the San Gabriel River, even more possibilities beckon: old gravel pits near the mountains, wetlands near its mouth and, since it is soft-bottomed for all but 10 miles, a mountains-to-mouth green way is not far-fetched. A new state conservancy, created to further these goals, encompasses all of the San Gabriel River and the lower half of the L.A. River.

But will all of these parks amount to more than a Disney riverbank ride along an unchanged concrete channel? If Corps of Engineers calculations are to be believed, it would have taken 30,000 acre-feet of upstream detention just to cancel out the need for higher walls to prevent flooding of those cities along about 20 miles downstream from the Rio Hondo, walls built amid much rancor.

Even were Taylor Yard to include all 200 of its original acres, it could provide just 1,700 acre-feet of storage. It might take 50 such sites before concrete could come out of the river–even at 103 acres, the current best-case scenario, Taylor Yard would be a spot of mud in a concrete sea.


ON AUG. 13, 1998, A SMALLER BUT PERHAPS MORE SIGNIFICANT RAIN BEGAN to fall, aimed by men holding fire hoses on the roof of a modest bungalow in South-Central Los Angeles. A knot of officials was gathered under umbrellas to witness the brief deluge, which had been organized by Andy Lipkis, founder and president of TreePeople, an organization dedicated to making the city environmentally sustainable through cultivating an “urban forest.” Lipkis and his partners had transformed the house into a kind of visionary diagram of all that they see as wrong with how Los Angeles has been conceived, constructed and operated, and of how to remedy it.

Lipkis describes a cycle of addictions, the bad effects of each compounded by the “disintegrated” way the city’s resources are managed: too much pavement–more than 60% of our surface area–heats up the air, causing us to use too much energy to stay cool, driving too many power plants running on imported oil, polluting the air. Too much water runs off the pavement, causing us to spend billions of dollars on flood control and on cleaning up the toxic brew that fouls the beaches. We capture too little of the rainfall: retaining the annual average of 15 inches could satisfy half the city’s needs, reducing the demand for imported water. Too much of our garbage, 30% to 40% of which is clippings from lawns and yards, gets hauled away by too many trucks to too many landfills.

The concept bungalow offered a neat solution: rainwater is captured from the roof and stored in cisterns for yard irrigation later, cutting water use 50%. Additional runoff is allowed to percolate into the ground in “dry wells” built where pavement had been removed. Trees are planted for shade, cutting air-conditioning costs. Yard trimmings are shredded into water-conserving mulch for use on the property, saving water and eliminating many costly, polluting trips to the landfill. All of it, $5,000 to $10,000 for a typical house, would be paid for through a retrofit process modeled on the successful low-flow toilet trade-in campaign but slightly more ambitious.

Lipkis calculates that more than enough public money is already allocated to fund these benefits. For example, Los Angeles will have to invest $10 billion to $20 billion during the next 10 to 20 years for water infrastructure alone–to import it, drain it to the ocean and clean it up. The problem is that the spending has never been rationally thought out and integrated into a single system.

There are reasons to take Lipkis seriously: Several years ago, L.A. Unified wanted to use $187 million of Proposition BB school renovation funds to tear out old asphalt around the district and repave. Lipkis suggested an alternative. In many areas, he said, the district could remove asphalt and plant trees instead of repaving, reducing air-conditioning costs.

The district is now planning on removing 20 million square feet of asphalt from 400 schools, replacing it with grass, shade trees and shrubs, which will be naturally irrigated by rainfall.

Carl Blum was among those huddling under umbrellas outside the bungalow. By several accounts, the then-deputy director of public works had a revelation. “Something happened to Carl that day,” says Lipkis–though the epiphany may have been more gradual, helped along by the Department of Public Works having been sued by TreePeople and Friends of the L.A. River to prevent the clearing of growth from the Glendale Narrows, and having watched, in his 36-year career, an ever-growing portion of flood-control dollars being given to “nonstructural,” non-concrete projects.

“From an engineering standpoint it can all be done,” Blum says. “People say the engineers only know how to do concrete, but that’s what society wanted at that point.” Now he and the county’s engineers are collaborating with TreePeople to find an alternative to a long-delayed, $42-million storm drain the county planned to build in Sun Valley. Using an elaborate computer model developed by the group, the drain will be replaced by a combination of detention basins, cisterns, dry wells and tree planting. An additional tens of millions will be shared by other government agencies looking for gains in air quality, energy, parks, water supply and sanitation.

For its $42-million contribution, the county will not only solve the flooding problem in Sun Valley, but can also keep every drop of a storm that lasts up to four days in that watershed and out of the L.A. River.

How long will it take before the concrete can start to come out of the river? Blum and Lipkis guess 25 to 50 years, depending on how committed Angelenos are and how fast urban renewal proceeds. “We will have to retrofit vast tracts of land to make a difference,” admits Lipkis.

Blum says: “A lot of it will be a paradigm shift in people’s minds. A lot of education has to take place. Five years ago there was a small handful of people; now you can fill meeting rooms, but there are still 10 million people here, so you have to change the mind set of the citizens who, in turn, influence the politicians. I see us turning the Titanic,” he says, then reconsiders. “Not the Titanic, the Queen Mary. It’s going to be slow, but eventually you get there.”

If it is any consolation to the visionaries, Rome, with its engineered Tiber River, wasn’t built in a day. Even the Corps of Engineers needed decades to do its relentless work in Los Angeles.

As for the steelhead, heroic ones continue to turn up in Southern California streams, testing the waters for a possible comeback. There are rumors that a big one was caught a few months ago in Long Beach, nosing from the blue Pacific into the mouth of the L.A. River.

Pershing Square's new design is flat and simple – and that's a good thing

Pershing Square's new design is flat and simple – and that's a good thing

Op-Ed Los Angeles Times

French landscape firm Agence Ter has won a design competition to remake Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. (Pershing Square Renew)

French landscape firm Agence Ter has won a design competition to remake Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. (Pershing Square Renew)

by Wade Graham

On Thursday, Los Angeles got some good news. Pershing Square, the park at the heart of a revivifying downtown, has been handed over to Agence Ter, a French landscape architecture firm, for its next big makeover. The plan, which was chosen from among four finalists in the Pershing Square Renew design contest, won with a stratagem of simplicity and a modicum of good sense. It has at least a chance of re-establishing the five-acre square, bounded by Olive, Hill, 5th and 6th streets, as a great urban public space.

The odds weren't in the park's favor.

Long ago, Pershing Square (once known as Central Park and even earlier, Plaza Abaja, or lower plaza) was Los Angeles' premier civic gathering place, a grand city refuge. But in the 1950s it was remade as the lid of an underground parking garage. Then urban renewal widened its surrounding streets into raceways meant to move as many cars as possible away from downtown. Ever since, the park's been an arid and frustrating conundrum, cut off from potential users by walls, ramps and the massive one-way thoroughfares on its borders.

Attempts at remedying the square's ills in the 1980s and '90s proved unsatisfactory, leaving the city with the current arrangement of patchwork grass and pavement, punctuated with inexplicable architectural ornamentation: rows of standing pink stucco tubes, huge metal spheres placed here and there, and a strangely looming purple stucco tower.

In 2015, when Pershing Square Renew, a public-private partnership, announced its redesign competition, its first decision was a puzzling one. The competition wasn't open to all comers but instead cut straight to the stars: Only A-list architects and landscape designers were invited to enter, cutting down on the chances that a truly out-of-the-box solution to the park's problems would materialize.

Submitted “starchitect” resumes were whittled down to 10, and then to four finalists: James Corner Field Operations (designer of New York's High Line and Santa Monica's Tongva Park), working with local architect Frederick Fisher; Thom Mayne, of Morphosis, working with landscape architects SWA; wHY + Civitas, a joint effort of firms in L.A. and Denver, and Agence Ter, with its own cast of local supporting players.

What emerged was predictable: bright, shiny, starry sameness. All four park concepts were composed mostly of standard parts from the kit that defines today's “landscape urbanism.”

Even the winning Agence Ter design is busy, just not quite as busy as the other possibilities. They were all crammed full of what's known in the design business as “program, “ a nearly identical laundry lists of amenities: “flexible” spaces for farmers' markets, theater and music performances, cafes, dog runs, edible gardens and splashy fountains for kids. There were biomorphic canopy structures, plots of thatchy native plants, and themed nooks labeled to accommodate “tai chi,” “moonlight,” “sun” and even “thinking.” The three that were passed over also featured a passel of too-familiar design tics and gimmicks: oblique paths, squiggle shaped planting beds, built up berms and manufactured hills and valleys.

All four park concepts were composed mostly of standard parts from the kit that defines today's 'landscape urbanism.'

Sustainability was de rigeur: Several plans included rainwater harvesting for irrigation, which is a good idea. But water treatment wetlands, included by SWA/Morphosis and wHY + Civitas, are purely didactic exercises in infrastructure that ought to be left to the Department of Sanitation. Taken to an extreme, the green impulse yielded this absurdity: SWA/Morphosis' solar-powered hydroponic farm tower, meant to grow organic salad greens for an onsite restaurant and to provide “green” job training, making the square a “net-positive ecotopia” that would prove Los Angeles was a “global leader in green technology and sustainability.” That's design aimed at pleasing political impulses of the moment, not creating a park for the ages.

Worse, three of the four plans fundamentally failed to redeem the square from the Original Sin committed in 1951, when parking-lot access ramps and walls severed it from the city on all four sides. Each of these designs left one or more of the park's edges cut off from the street by a raised structure in order to accommodate access to the garage. The Corner/Fisher scheme was the biggest failure in this regard, almost entirely blocking access from 5th and 6th streets with two grass-covered slopes, their low points at the center of the park and their high sides looming over the sidewalks on the north and south sides of the park, creating a sort of tennis-stadium effect, where visitors would face inward, looking at each other, waiting for something to happen, instead of interacting with the neighborhood.

Agence Ter's plan succeeds because it is the least like a post post-modern amusement park. It is all on one level, connecting directly to slimmed-down and repaved streets (Olive is reduced from five lanes to three), and accommodating just two perpendicular driveways into the underground garage. Most of the square is left open, either studded with trees or as an unprogrammed Great Lawn. A block-long shade canopy extends along Hill Street, like a 19th-century open market, topped with solar panels, ready to shelter farmers' stands, restaurants, performances, or kiosks that pop up by design or happenstance.

This plan comes closest to realizing the holy grail of good public squares, which is providing people a place to stage their own programs, spontaneously and unpredictably, without micromanagement by designers. The best such spaces, such as the typical Italian piazza, may have nothing in them at all, just four streets edging a wide-open, shared commons, where life may play out according to its own plans.

Now the winning Pershing Square scheme has to navigate the journey from heavily photo-shopped architectural renderings to a real, built, physical space. If in that process the plan becomes even simpler, downtown Los Angeles will regain a dignified, functional and lovable public space at its pedestrian heart.

Wade Graham is a Los Angeles landscape designer and author, mostly recently, of “Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas that Shape the World.”

Are we greening our cities, or just greenwashing them?

Are we greening our cities, or just greenwashing them?

Op-Ed for The Los Angeles Times

The experimental town of Arcosanti, located in central Arizona, looks much the same today as it did shortly after most of its buildings were designed by architect Paolo Soleri and constructed in the 1970s. (Sam Lubell / Los Angeles Times)

The experimental town of Arcosanti, located in central Arizona, looks much the same today as it did shortly after most of its buildings were designed by architect Paolo Soleri and constructed in the 1970s. (Sam Lubell / Los Angeles Times)

by Wade Graham

Architecture and urban design are in the throes of a green fever dream: Everywhere you look there are plans for “sustainable” buildings, futuristic eco-cities, even vertical aquaponic farms in the sky, each promising to redeem the ecologically sinful modern city and bring its inhabitants back into harmony with nature. This year, two marquee examples are set to open: Bjarke Ingels' Via 57 West in New York, a 32-story luxury-apartment pyramid enfolding a garden, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, by Jean Nouvel, a complex shielded from the harsh climate of the Arabian Peninsula by an enormous white dome. The dreamers' goal is even bigger: “eco-cities” that will leapfrog the last century's flawed development patterns and deliver us in stylish comfort to a low-carbon, green future.

In part, the dream reflects a pragmatic push for energy efficiency, recycled materials and lower carbon emissions — a competition rewarded with LEED certification in silver, gold or platinum. But it also includes a remarkable effort to turn buildings green — almost literally — by covering them in plants. Green roofs are sprouting on Wal-Marts and green walls festooned with ferns and succulents in Cubist patterns appear on hotels, banks, museums — even at the mall, as I found on a recent trip to the Glendale Galleria in Los Angeles.

Today's green urban dream is too often about bringing a technologically controlled version of nature into the city and declaring the problem solved, rather than looking ... deeper.

All of this is surely a good idea, at some level: trying to repair some of the damage our lifestyle has done to the planet by integrating nature into what have been, especially in the modern era, wasteful, harsh, alienating, concrete urban deserts. But, despite the rhetoric of reconciling the city with nature, today's green urban dream is too often about bringing a technologically controlled version of nature into the city and declaring the problem solved, rather than looking at the deeper causes of our current environmental and urban discontents.

Greening the city is not a new ideal. Ancient Romans waxed lyrical about Arcadia, a mythical bucolic escape from the ills of urban life: money-making, crime, pollution, disease and, of course, luxury and the moral turpitude that goes with it. City-dwellers have always been sensitive to the charge that the metropolis is guilty of a special kind of iniquity, which bars it from grace, and must be cleansed. (Remember Sodom and Gomorrah.) The corollary belief that the green countryside fosters all that is pure and wholesome is a foundational myth of Western culture. It is why, when most people amass enough filthy lucre, they move to the suburbs and cultivate a large, useless lawn, as if the greensward alone could buy them salvation.

Since Plato's Republic, visionaries have described the ideal human community as something less like a city and more like a big, well-ordered farm. Think of Charles Fourier's utopian phalanxes, the Shaker settlements, Frank Lloyd Wright's proposed Broadacre City, Soviet collectives, Israeli kibbutzes or the innumerable 19th and 20th century “garden cities” strewn around the American and European landscapes. A more modest contemporary form is perhaps the Brooklyn Grange, the hipsterish but messianic urban farm outfit that grows bespoke salad greens hydroponically on several rented New York City rooftops for environmentally conscious urbanites. It is undoubtedly a beneficial enterprise, but, given the realities of high urban land values and labor costs, such a model is unlikely to replace the world's nearly 6 million square miles of horizontal farms.

Today's signature eco-building, Apple's “spaceship” campus now under construction in Silicon Valley, designed by the British architect Norman Foster, is a good example of the shortcomings of the green dream. Though we are assured it will be sustainable, energy efficient and “slim” — preserving 80% of its 175-acre site for landscaping, it is by any measure a huge, complex, massively resource-intensive and incredibly expensive ($5 billion) folly, achievable only by one of the richest corporations on Earth. What is more damning is that, at the end of the day, it will be just another appendage of suburban sprawl, a white-collar workplace located next to a freeway, dependent on vast garages (even if most of them are tastefully buried) for its 13,000 commuters — and thus with no smaller environmental footprint than a conventional office park.

A look at the green dream's origins is revealing. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, Apple's spaceship and another new Silicon Valley “campus,” Google's planned complex to be covered in transparent tenting that it says will “blur the difference between our buildings and nature,” are direct descendants of the work of the American visionary R. Buckminster Fuller and his Japanese partner, Shoji Sadao. In 1960, Fuller and Sadao proposed building a two-mile-wide, transparent geodesic dome over Midtown Manhattan. It would eliminate bad weather and the cost of heating and cooling separate buildings. It wasn't built, but other, lesser domed environments were, all over the world, and these helped spawn a global epidemic of drawing-board futuristic eco-cities.

Among the movement's avatars were Paolo Soleri, whose projected Utopia, Arcosanti, only amounted to a few, odd concrete structures in the Arizona desert, and the Japanese Metabolists of the 1960s and '70s, whose plans for massive floating city-farms and modular megastructures in the sky were outlandish. (They nevertheless directly influenced the development of undersea exploration modules, offshore oil platforms and the International Space Station.) Indeed, Foster was a student and later a collaborator of Fuller and Sadao, and his masterpieces — the Gherkin in London and the remade Reichstag in Berlin, to name just two of scores — are essentially climate-controlled domes, carefully modeled on his teachers' earlier work.

Like driving a $85,000 Tesla, designing a perfect green building or eco-city isn't enough to save the world.

These projects are, then, really the fulfillment of a set of blue-sky dreams from the Dr. Strangelove era — where every cinematic space colony contained a domed conservatory and keeping the plants in the greenhouse alive was all that stood between humans and disaster. In the end, those dreams are not about reintegrating society with nature, but leaving Earth itself behind for an
engineered habitat under the dome, in the sky or at least on the roof.

Like driving an $85,000 Tesla, designing a perfect green building or eco-city isn't enough to save the world. Although our buildings, like our cars, have been woefully inefficient environmentally, architecture isn't responsible in any meaningful way for humanity's disastrous environmental impacts, nor can it hope to solve them alone. An economic system based on the destruction of nature and the shifting of real costs onto those less fortunate and onto the future, is the real problem. No dome can protect us from our own profligacy and improvidence, nor can any number of hydroponic lettuce farms blunt the damage being done to real nature, or what is left of it, on planet Earth.

Instead of making “nature” into an urban lifestyle accessory, architects and planners must work to design better relationships between the parts of our cities and nature, and to promote just relationships between the people in them. The work of this year's Pritzker Prize winner, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, is a case in point. He is less interested in making technologically impressive buildings than in collaborating with residents themselves to design low-cost, efficient housing solutions for the urban working class, especially in the wake of natural disasters. It is a more productive path forward than planting shrubs on skyscrapers.

Wade Graham's latest book is "Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World." He is a landscape designer as well as a historian and adjunct professor of public policy at Pepperdine Unversity.

The Broad: A monument to the Old LA, not the new.

The Broad: A monument to the Old LA, not the new.

Published November 10th, 2015 by Wade Graham

Santa Barbara Independent, Dec. 14, 2015:

The Broad Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened September 20 in Downtown Los Angeles, will be, its benefactor Eli Broad hopes, the crown jewel of a reconfigured Grand Avenue on Bunker Hill, the long-awaited “civic and cultural center for a region of 15 million people.” Broad and his wife, Edythe, have invested considerable capital in making this notion a reality, spending $800 million over the years on LA’s cultural institutions, much of it on Grand Avenue, including major gifts to the Museum of Contemporary Art across the street and Walt Disney Concert Hall next door, for which they led the construction capital campaign in the 1990s. (These in addition to giving $60 million to build the Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the LA County Museum of Art campus on Wilshire Boulevard.)

What the $140 million building isn’t is a contribution to the LA’s cultural life in the 21st century. Instead it represents the final monument to the powerful institutions that dominated Southern California in the last century: the region’s Growth Machine, an interlocking suburban industrial complex made up of developers, banks, insurance companies, newspapers, and the government agencies that supplied the services and infrastructure to support their business model.

Eli Broad made his money first in mass-producing suburban tract houses, beginning in 1957 in the Detroit suburbs, before moving on to Phoenix and Los Angeles. He used the stock market to leverage his wealth, taking his company KB Homes public, as he later did with SunAmerica, the insurance and retirement savings giant he founded in 1971 and sold to AIG in 1999 for $18 billion. His name-plated museum will be in good company on Grand, joining the three original 1967 buildings of the Music Center: the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, paid for by the family fortune anchored by the virulently pro-development Los Angeles Times, the Ahmanson Theater, funded by Howard Ahmanson, the owner of Home Savings & Loan, a major financier of Southern California’s suburban expansion, and the Mark Taper Forum, named for the housing tract developer who built the city of Lakewood, and swaths of Norwalk and Compton, before founding a Beverly Hills bank. The Music Center’s fourth venue, Disney Hall, is named for the man who sited Disneyland in 1955 in a bulldozed orange grove alongside the brand-new Interstate 5 being extended from Downtown LA into the new suburban frontier of Orange County.

These benefactors got fabulously wealthy by cracking the code of postwar American development: obtaining cheap land on the periphery of cities, financing on good terms (owning one’s own bank helped), and getting the government to underwrite the highways, electricity, mortgage insurance, tax deductions, and defense industry jobs that made suburbia possible. Possible, that is, for white people exclusively—in the era of unchallenged white supremacy, suburbia was closed to others, and was in no small part fueled by White Flight away from the diversity of central cities to areas where “good schools” and “low crime” were watchwords for racial and class homogeneity.

The irony is that the only immediate progress for racial equality achieved in those decades didn’t come with the Civil Rights laws aimed at black Americans—since that revolution hasn’t even yet fully paid off for millions—but the grudging acceptance of Jews as “white,” especially if they were if wealthy enough. In the mid-60s, WASP socialite Dorothy Chandler reached out to Mark Taper, a Jew born in Poland, for a million dollars to complete the Music Center. Eli Broad, born in the Bronx to Lithuanian Jewish parents, follows his footsteps down Grand Avenue.

It is useful to recall that Bunker Hill was once a diverse working class neighborhood, bulldozed in the 60s at taxpayer expense to build high-rise banks and freeway ramps for the white-collar suburbanites who worked in them. It is appropriate that the true jewel of Downtown’s civic crown is the Department of Water and Power building, a 1961 modernist icon that dominates the hill. City Hall’s position at the low end of Grand Park makes clear where power has lain since the days of William Mulholland. This infrastructural legacy is honored a few blocks down First Street by the CalTrans District 7 HQ, whose plaza is unsurprisingly named for Eli & Edythe Broad.

Lining both sides of Grand Park and the crossing streets below Grand Avenue is a parade of stolid buildings housing the rest of the government apparatus that maintains order

in this “region of 15 million people”—making up what Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, called the “carceral universe” of police, courts, prisons, and probation, immigration, and administrative agencies. On the main axis are the LA County Sheriff, LA Superior Court, Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, and LA County Superior Court; just off the park are the US District Court, Hall of Justice, US Bankruptcy Court, Roybal Federal Building containing the US Marshall’s Service, the General Services Administration, Citizenship and Immigration Service, LA Fire Department, LA Police Department’s new headquarters building and old one at Parker Center, and of course, the Los Angeles Times building. Not far away is the densest concentration of prisons in America: the Men’s Central Jail, the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, and the Metropolitan Detention Center.

The majority were built in the decades of the postwar suburban boom in some variation of neo-classical modernism—a dull idiom of white, symmetrical facades studded with regular windows and no ornamentation, often employing precast concrete panels. Think of the buildings of William Perreira, who designed half of the short, white skyscrapers on Wilshire Boulevard, or those ubiquitous Home Savings branches around the region, white boxes livened up with cheerfully bright mosaics of suburban families having fun at the beach. The Broad, despite its promoters’ rhetoric of innovative design, is of a piece: a box wrapped in white, precast panels—the “veil” that hides the “vault” within, a dark concrete bunker where the art is stored. It not only looks like a 1960s bank, it acts like a 1960s bank, this one for billionaire art collectors. The art collection is a perfect match: canonical examples from all the usual suspects of the American Century—Abstract Expressionists like Rauschenberg and Johns, Pop Artists like Warhol and Liechtenstein, and their Postmodern offspring, like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Setting aside the fact that the collection, while made up of quality art from quality artists, feels like a children’s version of contemporary art history: each work being among the easiest, and most colorful, of each artist’s oeuvre, so that the whole feels like a department store version of New York’sMoMA collection: super-bright and sticky-sweet. There is little that is new, little that is from Los Angeles, even less that is from the current century.

In spite of its splash, The Broad is already largely irrelevant to the cultural life of the vast majority of Angelenos, and will have little to say about their future. It may be a fitting monument to last century’s power structure, but the Growth Machine that it implicitly celebrates has broken down. A few blocks away the freeways are gridlocked and crumbling, homeless camps and luxury lofts alike proliferate, while affordable housing is a disappearing dream and the public schools lack the resources to teach art in the classroom. What LA needs isn’t more fancy architecture on top of the hill, but a new blueprint for building a 21st century global city, integrating its civic-minded elite and its broadest cultural ambitions. Art institutions ought to be down in the city, where real people live, and be about making, not buying; about inspiring, not showing off. They should be about art, not architecture—like the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo, an old warehouse simply redesigned for what it can stage, not for what it owns. Or better yet, like Inner City Arts, in Skid Row, an (admittedly high-architectural) arts campus where thousands of school children are given the opportunity to learn about, and make their own, art, every year, in a city where arts education has been largely stripped from the public schools.

Let’s enjoy the billionaire’s $140 million gift, and then move on to creating a truly vibrant Los Angeles, with a creative built environment to match its artistic and cultural diversity.

Why We Hate Pershing Square

Why We Hate Pershing Square

By Wade Graham, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, September 27, 2015

(LA Times page)

It would seem to be just in the right place for a city park: a five-acre square in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, bounded by Olive, Hill, 5th and 6th streets, with the elegant front of the Biltmore Hotel on one side, the busy office towers of Bunker Hill on another, and the lofts, restaurants, and nightlife of our newly vibrant urban core on the others. It is clean enough, and well-enough patrolled, and it offers a children’s playground, a dog run, and benches and grass to sit on.

And yet it feels all wrong:  the rows of standing pink stucco tubes the size of water heaters, the huge metal spheres placed here and there, and the strangely looming tower are inexplicable. A maze of proliferating walls chop its expanses of concrete into odd shapes, and block access from the surrounding streets.  In spite of ample lighting, past sundown the square feels unsafe. Outside of weekday lunch hours, and weekend special events, it is mostly given to the homeless.

In the midst of downtown’s extraordinary revival, Pershing Square remains a perplexing failure.

It wasn’t always like this: Set aside in 1866 as La Plaza Abaja, “the lower plaza,” it was L.A.’s indispensible civic space for more than 80 years, with grass, palm trees and lush tropical vegetation. It was  a place to meet, stroll, muster troops, and argue a cause, with its speaker’s corner like London’s Hyde Park. And, like New York’s grand urban refuge, it was even called Central Park for many years.

After the turn of the century the square was redone in the formal Beaux-Arts style by John Parkinson, the architect of City Hall a few blocks away. In 1918, it was renamed for John “Black Jack” Pershing, the victorious American general of World War I. His statue still stands, next to a monument to the 7th California infantry regiment that fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898. From the 1920s to the ’60s, the square served as the center of what was known as “the run,” a gay cruising corridor along 5th Street, stocked with nearby drinking establishments.

Social disapproval of the run, along with  the general perception that downtown was “blighted,”  might have been a factor in the decision to prescribe the open-heart surgery of Urban Renewal for much of downtown, including Pershing Square and Bunker Hill.

In 1951, the park was ripped out to make way for a three-level, subterranean parking garage. Access ramps and stairwells replaced the greenery, but for a thin layer of turf atop the concrete.  Some of the palms that were dug up were moved to brand-new Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise —a fittingly ironic fate, as, like Disneyland, the new square was part of the machine of suburbanization remaking Southern California, built around the private automobile.

Widened, one-way streets — like racetracks around the park — connected to the new regional freeway system, speeding white-collar workers from office towers that replaced bulldozed apartment buildings to their homes in suburbia. Once bustling at all hours, downtown became a ghost town after 5  and Pershing Square became the resort of drug dealers and the homeless.

Before the 1984 Olympics, an embarrassed city spent $1 million trying to clean it up, but the mostly cosmetic changes didn’t help much.

Nearly a decade later, in 1993, cash from the developer of Gas Company Tower, which rises kittycorner from the square on 5th Street, paid for a remake by the Mexican modernist architect Ricardo Legorretta, aided by landscape architect Laurie Olin and artist Barbara McCarren. They decided on the symbolism of the region’s old citrus empire: big oversized orange spheres and a little bosque of actual orange trees, a stylized earthquake fault, and the oversized tower, meant to symbolize the San Gabriel mountains from whence water flows to the city. Few visitors to the square have any idea what it means.

Now, another downtown developer, AEG, has put up $700,000 to study the problem of Pershing Square. According to the area’s City Council member, José Huizar, “Everything is on the table.” That’s good, because even without spending a dime on a study, it should be clear that no amount of landscape-architectural creativity can turn the roof of a parking structure into an integrated part of downtown’s urban fabric.

Parks work because they welcome people, not cars. The city’s Original Sin at Pershing Square was sacrificing public space on the altar of the automobile, cutting it off from the pedestrian life of the street grid in favor of parking lot access and confusing and off-putting walls and changes in grade. It is useful to remember that New York’s Central Park succeeds because its designers blocked most streets from the park, and placed the few major crossing streets below grade, out of sight.  Walkers, cyclists, and even equestrians there experience a place scaled to people, mostly undisturbed by car traffic.

Any real attempt to return LA’s “lower plaza” to its former liveliness and relevance must first reverse  the historic mistake of the parking garage. It would inconvenience a some drivers, yes, but it would also begin to redeem Los Angeles from its century-long car-and-asphalt binge.

A solution short of that would require putting the square’s car circulation on a radical diet, slowing streets and slimming ramps. Most important, it would mean removing the maze of walls that block the space from passerby’s eyes as well as their feet, signaling that the park is open and welcoming, its first priority to support the rich pedestrian civic life of downtown—not commuters.

Give Pershing Square back to the people.