March 14, 2017 - From the March, 2017 issue

How To Plan For A Better City? With Global Experience, 5+design Weighs In

After successfully opposing a recent city referendum on growth and development, the Los Angeles architecture and design community is now faced with the task of envisioning its future. For insights, TPR spoke with Mike Ellis and Tim Magill, principals of the Los Angeles-based firm 5+design, which works globally on transformative retail and mixed-use projects. Ellis and Magill plumb the lessons they’ve learned in designing for density abroad—especially how Los Angeles’ preoccupation with "starchitecture" and "project-by-project planning by exception" has hindered the region's transformation to a more livable, equitable metropolis.


Mike Ellis

"Adding density for its own sake, without an analysis of the structure that supports it, can often lead to a lower quality of life rather than a higher one." –Mike Ellis

"One reason there are so few great examples of truly mixed-use development in the United States is that the development industry is so specialized here." –Tim Magill

Give our readers an overview of your firm, and the kind of work you do all over the world. 

Mike Ellis: 5+design was founded 12 years ago. Tim and I are founding partners, along with three others.

We came out of the Jerde Partnership, a firm focused primarily on retail and mixed use, with a long history of doing interesting retail centers around the world. That focus on retail is what allowed us to grow into other types of work, including large-scale architectural work and, more recently, large-scale planning work.

A retail center is a place that people have to want to come to. Once inside, the intention is to allow them to see as much as possible of that center. We’re very focused on how people flow intuitively through space, and how you attract people to places. That kind of background—always looking at plans from the point of view of people moving through them, as opposed to people being static entities—has allowed us to expand our focus and our reach into larger environments.

We’ve always had some planning focus, but over the past few years, it’s grown to become a much bigger part of our business. We look at both new and existing urban and exurban neighborhoods, trying to ensure that they’re connected, integrated, and attractive places for people to reside, work in, and visit. 

In your architectural work in the Middle East, Asian, and around the world, what do your clients find most attractive about your firm’s approach to planning and design?

Tim Magill: We work best with clients that are very people-oriented, versus just real-estate-oriented.

Some clients are developers of real estate, and some clients want to build community. Those are two different agendas. If you do both well, then you’ve got not only a great return on investment, but also a formula for sustainability.

Our enlightened clients look not only at economic development, but also at creating a better place to live.

I gather you’ve found more of those clients abroad than in Los Angeles, where your firm is headquartered. Tell us about the dominant land-use planning cultures that distinguish LA from the other jurisdictions where you mostly work. 

Tim Magill: Los Angeles is a lot more mature in terms of its development. In other words, there’s already an entrenched urban framework here, and very sophisticated developers who tend to be specialists.

One reason there are so few great examples of truly mixed-use development in the United States is that the development industry is so specialized here. Different developers are very good at, say, office or residential. Not often are they versed in both. But doing retail, office, and residential together, many compromises need to be made—and that’s a difficult thing for, say, a retail developer to accept.

Mixed-use development is more prevalent in other parts of the world, partly because the markets aren’t quite as sophisticated, and partly because greater acceptance of density and more accessible public transit leads to the possibility of more intense urban development. 

In Los Angeles, some argue that greater density is the primary or only goal—and that therefore, updating Community and General Plans is secondary to just letting the market dictate use and design. Drawing on your experiences globally, what’s your advice to cities that wish to both encouraging density, and harnessing it for livability?

Tim Magill: We look at density from the standpoint of quality of life. The more livable cities are the ones where people have shorter commute distances, greater access to community facilities and retail, and a more diverse set of uses all within walking distance.

Sometimes that leads to greater density, but often, it just means better planning—even in suburban communities.

Mike Ellis: Adding density for its own sake, without an analysis of the structure that supports it, can often lead to a lower quality of life rather than a higher one. Just being packed closer together, without the benefits that density can offer, is not an appropriate solution. 

How do the project demands of your international clients differ from those of the development community in Los Angeles and the US?

Mike Ellis: In Dubai, our primary client is Dubai Holding, which is a quasi-government entity associated with Sheikh Mohammad. They are the largest landowner in Dubai, and they have a civic responsibility to ensure that the developments they participate in improve the city’s quality of life and help maintain its attractiveness on the world stage. They’re not focused purely on financial returns.

The same is true of our clients in China. We do a lot of work for Shui On Land. They tend to buy very large parcels, and have only six or seven sites around the country. They develop these slowly, over time, to create communities that include housing, retail, and office uses—large-scale urban neighborhoods where transit, walkability, and a variety of offerings are all part of the equation.

This is possible partly because we’re dealing with clients who have larger land sites to work with, and who are approaching them as new-build situations. But out of that comes a greater sophistication in thinking about unified neighborhoods, and making sure that the steps they take initially have long-term beneficial impacts as the plans develop.

Tim Magill: Our clients are also very willing to learn from other cities. In some cases, they want to leapfrog from an emerging market urban fabric to one that’s more advanced, so they’re looking at other global benchmarks.

For instance, Singapore probably has some of the most sophisticated planning in the world by design. The government is very much involved, and so is the private sector. They’re doing things there that, from a planning point of view, are truly remarkable. We and our clients look for the best examples of development the world over to see what we can learn.

What might Los Angeles learn about stewardship of the built environment from other cities? 

Tim Magill: Our global clients, I need to note, like that our firm is from Los Angeles, which has a unique development typology. In some ways, it’s actually similar to Dubai’s—it’s car-oriented, it’s a fairly new city—and so the same challenges we face here, they’re facing as well. Knowing both the successes and the challenges is key.

Mike Ellis: Much of what makes Los Angeles unique are its particular geographic features—the big beaches, the mountains—and its attitude. These are probably stronger ambassadors for us than any particular planning principles that we can point to.

5+design is not actively involved in LA, so I don’t want to be too harshly critical. But the fact is that part of the reason we’re not involved is that clients are more specialized here and tend to want specific pieces of the pie, rather than an overview of the entire system. 

The County of Los Angeles recently approved a $100-billion+ transportation investment program for Los Angeles Metro. Now the challenge is how to best deploy those resources. How does 5+ approach mobility and utilization of new transportation technologies with your global planning clients?

Tim Magill: We consider all modes of transit important to making a successful project—the first mode of transit being walking.

We usually start at the pedestrian scale and try to optimize the project from a walkability standpoint. Then we look at optimizing access. This means creating a more robust system that has a multitude of ways to get in, includes many options, and is more intuitive and permeable than typical Middle Eastern or Chinese large-scale planning.

Most current large-scale planning in the Middle East, and some in Asia, is focused on the car first. And the answer to density is wider roads and bigger setbacks, which means that buildings are further apart. We think there are ways to mitigate that sort of super-scaling of the urban fabric with a more layered approach to transit, and also by working block scale and permeability into the fabric. That creates more choices, and therefore calms traffic and leads to de-congestion. 

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The reputation and success of your firm is enabled, arguably, by the large project scale of your work. In Los Angeles, which is already built out, how would you suggest clients and architectural firms break the culture of project-by-project planning and incorporate larger, regional mobility principles into their design solutions?

Tim Magill: Though it may be counterintuitive, one way to encourage walkability and create a better sense of scale is actually to make certain vectors, collectors, or arterials less attractive.

A great example is Lankershim Boulevard in NoHo, which is a huge street—three lanes each way plus parking. They’re trying to create a walkable center there, but the street works against that. It’s so difficult to go from the east to the west side of the street as a pedestrian that you’re thwarted from creating a true sense of community there. What happens then is that the side streets become slightly more walkable.

There are ways to distribute and calm traffic and still have the same capacity, with more flow and a more pedestrian-friendly space.

Mike Ellis: We studied this quite a bit for one of our large projects in Dubai. Going the opposite way of major collector roads and providing a more diffuse and permeable network—kind of like a river delta—actually allows traffic to move just as easily, and provides a sort of buffer against potential trigger points or accidents that can slow everything down. At the same time, the traffic moves at a volume that is more conducive to pedestrian activity. 

In the City of Los Angeles, presently there is no formal collaboration between the Department of Planning and the Department of Transportation, let alone with the regional Metropolitan Transit Agency. How might your global work in collaboration with the Italian firm Systematica improve the way California project developers and traffic engineers now interact?

Mike Ellis: Places like Dubai also have separate transportation agencies and municipalities, but there’s a greater sense of cohesion. They all have to represent their own interests, but at the same time, they’re all essentially working toward the same goal. We find ourselves in constant meetings with these agencies.

The reason we find Systematica so helpful is that they are able to graphically show the effects of modifications to existing or ideal networks in a way that’s understandable, not only to specialists, but also to laymen. They’re also able to talk about it from a global perspective, and draw on examples of projects that they’ve worked on around the world. They’re extremely valuable to us as we try to build these new environments.

Frankly, it’s not just us designing and them giving us the graphic tools. As almost always with our firm, it’s a very collaborative process. In many cases, we ask them what has worked or what will work, and bring them to the table with suggestions for how to tackle a new site or commission we’re facing. 

Tim Magill: What separates Systematica from most traffic engineers is that they start with the pedestrian. They have an urban approach to mobility planning. We call them mobility analysts, not just traffic planners.

By promoting mixed use and diversity, we’re trying to create more internal capture and take trips off the road from the get-go. A lot of our work is analysis of how we can minimize trips.

Another thing we’re studying right now is the effects of CAVs—connected autonomous vehicles—on the public realm. There could be a significant reduction in lane width and road sections, and quite a bit of change to the urban environment, as autonomous vehicles become more and more ubiquitous.

We think there will be parts of cities that will be driverless-vehicle-only portions, and the nature of the public space should be quite a bit different in those areas. We’re trying to codify how that might change the way development works, and we’re already future-proofing our large-scale plans now.

For instance, we might pull parking out from underneath buildings or out of podiums and into separate structures, so that as driverless vehicles become more prevalent and more people use public transit, we can redevelop those properties to new uses in the future. 

Of late, the city planning policy conversations in Los Angeles seems to view planning and zoning as obstacles to building “more housing”. What is your view on a built-out city of Los Angeles ought to address its affordability and housing supply challenges?

Tim Magill: Los Angeles dedicates a very generous amount of land to our road network—and it’s going to be optimized whether we like it or not.

I live in Studio City, a suburban neighborhood in the hills. Since Waze became a dominant traffic app, I’ve been faced with a lot more movement through my neighborhood, because it’s the safety valve for the 101 from the Valley to Hollywood. In other words, we’re getting a higher utilization of the road network.

Some might see that as a bad thing. But we’re all paying for that road network, and we need to ensure that we’re getting full utilization out of it. What’s important is that we respect people’s lifestyles and hear everyone’s opinion.

I like some of what Measure S has to say: namely, the idea of trying to create a more community-oriented development plan that takes into consideration what the locals want. That’s the key to having a happy city.

Mike Ellis: Near our office in Hollywood, a lot of new residential buildings have gone up that, on an aesthetic level, are changing the face of LA in a way that I’m not hyper-comfortable with. But more importantly, a lot of them are empty.

I wonder whether the focus on building apartments is not truly solving the problem it set out to solve—and whether that might be a result of things being so siloed. It’s important that we don’t look at the city through rose-colored glasses, or let ourselves be blinded by development models that are just not realistic.

One thing I’ve always liked about LA is that, in its own weird way, LA is ahead in having a very permeable network. If the freeways are screwed up, you can take surface streets home. You pass through neighborhoods you haven’t seen before that are vital and working. Things like Waze are creating new networks through the city, which perhaps nobody could have accommodated or planned for.

But it still presents an opportunity. If there is a new wave of development, like in Downtown and other areas, there should be a willingness to look at it holistically, so that we don’t oversupply one particular type of product.

For example, there’s so much retail being built downtown now—because it’s a requirement that these towers have podium retail—that I think we’re going to find a lot of empty shopping environments and empty street retail soon. We already have that all over Hollywood—new developments with empty stores.

I don’t think these developments promote anything very happy at all. They just promote density with an empty street life. I do think we could take a more holistic approach to how we develop, and not create blanket restrictions on developers regardless of where they’re located—particularly in terms of the pedestrian relationship to community services.

Lastly, what would you like to hear from city leadership about planning, growth, and development in LA that is currently missing?

Mike Ellis: Everything is an opportunity. I keep hearing, “We’ve got a crisis with housing; therefore, build more housing.” I’d like to hear, “We have a chance to make this city better.”

There’s no question: LA is a unique and amazing city on the world stage. But let’s make it better. And that, in my opinion, does not mean hiring one starchitect to do a project here and another starchitect to do a project there. We have plenty of that in the city. What we need is a collective approach to making this city a better place, and understanding what principles can help us reach those goals.

Tim Magill: I just want to hear, “5+design, you’re hired.”

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.