October 30, 1989 - From the October, 1989 issue

It’s About Time: Los Angeles Needs Design Review for Project Approval

David Duncan, former planning deputy for Councilman Michael Woo and current a consultant with the Envicom Corporation, argues that the City of Los Angeles needs Design Review. This urban design concept has been utilized in other American cities to contribute to a structured approach to the City's aesthetics. Duncan goes on to lay out his three principles for Design Review. 

Design Review, a concept now generally foreign to the City of Los Angeles is finally making its appearance, and not too soon. Long a given in many Southern California cities, as well as in most major American cities, Los Angeles has until now resisted this next logical step in improving the overall aesthetics of the city. While considered yet another burdensome level of control and regulation by some, if developed properly, design review can become a means to streamline and better define a poorly designed system of project review and approval.

It is clear while driving around the city how desperately we need to give direction to how and what we build. The city is constantly rebuilding and with this change the current architectural styles and gimmicks are splattered over an already existing eclecticism. This eclectic spirit and sense of adventure need and should be diminished, but a layer of order and contextualism is needed. How we can accomplish this is by formulating urban design standards, for the city as a whole, but also tailored to distinct neighborhoods and districts.

The City Planning Department has embarked on an ambitious effort to write design standards, but Los Angeles by its size and complexity, will require time and a concerted effort of staff and city officials to complete this work. Certain basic principles should guide how the final design standards are drafted.

1. Think Big

We often hear talk of the “world class city,” “capital of the Pacific Rim” as the current catch-phrases for Los Angeles. If we are to aspire to this greatness, then let us build for such. This means crafting design standards that encourage excellence in design, attention to details and promoting a sense of place and connectedness to buildings and the streetscape.

2. Think Small

The district; the neighborhood: the block—this is the level where we have to pay the most attention. Take a tour around some neighboring cities—Pasadena, Claremont, Riverside. Look especially at their older commercial and residential districts. There is a commonality of scale, texture, and design (while still being eclectic) that makes even the layperson aware of being in a special place.

There are scores of Los Angeles neighborhoods and districts that have a special feel, an ambience. It is essential to provide these neighborhoods with the protection and enhancement that design standards can give.

3. Be Explicit


One of the most common expressions that a building or developer has to a city official is “give me the bottom line” or “just clearly state the rules of the game.” Design standards must be formulated in a way that both the developer and interested citizen know what the rules are, and can therefore judge the outcome.

The design guidelines therefore need to express the vision of the city, the district, and the neighborhood so that each new project is built within a compatible context of design and scale. While we look west as a leader of Pacific Rim cities, we must still look eastward for examples of cities that work from an urban design perspective.

Boston and Chicago have a wealth of unique neighborhoods and districts that are tied together (while built over long periods of time) through common design, themes of street wall, street-level ambience (articulated facades, ground floor activity, storefronts), and landscaping (especially street trees) that pervade many districts of these cities. London is quite similar to Los Angeles in one way, through its pattern of smaller centers and neighborhoods.

Uniqueness and neighborhood diversity is a London hallmark, like Los Angeles, but similarities end when you compare excellence of individual buildings and their seamless contextual relationships between buildings.

A recent publication of the International Berlin Exhibition (IBA), an extensive and far-reaching urban revitalization program in West Berlin, reveals the extent of the influence that well-crafted and implementable urban design standards can have on a city. The IBA is a highly successful effort to mend a city still feeling the effects of World War II's massive bombings. Blocks have been rewoven through sensitive infill, new commercial and residential districts have been created through careful patterns of the past.

New landmarks have been created that complement and enhance the old city around them. Los Angeles can find much to emulate in the broad vision that West Berlin has articulated.

The challenge to establish urban design standards and a vision for the built future of Los Angeles is formidable, but do-able. There is already a sense of place to the city that has yet to be capitalized on; if we can define that sense of place, define our unique districts such as Hollywood, Los Feliz, San Pedro, or Lincoln Heights (among many), and craft standards to  enhance their setting, our “world class city” can truly emerge.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.