June 30, 1992 - From the June, 1992 issue

An Open Letter to Peter Uebberoth by Michael Pittas:

Over the past few months, The Planning Report has offered a series of “open letters” to new L.A. Planning Director Con Howe. This month, in the aftermath of the riots, we offer an “open letter” to Rebuild L.A. President Peter Uebberoth, written by Michael Pittas, an architect/planner with TGP, Inc.

Dear Mr. Ueberroth:

Given the enormity of the rebuilding process facing Los Angeles, I offer up this grab bag of ideas — a set of prescriptions, proposals, and ideas which may find currency among those who lead the charge to rebuild.

We Need Band-Aids, Too

From major structures to thousands of neighborhood shops, there is almost no area of central Los Angeles untouched by fire and looting. Dealing with the disastrous and pervasive “visual” consequences of the conflagration needs to be a high priority.

In the short term many sites, particularly those which were occupied by concentrations of small stores, now look like a mouth full of damaged teeth. Three stores and a burnout here, five shops and two burnouts there, etc. These burned-out shops will be bulldozed and shortly will become garbage-strewn lots protected by chain link fences and razor wire, or worse yet, unsightly construction fences adorned by graffiti.

The “riots” of the mid-sixties, over a quarter-century ago, still remain with us in the form of burn-outs, abandonments, and rubble. Newarks’ Central Ward has been hardly altered from the time of its disturbances. DC’s Northeast is a landscape of scars, and Detroit replaced its rubble with acres of unneeded parking lots. If there is one lesson we should have learned out of that experience, it is that despite all good intentions, rebuilding is a terribly slow process. Even if we began today with all the capital available we would still have a majority of sites unbuilt a decade from now. Even the first new buildings will take at least a year to erect despite streamlined permit processes.

We can’t afford to allow this to happen. We have a very small window of good will, perhaps no more than six months, before the inevitable backlash from the riots. The constant visual reminders demoralize and defeat. The visual landscape needs to be altered immediately to maintain purpose and morale. Although ways will undoubtedly be found to expedite the lengthy building process and to marshal private and public finance to lead the charge, the question remains as to what do we do in the meantime to temporarily ameliorate the negative impacts of blackened rubble and twisted steel on our cityscape.

Good Fences

As a substitute for chain link and construction fences, Rebuild L.A. should use temporary two-dimensional facades to help create “fill in” burn-out sites adjacent to viable shops. Yes, the proposal is very much like set design, but it is far less elaborate. This approach would be used most frequently where one-story “street fronting” businesses were burned-out, rather than for burn-outs of larger markets.

How would it work? Community organizations would approach affected shop owners to determine their interest in the facade program. Those affected will meet with volunteer artists and architects on site. They will be provided with a portfolio of ideas — a “kit of parts” from which to choose. Property owners could choose between a facade or a mural. Where there is a preference for a facade (Trompe L’oeil), then questions of configuration, color, style, etc. will be determined. Where there is a preference for the work of muralists, photos of several muralists’ work would be provided.

In either case, the architect, artists or designers on the project would provide layout and organizing skills only. The actual work would be done by neighborhood people. There are several distinguished muralists in Los Angeles who have successfully worked in this way, and numerous architects who have demonstrated commitment to community work.

Good fences make good neighbors. With cooperation from owners of burnt-out structures and the active consent of adjacent store owners and their neighbors, this approach may make good sense as a way to accomplish something rapidly and at low costs to mitigate the negative effects of burn-outs on the economic viability and property value in the neighborhoods. 

To be fair, there will be those who will say that such a proposal covers up society’s sins which should remain as a permanent reminder. Others will say that the scheme is a cover-up to avoid dealing with the problems of rebuilding, and still others will remind us of L.A.’s reputation as Tinsel Town or Potemkin of the West.

This is very much a “Band-Aid” strategy analogous to the Red Cross’ emergency role, except that in this case we are providing emergency care for the City’s all too evident wounds. It is far from perfect; no strategy to deal with this issue could be. But it is an approach which may allow the serious business of rebuilding to happen in a more thoughtful and systematic way.

Within a matter of months, thousands of burn-outs and board-ups would become colorful, bright spots on the cityscape. We’d be able to pass these sites — knowing full well that they are not meant to disguise — as visual signs of hope for the rebuilding yet to come.

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Triage

Prioritizing — making the hard decisions about what must be done first and what must be deferred — is an inevitable consequence of limited resources and limited will. Choices need to be made.

Some will be tragically difficult — particularly those that ask us to make choices between investing in human capital and physical rebuilding of buildings. While I fortunately do not need to make such choices, I can provide some sense of how we might approach some of the basics of rebuilding.

Sustenance

Perhaps we’ve also learned other things from the ‘60s and from the experience of April 29th upheaval. Importing commercial symbols of mainstream America (shopping malls, supermarkets, etc.) provides terrific targets for people to loot and burn. People simply have no investment in these structures and the goods and services they provide.

The shopping malls become the protected enclaves of the upwardly mobile — unavailable and unaffordable to others. And strip commercial liquor/food stores are universally disliked when they gouge to pay insurance and offer little in variety or service. Los Angeles is enormously over-zoned with marginal strip commercial zoning.

If we are to avoid reimposing these building types, we may need to find a more indigenous form for the provision of convenient retail service centers to neighborhoods. Maybe we need to rethink and expand on minimalls rather than abandon them. As incubators for first time entrepreneurs they serve a very crucial function in Los Angeles.

Let’s seriously think about eliminating  a large portion of strip zoned commercial and reconcentrate a portion of it in community service center shopping areas, logically and locally planned, creating a new form of minimall. These new centers would be sufficient size to sustain community-based enterprises but small enough not to be seen as foreign elements in the fabric of the neighborhood.

Shelter

We fortunately do not have to confront the problem of rebuilding housing on a very large scale as was the case in the ‘60s. That does not mean, however, that we cannot use this tragedy to deal constructively with the ever-increasing problem of housing in Los Angeles. Tens of thousands of our citizens live in overcrowded dwellings, in garages, or on the street. Thousands continue to flow in annually.

While we’re thinking about eliminating commercially zoned areas, let’s seriously think about turning these thoroughfares’ street frontage to more intense housing uses. This, in turn, could sustain and nurture the small shops which every neighborhood needs but often can’t support for lack of critical density. Some refer to this approach as mixed-use development — I see it as common sense.

While we may never reintroduce the grand boulevard of the past, in this way, we can learn enough from history to do it right. We need Jane Jacobs “eyes on the street” on the Fairfax’s, Florence’s, and Figueroa’s as well as the adjacent low density residential streets.

In sum, then, I offer some small suggestions and some modest ones — from band-aids to housing. Let’s put to an end a truism first stated by James Reston, “America is now an overdeveloped urban nation with underdeveloped systems for dealing with its cities’ problems.”

Michael Pittas

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