May 15, 2006 - From the May, 2006 issue

Charting L.A.'s Course: Mark Rios & Martha Welborne Offer Insight for L.A.'s Public Officials

Any list of L.A.'s virtues invariably includes diversity-cultural, socioeconomic, and, of course, aesthetic. L.A.'s design community includes countless perspectives, but all too often, the city's built form amounts to a collection of gems and not a cohesive, impressive whole. To help L.A.'s leaders envision what L.A. can and should look like, TPR was pleased to speak with representatives of different ends of L.A.'s design spectrum: architect Martha Welborne, managing director of the Grand Avenue Committee, and architect/landscape architect Mark Rios, of Rios Clementi Hale.

Martha Welborne

The city of Los Angeles has recently confirmed a new city planning director, Gail Goldberg, and Santa Monica is in the process of choosing its new planning director. What should their mission be? Should they only mediate competing land interests, or should they focus on creating and promoting more livable, viable neighborhoods?

Martha Welborne: They should definitely focus on creating more livable cities, and I would go beyond just neighborhoods and talk about, certainly in the case of Los Angeles, the full city. I know this city better than Santa Monica and know the regulatory and political climate here better than Santa Monica, but in both cases I think with growth, traffic congestion, and increasing demand for housing as well as other land uses, the major goal is to maintain livability while we accommodate growth.

Mark Rios: I think the planning director should set forth a sustainability platform, which should require that every project have some sort of sustainable agenda or strategy. That might address issues of heat in the city, orientation, and water. I'm not saying that every project necessarily needs to be LEED-certified-but I think every project should have some sort of strategy for how they're making our city more sustainable. I think its something that the planning director could take a stance on, which would make every project a just little bit better in the city.

We have seen a number of commentaries and obituaries re the passing of Jane Jacobs, and TPR is carrying one this month by Sam Hall Kaplan. How significant, and relevant, is her contribution to the planning challenges facing a metropolis like Los Angeles?

MW: Her contribution was fundamental to the professions of planning, urban design, and architecture. I have thought of her a lot as I've worked on the Grand Avenue project, which is in some ways just the kind of project she would hate-but I can justify what we're doing and understand what we're doing in the context of today. I think the question is appropriate because one of the most important things we're trying to do with this project is to create a real regional center, and the showcase of that will be the park, which will be free, open, and available to everybody.

These days, there is just not enough funding from government sources, and funding for the park is hard to come by from philanthropic sources. So we've crafted an unusual financing mechanism for the park by using funds that are generated by the project. To create enough funding as just a starting point for the park, you have to have a sizable enough project to make that work.

Also these days, I think to create a new center, which is what we are trying to do with Downtown, you need to make a splash, you need to have a project of substantial size and a lot of different uses and venues that people want to come to. I think the world is a little different than when Jane Jacobs was in her heyday, but I think her watchwords are important for us and will be forever.

The opening lines of Nicolai Ousroussoff's appraisal in the New York Times read, "Time passes, Jane Jacobs, the great lover of cities who stared down Robert Moses's bulldozers and saved many of New York's most precious neighborhoods, died last week at 89. It's a loss for those who value urban life, but her death may also give us permission to move on, to let go of the obsessive belief that Mrs. Jacobs held the answer to every evil that faces the contemporary city," which, in a sense, is small neighborhood preservation. What is your reaction to the NY Times' appraisal of Jacobs?

MR: I think the strength of her work was in observing the patterns of our lifestyle-the interrelation between where we live, where we work, who we see, and how we connect as a society. I think the key issues are not necessarily to try to keep small, tiny neighborhoods, but to think about how to create that same kind of connective experience in more dense places. I look at her and think about this incredible observer of social patterns and I want Los Angeles to be a series of places that could be denser but still reinforce and support those kinds of connective patterns.

Ousroussoff went on to write that the "problems of the 20th century city were vast and complicated, and Ms. Jacobs had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation's dependence on cars, which remain critical to development in American cities. She could not see that the same freeway that isolated her beloved working class North End from downtown Boston also protected it from gentrification, and she never understood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its freeways and its strange interweaving of man-made and natural environments." How do Jacob's insights relate to the realities of metropolitan life in Los Angeles?

MW: That's a good question, which might bring us back to the neighborhoods. Gail Goldberg could think about Jane Jacob's message in terms of our neighborhoods-it's little-known that Los Angeles has very strong neighborhoods, and many of them. It would be wise for the new planning director and her staff to remember to think of the city that way and to encourage the interconnections that happen at that scale. Also, these days we have the neighborhood councils, which are still forming their power base and creating their own ways of being effective. I think it might be instructive to think of them and their mission in a way that would reinforce what we have all learned from Jane Jacobs.

Mark, your firm is designing a number of projects in Los Angeles, from the new California Endowment headquarters to primary centers in neighborhoods throughout L.A. How can the planning department complement and encourage your firm's best work?

MR: It should encourage interaction between multiple property owners. As each little piece of the city is built there needs to be a real strong desire to look next door and communicate, whether it's a discussion or some physical solution like trees, or other site feature. I think that there might be, maybe not requirements, but directions and suggestions by the planning department to promote closer conversations between adjacent property owners about how to make their little neighborhood better or stronger.

The city has also chosen both a new planning and transportation general manager, and a new CEO for the CRA. How can they best work together to make L.A. a more livable city?

MW: Those three new positions should meet on a weekly basis and perhaps carve in to their schedules one full morning to prioritize issues and make sure that they are aligned. Clearly, linking transportation and land use is something that we have never really done very well. In the past I have reviewed all of the many layers of transportation plans that are done, starting with the MTA, but then also the city has a director of transportation-so many groups have their own.

At a county-wide level, every other city has their own, and they don't link up. They don't all match what LADOT is doing either. I think coordination is just essential. How can you possibly achieve anything if the various governments aren't coordinated? I am not sure who should take the lead-maybe they should toss a coin and figure that out -but clearly the planning director and the new transportation director have a lot to discuss and work out.

MR: Martha's idea is fantastic. To sit down, even for two hours every Friday morning, would be the best improvement to the city I could imagine.

MW: When I went to Brazil in 1999 and took then-Mayor Dick Riordan and several county supervisors, we visited with Jaime Lerner, then the mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. Lerner had his "thinking" office and then he had his downtown office. He created what he called an environmental center, and it was literally out in the woods and he would go there in the mornings and not let anyone bother him and he would plan the city. Then he would come back in for the afternoon and he would do whatever he had to do to make his plans work. There's a lot of power in that idea and it's hard for all of us to do, but if they could meet regularly it might help solve a lot of problems.


Mark, since you practice and teach landscape architecture, why don't you elaborate on what your profession might contribute to the design of the city of L.A.?

MR: I'd like to talk about it from two points of view. One is the ecological landscape, and then the cultural landscape. I think that we're all looking at the systems of ecology: sun, water, soil, and how they make more sustainable places. The issues that are really huge, that landscape architecture is wrestling with now, are really about water drainage, repercolation, and how landscape can help mitigate the heat gain factors of the city. Our students at USC are looking at how we plant the sides of buildings, the tops of buildings, how we break through the hard urban cover to have areas where water can repercolate and recharge the water table.

As for the cultural landscape, we all enjoy living in Los Angeles because its so culturally diverse. One of the things I am most concerned about is how we support that and let it continue to evolve in an organic way. I look at Manhattan, for example, and I think that its ethnic communities are very thematic and kind of artificial. In Los Angeles, ethnic and multicultural neighborhoods are real, active, living places. How they will persist admidst gentrification and density is a really complicated issue.

Martha, TPR couldn't do this interview without also mentioning your role with the Grand Avenue Committee and Franks Gehry's recently presented scheme for Grand Avenue. Is there a way re Grand Ave. to direct media coverage away from the politics and personality issues that always dominate land use decisions in Los Angeles?

MW: We're at a great point where a lot of projects are being built, designed, and planned. It hasn't always been that way in my 12 years of living here. For us to get the front page above the fold of the L.A. Times put planning and design in the forefront. It's being designed within the context of not only regional growth, but also the amazing transformation within Downtown Los Angeles. I think that a lot of the growth Downtown has been incremental and maybe not on the radar screen of most of most of the populace, but those of us who work down here or are devoted to Downtown are certainly aware of what's going on. Maybe it takes a few more notable projects to make people aware.

Planning was not included in the mayor Villaraigosa's State of the City address-not that he's not interested; he's spoken eloquently about this in the past. But how do you both put planning into the daily dialogue of the city's civic and political leaders? If metro L.A. will be adding two times the population of Chicago in the next 25 years, shouldn't planning and design be in the lexicon of regional leaders and at the top of their agenda?

MW: It should be, but I think people often react based on the urgency of a need. They react to problems that exist, rather than thinking ahead. I think the easy way to put planning into the lexicon is through the transportation problems we're having. They're so closely linked that you immediately start thinking of land use when you think of the transportation problems. Planning is all about creating a better city: a more sustainable, livable city, as Mark rightly points out. We could start with what everyone agrees is a problem.

I know the mayor has said many times that when he was campaigning the one issue that came up at every meeting was: "Can't you fix the traffic and create better transit?" We all know that we can't build our way out of the traffic problem. The only solution is to build smarter and to create more rapid transit. I think that it is high time we just go about solving that problem.

Next month L.A. hosts the American Institute of Architects annual national convention. What do you hope the AIA delegates and guests will see and experience when they visit Los Angeles?

MR: Variety and diversity. I don't know any other place in the world where as many different types of places and people and forms of architecture all intermingle. It's a very exciting time in our development of the city to be here and to be experiencing the world community that is represented in Los Angeles.

MW: I totally agree with Mark. I know the people at the convention will probably be concentrated more on Downtown than anywhere else. I would also encourage them to take their own tours of Downtown and see all the incredible new architecture and historic architecture; there's a real mix even right here in the heart of the city. I would love for them to tell us of what they would do with Los Angeles. This city, more than any I've ever lived in, is so open to ideas and challenges; I don't know how we would structure it, but I think it would be wonderful with all these architects coming into town to capture and consider their thoughts.

If you have special friends coming to L.A. in June for AIA convention, where are you going to take them?

MR: I am going to give them a whirlwind tour of all the neighborhoods in L.A. and I am going to have them eat too many meals, five different restaurants in one day, and have snacks at each one of them.

MW: I was going to say the same thing: I'll take them out to eat. There are so many fabulous restaurants, and it's a great way to see the city.

Unacceptable answer. You both are architects and planners!

MW: I know-we both think about food, that's pretty funny. The AIA magazine recently asked, "what would you tell the architects coming to town to do if they have one afternoon off?" I said, "no question, go to a matinee at Disney Hall." Experience the building with the music.

MR: I'd take them to the diverse communities and neighborhoods. I'd take them to Silver Lake, Venice, the Fairfax district, Koreatown; Olvera Street. We'd really be moving around the city, experiencing its particular character.


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