December 4, 2014 - From the December, 2014 issue

Cole: Successful Placemaking Arises From Dynamic Pedestrian Environments, Not 'Starchitecture'

The California Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism recently honored LA Deputy Mayor Rick Cole with its annual “Paul Crawford Award.”  Crawford was a statewide planning expert who led the way in promoting “form-based coding” to replace traditional single-use zoning. Cole was highlighted for his “administrative and political leadership” in the successful revitalization of Pasadena, Azusa, and Ventura—and his current work promoting sustainability in the City of Los Angeles. TPR spoke with him to ask how his new job fits into his longtime efforts to promote livability at the neighborhood, city, and regional levels.


Rick Cole

"The media promotes a stale and one-dimensional portrait of urban life.” -Rick Cole

The Congress for the New Urbanism is made up primarily of architects, planners, environmentalists, and developers and focuses on the built environment. Without formal training in architecture or planning, how did you become such a prominent figure in the movement for reshaping urban form?

Rick Cole: My classroom was my hometown of Pasadena. It was a microcosm of the same megatrends that Jane Jacobs identified and dedicated herself to battlingso-called “urban renewal” that destroyed the human-scale fabric of city life; misguided plans to build cities around cars instead of people; abandonment of inner cities for outward suburban sprawl; and top-down master plans that overrode the interests and democratic rights of city residents.

Today, Pasadena is seen as one of the region’s most successful models for urban regeneration, with a thriving downtown that’s a regional economic and cultural hub. Your leadership there on the General Plan laid the foundation for the kind of transit-oriented development that many other cities are now emulating. How do you balance the quality of life concerns of existing residents with the larger imperatives for cities to compete economically?

I think Pasadena and other cities make a compelling case that enhancing community quality of life is not in opposition to economic success. Rather, it is the foundation for sustainable economic success. Growing up in Pasadena, I intuitively believed that healthy neighborhoods are the underpinning of a vibrant economy, not an obstacle to be demolished for speculative real-estate development.

But let’s leave Pasadena aside, because not every city has historic assets like the Rose Parade and Caltech. Look at Paramount or Azusa as case studies. Many similar cities with comparable demographics were ravaged by economic decline and political exploitation, like Bell and Lynwood. The difference is that Paramount and Azusa connected economic development to community development. The last two years I was city manager in Azusa, our neighborhood improvement initiatives powered one of LA County’s least advantaged cities to the top rank in appreciation of assessed property valuesa leap of 19.7 percent in just two years. Amazingly, Azusa ranked number one out of all 88 cities over those two years.

How do you outpace affluent cities like Beverly Hills, or Santa Monica as well as cities that were growing rapidly in population like Lancaster and Palmdale? We did it by pursuing community-based developmentthrough public-private partnerships to reinvest in older neighborhoods. And because of the sensitivity of doing infill development in established communities, we sweated the details of making great places, including insisting on the highest standards of design and materials.

Last month in TPR, Sam Hall Kaplan observed that “most people experience a city at the street level. That aspect of design unfortunately remains an afterthought.” Is Kaplan on target?

Yes, and so was Jane Jacobs! Too many cities remain mesmerized by big plans and big projectsand neglect the elements that create a vibrant pedestrian environment. Rick Caruso has never made that mistake. Cities need to learn from what he’s done inside his wildly successful developments and apply it to the everyday public realm. I used to say to planners that I worked with in Pasadena, Azusa, and Ventura, “Our purpose isn’t to make great plans. It’s to make great places.” When you look at commercial areas that have held their value over decades, whether it is a high-end place like Sunset Plaza in West Hollywood, or a tourist draw like downtown San Clemente, or a neighborhood center like Larchmont Village, you don’t find startling design innovation or “starchitecture.” You find normal buildings that support a dynamic pedestrian realm where the people are the attraction, not “look at me!” architecture.

Those are the lessons embodied in Mayor Garcetti’s Great Streets initiative. By fostering dynamic street life, the Great Streets effort focuses on promising sections of LA’s neglected boulevards to create prosperous, safe, and sustainable neighborhood centers. Over time, those revitalized districts will have a greater cumulative impact on the economic vitality of Los Angeles than any single megaproject.

You recently led Los Angeles officials on one of the monthly Great Street Walks to examine the lessons of Old Pasadena applicable to making great streets in LA. What are some of those lessons?

The most important lesson concerns the essential roles played by private entrepreneurs and community residents. There is, of course, some tension between the two, but that leads to a healthy balance. Look, the first developers, investors, and merchants who rehabbed and occupied the historic buildings in Old Pasadena were taking huge risks. It’s only in retrospect that it looks like a smart play.

Thirty years ago, historic commercial buildings were being bulldozed everywhere. They were dismissed as obsoleteto be replaced by modern, single-use construction, whether for office towers, big box retailers, or shopping centers. To put your life savings into those old buildings and try to bring them back to useful life was not only wildly optimistic, but was literally against the lawor at least the building, zoning, and parking codes of the time. Yet without those pioneers, Old Pasadena would never have come into its own as one of the most vibrant shopping and dining areas in Southern California.

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On the other hand, if the preservationists and the local residents had not fiercely resisted misguided redevelopment, all those buildings would have been demolished, the streets widened, and the soul of that place lost forever. Remember alsoin the early days, it was the local residents who supported the pioneering merchants and businesses, long before the chain stores discovered Old Pasadena. The private entrepreneurs and community residents were the ones who made Old Pasadena the success it is today.

Are there other lessons that Old Pasadena’s success foretells for Los Angeles and other cities?

It’s not so much that Pasadena did everything right as that we learned some common lessons that apply broadly to cities throughout the heart of our region. I think the most important challenge we all face is the widespread narrative that urban revitalization is the same as “gentrification.” The media promotes a stale and one-dimensional portrait of urban life that goes like this: Neglected neighborhood draws artists and hipsters. They gather in trendy coffee shops. Eventually outsiders take over the neighborhood. Sometimes this is told as a fairy tale that ends with everyone sipping $7 lattes, oblivious to displaced businesses and residents. Sometimes this is told as a gothic horror story that results in the death of local character and exile of the poor. If we are going to truly fulfill the promise of urban life in Southern California, we need to write a better story about how to create widespread great placesin ways that benefit existing businesses and residents.

The narrative you cite is certainly familiar. What’s the alternative to the “Sqirl effect” where the local media seize on a hot new restaurant or string of boutiques and proclaim the neighborhood as the next Silverlake?

Again, I think we have to draw on a wider range of examples. Certainly Mayor Garcetti deserves credit for the high-profile comebacks of Hollywood and Silverlake, but very little attention is paid to the success of Atwater Village, also in his City Council district. It has some new upscale businesses – but essentially it has become the revitalized main street of a stable neighborhood, with a wide-range of normal businesses that serve the everyday needs of the local community.

Go to Pacific Avenue in Huntington Park or to Cesar Chavez in Boyle Heights. These are areas where success has come from the transit riders and the local residents literally voting with their feet for an urban commercial corridor instead of distant malls and power centers where you need to drive. I’m convinced that the reason gentrification and displacement are such thorny challenges is not that we have too much revitalizationit’s that we don’t have nearly enough! People of all incomes crave walkability and seek businesses where the merchants know your name, not your PIN. In fact, those kinds of locally serving neighborhood corridors are the potential linchpin of a comprehensive anti-poverty effort that promotes both a higher quality of life and a better standard of living for allespecially for those who are currently squeezed by stagnant wages and rising housing costs.

Is the Garcetti administration pursuing that kind of agenda?

One thing I admire about the mayor is that he tells us, “Let’s celebrate grand openings, not ground breakings.” His emphasis is on delivering results rather than promising them. That’s been the reason for our relentless focus on performance and metrics. It’s a very data-driven strategy. But if you look, you can see the outlines of the same commitment to bringing life back to older neighborhoods that worked so well in his district, except now it is being applied citywide.

First, there’s the minimum wage commitmentwhich will put increased discretionary income into the pockets of precisely the people most likely to spend it right in their own neighborhood. Then there’s the Great Streets initiative, led by my astute colleague Deputy Mayor Doane Liu, which targets 15 boulevards throughout the city, primarily in low and moderate income neighborhoods. The Great Streets locations represent the entire range of demographics across this very diverse city.

The Promise Zone is another opportunity to pursue a place-based poverty reduction strategyand Los Angeles has already had early success with more than $36 million in federal support for Promise Zone initiatives. The administration, with transformative leadership from Deputy Mayor Kelly Bernard and Jan Perry at EWDD, has revamped our WorkSource Centers, partnering with non-profits and the private sector to serve up to 100,000 people a year who are seeking job training and placement. The combination of all these initiatives can lift hundreds of thousands of Angelenos out of poverty and generate new businesses and good jobs in local commercial areas to serve this emerging economic powerhouse. That’s the opposite of trickle-down economics. Instead, it’s a strategy that unlocks our undervalued human and neighborhood assets. It has the potential to sustain vibrant urban neighborhoods in a way that can be a model for all of Southern California.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.