Can the L.A. River Surmount the Current Rising Tide of Bullshit?

Frank Gehry’s anointment to spearhead a new iteration of the master planning of the L.A. River continues to muddy the waters.

I had previously commented that Gehry’s involvement in the river was disturbing for several reasons: his lack of planning experience could be calamitous: further, his recommendations could undermine pending funding, and not the least, his star architect ego and servile supporters could corrupt the river’s hard wrought cooperative spirit.

But some reasoned river advocates are urging Gehry be given a chance; that he could bring needed attention and prompt needed private funding; and he, or more likely the competent team he has assembled, might add something to the effort. So what if there is already an approved master plan that took a decade to craft; it can be improved.

OK, I reluctantly agree, especially if there is a chance it might benefit the river’s revitalization. Let’s see what he does, if anything.

And having observed Frank for nearly 40 years, if his effort doesn’t match expectations, consistent with his m.o. he’ll probably just blame politics, the river corporation, FOLAR and the unappreciative community, someone in his office, and of course the carping media. Anyone but himself.

But I do feel compelled to lend some perspective if not a little needed churlish candor to the prospect of Gehry’s attempt at planning, taking to heart a cue from another commentator, Jon Stewart, who declared in his popular television program’s finale, beware of bullshit.

This is good advice certainly in the current political burlesque, and also I would add in the current planning and design arena. Prompted and polished by a gaggle of marketing and public relation pros, our celebrity architects and their wannabes do seem to have down the crowd-pleasing catch phrases.

Now clichés to the discerning, these include the absolute imperative for design to be “sustainable,’ “user friendly,” and “contextual.” (For how they are used in sentences just audit any urban planning confab.

You have to listen carefully what they are saying, but more carefully look at what they are doing or designing. Sometime it is just the opposite. That is what I liked when I moved on to become a television reporter, where the adage was, don’t tell me, show me.

I remember too well Gehry during the intense competition for Disney Hall hyping his design as the city’s living room, and how it would be open to the community and energize the adjoining streets.

It was one of the reasons why as the critic then for the L.A Times I championed the design, only to see the public garden sited a poor inaccessible three stories up, the critical First Street frontage an unfriendly wall hiding a private patio for the patrons, and the corner stairs a stage for automobile commercials. Street access and egress is compromised, as is the lobby.

Still, the hall is a striking piece of sculpture, an iconic design popular among tourists for selfies and for those who can afford tickets to be seen. Its urban design is not very urbane.

Also I have to be wary of Gehry’s dependence on technology, in particular touting his team’s 3D mapping of the 51-mile waterway, and how it could aid a sweeping master plan vision.

I personally hope Gehry and his entourage spends a little less time at their computers and at self-congratulating conferences, and more time experiencing the river and its adjoining communities.

I am reminded of a lesson from a landscape architect I once worked with, Dan Kiley, who when I rolled out the maps of a park restoration project, suggested instead we walk the site. “Listen and look and it will tell us what needs to be done. Not some images on paper. Beside it always good to get out of the office.” Good advice

 

Gehry shallow dives into the L.A. River

To be aired 8.15 on 97.5 KBU, and streamed everywhere, on radiomalibu.net

 

To advocates of the revitalization of the L.A. River, as I am, the disclosure that star architect Frank Gehry has been presumptuously retained to master plan the 51 mile expanse of the waterway has to be disturbing.

To observers of the L.A..’s parochial political and celebrity stricken design scenes, as I also am, the disclosure and the blessing by a haughty City Hall and its synchopants, is not surprising.

This after all is Hollywood obsessed L.A., where style over substance prevails; where indeed the allure of Gehry’s international eminence, and promise of photo ops tends to stupefy an increasingly vainglorious Mayor Garcetti, as well as the celebrity dazed herd.

And then there is the ever avaricious Gehry, who beneath his Canadian rooted modest airs, is very much the L.A. based competitive professional; and despite his 86 years, a hungry tiger pacing in a cage, waiting for the next piece of meat, the next commission.

This is particularly disturbing because, bluntly, Gehry has had little design success beyond his iconic singular structures, which for all their puffed up publicity in turn have shown scant sensitivity to context, climate and community use.

The urban design sensibilities demanded by the revitalized L.A. River is not Frank’s forte, as I have commented in past commentaries, nor has he displayed any flair for landscape architecture, particularly the profession’s increasing concerns for sustainability and public use.

His involvement also is disturbing because the river already has been scrupulously master planned in a long, arduous process, dating back a quarter of a century and involving myriad interest groups.

These have included neighborhood activists, committed environmentalists, public spirited designers and high minded citizens. The broad effort has been very much grass roots, democratic with a small “d,” at times awkward and clumsy but always transparent –something Gehry involvement on the L.A. River to date definitely has not been.

Despite statements to the contrary, Gehry has never shown the patience and fortitude needed to work with affected communities and public interest groups, preferring singular developers or elitist institutions. And he can be quite short with the media, especially if its critical

It is no wonder that the founding non-profit group, Friends of the Los Angeles River, declined to endorse the Gehry City Hall initiative, its respected Lewis McAdams declaring it “ the epitome of wrong-ended planning. It’s not coming from the bottom up. It’s coming from the top down.”

There also was real concern that whatever changes Gehry might wrought to the already approved Master Plan might confuse and splinter its hard won broad support, and jeprodise the critical federal funding pending in Congress.

That would be a tragedy, and something Los Angeles present and future cannot afford. Hopefully, the Gehry initiative will prove a stunt., the architect will withdraw to polite applause, to rest on his many laurels, and the revitalization of the river moe forward.

I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the City Observed, on 97.5 KBU, and radiomalibu.net

 

 

A Wolf in the Malibu City Hall hen house

If you live, and care about Point Dume as a community, and Malibu, as a city, if not just your property values, you have to be sensitive to the overt politics swirling in and above a confused City Hall.

I am, and so I said in my weekly commentary, on radiomalibu.net and 97.5 KBU. (also can be read on cityobserved.com)

The latest municipal machination has to be the surreptitious announcement late last Friday – not incidentally the preferred time for controversial press release – of the hiring of Chris Deleau as the city’s planning manager.

There was little question that the amiable Bonnie Blue was not up to the job in which she had been recently appointed; indeed was a deer in the headlights during the recent city conflagrations, as has been most of the skittish city staff.

But DeLeau for all his affability and, yes, planning experience, is a primarily a private sector lobbyist and a most questionable choice, coming as he does from the consultant firm of Schmitz and Associates.

Talk about a wolf being invited into the hen house.

The firm and its indefatigable director Don Schmitz has been very much a presence in Malibu, seen at almost every meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission, as well on the fringes of several task forces, ever ready with a quip and comment.

Principal among those he represents has been the sprawling La Paz development, which was one of the projects that prompted Measure R.

Very much also a presence acting as Schmitz’s gofer and echo through the protracted planning process has been DeLeau.

Recuse himself as he may, Deleau sitting behind a dominant desk at City Hall has to send a powerful message to staff as well as to the public.

In my opinion as a experienced planner and journalist, what we have with this appointment is nothing less than the politicalization of City Hall.

I was willing to give the city the benefit of the doubt over its mishandling of a confusing Measure R, which I fear will not be the best matrix to judge a large development, especially if well packaged as Whole Foods promises to be.

But then there was the pathetic abdication of the city council and city staff of its planning prerogatives to the slick consultants of developers; that is what triggered the last minute effort to save the hallowed trees at PCH and Cross roads.

Yes, they were saved, but a lot of aggravation would have been avoided if the city was doing its job.

Then there was the staff fumbling and the council’s feeble-minded embrace of the fabricated traffic studies, and once again showing little initiative.

There also is a history of the staff not responding to resident queries, and the council quick to denigrate anyone challenging their questionable judgment.

And now this appointment. Several weeks ago this commentary was taken to task for describing the city council as timorous. The phrase I would now use is inept.

Time for a recall?