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?

 

 

 

Thinking Small and Other Big Planning Thoughts

Aired 7.25.2015 on public radio KBU.FM, and streamed everywhere:

Some thoughts on the current state of planning, bad and good.

First, the bad. Perhaps one of the most oft used clichés of planners, penned by Daniel Burnham, a famed Chicago architect, is “make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

And the bigger, the better, the flashier the more desirable, for these are the projects that attract the media, especially when served up at well catered press conferences, and dominate the design buzz.

Architecture schools certainly seem to like the showy designs; they bedazzle the star struck students and lend the fawning faculties a false feeling of being au courant, especially if they can cozy up to a celebrity architect.

But frankly, historically, few of these conceits tend to be built, and those that are, these days in Asia and the Mideast, appear corrupted by their coarse commercialism. However, massive and seemingly magnificent, like dinosaurs, I feel; they are doomed to die.

I haven’t been to Dubai yet, but in the studied, slick photos, its overt development looks soulless. And I found projects in an emerging Asia, such as Shanghai’s vaunted Pudong, off putting.

In the west these grand schemes have tended to fall by the wayside, humbled buy hubris and bungling bureaucracies.

Here, these ignominious traits I feel actually serve the public good, and prompts some positive planning news.

I am talking of the increasing interest in human scale design, low tech and low cost solutions: how they serve the every day user, and make cities more livable.

Be they a response to the reduced circumstance of the 21st century, at least for us 99 per centers, or out of the frustration with the current convoluted planning process, community groups appear to be taking more control over their immediate environments.

And so we are seeing parklets popping up on sidewalks, makeshift [plazas carved out of street corners, bike paths elbowing traffic lanes, pedestrians getting the right of ways –generating in once dormant downtowns and elsewhere that long sought sense of place. Hard to define, you know it when you are there.

This desirable urban amenity is explored and encouraged in two books, “How to Study Public Life,” by Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre, details the ideas, opportunities, and challenges, of this bottoms up planning effort in which the authors have been very much involved , Gehl in particular, a sort of Johnny Appleseed of the common sense planning school.

“Tactical Urbanism” by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia , also reviews the history of the planning effort, and adds a wealth of implementation strategies. Both books are well recommended to one and all challenged by this very street wise, humanistic initiative.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Public Safety Succumbs to Parking and Politics

Aired July 18, KBU.FM. More Local Concerns

Why do Malibu residents find City Hall so exasperating?

Here it is, several weeks into the Summer, and Grasswood Avenue on Point Dume is very much a parking lot on beach beckoning days, impassable for emergency vehicles, to the consternation of first responders, and difficult for residents.

It has been several months since a gaggle of Grasswood residents went before the city’s Public Safety Commission, asking that something, anything, be done. The item was duly placed on its agenda; the commission took testimony –noting that it was the largest turnout in memory –and directed the city to come up with several alternatives.

The city came back with a proposal to stripe the street to allow for through traffic, confining parking to the edges where possible. It was approved. The residents placated.

Then came the poison pill. Heeding the concerns of ever-cautious councilperson Laura Rosenthal, the city manager, Jim Thorsen, said that before implementing the improvement, a consenting petition was needed from a majority of the street’s residents. For a public safety measure? That already was unanimously approved?

Some 20 years ago when riding a bike to the Pt. Dume elementary school a students was almost killed by a speeding car at Fernhill and Sea Ranch Way. I recall it took a week or so to get a stop sign erected at the intersection. Other public safety initiatives also have not required a consensus. Indeed, the city’s charter is prefaced by the paramount concern for the “health, safety and welfare” of residents.

Rosenthal had raised the concern that the parking improvements would provoke the wrath of a contentious Coastal Commission who embraces the parking as an enhancement to beach access. However, its establishing statue, Coastal Act, Section 30210, clearly states “maximum access shall be provided consistent with public safety needs.”

It was suggested that the parking constraints should nevertheless be implemented, at least for the Summer, and then weigh the reaction, if any. But City Hall prevailed.

And so a conscientious resident subsequently hosted a meeting to air the issue and garner signatures. The turnout was decent, about two dozen. Some signed, some balked, and some talked, and talked.

The question of whether enough signatures were gathered, and what indeed constitutes enough, was not made clear by the city. The city manager has not answered several queries.

Meanwhile, it has been four months since the residents went before the Public Safety Commission, two months since the constraints were approved, several weeks since the community gathering, and the parking problem on Grasswood persists.

So much for the prime principle of democratic institutions, that they deliver results. It is no wonder that the Malibu City Council meetings are becoming more and more contentious.

This is a slightly edited commentary was aired on 97.5 KBU on July 18.

 

 

 

 

Will Saving The Trees Save Malibu?

aired 6.17

It seems as long as I can remember in my two decades as a concerned citizen of misanthropic Malibu, the coastal city is at a crossroads, literally and figuratively.

The crossroads physically is at the intersection of the Pacific Coast Highway –the PCH –and Cross Creek Road, in what is euphemistically called the Malibu Civic Center. In reality, however, it’s really a clutter of scattered suburban mini malls, the civic element consisting, of an uninviting park, with an isolated library and city hall on its fringe. All have their adjacent segregated parking.

The crossroads in question is not incidentally an accident magnet, marked by a Shell station on the northeast corner, and the south side by a cluster of tall trees, a venerable Sycamore and five Eucalyptus.

Before the city’s Planning Commission the other evening was a plan to upgrade the crossroads, a so-called mitigation to satisfy a condition of approval for a commercial center the city green lighted way back in 2008. Approval of the mitigation would finally put a bow on the elaborate 112,000 square foot package, known as La Paz.

Many in the growing cadre of anti development forces across Malibu thought if the trees could be saved, the mitigation would fail, and therefore project stopped. Not so, contended the developer’s rep, who said he also loved the trees, but try and try again to get Caltrans to agree to an alternative failed.

If anything distinguishes Malibu residents, is that they have seldom heard or heeded the word no. do not They testified for three hours to save the trees, which they saw as a rare icon for a city “and repeatedly quoted from its land use plan the historical willingness of residents “to sacrifice urban and suburban conveniences in order to protect that environment and lifestyle, and to preserve unaltered natural resources and rural characteristics;”

This resonated with the commission, which came up with it thought is a Solomon–like decision. It approved the mitigation needed for public safety, but with an amendment to somehow save the trees. A Caltrans functionary there was typically evasive.

The commission in its decision suggested several modification that could be explored, including narrowing the lanes, taking a slice off the shell by relocating or eliminating one bank of pumps.

Let me add that this could be viable, if Shell was confronted with the alternative of losing all to eminent domain.

Putting on my planner’s hat, let me further suggest that PCH from the bridge over Malibu Creek to Webb way can be treated as a downtown Main Street, such as it is Laguna Beach, Corona Del Mar among other coastal towns. With speed limits lowered from the present 45 to 25, and cross walks and sidewalks lit, Legacy Park edged to become more inviting, among other improvements, the scene also could lend itself to a more amendable civic identity.

Also raised at the commission was the question why was the city not taking more initiative in exploring alternatives and lobbying for them with Cal trans; why in these cases why the city also seems to be yielding to the applicant and their lobbyists.

This question places the city at a figurative crossroads. Will the city council with and the city bureaucracy step up and become proactive and less timorous in the fulfilling its obligations, particularly in the wake of a more demanding electorate? The passage of measure R certainly was a message that all is not well in Malibu. So was the commission hearing Monday night.

Ever Desirable and Threatened Malibu

Aired 6.13.15

Today, its my ever real estate desirable Malibu, where the planning commission and council are under pressure pondering the future of the civic center.

As the heat of the summer builds, and the heat of development bubbles , focus is on two proposed projects: a whole foods market and shops sweetened by a park, and the second, a commercial cluster that actually was approved by the city in 2008, but still must resolve some environmental issues.

Whatever, we can expect these developments will be with us for some time, tied up by appeals and law suits.

Meanwhile, a citizens task force is completing a draft of design guidelines for new commercial development, which most likely will recommend further study, on a broader plan , to weave a more attractive and accessible center, for residents as well as tourists.

But this continuing debate over the civic center can be distracting, for Malibu, after all, is primarily a residential community, which to be sure is also under development pressure, one project at a time. And this being a desired address for the deep pocket crowd, where big is considered better, the projects sadly are often egregious.

I feel they are compromising Malibu as much as the excessive commercial.

Consider the proposal of 29042 Cliffside Dr to be aired before the planning commission Monday. It takes a bad faux Mediterranean style house and attempts to convert it to a bad faux modernist structure.

From my perspective as an architecture critic, the design looks cheap.

I also feel the indicated construction of 49% is a blatant attempt to have the project declared a remodel and not a new structure, with its additional reviews and fees. The result is what I would label a macmansion .

However, my prime objection is based on my experience as the past chair of the city”s View Preservation Task Force, and from years as a planning consultant, to private corporations and public agencies.

I fear that if this application is approved, and however it compromises the blue water view of any neighboring property, it will also clearly affect their property values. That in turn will constitute what is known in planning as a taking; the taking away of value from one party to benefit another. This could be the basis for a costly law suit against the city.

My view is not affected, but if those of my neighbors are, and with the result of lowering their property values, mine also would be affected, and also that of all Malibu. Macmansions are a plague to be avoided. Tune in next week for the results

Im Sam Hall Kaplan, on 97.5 KBU and Radio Malibu, dot com.

 

The Promise of the L.A. River

Aired 5.30. 2015

Today, some thoughts on the perennial potential of the L.A. River.

Prompting me was attending a recent workshop under the banner of Yale’s annual Day of Service, which had gathered a well-intentioned gaggle of talents to brainstorm an arts project to grace the river.

Orchestrated by Elaine Rene Weisman, an architect who has been involved in several River related projects, and aided by Esther Margulies, the river’s fractured past, and present problems and promise, were put into perspective.

Several loosely defined art projects and venues were suggested, and are to be further explored, with eventually one selected bearing the imprimatur of Yale, to be sited, designed and funded.

If the river generates anything, it is the hope that such efforts can be pursued, individually, with each its own advocates, and in time be strung together to become the region’s focal point it once was when it attracted settlers to the Southland some 250 years ago.

To be sure, there is an ambitious plan for the 51-mile waterway slicing through a multitude of municipalities. Displayed is the promise of promenades, bike paths, pedestrian bridges and so called “opportunity areas” for convenient food stands and much needed housing.

The renderings are engaging, as is the plan and other pronouncements from the usual think tank sinecures.

But given the region’s fractious political history, the plan cannot be considered more than a long range blueprint. We are talking here 50 years or so implementing a variety of comprehensive improvements to make the River a prized regional resource.

And no one seems to know exactly where, when and how the needed funds will be forthcoming, beginning with the one billion dollars plus promised by the federal government.

As for Los Angeles stepping up to the plate, as those with institutional memories remind us, the city is notoriously long on promises, and short on delivery, particularly under term limits where politicians play musical chairs and toot their horns, while projects languish.

That is why most of us long time River advocates are looking with humble hope to individual projects such as the Yale initiative.

And personally, I like small public projects, spaces and places that are comfortable, clean and safe, where you can also if need be keep an eye on the kids.

I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the city observed, heard on KBU 97.5 fm, and streaming everywhere.

 

It’s the traffic, Jake, not the architecture.

Today,, the topic is traffic, a fact of life on the constant minds of people who drive anywhere in Southern California, and that is most people.

And traffic also above all is the tail that wags the development dog, the bottom line in those endless neighborhood battles, be it in a city or suburb.

Forget design and architecture, it is what how much traffic will be generated by whatever project is proposed, not how it is going to look and how it might serve the users and their community settings.

That is certainly the case in my misanthropic Malibu, whose major artery, its main street, is the Pacific Coast Highway.

Known locally as the PCH, it is basically a single road leading into and out of, and through, the 21 mile, one mile wide city, edged by the ocean to the west, and the Santa Monica mountains to the east.

Think of the traffic as too much tooth paste in a constricted tube labeled Malibu.

That wouldn’t be too bad if the PCH served just the city’s 13,000 residents, but an estimated 80,000 vehicles pass through it daily, most to and from a burgeoning City of Santa Monica to the south, and the sprawling L.A. basin beyond.

And on sunny summer weekends the area’s storied coast attracts some 300,000 more-when the sandy beaches beckon – the traffic and the parking be damned.

The result is gridlock, aggravated by at least a major accident a day, more on holidays., including an inordinate number of fatalities.

Most Malibu residents generally stay at home on weekends, avoiding the PCH like a plague.

The PCH is the bane of Malibu; unquestionably the number one complaint of residents, and visitors, too, a dark cloud in an otherwise bright real estate heaven.

The accidents, the gridlock and the general miserable driving conditions spurred increasingly shrill complaints of residents,, which in turn prompted the city aided by state and federal funding, to order a major study to see what could be done to make the PCH safer, and smooth the flow of traffic.

After several years of site specific engineering, the study is now complete. It is an exacting nearly 900 page document that fine tunes almost every foot of the PCH.

Recommended are some 150 improvements with a total cost of 20 million dollar plus, and includes. synchronized traffic signals, realigning several intersections, actually narrowing some sections of the road, while widening others, a median, an underpass , bolder stripping and host of fixes to aid pedestrians.

These were designed with the community in mind, so states the logo of the prime consultant team of Stantec.

But unfortunately the report is not easily accessible or digestible for the public. These projects usually are not revealed until the warning signs go up overnight. So much for government transparency.

Indeed, the combined public works and safety commissions met the other night in a nearly empty City Hall to blink at the study before sending it on to the City Council, which will have to act on it pronto to get under a July First funding deadline.

PCH undoubtedly will be safer, and traffic facilitated, That is good. But don’t expect it will offer much relief.

Improving roadways almost always generates more traffic; traffic being like water, flowing downhill, to find its way into the most conducive channel. And in Malibu the PCH is the one and only channel

If Malibu is a piece of heaven on earth, as its residents contend, then the PCH has to be its hell. No place is perfect.

Im Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the City Observed, on 97.5 KBU FM, radio Malibu.net

aired 5.24.15

 

 

 

 

It Takes A Village to Make A Civic Center

Musings on the design of Malibu’s embattled civic center, with cautious lessons for other cities searching for a community focal point.

At present, Malibu’s civic center is less a focus for the area’s desirable sea coast real estate, and more of a scattered collection of suburban mini malls.

It is also a battleground for a continuing shrill debate over its development, whether high end chain stores for deep pockets tourists and transient owners of beach front trophy houses, or more modest retail for the city’s grounded residents.

This conflict prompted the recent approval by voters of an ordinance with the intent of constricting large developments, but if anything has just further entangled the planning process, to the delight of lawyers.

Sitting in this stormy sea seemingly like a boat without a paddle is Malibu’s City Council, at the whim of hot winds.

As in the past, the council has attempted to deflect the controversy by appointing a citizens task force, and hiring consultants to guide it.

From my perspective, the problem is that it has limited the effort to drafting design standards for the future development of the civic center. Essentially, how it should look. Nice, but no cigars.

What is obviously needed is a so-called specific plan for the civic center– to guide what should be built there.

The result is that the task force, composed of several respected professionals and lead by a particularly enlightened consultant team, have been in effect – to use a popular planning adage – rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

So, at the last meeting of the task force, much of the discussion was taken up by miniature and semantics, such as, a description of Malibu as a rural seacoast village.

Whatever, it gave me an opportunity at the meeting to comment, that if the civic center is truly to become a viable village, a village of people, it needs mixed use housing . In particular, affordable housing to cater to its school teachers, first responders, seniors and the local work force.

This housing would have many benefits, including reducing traffic on the PCH –residential generates half of what commercial does.

It also would more than satisfy Malibu’s affordable housing element required by the State. It certainly would please the Coastal Commission, and make it look more kindly on the city.

But most of all, it is the right thing to do. We owe it to those who serve us.

This essay was broadcast on 97.5 KBU.FM.