Paint this project the color of SHAME

Aired 6.6.2015

Today, some head shaking, stomach churning, nausea really, brought on by an immodest building project.

In the continuing supercilious competition among the bigger-is-better boys, a residential compound is rising in the high class hills of Bel Air that takes “Mac mansion” up a few immoderate notches to what can be labeled “macro-mansionization.”

Priced at 500 million dollars, it is being developed by real estate speculator Nile Niami, a fringe film producer. The project on a 4 acre site is not to be mistaken for gentrification, an up scaling of sorts of a community, but more like an act of a neighborhood-based “lebensraum.”

Foundations already have begun on the 74,000 square foot main residence, including a 5,000 sq. ft. master bedroom. Also indicated in the L.A. city approved plans are three adjacent structures, presumably for guests and household help, which would bring the architectural conceit to an excess of 100,000 sq. ft.

This would make it equivalent in size to, say, a 100-unit apartment house. For further comparison, in nearby Beverly Hills, the Spelling mansion, which drew much derision when built nearly 30 years ago, is 56,000 sq. ft.

The historic Hearst Castle on the central California coast is 68,500 square feet, and in Washington, the White House accommodating the president plus a large staff in its west wing, is a mere 55,000 square feet.

Architectural renderings indicate a boxy machine-like, two story modern design of light horizontal volumes accented by cantilevers, displaying extensive glass walls, and squatting in a moat, above what appears to be the garage, for an estimated 30 cars.

With four swimming pools, a lawn the size of a football field, are indicated in the plans, and landscaping one can only imagine for a Jurassic Park. The number of employee needed to maintain this extravaganza no doubt will be in the dozens and generate many daily trips. It is not known whether an E.I.R. was required .

The developer is quoted saying the project will feature “almost every amenity available in the world,” including a “Monaco-style casino.”

For this conceit, I’m painting it the color of shame.

I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, on KBU.FM

City Observed Launch

Intro: Here in Malibu, as part of our local news package, today we inaugurate an occasional commentary, the city observed, by long time resident Sam Hall Kaplan, a venerable print and broadcast journalist., teacher, author and activist.

Text: This being my initial commentary, I thought a review of some pending planning issues would offer an introduction to my professional perspective and personal prejudices.

Locally in Malibu, there is a constant parade of proposals before the Planning Commission and City Council that deserve attention, for I am convinced that cities are shaped and misshaped not by the sweeping plans heralded by political pronouncements, but by small projects, weighed one at a time.

For an illustration, we have the city of Malibu spending a half a million dollars plus on a study of urban design guidelines for the Civic Center, now not much more than a scattered collection of suburban mini malls and an isolated library, city hall and empty park.

The over the top retail stores and restaurants are popular among tourists, but not particularly residents. An attractive folksy village, which most residents say they want, it is not.
However conscientious the paid consultants, the study seems headed for a diffused debate, and then the shelves of city hall to collect dust.

More pertinent, and personal, are those seemingly less important planning items, such as an application by the new owners of an oceanside house on Cliffside Drive house to remodel it into a questionable Modernist styled structure.

Unfortunately, the remodel will compromise the blue water views of several homes on the landslide of Cliffside, and therefore is being protested by the streets strident residents, my neighbors. The city’s Planning Department has recommended the commission reject the application at an upcoming hearing.

Other controversies smolder, small and big, locally and beyond: does Malibu need, or want, another supermarket; the dearth of affordable housing in Southern California, the challenge of traffic, mass transit, and street life, and is spending one billion dollars on a vanity redo of LACMA the best way to serve art and the public?

Keep tuned. I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the City Observed, on 97.5 KBU.FM,.

You’ve been listening to the latest addition to our public radio news team, Sam Hall Kaplan, whose experience includes metropolitan reporter for the New York Times, architecture critic for the L.A. Times, Emmy award winning TV commentator, for Fox News, on air on KCRW, KPCC , among other radio stations, and generally a nosy newsy with a bent for design and planning, in Malibu, and everywhere.

5.2.15

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

 

 

 

 

Design as Problem Solving

UCLA might be the prime attraction of Westwood Village, but increasingly becoming a focal point is the Hammer Museum on Wilshire Boulevard. It almost always has a provocative exhibit on display, as was the appealing genius of Thomas Heatherwick and his London-based Studio, which in a rare creative trifecta pursues art, architecture and design in an array of projects.

The exhibit was entitled Provocations, and it indeed provoked both the attending professionals and the public to recognize that at the core and calling of design is problem solving, not the look of something, however au courant; it is taking the complex and making it simple, not taking the simple and making it complex, as some of our star architects do.

It is not surprising that Heatherwick is quoted as saying when he was a young, inventors commanded his attention. “They don’t have style,” he said, “They look for ideas.”

And as I taught for years at the Art Center College of Design and at various architecture schools, design is the honest expression of function, while fashion and fad though occasionally appealing, is the fleeting mother lode for celebrity practioneers.

That the true test of design is how it serves the user, and if attractive and inventive, all the better.

These appealing qualities were very much on display in both small and large commissions the studio has been challenged by since its establishment 20 years ago.

They have included personal and household items, such as handbags, and rotation-molded chairs , as well as large public and private architectural projects around the globe.

These include several bridges, a distillery, a school, and a contemporary art museum, created within a historic grain silo. All dazzle, exuding an inventive approach to design, often combining novel engineering with new materials and innovative technology to create often sculptural forms.

To emphasize the studios user orientation, the projects explanation were presented as questions and answers, in effect literal provocations:

To quote: “How do you give individuality to the skin of an inexpensive building?”, “Can you squeeze a chair out of a machine, the way you squeeze toothpaste out of a tube?” “Is it possible to make a bridge out of glass?”

If you missed the exhibit at the Hammer, it is headed next to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum, in New York. .

This commentary was aired on 97.5 KBU FM May 9, 2015.

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.