8 Ways Los Angeles is Becoming Less Suburban

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L.A. is becoming less suburban. Here’s how.

Angelenos are embracing a more walkable city as many bulky postwar developments designed for the car (ie buildings with expansive parking lots) are being transformed to serve the human scale.

This trend goes beyond Los Angeles, as Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, explained to DnA. She has a database that tracks how suburban property types all across the country are being converted into more “urban” spaces. Suburban property types, such as cul de sacs, strip malls, golf courses etc, she said, “weren’t designed to be resilient and ecological, and now the fact that these properties have died it gives us an opportunity to make these much healthier, happier, resilient, sustainable places.”

Here in L.A. this trend isn’t totally new. The Natural History Museum Gardens replaced what was once a parking lot in front of the museum back in 2013 and, CicLAvia has enabled thousands of Angelenos to reimagine the city’s car-serving boulevards since 2008.

Many projects that fit this model are currently in the works and include everything from a portion of a freeway that may become a park, to a car dealership that will likely become two hotels in Pasadena. Many of these projects are still in the early planning phase and may never be realized, but they acknowledge a shift in the way many Angelenos want to experience the city.


1. A Defunct Gas Station Makes Way For a Playground in Highland Park

Stories surrounding change in Highland Park have recently focused largely on gentrification. But Highland Park is also part of the larger shift of car-oriented developments making way for open space. York Boulevard Park, at the intersection of York and Ave 50, is currently under construction and will replace a gas station. DnA spoke to the designer, Craig Raines of the Department of Recreation and Parks, who said the design was a balancing act: “The community didn’t want to lose touch with the past or what the space used to be and so I came up with the idea of taking the gas station sign and retrofitting it and cleaning it up and making it into the park signage. And the community loved that.”

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2. Shuttered Macy’s to Become Hotel and Condos

The department store, once the linchpin of suburban malls, has also become the face of malls in decline. In early 2013, Macy’s closed their store on Paseo Colorado in Pasadena. Since then, the Ohio-based developer DDR has proposed plans to replace the Macy’s with two buildings: a Hyatt place, and a condo with one or two floors of retail space in the aim to create a “east west access, opening up Los Robles so that you could literally walk through the Paseo all the way from Los Robles over to Marengo,” said Richard McDonald, the land use attorney representing the developer for the project.


3. Abandoned Car Dealership Becoming Two Hotels in Pasadena

Another project in Pasadena that’s bringing more density to vast “dead” spaces lies at the intersection of Colorado and Hill where a Ford car dealership used to operate. If the project receives all of the necessary approvals, it will become two hotels, one “boutique” and the other a more run of the mill “chain” hotel. With its location on east Colorado Boulevard, far away from the pedestrian vitality of Paseo Colorado, McDonald (the land use attorney on the Paseo Colorado project) is optimistic that two new hotels could serve as an anchor for this portion of the street and he has ambitions for the hotels to become part of a transit corridor that will serve not just the new hotels but also Pasadena Community College and Caltech.

4. Will the 101 Freeway Become a Park?

One of the more subversive examples of converting a car-oriented space into a pedestrian-oriented is a proposal to transform a stretch of the 101 freeway in downtown into a park.

Park 101, as the project is called, is “as significant an idea today as Bunker Hill or the Los Angeles Aqueduct were to a prior generation of leaders,” according to its website. The park would extend from Union Station to Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels and create 8.2 acres of new park land.

Image courtesy of LACBC (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

5. Bike Lane Projects

Within just the last five years, the city has added more than 200 miles of lanes for cyclists, but there are a few new ambitious projects in various stages that are worth noting.

Beverly Hills resident Mark Elliot is the founder of the blog “Better Bike” and since 2010 he’s been working to bring bike lanes to…Beverly Hills. Yes, you read that right. And recently, these plans have started to look more feasible. Supporters of this project are hoping to tack on bike lanes to the existing plans to upgrade north Santa Monica Boulevard and make it more like a so-called “complete street.” This spring the Beverly Hills City Council will decide if his proposal will move forward.

Another project, MyFigueroa will take four miles of Figueroa that span from South LA to downtown and replace two car lanes with protected bike lanes and improved bus stops. If completed, the $20 million project will be the city’s first complete street: one equally devoted to cars, bikes, pedestrians and bus riders.


6. Expo Line

The subway (or light rail) to the sea in Los Angeles is no longer just the work of fantasy as portrayed in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, it’s actually quite close to being realized. Phase 2 of the Expo Line, which will unite the line’s current terminus in Culver City with downtown Santa Monica at Colorado and 4th street, will be completed in 2015 with a projected line opening in early 2016according to Metro.

Despite the Expo Line’s progress, there have been some growing pains for communities neighboring future stops. Last year, Santa Monica residents halted a massive planned development close to the Bergamot Station stop and another development in Los Angeles (replacing a former cement factory) near the future Sepulveda stop was scaled back.

That’s not to say that development won’t take place along Phase II of the Expo Line after it was completed. Many commented on the lack of development that followed Phase I of the Expo Line as it was being built, but following the completion of the line, several developments started popping up next to new stations. An upscale mall called “The Platform” is currently under construction near the Culver City Expo Line Station, and last year The Lorenzo, a 913-unit apartment complex from the controversial developer Geoffrey Palmer opened close to the 23rd street station.


7. LA River

The title for LA’s most beloved slab of concrete of the moment probably goes to the L.A. River, where efforts to reimagine it as a thriving natural environment (as opposed to a mere concrete flood channel) have reached critical mass.

In May of last year, the Army Corps of engineers recommended a $1 billion dollar plan “to restore habitat, widen the river, create wetlands and provide access points and bike trails along an 11-mile stretch north of downtown through Elysian Park.” And plans to revitalize the river through implementation of recreational areas and nearby development are starting to move forward.

According to the LA Times, “as of Jan. 1, local officials have the authority to direct a greater share of future property taxes to revitalization efforts, public works projects and environmental cleanup.” On the top of the list for projects to receive such funding is those relating to improving the L.A. River.
L.A. River advocates have successfully opened up the river for kayaking for several months of each year, hosted the first official L.A. River camp-out and opened a new visitor center called Frogspot.

Construction in Playa Vista. Image courtesty of JebusHChrist via Flickr(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

8. Emerging Tech Bubble in Playa Vista

L.A.’s new tech bubble on the westside is a bit of an anomaly on this list, but it’s certainly worth noting for its unique combination of urban and suburban.
Back in December, Google bought up 12 acres of land on the site where the legendary Hercules complex is located, where Howard Hughes famously built the Spruce Goose during World War II. The tech giant joined YouTube (which it owns), advertising firm 72 and Sunny, and Yahoo, which moved in this past January.

While new housing and offices are going up at an incredible rate, greatly adding to the density of the area, other amenities have lagged.

Curbed LA went as far as to declare the neighborhood a “public transit dead zone” due to the following: none of the new light rail lines that are in the works will have a stop in Playa Vista (the closest stop is 7 miles away), and the community isn’t close to a freeway either. It’s left to be seen how the neighborhood will address this issue as the area attracts more people.

Hear our original segment on Retrofitting Suburbia here.