LA Designer: We The People, Remaking L.A. into “People Streets”

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Fancy turning a stretch of your ‘hood into a pedestrian plaza? Or a parking space into a mini-park or “parklet?” Or how about carving out a “bike corral,” a stretch of parking dedicated to bike parking. Well, with the help of “People Street,” that’s exactly what you might be able to do. Carren Jao reports on a City of Los Angeles initiative launched this week. Richard Schave offers a counterperspective.

Street life in Los Angeles is getting a boost this year with the launch of People Street, an initiative from the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation to help citizens identify and transform parts of the street into bike corrals, parklets and even plazas, reclaiming part of the city back to pedestrians.

People Street aims to be a one-stop shop for community groups looking to bring life to underused city streets. Developed over the course of a year, it offers clear guidance and specifications for turning part of a street into a bike corral, parklet or plaza. Instruction manuals outline idea sites for such street conversions, delegate responsibilities between the community and LADOT, as well as offer pre-approved designs that can be implemented for each type.

Valerie Watson, Assistant Pedestrian Coordinator at LADOT, when I spoke to her at People Streets’ first community meeting in Van Nuys this past Monday evening. Watson worked on the Spring Street Parklets, while a board member of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, and she said that other street conversions were also happening around the same time, such as the York Boulevard Parklet in Highland Park and Sunset Triangle Plaza, designed by Rios Clementi Hale Studios. “It was all a strange synergy of these people having the same conversation.”

People Street Sweeps Aside Bureaucracy

That momentum inspired People Street. Until then, neighborhoods who wanted to convert part of their street would have to brave the bureaucracies of the Bureau of Engineering, Department of Transportation, Department of City Planning, and Bureau of Street Services on their own. There was no set process in place for such initiatives.

Daveed Kapoor, permit architect for the Spring Street Parklet recalls, “It took a couple of years to get the permits [for the parklets]. We had to work with a bunch of departments to develop some technical details for installation. The requirements were onerous.”

At the Van Nuys meeting, which was attended by around 20 people who mostly represented local neighborhood councils, Watson explained that the initiative focuses specifically on sites that are “below the curb,” which means anything that isn’t raised up on a sidewalk is considered. The initiative doesn’t cover the conversion of any empty parking lots or vacant properties.

Much of the conversation was centered on funding and division of responsibilities. The Van Nuys residents attending the meeting thought the People Street concept was generally a good one, but they were all concerned about what would be expected of them (ie funding) and also how much responsibility they had to shoulder.

While People Street does represent a huge leap in efficiency and clarity, it is not a panacea for those who want to make these kinds of changes to a city street. Community groups that want to take the lead on these projects would need to “marshal their resources.” They would have to prove community support, find funding, enlist the help of design professional, and take on maintenance of the site.

plazaIt is a hefty burden, but perhaps one that is worth the price when compared with gains in livability. Preliminary findings from the Sunset Triangle Plaza found that businesses within a two-block radius experienced increased customer base, revenue and profits.

Kit of Parts

What People Street does is streamline the labyrinthine process for those who are willing to take on the work.

LADOT enlisted the help of a People Street team of designers who had undergone the process previously, including Kapoor, Rob Berry, Emily Morishita, and Raymond Dang, to create a Kit of Parts that communities can consult when planning their own conversions; the kit contains pre-approved design elements that groups can simply adopt based on their needs.

A plaza conversion might cost about $30,000, says Watson. A parklet can run from $40,000 to $80,000. A bike corral is essentially free with application since LADOT uses one pre-approved design and installs it for you.

The costs may dismay some community groups, but Watson points out that some grants are available from foundations such as the Gilbert Foundation, which helped offset the costs of the Spring Street Parklets. Kapoor shared that savvy community groups might be able to build parklets with material and labor donations. “50% of the parklet budgets are labor costs, he said. “On Spring Street, we were able to get many labor and material donations and built two parklets for just $14,0000 versus  $40-80,0000 in our kit of parts budget.”

People Street has hit the ground running. This year, it will have two application windows for interested groups.

LADOT is running community meetings about the program throughout Los Angeles until February 24. By March 3, it will be open to applications from community groups who have identified sites they want to convert. Watson says, she hopes by June, LADOT will report back to City Council with a list of final, approved applications for implementation. Another round of applications will be open again by October 1.

Watson says, the focus is really to get a lot of projects on ground this year as proof of concept. Up to eight new plazas could be installed within a year and an unlimited number of parklets, says Watson. No bike corrals would be approved, however, given that applications for bike corrals are already on a waiting list.

parklet manual picture“They’re like little incubators,” says Watson, “Ways you can demonstrate the benefit of re-allocating public space.” She hopes that by doing so, the conversions will help people dream bigger when it comes to envisioning their streetscape.

Esotouric’s Richard Schave Responds

People Streets is predicated on the view that Los Angeles streets, many very wide, with multiple lanes and designed for the car, need to be tamed and made more pedestrian-friendly; that our roads need to be put on a “diet.”

Not everybody shares this view however. Richard Schave, co-founder of Esotouric, an offbeat bus tour company, wrote DnA to say, “I do not buy the road diet argument.”

“What it is designed to do may only work in areas where redevelopment has been “successful” like Pasadena and Santa Monica, and even then the road diet’s success is questionable. Please note LA Times editorial “Lament of An Urban Villager” from last week.”

Referring to Broadway’s parklets, he says, “I do not buy the foosball tables on Broadway as a viable form of positive public space. . . . The road diet plan has already moved transfer points off of Broadway to Hill or Spring (MTA did this in July 2013), and I think it really impacts bus riders negatively.  I don’t think altering the streetscape of Broadway is a good thing in terms of preserving the district’s historic character.”

He believes the same critique applies to many streets, even those lacking Broadway’s historic character. But he says he is a fan of another parklet plan, the conversion of alleys in South LA residential neighborhoods, explored on this Which Way, LA. “As opposed to parklets on Spring or Broadway,” he writes, “these proposed parklets in abandoned alleys is positive public space because is it promoting “Green Backs” which is one of the core building blocks of positive public space.”

Let us know what you think of People Street, and whether you’ll be planning one for your neighborhood. And to find out what you need to apply, check out the application manuals for plazas, parklets and bike corrals.