Onwards and Upwards: 10 Ways L.A. Rang in the Changes — of Character — in 2013

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LA is not only growing, it is changing character — and not everyone’s thrilled about it. Following is a look-back at the dominant architecture events of 2013 that are taking LA into the future.

New Year at City Hall 2014

In a recent interview with Craig Hodgetts about his Hyperloop studio at UCLA, he talked about how Los Angeles is so young it has only seen one layer of urban development.

Now new layers are being added; and we are witnessing a region not only grow but actually change character. From a thinly spread, mostly low-rise metropolis based for more than five decades on the separation of uses, majority single-family homes and auto-mobility (and the individualistic mindset that this urban form produced), LA is evolving into a place where 52% of Angelenos are renters, multifamily and mixed-use buildings are the dominant residential type, and people are foregoing cars for bicycles and public transit.

With this as context, what follows is a list of some of the notable cityscape  events of 2013. Add your thoughts and tell us what you think we should be talking about in 2014.

wilshire_grand_051) LA Grows UP. . .

With the recession ebbing, this year saw the surge of new projects growing UP, from Santa Monica – where developments designed by Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas joined a crowded field of developments spurred by the pending arrival of the Expo Line — to downtown where the Wilshire Grand by AC Martin will be the tallest building in the West (shown in rendering above; demolition has now made way for construction).

2) . . . But Not Without a Fight

Tensions over LA’s densification boiled over in 2013; residents of many communities fought large developments; in Hollywood activists fought to limit the soaring Millennium Towers and recently won a legal battle to prevent implementation of the Hollywood Community Plan, which would allow for construction of larger buildings in some parts of Hollywood, particularly around transit stops – thereby delivering a rebuke to the “smart growth” vision of the former Hollywood councilman who became LA’s Mayor (see 5 below).

2nd street tunnel bike lane

3) Alternative Modes of Transportation Picked Up Steam. . .

If you commute on the 405 every day, it may not seem like Los Angeles is making gains in its transportation alternatives, but one of those drivers, Elon Musk — who crawls from his home in Bel Air to Space X in Torrance — is among those agitating for change.

This year Musk launched his concept for the Hyperloop, inviting the crowd to build on the idea; meanwhile, efforts by groups like LACBC and cicLAvia to turn LA into a more pedestrian and bicycle friendly city abounded; even the 2nd Street tunnel got a protected bike lane (right, courtesy of LADOT)

4) . . . But Not Without a Fight (or “Bikelash”)

L.A. is not embracing its multi-modal-transit future with quite the smoothness of the movie Her. As bikes have proliferated, so have irate drivers and even film crews, who, as we learned on this WWLA, are not happy at the takeover of street space by green bike lanes. It’s time for drivers — and cyclists — to find ways to get along (expect pressure on cyclists to learn the rules of the road and drivers to accept road-sharing.)

5) LA Got a Mayor Who Cares About Cities

Architecture and urban design buffs were delighted by the election of “smart growth” advocate and bilingual, salsa dancing, Moby sideman Eric Garcetti. On taking office he promptly established a sustainability czar, and announced a Great Streets Initiative, which would make streets from Abbot Kinney in Venice to Glendale Boulevard in Atwater Village more pedestrian and business-friendly. Questions for 2014:  will he fare better with this than Mayor Villaraigosa did with his Million Trees initiative? How far can he push “smart growth” (see 2 above)?

Aja Brown

6) And So Did Compton

Determined to turnaround a city that had become synonymous for many with crime, corruption and gangsta rap, 31 year-old urban planner Aja Brown, left, won a landslide victory to become the city’s youngest ever mayor. Brown, who has brought a farmers market to the area, trimmed the budget and developed community policing, has big ambitions for the 100,000 pop. city. “Compton is this amazing place with a rich history,” she told The Guardian. “I see it as a new Brooklyn.”

5) It’s All About Open Space

In the year that marked the Centennial of the L.A. Aqueduct, the L.A. River opened for recreation over the summer and its ARBOR study into alternative uses was released; after a two year and $20 million dollar cleanup effort, Echo Park Lake reopened (below right, in images courtesy of The Eastsider LA), bringing back pedal boats and Square One Cafe; parklets opened in downtown and Santa Monica got its plush Tongva Park, designed by the High Line’s James Corner Field Operations.

Eric Garcetti announced Echo Park Lake reopens June 15 5-9-2013 9-23-56 PM

6) But What About Buildings?

This was the year for a celebration of LA architecture past and present — mostly under the umbrella of the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in Los Angeles. But the exhibition that got the most buzz – more than the unveiling of the dramatic Peter Zumthor scheme for LACMA, and the MOCA New Sculpturalism show, a celebration of local talent despite the show’s travails — did not look at actual or future buildings at all. Neverbuilt: Los Angeles, at A+D Museum (incidentally not funded by the Getty), focused instead on civic dream schemes that were never realized.

(The architecture show with arguably the most relevance to LA now was also the tiniest, at WUHO; How Small is Too Small looked at exemplary multifamily design, and the emerging micro unit dwelling space.)

7) A Year of Makeovers

As for new buildings, perhaps in keeping with LA’s status as a no-longer adolescent city, this was a year of makeovers – with an expansion of the Natural History Museum by CO Architects and landscape architect Mia Lehrer, an expansion of the new Bradley Terminal at LAX by Curtis Fentress, whose soaring Great Hall is filled to its soaring gills with high-end shops and commercial digital art; and Brenda Levin completed retrofits of both the Dodger Stadium and the historic Wilshire Temple.

OnesantafeWith LA’s role as incubator of new ideas in single family house design on the wane (insanely supersized houses don’t count as innovation), the energy has shifted into making multifamily dwellings rise above the ordinary; projects like Patrick Tighe’s affordable housing structures in West Hollywood or the emerging One Santa Fe by Michael Maltzan, under construction in downtown, exemplify this new area of experimentation within tight constraints.

9) Grand Avenue, Revisited, Again and Again. . . 

Bunker Hill, with its island of cultural institutions atop a hill riven with wide roads and tunnels, is emblematic of the ambition and flaws of LA’s post-war development. This year saw new developments: Eli Broad’s eponymous museum, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro met its halfway construction mark, exciting visitors, and Broad announced it would be free to visitors (where does that leave MOCA?).

Frank Gehry was reinstated at the helm of Related Companies long-awaited complex of hotels, shops and eateries intended to vitalize the street. Gehry’s design promises landscaping, fluid public spaces and a connection with the Disney Concert Hall, which hit 10 this year.

But perhaps the most striking signifiers of how times have changed at Grand Avenue is the protected bike lane in the 2nd Street tunnel (see 3, above); and the fact that for the first time Grand Park hosted a New Years Eve celebration with food trucks, live music, dancing, and light projections on City Hall (see image by Caroline Chamberlain, top of page). LA has long been in search of a public gathering space; is this it?

10) Places We Lost

It’s been goodbye to the Tiffany Theatre, the Petersen Office Tower, Irv’s Burgers, Bahooka Family Restaurant and, most poignantly, Inglewood’s Hollywood Park (shown in its heyday in photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.) Mention the demise of the almost 80-year old racing track and people express great sadness. Ask when they last went to the park and they can’t recall. The racetrack – or horse-racing — had fallen out of fashion and closed this month. The casino there will remain in business.

But proponents of change say its departure makes way for ringing in the changes in Inglewood, which is already seeing an uptick as public transit lines emerge and downtown business revives. The park will replaced by curving streets of houses and apartments weaving around a park with a lake still at its center, masterplanned by Mia Lehrer and Associates. The new development encapsulates the themes of this year: large-scale development aimed at creating “community,” integrated with shared, sustainable landscaping. Is it a gain or loss for the region?