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What we learned from “Flipping the Bird” 5 MIN

This past Saturday, DnA and KCRW convened something called a “design jam,” a group brainstorming session. It was at IndieCade, the independent gaming convention, held this year in Santa Monica.

The purpose of the event was to rethink our conversation on e-scooters and other new forms of disruptive mobility. We called it “Flipping the Bird!”

In the course of two hours a group of people, starting at age 11 and including a mix of the curious and the professional -- Santa Monica councilpeople, the city’s mobility director, and a public affairs officer from Bird -- aired visions for the future that may not have solved all our disruptive transit conundrums. But we did get to find common aspirations, using a form of public engagement that is arguably more fun and maybe as productive as those formal council meetings or the crossfire on Nextdoor.

The session was led by Jeff Watson, an assistant professor of cinematic arts from USC, with Jose Sanchez, his colleague at USC’s School of Architecture. After breaking us into groups, they handed out decks of cards called “The Thing from the Future.”

The game is designed to trigger ideas, and over the course of several lightning rounds, prompts enabled some pretty creative discussions about how we might one day get around the city.

The game designers also added an "empathy" piece -- think about the future, they said, from the vantage point of a pedestrian, a city official, an entrepreneur, or a rider of e-scooters.

Some of the ideas were hopeful and inspired. Some were bleak. Some were very practical. But the point of the exercise was to think imaginatively about the future as a way of teasing out shared priorities for the present. And in this room were people representing stakeholders on different sides of the e-scooter issue.

“The way we’ve tackled the problems has been more reactionary,” said Marianne O’Donnell, a business strategist and a self-declared design buff. “And I think at some point you just have to reinvent the whole thing, start afresh.”


Participants had fun coming up with radical new ideas of how we’ll get around in the future at the “Flipping the Bird!” event at IndieCade. Photo by Frances Anderton.

Also participating were members of Santa Monica’s City Council, including Kevin McKeown, who said the cards “act as a boxcutter [and] force us to think out of the box.”

Fellow councilman Terry O’Day said that “as a city we are always looking for ways to get a better conversation happening in the community that gets to our values and identifies ideas and then tests those ideas. This is leagues beyond our ability to do that in, say, a city council meeting -- not typically a fun environment.”

The city’s head of Mobility Francie Stefan added that she thought the game “was really sort of freeing of ideas that are otherwise hard to kind of come to because transportation certainly is a topic in which you get bogged down in the mundane and the technical.”

And a public affairs rep from Bird, Jason Islas, pointed out that “cities are designed largely for cars... And the reality is is that we're fighting over crumbs -- that 5 percent of 95 percent of the street space... and I think anything that comes along that gets people out of their cars and rethinking the way we design streets for people in human scale transportation -- like e-scooters or e-bikes or manual-powered bikes or whatever else comes along -- is a great conversation to be having, even if it's sometimes a heated one.”

Guests:
Jeff Watson, Artist, designer, and Assistant Professor of Interactive Media and Games at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.
Jose Sanchez, Architect, programmer and game designer, and an Assistant Professor at USC School of Architecture in Los Angeles
Kevin McKeown, Councilman, City of Santa Monica
Terry O'Day, Santa Monica City Council member (@terryoday)
Francie Stefan, City of Santa Monica
Jason Islas, Santa Monica Forward / Santa Monica Next (@jasonislas)
Marianne O’Donnell, business strategist and design buff (@chezmiane)

More:
DnA on ATC: Rethinking mobility with “Flipping the Bird!” design jam

Buy a condo, gift a house 15 MIN, 40 SEC


A rendering of Vancouver House, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group. Image courtesy Westbank.

Can the TOMS Shoes model of buy a pair, gift one to a shoeless person, be applied to houses?

That’s the goal with Vancouver House, a new condo building under construction, in the Canadian coastal city.

Buyers into the “super prime” property, designed by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and developed by the Vancouver developer Westbank, have the opportunity to gift a house to a houseless family in a Filipino or Cambodian slum.

So how does this work? Why not build homes for the homeless in Vancouver? Or, tackle the inequities in the housing market?

DnA reached out to the man behind the program, Peter Dupuis. Dupuis and his business partner Sid Landolt run S&P Real Estate. It invests in high-end property in West Coast cities. Dupuis is also working on a PhD at the University of British Columbia on the intersection between philanthropic transformational capital and informal settlement land planning. Informal settlement is the formal term for “slums.”

He decided to turn theory into practice after a chance meeting on an airplane with Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS Shoes.

“I was so inspired that when Sid and I got off the plane, we said, you know, wouldn't it be interesting to take that model and apply it to real estate,” Dupuis said.

He and Landolt co-founded a nonprofit called World Housing and partnered with Westbank to test a concept like the TOMS shoes model.

“We chose to focus solely on the developing world because everywhere we go people really want these homes,” Dupuis said.

When asked if super prime real estate developments like Vancouver House are exacerbating housing inequality, Dupuis said, “there is an imbalance between wealth and the poor. In the developed world like Vancouver and Los Angeles and other markets, you know, I believe there are solutions out there now that are emerging because of the situation. You know, there's different housing forms that are coming and the government needs to get behind that, and the local community.”

Dupuis says a program like Vancouver’s house gifting program could be applied in Los Angeles.

“I think that you have a condition there where there's enormous amounts of wealth, there's pockets of extreme wealth in LA,” Dupuis said. “Our experience with wealthy people is they want to balance the scales of people's income and their lifestyles.”

DnA learned about the 1:1 gifting campaign, part of the marketing pitch for the building, from Matthew Soules, an associate professor of architecture at the University of British Columbia and a visiting fellow at SCI-Arc in downtown Los Angeles.

Soules was researching global capital and high-end real estate and the global phenomenon that’s been nicknamed “ghost urbanism.” That’s where luxury housing units are constructed, often super prime pieces of architecture, and sold to wealthy investors, and then sit empty.

“My fascination is how architecture -- so buildings, parcels of land, pieces of buildings, so condominium units -- have become more and more treated like a stock, like a currency, like a bond, in this financial capitalism kind of milieu or system,” Soules said.

Soules sees this happening in many different building types, but the tall, slender condominium tower “is a place that is almost tuned to attract capital in this financialized system.”

Soules is currently writing a book about finance capitalism and how it affects the built environment. He’s loosely named it Fi-Fi, as in Finance Fiction, echoing Science Fiction, because he believes there something strange and not yet fully understood about the production of empty costly housing -- and the offshored, gifted house which may become a more commonplace marketing tool.

“So you have this kind of lived-in place on one side of the world. And this unlived-in place on the other side of the world,” he said.

Guests:
Matthew Soules, architect and urbanist, associate professor of architecture at the University of British Columbia and Visiting Faculty at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles
Peter Dupuis, co-founder of World Housing and CEO of S&P Real Estate
Stephen Shapiro, Chairman, Westside Estate Agency (@WEAHomes)

More:
New Yorker: TOMS For Houses

Will Bob Baker’s puppets find a new home? 7 MIN, 45 SEC


Miguel Ayala adjusts a backdrop at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Photo credit: Derrick Deblasis

The Bob Baker Marionette Theater is the oldest children’s theater in Los Angeles, and has been dazzling kids and adults with hand-made puppets since 1963. But the late founder and namesake of the company, Bob Baker, sold the building five years ago to a real estate developer.

The theater’s owners now say the theater will close its current location in less than two months. There will be a closing celebration on Nov. 23, the same date it opened 55 years ago, that will be free and open to the public.

The Bob Baker Marionette Theatre is housed in an unassuming large white cube, just a mile west of downtown at Glendale Boulevard and 1st Street. A large clown statue greets you as you enter the courtyard, green paint covers the ground, and painted daisies dot the landscape.

Bob Baker built a career as a puppeteer and animation consultant to Disney and other studios. On top of founding the theater, Baker’s marionettes graced the silver screen. His work can be seen in Judy Garland’s “A Star is Born,” Elvis Presley’s “G.I. Blues,” “Star Trek” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”


Alex Evans restrings a skeleton, in preparation for the Halloween Spooktacular. Photo credit: Derrick DeBlasis

Over 55 years, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater grew into an LA institution with one generation bringing the next to puppet performances. The city of LA officially recognized the fact that the Bob Baker Marionette Theater is the oldest marionette theater in the U.S. and in 2009 designated it a historical cultural monument.

But the theater struggled financially. In a last-ditch effort to keep the theater afloat financially, Baker sold the property for $1.3 million to real estate developer named Eli Elimelech. While Baker was on hospice care, Elimelech announced plans to build 102 apartments in its place. Baker died near the end of 2014, at the age of 90.

Along with the apartments, Elimelech plans to build 2,700 square feet of commercial space — which he said would include the theater.

“I want them there. I want them to stay there, that’s my goal. And I’m trying to do my best to keep them there,” Elimelech said.

Under Elimelech’s proposal, the theater would shrink to about 40 percent of its current size. But their future plans include a museum and library, along with a theater space. And to realize this plan, they say, they need a bigger space, not squeeze into a smaller venue. The management at Bob Baker say Elimelech listened to their concerns, but wouldn’t promise them the space they needed.


“In L.A. to Stay!” The rallying cry of the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as it looks for a new permanent venue. Photo credit: Derrick DeBlasis

Winona Bechtle, the theater’s Director of Development and Community Outreach, said leaving their current location may be the best solution.

“Throughout this whole process, the thing that was underscored most to us, is that, to really make it work, there’s not some magical entity that is going to come down from the sky and protect you. What it took for us to cement our future is for us to really get in gear, to figure out where we wanted to be and to work really hard to define what this theater is, which is the spirit of imagination in Los Angeles,” Bechtle said.

Alex Evans, the executive director and head puppeteer for the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, says that despite the theater’s troubles, he’s excited about its future.

“Things have never looked brighter. I’ve never had such wonderful people around and everyone from people in the city helping us, to Winona and non-profit people, to artist and technicians,” Evans said.

Even as the theater prepares to move to a new location, Elimelech has offered the theater to move back in if management chooses to. Nothing has been signed, so Bechtle and Evans are reluctant to say where they hope to go. What they do say is that they are actively searching for locations in northeast Los Angeles.

“You can get sad about the brick and mortar of this building disappearing. But truly, the brick and mortar is only a fraction of what we are about,” Evans said.

The puppet show will go on until Nov. 23 at the original Bob Baker Marionette Theater space. On Nov. 24, “Bob Baker’s Nutcracker” will open at the Pasadena Playhouse and run for five weeks. What happens to the theater space next is still to be determined.

Guests:
Tom Carroll, journalist, writer and host of “Tom Explores Los Angeles” (@Tomexploresla)

More:
DnA blog: Bob Baker Marionette Theater looks to the future
Bob Baker Marionette Theater is closing soon but will live on at new location, its director says
Beloved Bob Baker Marionette Theater will leave its longtime home, open in new location

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