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Scott Johnson Guest
Scott Johnson

Johnson Fain Partners

Design partner at Johnson Fain Partners, an architecture, interiors, master-planning and urban-design firm whose recent projects include Met Lofts in downtown Los Angeles, and Constellation Park, a pair of 47-story residential towers to be built in Century City, California; author of Tall Building: Imagining the Skyscraper

FROM Scott Johnson

Design and Architecture

Living above the store Runway at Playa Vista features 217 apartments located over businesses. Photo by Avishay Artsy. In Los Angeles, if you want to go shopping, you typically have to get in your car. But more and more, home and retail are being mixed in shopping and living destinations like Americana at Brand in Glendale, the Paseo in Pasadena, or Runway at Playa Vista. Laura Mitchell Wilde lives in a corner unit over shops on Millenium Drive. This is part of Runway at Playa Vista, the commercial heart of Silicon Beach. It opened for business around three years ago and has 217 apartments. Wilde lives above Whole Foods, Lululemon, Starbucks, Wells Fargo, Chase, Yogaworks, CVS, workout studios and restaurants. “I don't leave Playa Vista very often because almost everything is here,” she said. Wilde works as a holistic health coach for athletes, mainly football and basketball players. She used to be a basketball player and then coach. She jokes that she refers to Playa Vista as Pleasantville. “You could walk around with your windows up and notice people walking down the street with their dogs, their children, nodding at each other and it's just this thing that happens that is very slow and very almost movie-like,” she said. Laura Mitchell Wilde lives at Runway at Playa Vista, a residential/retail development she affectionately refers to as “Pleasantville.” Photo by Frances Anderton. Besides the amenities like swimming pools on the roof decks, tenants have private parking below. So the concept combines urban and suburban lifestyles. “In a way it's an old paradigm, but in a city like Los Angeles, full of commercial strips, it's a paradigm we haven't really embraced here. I mean, I suppose European villages going back far enough had the family which controlled the store and lived on the top. These are living over the store but it might not be your particular store that you're living over,” said Scott Johnson, co-founder and design partner of Johnson Fain, the firm that designed Runway. Playa Vista sits on former wetlands, and the longtime headquarters of Hughes Aircraft Company. If you haven’t been inside the community, you might know it only by its walls of rather generic-looking housing that line Lincoln and Jefferson Boulevards. Around 30 years ago, owners of the land and their designers started visualizing Playa Vista as a “New Urbanist community.” That is, a walkable, work-live neighborhood with parks, human-scale roads and sidewalks and traditional architectural styling. Environmentalists and developers fought for years, and there were several changes of ownership, of design teams and of vision, resulting in a similar heights throughout Playa Vista, but different architectural styles. Runway at Playa Vista is quite mod looking with dark-wood balconies and splashes of color over rectilinear white stucco forms. “We sort of accepted the walkability, the Sustainable Communities that all seemed sensible to us but we don't really do traditional architecture,” says Scott Johnson. “So we were interested in doing architecture in our own time which meant contemporary.” Since it was completed three years ago, the managers of the Runway at Playa Vista development decided it needed to lose the cars all together. And now the firm Design, Bitches is redesigning the streets at Runway for pedestrians only. “I think the changes, the pedestrianisation, the kind of retail tweaking, the amenities... I think that all has to change to to stay current,” Johnson said. So, are these semi-urban destinations in LA, where you can live over the shops but park underneath, a kind of new archetype? “I think this is very much a model that works. It supports walkability, it creates density which will enforce the retail, which will enforce the sidewalk activity and security on the sidewalk. So it maybe needs to be done organically over many years, it needs to be done strategically. But it is the next model,” Johnson said. But what about LA’s actual streets, its commercial arteries with their rows of single-story shops? Why don’t people live above those? Well, some do. Brett Shaw is an architect and general contractor in LA. He purchased a single-story office on Pico Boulevard in West LA in 2002, and recently he built an apartment for himself above. “This is basically an architect's dream to build his own living space. And I didn't have a client so I had nobody to say no to me, just the budget requirements. So I just did things that I've always wanted to do in terms of high ceilings, bridges that span from one part of the space to another,” he said. Brett Shaw’s loft apartment above a row of shops on Pico Boulevard in West LA. Photo by Frances Anderton. From Brett’s loft you can look towards LA’s tree-lined hills and its single family homes and gardens and, staring at you outside the windows, you can old neon signs for Mattress King and Pico eateries like Don Antonio’s, and billboards. So how did Shaw pull it off? As usual, parking was an issue. But in this case, because the building is from 1956, says Shaw, he didn’t need to add extra parking spaces. There were some other challenges, however. Many commercial buildings weren’t built to withstand the weight of additional floors, so the walls needed to be reinforced. Brett spent close to a million dollars on the project. In LA residential above commercial has not been the norm, for many reasons, including pushback from single family neighborhoods. Residents have voted to limit development on their nearby arteries. We are going to see more of it, however, in targeted areas near transit hubs as the city tries to incentivize construction of housing. “If you look at all the cities across the world, they all have two, three, four stories on their main arterial streets. So I think it's just a matter of time,” Shaw said.

19 MIN, 12 SEC Aug 21, 2018

Design and Architecture

Lessons for affordable housing from the modern dome tent Since its founding LA has been selling lifestyle and better living. It has produced residential archetypes, like California Ranch houses, Case Study homes, dingbat apartments, bungalow courts, idiosyncratic custom-designed homes and many more examples of innovative houses and housing aimed at every income level. So how about now? In 21st century LA, people are living in tents, cars and RVs; in boats and tiny homes; in ADUs or midsize, multifamily blocks by rail-lines and freeways; in lofts with rooftop swimming pools, luxury high-rise downtown towers and colossal houses in the hills. A modern dome tent covered with a tarp in Venice. Photo by Avishay Artsy. Each in their different way is a response to today’s reality: a massive housing crunch, a web of constraints on construction and a ceaseless flow of people wanting to live here. DnA is exploring all of this in a series called “This is Home in LA: from the Tent to the Gigamansion (and everything in between).”   We explore whether these options are sufficient to meet today’s needs -- and tomorrow’s. Can the region still claim to be a laboratory for residential design ingenuity? Can it once again provide a place called home to people of all income levels? The first episode starts small -- with the cheap modern dome tent, now a common sight on LA’s streets, beaches and riverbeds. Wade Graham explains how the invention of the modern dome tent by Buckminster Fuller devotees enabled the spread of tent-living in the city. “There's a supply chain, you can get one anywhere in any homeless encampment; you can get a two person, a four person, an eight person, they have rooms in some of them and vestibules and foyers and storage. “ Buckminster Fuller designed the first “Oval intention” in 1975, based on the geodesic dome, the precursor to the modern dome tent. The mobile structure designed originally for extreme environments, like a base camp on Mt. Everest, is a “lightweight, unbelievably strong, mobile, flexible, cheap, mass-producible” form of shelter that offers lessons to the designers and builders of permanent housing in LA. The latter is, in Graham’s view, “extraordinarily expensive” due to zoning codes requiring “pretty excessive amounts of space for an individual” and “building codes that require a really heavy duty, rigid, expensive way to build.” Phil Ansell, head of LA County’s Homeless Initiative, says that they are working to get tent-dwellers into permanent housing through outreach that is “varied and customized based on the individual circumstances.” However, he says they have also launched a competition, entitled the Housing Innovation Challenge . This is a $4.5 million grant program that invites designers, developers and property owners to offer ideas for permanent housing “that can be developed more cheaply and more quickly than is conventionally the case.” But what is tent-living like for the 50,000 or so homeless people in LA County? DnA producer Avishay Artsy goes to the Venice boardwalk and “Skid Rose” on 3rd Avenue in Venice to find out. Workers with the LA Department of Sanitation confiscate a homeless person’s belongings on the Venice Boardwalk. Photo by Avishay Artsy. He attended a “sanitation sweep” in which LA police and workers from the city’s Department of Sanitation crack down on what they call the storage of personal property in public areas. Homeless people are given 60 gallon plastic bags to fill with their belongings. Whatever doesn’t fit is put in a garbage truck and brought to a downtown facility, where it’s stored for 90 days. People need to wade through a mountain of other people’s belongings in the hope of reclaiming their possessions. Avishay also went to an encampment early in the morning, where police drive through at 6 a.m. to wake people up and tell them to pack up their tents. It’s against the law to have a tent on the sidewalk between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. Women in particular say that a tent ensures their safety. “A tent means that, number one, you're not sleeping on the concrete. Number two, nobody can see whether it's a man or a woman. So you have that extra added security against rape. Because rape is really, really threatening thing when you're a woman, you're homeless and you're sleeping on the sidewalk,” said Mary Nolan, who goes by the name “Grandma.” The city is looking to crack down on homelessness around the sites of proposed emergency shelters. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s $20 million “A Bridge Home” program seeks to put temporary homeless shelters in every council district in the city, including one in Venice. The shelters would offer supportive services as well as bathrooms, showers and security. Homeless activist David Busch and his tent on Third Avenue in Venice. Photo by Avishay Artsy. Still, the homeless may prefer to stay in their own tents rather than in one of these shelters. David Busch is one of the best-known homeless activists in Venice. “Typically in a lot of shelter programs you might share a cubicle with four or so folks whereas really with a tent you got your own little space, even if it's just a piece of darkened cloth. You're outside. You got this sense of space around that tent that people kind of instinctively respect. And it's your own little space. It's a great refuge,” Busch said. Busch sleeps in a squat, nylon two-person tent, it’s white and fluorescent-yellow and is covered with a purple rainfly. Inside there’s a sleeping bag, an Indian blanket, a white LED light, a folding chair, and a white 5-gallon bucket with a tight-fitting lid he calls “my deluxe bathroom.” As gentrification has increased in Venice, we are seeing residents of Venice who are paying premium prices to live near the beach butting right up against very poor people who are living in tents or sleeping on the sidewalk. But Busch says he doesn’t understand the concerns or frustrations of the homeowners in Venice who call the police to complain about the homeless. “I think they're very hard to understand, especially in the last decade. The real estate here in Venice for rentals is actually, per square foot, now more expensive than Beverly Hills. It's their presence and their driving up the cost of all the housing here that is making it even more expensive to deal with the unhoused in this community. It's driving up the cost of the programs that most people would consider to be the better alternative, the supportive housing, the transitional housing, and squeezed out fewer and fewer landlords that would make room for a Section 8 voucher applicant,” Busch said. Clifford Moore with his mobile camper on the Venice Boardwalk. Photo by Avishay Artsy. The sanitation sweeps and early-morning wake-up calls from the police have led two enterprising young homeless people to create a rather innovative workaround. Clifford Moore and Billy Young have built bike trailers with campers on the back. Using plywood and corrugated plastic, they built homes on wheels. “Micro-living,” as Moore puts it. They park their bike trailers in handball courts, library parking lots, side streets and bike paths. Moore says each of these mobile campers only costs about $200 in materials, built just using a drill and some hand tools and constructed in a Home Depot parking lot. On the outside they've attached tarps to keep the light out.   “Honestly I don't consider myself homeless. I consider myself residentless. Just because, I've got a home. It just doesn't stay in one spot,” Moore said.

28 MIN, 32 SEC Jun 26, 2018

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