Malibu Architect | Design studio expert at designing homes and residential projects that people love, places that delight.
Below is a reposting of a ULI article by Ed McMahon, ULI Senior Resident Fellow for Environmental Policy, followed by our rebuttal to that article:
May 13, 2009
Learning from Los Angeles
Editor’s note: This post was written by Ed McMahon, ULI Senior Resident Fellow for Environmental Policy. He is a panelist at ULI’s Developing Green conference underway this week in Los Angeles. This event is focusing on green issues related to the Western and Southwestern regions of the U.S. ULI is hosting a second Developing Green conference June 23 in Washington, D.C., that will focus on green issues related to the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and South.
While driving from the Los Angeles airport to the Beverly Hilton yesterday, it occurred to me that Los Angeles was the perfect city to host ULI’s Fifth Annual Developing Green Conference. Los Angeles is of course the world capital of America’s car culture, but it is also in the state that has become the national leader in developing innovative solutions to the inter-related problems of sprawl, green house gas emissions and energy consumption.
The Developing Green conference began with presentations by two California public officals: Mary Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board and Darrel Steinberg, President protempore of the California Senate. Both speakers focused on California’s precedent-setting Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32). This act requires a 25 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. To achieve this goal California is pursuing three strategies: 1) Better (more fuel efficient) cars; 2) Better (less carbon intensive) fuel; and 3) Better (more walkable and transit friendly) development. The last strategy is of course the one with the greatest relevance to the real estate industry.
For the first time in American history, California is requiring all local goverments to coordinate their transportation and land use stratgies to reduce VMT (vehicle miles travaled). This idea will eventually ripple through the entire country setting the stage for a fundamental shift toward infill development, transit-oriented development and mixed-use development, as well as walkable suburban development. Sometime soon I can see a new book entitled Learning from Los Angeles.
With all due respect, as an architect and urban designer who has called LA home for most of his nearly 50 years, I beg to differ. By the early 90’s, LA’s air quality and general environmental had substantially improved, while quality of life, especially as relates to traffic, has grown relentlessly worse. Recent “improvements” have much more to do with politicians capturing headlines than improving the quality of life of those of us that live here. To your three points:
1) Better (more fuel efficient cars). Over the years autos have, in response to consumer demand and evolving technologies, become substantially more fuel efficient and run significantly cleaner. General engine efficiencies, hybrid technology and clean diesel have made an arguable difference. New technologies, such as fuel cells, are extremely promising. They are also extremely expensive and time intensive to develop. Yet consumers will demand more efficiency, so develop they will. To force vast improvements in efficiency at a pace that outstrips technological development, however, can only have tragic results. Dead people and dead auto manufacturers. The only way to achieve the new standards is to build smaller cars – much smaller cars. That means more dead people – click here to observe the results of a Smart car meeting a mid-sized sedan. Smart cars are great in Europe where there is a culture of small. They are deadly here.
2) Better (less carbon intensive) fuel. Much progress has been made, much has yet to be made. Forcing the issue has one of two results. Either we use more ethanol, which makes us feel good but is absolutely unconscionable as it comes at the expense of those who starve in the third world, or feel good technologies like “zero emission” electric or compressed air cars. No emissions from a tail pipe, but as much or more at the energy source.
3) Reduction of VMT (vehicle miles traveled). We all want that – traffic in LA, especially West LA, reached completely dysfunctional status about five years ago, and even the current economic difficulties are not improving the situation. Forcing the issue, however, will improve nothing. Politicians will create cover for themselves, usually by talking about public transit, and little will change. LA has spent billions on public transit over the past twenty years, yet traffic is significantly worse.
From an urban design perspective, the solution is quite simple. LA needs two things:
Densification. Quality densification, affordable densification. Environments that people want to live in at prices they can afford. Not just young and wealthy singles, but also middle class families. Currently people move to distant suburbs for quality of life (as they define it, not as you and I do) and for price. When we create an environment in midtown where folks want to live and can afford to live, they will drive (or take a train or their feet) ten minutes to work, instead of the one to two hours each way they spend now. Urban designers tend to define quality of life as we think it should be, design to that standard, then wonder why only young and affluent singles or artists live in the worlds we create. A Hobbesian cynic defines quality of life based on the self interest of people as THEY define it. A Hobbesian cynic is wise.
Critical Mass. Quality lifestyle requires variety and lots of other people. Choices. Many choices. A rich and varied environment, not a perfect prototypical project. An empty restaurant will fail – no one wants to go there. A crowded restaurant will succeed – everyone wants to go there. A district of crowded restaurants is better yet – everyone will succeed. One or two small projects here and there will do no good. We need critical mass – either districts of projects or huge, beautifully master planned projects. See also my blog post that describes why Playa Vista has failed as an urban place.
We don’t need feel good solutions, we need pragmatic solutions that people will love, that will substantially improve our way of life. As designers, master planners and urban designers, we have two methods to achieve our means: we can force people to go where we want (the IKEA approach) or we can design a place, based on an understanding of human psychology, that will encourage people to intuitively decide to do as we would like them to do (Apple’s approach). IKEA’s approach creates resentment and drives folks to find a short cut, a way to cheat the system. Apple’s approach creates devoted followers and evangelists who happily choose to do as Apple likes and bring their friends.
Perhaps I’m a bit Machiavellian, but I’ve always found the latter to be the preferable approach. Urban design, not urban dictation.
The Shops at Playa Vista
Why Has Playa Vista Failed?
Saturday afternoon, June 6. It’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon, not too warm, not too cool. A perfect day to stroll, window shop, sit outside for lunch or a coffee, a fine day to take the kids or dog to the park. There is a nice collection of shops, restaurants with beautifully furnished sidewalk dining areas and a Coffee Bean with its signature outdoor seating area and fire pit. There are great street trees, flowers, and the park across the street is beautifully green.
Playa Vista, while long since excommunicated by its elite New Urbanist designers including celebrities Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, adheres to most if not all of the 12 defining elements of New Urbanism. The shops and park are in the discernible neighborhood center. Most of the dwellings, varied in type, are within a 5 minute walk of the shops and park. The shops are somewhat varied (though a key daily trip generator such as a real market or drugstore seems to be missing).
Playa Vista is dense and filled with playgrounds and parks. There are a variety of outdoor features within a short walk of every residence, many enticements to draw people outdoors. The streets are narrow and human scale, the sidewalks tree lined, the landscape lush. Pedestrian and auto zones are clearly defined. This is a pleasant place to walk. There are enough cars parked to make the place feel safe and lived in, yet not so many as to make it feel as though people are not welcome.
Central Park at Playa Vista
The architecture is varied in scale and in density. Further, this project has been around for a few years. The landscape is maturing nicely, and most of the homes are occupied. Prices have been high, so there is plenty of affluence throughout the neighborhood – disposable income, freedom to get out and be active. The designers got most things right. This is LA’s most significant New Urbanism.
Yet on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in June, the streets were largely empty. Only a handful of people were enjoying the park or the shops, the outdoor dining enjoyed by but a few. There were no more people around on this balmy Saturday in June than one would expect to see on a cold Monday morning in January. This ideal New Urbanist environment is empty. The community of residents remain in their homes, or they have climbed in their cars and left their neighborhood – just like every other suburban Angeleno does on a Saturday afternoon.
Why has Playa Vista failed? Why is it, in spite of its pedestrian streets, shops and parks, devoid of people?
I will outline the reasons I believe it has failed in a future post. Look back here in a day or two, or subscribe to this blog in the box on the right. I would welcome your thoughts as well – please add to this conversation below.
The Shops at Playa Vista
3 Reasons Playa Vista Failed
There are three goals for successful destination master planning, three goals that apply whether the project is retail architecture, a destination town center, or entertainment retail design. A great destination appeals to a wide variety of people, extends the stays of its guests and encourages repeat visitation. Achieving each of these goals requires three elements – the same three elements. Critical Mass. Variety. People. Playa Vista fails because it has none of the three:
Critical Mass. Shops, restaurants, people, entertainment. A lonely shop will likely fail, in a shopping center is has a good chance of success. If there are enough shops, restaurants, people and entertainment, there will be something for most everyone. Guests will want to stay to browse and explore, and will want to return for variety of reasons. A destination with critical mass will attract a wide variety of people, it will extend their stays and will encourage repeat visitation. Playa Vista has one restaurant, two places for beverages, three shops and several commercial service providers. This is not enough critical mass to draw people from the immediate neighborhood, let alone the community beyond.
Variety. Zones, environments, experiences, products, menus. Choices. A varied destination appeals to a wide variety of people and provides multiple reasons for extended stays and repeat visitation. Playa Vista has one menu, one place for juice, one place for coffee and one small market. It is of limited appeal, provides no enticement to stay, none to return.
People. The number one attractor of people is people. No one goes to an empty restaurant, retail center, town center destination or park. An empty destination has limited appeal and is uncomfortable for those who do visit. They will not want to stay or return. Playa Vista is empty.
Empty Park at Playa Vista
Playa Vista’s park and shops are hidden from the outside world, those outside not only are not enticed to come in, they are made to feel unwelcome. The designers seem to have created a town center for only the Play Vista neighborhood. Consequently, it is a town center for no one. Further, the architecture of Playa Vista consists primarily of bad caricatures of the rich variety of architectural styles that are LA. Most is mediocre and the enormous variety of styles, from modern loft to associative Mediterranean to Mondrian creates an odd juxtaposition, forced in feel and uniform only in its unapproachability. As per above, variety is an essential element to the success of a destination. Variety for the sake of variety, however, variety that is not modulated by a high concept, by a big idea, is not unified on some level by a consistent vocabulary, is only an attractant on the level of a fast food franchise. It draws you in then chases you out.
LA has an enormously strong car culture. Angelenos go. Had Playa Vista created a vibrant retail, dining and entertainment district like the nearby Abbott Kinney in Venice Beach or Main Street in Santa Monica, Playa Vista residents might have been encouraged to live a modified LA lifestyle. As designed, they exemplify the LA way of life.
Destination Design Developers in the Mix
A few populist, yet possibly high minded, developers have stumbled upon this dichotomy. Perhaps they see a more complicated public, a society that does appreciate gorgeous architecture and outstanding public spaces, yet often simply wants to escape and be entertained. I myself consider Dostoevsky and Tolstoy two of my favorite authors, yet find a good cheap mystery novel a grand distraction on an overseas flight. Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso is the quintessential example of a developer that, by design or simple intuition, has stumbled upon this split, and seems to seek to be both populist and high minded.
Not a retail design architect, Caruso’s early work accomplished this in an unrefined manner. His first significant work, The Promenade at Westlake, combines highly associative storefronts suggestive of old Italy with crudely designed, modern shops expressive of the Golden Mean. People flock to the center, drawn by the romantic appeal of the historic architecture, yet also enriched by Caruso’s attention to detail, fine materials, water features and sculpture. It is destination design architecture on the scale of a supermarket, one of the first strip centers that seems to understand that it was built to be inhabited by people, not just cars and shopping carts.
While the Promenade’s poorly conceived “modern” architecture likely appeals to no one, Caruso seems to understand that just as Apple is wildly popular, there is a public for a more sophisticated, more relevant, more modern architecture. His more recent work, including The Grove in Los Angeles and The Americana at Brand in LA suburb of Glendale, both include more thoughtfully designed modern storefronts. While the modern shops at the Grove are so infrequent as to be disruptive, modern architectural elements are more frequently included, and of much better quality, at The Americana. The elevator Tower at The Americana at Brand
With the possible exception of a rusty steel elevator tower that dresses the parking structure, however, the bifurcation remains. The modern architecture is adjacent to, yet entirely separate from, the historic architecture. It is as though the interior of a Honda Element as been installed in an otherwise beautifully recreated 60’s Corvette. Unlike the previously cited examples of the VW and Mini, neither architecture seems to acknowledge the existence of the other.
I’m an expressive modernist at heart, yet surround myself with non-architects, non-designers. Consequently, I’ve become increasingly interested in finding the Bug, in designing the Mini, of the architectural world. It seems arrogant and self defeating to ignore the appeal the popular, yet short sighted and an enormous missed opportunity to design to the lowest possible standard. Perhaps a more detailed study of the appeal of the past, popular and romantic in the minds of the public, as well as an increased understanding of the appeal of the modern, and an evolved and systemic coupling of the two, will create an architecture that will lift an embracing public.
This coupling represents a blue ocean of opportunity for designers – we will study it in more detail in coming articles.