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.
“New” Town of Kentlands by Duany and Plater-Zyberk
New Urbanism: Why Does It Look So Old?
The early New Urbanist defining work, “The New Urbanism, Toward an Architecture of Community” by Peter Katz, with an afterward by no less than Vincent Scully and essays by New Urbanist evangelists Todd W. Bressi, Peter Calthorpe, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides, annunciated the intellectual foundation for the movement that started in the early 90’s, and increasingly influences urban and suburban planning today. The New Urbanist pattern, ironically established in green farmland or wetlands in early communities such as Seaside, Kentlands, Windsor, Wellington and Playa Vista, has taken a firm hold on the development community, and is the established paradigm for many a development today.
“New” Town of Kentlands by Duany and Plater-Zyberk
Rejection of Technology
At its intellectual core, New Urbanism is the rejection of a technology, the automobile, and the enormous affect that technology has had not just on planning, but on the way we live. There is no disputing that the automobile has radically changed our lifestyles. The automobile affords us a great deal of mobility, freedom, autonomy, while it has made the world smaller and allows us freedom to travel, flexibility in where we live, work and play. Yet it also isolates us, places substantial demands on our time and finances, and, without thoughtful planning, renders our communities ultimately unfriendly to both pedestrian and driver alike.
The song says “Nobody walks in LA.” Los Angeles, and the vast majority of other towns and cities built since the automobile became the primary mode of transportation, are fundamentally different than those cities built before the auto. While newer cities allow more lifestyle and home choices, and certainly provide more opportunities in pursuit of a single family home, the “American Dream,” much is also lost. Postauto cities, to create a neology, provide few places to walk, to informally gather and congregate. Parks are often empty, and the mall, or its recent replacement, the lifestyle retail center, become the destinations. Though destination “lifestyle” centers fill with people, they fill largely with strangers, scores of people who share an experience yet rarely interact. A traditional town square, however, is quite the opposite – not so much a destination as a point of connection on the WAY to a destination. One who has spent time in an Italian piazza quickly observes that few people go to the piazza. Instead, one passes through the piazza on one’s way, on foot, to another destination. Walking into the piazza one is frequently distracted by a friend, market or activity, a casual social collision far more meaningful than any on Facebook or Twitter.