Monday, March 19, 2007

The start of something bad

What is the thread that connects these two recent LA Times articles (excerpted below)?

The first discusses how planners are weighing wich way to zone large parts of downtown LA, industrial or residential? The second describes a three-dimensional model of a nearby area, on public display, that let's children move the pieces around to evoke various possbile plans or "solutions".

The first discusses consultants' studies and cites numbers of acres, jobs, rents and wages in the area. It says nothing about how these strands can be used by planners and politicians to decide anything. It sidesteps the point that central planning on this scale is impossible and simply politicized.

What ends up on the ground will be underutlized and a waste if there is no demand (we have many examples of this; I just spent some time walking around the underground plaza at L'Enfant Plaza in DC but many big cities now have one of these) or builders will push successfully for something that might work but at great expense in terms of lawyers, consultants and hearings (more waste).

The three-dimensional models plant a bad idea and are the start of something bad.

Developers, industry battle for L.A.'s heart

By Cara Mia DiMasa, March 19, 2007

The old warehouse at the corner of Industrial and Mateo streets in downtown Los Angeles had seen better days when Yuval Bar-Zemer and his partners at the Linear City development firm bought it in 2002. The 1924 structure, in a rundown section of downtown, was a World War II-era bomb shelter and later a toy factory. It was being used to store the plush shells of stuffed animals.

The developers transformed it into 119 live-work units, with a rooftop pool and other communal amenities. They dubbed the new space Toy Factory Lofts. On the building's ground floor are a pub-style restaurant, a high-end grocery store and a health club.And this weekend, the developers finished work across the street converting the former West Coast headquarters of the Nabisco company into 104 live-work condo units.

But what might seem like a tale of urban renaissance is actually at the center of a fierce battle brewing in downtown L.A. that pits the shiny new downtown against the gritty version that has long existed in the heart of the city. Developers like Bar-Zemer are pushing Los Angeles to radically rezone the city's industrial core to allow residential development. They argue that the change would create a new type of neighborhood, one that would mix light industry with condo living and live-work lofts — spaces where artists, architects and others can operate businesses and sleep at night — and would ultimately create more jobs and tax revenue for the city. The city Planning Department and some community activists, however, are resisting the heavy lobbying. They say the industrial zones provide solid jobs for the working class and boost L.A.'s economy."In the rush to build some downtown fantasy, we should be careful not to destroy the things about downtown that actually work," said Joel Kotkin, an urban planner who has written extensively about L.A.'s economy. "The industrial stuff actually works: It employs a lot of people, there's a low vacancy rate, and being at the center of a transportation hub really matters."At stake is the future of the city's industrial land — and not just in downtown. About 8% of the city — or 19,000 acres — is zoned for industrial use, mostly properties used for manufacturing, storage, distribution and other commercial operations.

Although the debate now centers on the vast tracts around downtown, where the largest concentration of the industrial land is located, the proposed changes could have a ripple effect elsewhere, including Hollywood, the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.

The debate goes beyond issues of planning, zoning or architecture, say most people familiar with the discussions, and centers on the very nature of what a city is supposed to be, and who it should be for. "We need as a city to move away from our 1950s-era suburban-model approach to zoning and instead devise land-use regulations that combine uses, to create jobs and housing on one site at one time," said Kate Bartolo, senior vice president of development for the Kor Group, which is developing a number of projects downtown, including the conversion of the former Barker Bros. furniture warehouses in the industrial district into condos and retail space. The debate exemplifies how the economics of revitalization are rapidly changing Los Angeles.As the boom in downtown residential real estate moves into the industrial district, aging factory spaces are suddenly worth more if converted into lofts. That's because large industrial living spaces are selling for a premium, costing $500,000 or more for each unit.Because of this, many owners of industrial businesses are conflicted, because they see the economic benefits of residential conversion.A city report placed the price of land for residential uses downtown at roughly five times that of industrial land. If the industrial land downtown is rezoned, city officials say, that value could rise even more sharply. At the same time, however, the city found that the industrial district around downtown supports 64,000 jobs, most of which pay around $19 to $24 an hour (though some developers say those numbers are somewhat inflated).For more than 100 years, downtown has been the heart of industrial L.A. — ever since the Southern Pacific Railroad opened L.A.'s first rail depot there in the late 1800s.As the city grew, so did the district, and brick buildings began to dot the nearby landscape, built to handle the vast number of goods coming into the region. By the 1920s, national firms began locating their West Coast branches in the city center, said Greg Hise, an associate professor of urban history at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development. Today, though, the downtown warehouse district is a tangled mix of industry and neglect. The district's streets are, quite literally, crumbling, riddled with cracks, the skeletons of old rail lines and wheel-size potholes. Few of the area's loading docks, built decades ago, can accommodate modern semi trucks. Still, with their fences lined with barbed wire and graffiti, most of the district's low-slung buildings are occupied, home to cold storage facilities, produce companies, toy storage and more. City officials say that the vacancy rate for downtown's industrial land hovers around 1%, and that demand for certain-sized parcels can't be met by the current supply.

River project is child's play -- and more

A gallery invites visitors of all ages to tinker with models of L.A.'s much-maligned waterway to illustrate their visions.

By Bob Pool, March 18, 2007

Inspiration was flowing like the Verdugo Wash after a five-day rainstorm for Alex Dann.

"Where's the zoo?" he asked, sizing up the table-size tableau in front of him. "Over there? Cool."

The 7-year-old Tarzana boy was at a downtown Los Angeles art gallery Saturday, poring over an exhibit called "Five Models Afloat." A moment later, he was participating in it.

He carefully studied the 4-foot foam-board square, which was divided into thirds by a bright blue plastic slash that depicted the Los Angeles River where it is joined by the Verdugo Wash at the Glendale-Los Angeles border.

One part of the square was covered by a miniature "mountain" molded out of window screen material to represent the Hollywood Hills. The other two, depicting flatland areas, were grids marked with a series of green swatches.

Dotting the areas around the swatches were tiny movable structures formed from small blocks of wood, Lego pieces, parts of toys and objects such as toothpaste caps.

Alex moved a wood-block figurine resembling a high-rise apartment house away from the edge of the river. He was asked if he had ever seen the real Los Angeles River and what it was like."Yeah, I've seen it. It's a sewer," he replied as his mother, Holly Dann, blanched."Well, it is," Alex said, standing his ground.The pair, along with father David Dann and 11-year-old sister Abby, had stopped at the gallery while shopping downtown.

The three-dimensional scene Alex was working on is a representation of one of five points along a 32-mile stretch of river for which officials have launched long-range plans to beautify the waterway and make it appear more natural.

Los Angeles officials, consultants and the Army Corps of Engineers spent two years conducting formal public workshops seeking ideas for the rehabilitation of what is now a mostly concrete-lined flood channel. Last month, they issued a draft report suggesting that a $2-billion makeover over the next 50 years could replace industrial land along the banks with park space. The steep concrete walls could be landscaped and rebuilt with step-like channelization.