Gail Goldberg

Gail Goldberg

There was consternation recently in the LA planning and architecture community, at the sudden departure of  Planning Director Gail Goldberg. Goldberg was welcomed four years ago to the City from San Diego by  Mayor Villaraigosa who touted her vision of concentrating development on public transit nodes (AKA Smart Growth).

Michael Logrande

Michael Logrande

Barely had Goldberg vacated her office than the Mayor replaced her with Michael Logrande, a cheerful, 39-year old  zoning administrator lauded by his boss for his can-do spirit. But while Goldberg had some critics who had charged her with allowing “developers to run the show at City Hall,” that charge has been leveled with even greater intensity at Logrande, reports Beth Barrett in LA Weekly.

So what is the future for planned development in LA, a city where urban design is dominated, writes Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times, “by the Department of Transportation, which seemingly never met a road-widening project it didn’t like?” Not to mention City Councillors who “frequently engage in the kind of horse-trading — I’ll back a project in your district if you back one in mine — that leaves the Planning Department on the outside of the real planning process looking in.”

Strathmore Apartments, designed by Richard Neutra (1937)

Strathmore Apartments, designed by Richard Neutra (1937)

In the view of one architectural writer, Michael Webb, LA looks set to prioritize fast growth over smart growth. Webb lives in Westwood Village, in Richard Neutra’s seminal Strathmore Apartments building. Plans are afoot for a student housing complex (shown, below) on the opposite side of the road that he argues would not only overwhelm the Neutra landmark but is at a completely inappropriate scale for its neighborhood. He sees this North Westwood Village project as illustrative of planning travails to come in Los Angeles. Below is his critique of the project and the process. Comments are welcome:

DAVID V. GOLIATH IN WESTWOOD

By Michael Webb

Concerned citizens have been fighting for the past twelve months to scale down an obese development in North Westwood Village that would overwhelm a classic modern landmark and a community that is already bursting at the seams. PPC, a Dallas-based developer, wants to build a six-story rooming house for up to 188 students on a narrow spit of land,
directly across from the Strathmore Apartments, a 1937 masterpiece by architect Richard Neutra. The block would choke off light and views, wall in a narrow, congested street, and provide only one parking place for every three occupants—even though the surrounding streets are already overflowing with cars.  The development flouts the North Village Specific Plan, which disallows rooming houses, and mandates “Orderly, attractive and harmonious development…which takes into consideration the unique architectural character of the area.”

Architects from around the world have expressed their dismay. The Westwood Design Review Board rejected the project as mediocre and out-of-place by a five to one vote. In six prolonged hearings, the Board urged PPC to make meaningful improvements; instead, the developer sought a density bonus to add another story. The LA Planning Department ignored
the Board’s action, as it had brushed aside every other objection, and renewed its approval. In response, residents launched a web site to present their case and rally support for a final appeal to the City and West LA Area Planning Commissions.

There’s no question that the LA will have to be densified, to accommodate a population increase and conserve energy. The city needs construction jobs and increased tax revenue. But this is the wrong building in the wrong place. Twenty years ago, North Westwood Village was invaded by jumbo-sized blocks, eroding its humane scale and diversity. That is why the Specific Plan was adopted, to check uncontrolled development, and preserve the livability of the community. UCLA reports that it has met its targets for accommodating students and needs no more off-campus housing beyond what it is building itself. The pressing need, it says, is for small units.

Local residents agree: they want the site to be developed in a responsible way, to enhance, not degrade the community. A three-story mix of studios, lofts and apartments could house UCLA faculty and staff, nurses and interns from the Medical Center, workers and storekeepers in the Village, thus enhancing the social mix of the North Village. As a model, they cite the infill condos and rental apartments created by LA’s most creative architects in West Hollywood and Santa Monica.

Americans have suffered enough from the destructive impact of greed. PPC has only one goal: to build big boxes that will maximize its profits. Tenants of the GrandMarc student rooming houses that PPC has constructed in Riverside, CA, and Minneapolis were polled in an on-line survey, ApartmentRatings.com/GrandMarc. Approval ratings are currently at
fourteen per cent. Occupants speak of poor management, constant police calls, and incessant noise. “A little piece of hell” was a typical comment.

It’s deeply disturbing that the LA Planning Department is rubber-stamping this and similar proposals for the North Village. In China, city planners and private speculators make back-room deals and shun the interests of residents. That destroys communities and blights lives. We deserve better.

Michael Webb is author of many books about architecture, including Venice, CA: Art and Architecture in a Maverick Community and Art Invention House. For more information about Richard Neutra’s work and the fight against the new development opposite the Strathmore Apartments, go to www.NeutraLives.org.

Strathmore

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