Qualified Condition

August 26, 2008

This is Why Nobody Walks in LA-Ahy

Filed under: Building Does Not Play Well With Others, Great Places in Greater LA — qualifiedcondition @ 8:08 pm

One of the most important things that you can do in a city that is being choked by traffic congestion and air pollution is target new housing in places that will minimize car trips.  You might hear this referred to as “smart growth” in the paper every now and then.  In Los Angeles, the Metro Red Line (our one and only actual subway) presents the biggest opportunity for this so called smart growth.  The train runs between two major employment centers and provides easy connections to the Blue, Purple, Orange and Gold lines (or is it Orange and Tan and Peach and Gray… I forget.).  You could live here and get most places without using a car—you can live an iPod commercial!
Slowly, over time, we are beginning to see biggish projects popping up along the Red Line corridor, which is great news.  Last Sunday I spent some time checking out the Vermont/Wilshire development that was completed about a year ago.  In many respects, at least on paper, it’s a great project.  It is dense, it provides a multitude of housing types (affordable to “luxury”) and it provides neighborhood serving commercial uses at the ground floor.  Also, it has a large plaza and some large iconic graphics that serve as a gateway to both the plaza and the Metro portal.  If you close your eyes and picture all of these components on a building you might envision something very urban, interesting and pedestrian oriented.  If you’re a dork like me you might even get excited and say to yourself “Yes!  We’re finally getting buildings that belong in a world class city!”  Unfortunately, if you open your eyes and then allow yourself to visit the junction of Wilshire and Vermont you will be reminded of the perpetual failure that is architecture and urban design in Los Angeles.  The following are some mistakes that honest-to-God need to be addressed the next time we build one of these so-called transit oriented developments in this city:

Street Frontages need to be open and inviting.  Given the desire to activate the central plaza this development does the typical LA thing and turns its back on the street.  To walk up and own Vermont (a major street) you would think you were on an alley.  There are no doors and windows, save for a lonely and ill-placed residential lobby door.  Normally I’d want to get into it about the actual store-fronts (bulkheads, recessed entries, transom windows, singage, etc.) but with this thing I’d settle for anything that doesn’t punish pedestrians for walking along Vermont or Shatto.




People like landscaping.  Putting up a big building like this in an urban context with so little greenery is a little like serving up an iced Americano without any ice.  True, it is in fact a coffee drink but it’s utterly unenjoyable.  With big projects there is usually an opportunity to incorporate a lot of landscaping both along the sidewalk and in and around the actual project property.  This building, only a year old, is a mess of dirty gray stucco walls and dirty gray concrete on the ground.  Even the requisite street trees seem to be missing in some places.  The plaza provides minimal greenery and the streetscape is decidedly abiotic and the overall feeling is both cheap and hostile and looks like it was built to be hosed down by robots rather than maintained with care.




Plaza spaces need to be intricately programmed.  Like storefronts, there is a kit of parts that is usually included in successful plazas.  Water features, public art, varied hardscape, innovative lighting, ample seating surfaces, steps up and down… all of these things can help to create a space where people actually want to dwell, hang out, maybe buy some shoes or at least a cup of coffee.  The plaza here is a huge rectangle with some round planters that look like they were tossed in at the last minute.  If the plaza could speak it would say “I’m so embarrassed, we ran out of money!”  At the very least there should be a hierarch of space where the focus is two-fold: funneling folks to and from the portal and allowing folks to linger, shop and enjoy.

I’d love to go on about bike racks and bike lockers, benches and trashcans along the street, and building materials (enough with the stucco, they don’t have to deal with that crap in Chicago!), but I think you get where this is going.  Let’s hope that we actually “stick the landing” the next time one of these goes up.



  1. Preach. That’s all I have to say. No, wait, there’s more. I think at this point I am obligated by my conscience to ask forgiveness for we who commit these sins against the public and also ourselves. On behalf of all architects, who are all better educated, more experienced, and much smarter than myself, I say, “I’m sorry.” We need some kind of Hippocratic oath.

    Comment by adam — August 26, 2008 @ 9:49 pm

  2. Regardless of how (un)qualified an architect may be, the direction provided by the developer to maximize everything still ultimately rules most decision-making and design be damned.

    Comment by carter — August 27, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

  3. I’ve seen it in Ecuador where some stores open towards two streets, they have a door on both sides therefore making it inviting to both sides, why can’t we do that. Also that uggly design should be replaced by two LED screens.

    Comment by Seb — August 27, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

  4. I live near this monstrosity, in a non-gentrified 1920s building.

    Besides the cheapo design (why didn’t they include awnings or balconies?), I think a larger problem is the lack of respect for cities qua cities. The design screams “ok, I’m not suburban, but I hate cities and I resent being here. But I’ll pretend I don’t by putting on a smiley colored face.”

    News flash to architects: some people with money actually LIKE living in cities and want them to be human-scaled. And dignified.

    I am so tired of seeing apartments and condos with disposable design. They remind me of fast-food restaurants, designed to maximize patron turn-over…

    Comment by Nearby resident — August 27, 2008 @ 8:09 pm

  5. How’s this for transit- and pedestrian- unfriendly?

    This morning, as on most mornings, there were a handful of cops at the Wilshire-Vermont plaza ticketing pedestrians and bus riders if they began crossing the crosswalk after the hand had begun flashing. I won’t go into how mad this makes me, but you can read the story and see some photos I took here. You’ll find the story of the cop that went onto the bus and pulled a passenger off especially egregious.



    I’d really like to do something about this…perhaps a stand on the corner and make sure no one crosses “illegally” to deny the cops the pleasure of ticketing working-class bus riders, while handing out flyers about the issue and urging people to call Wesson/LaBonge. Or something more creative like big signs that have arrows that point to the cops who hide behind the Metro sign to catch people.

    Comment by Dando Guerra — September 3, 2008 @ 12:39 am

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