Testing play streets in Los Angeles

The city of Los Angeles, known for its highways and roads, is trying to turn some of its streets into areas for fun and community activity:

There are roughly 7,500 miles of streets in Los Angeles, and Fickett Street is only one of them. But in this predominantly Latino neighborhood where parks are scarce, residents and activists have begun a design intervention to reclaim streets for civic life, kibitzing and play. From London to Los Angeles, the play street concept, known as “playing out” in England, has become an international movement of sorts, especially in low-income communities that lack green space and other amenities.

The efforts in Boyle Heights, a 6 ½-mile area bisected by six freeways, is a collaboration between Union de Vecinos, a group of neighborhood leaders, and the Kounkuey Design Initiative, or KDI, a nonprofit public interest design firm that helps underserved communities realize ideas for productive public spaces.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has invested $300,000 on 15 KDI-designed pilot play streets this year in Boyle Heights and Koreatown, another heavily trafficked neighborhood. Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the LADOT, first became aware of the concept while visiting Copenhagen…

On a recent Sunday, Kounkuey unveiled its “playground in a box.” Shade structures stretched across Fickett Street, affixed to loquat trees and no-parking signs, and the plastic “wobbles” created by KDI doubled as Tilt-a-Whirls, BarcaLoungers, and formidable hurdles for teenage skateboarders. Nine-year-old Amanda Alvarado built a McMansion. “Ava, lookit!” she exclaimed to her 4-year-old sidekick in pink pom-pom slippers.

This is a clever idea for two reasons. First, it transforms what is typically a thoroughfare for cars into a space for community life. Many American neighborhoods and communities are full of roads and planning that emphasizes the efficiency of getting vehicles from Point A to Point B. Even if the effort is temporary, the transformation can be a powerful symbol. Second, it does not require long-term investments into new spaces or architecture. The road already exists. Bringing in the equipment takes some work but it is portable and can also be used elsewhere.

At the same time, this seems like an incomplete concept. It feels like a small band-aid for larger issues. As the article goes on to talk about, in a neighborhood bisected by highways, lacking green space, and pushing back against gentrification, couldn’t more be done? How about permanent parks?

What routes would Waze recommend that drivers would turn down?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a 32% grade Los Angeles street to which Waze routes drivers:

But residents along Baxter Street in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood—reportedly one of the steepest streets in America (comprising two major hills)—are now banding together to try to change local traffic patterns. Neighbors have contacted city officials and Waze’s parent company, Google, to try to mitigate the problem…

The street, which dates back to 1872, has a 32-percent grade—more than double what current city law allows for today.

In 2003, the Times described the street this way: “Unsuspecting motorists gasp when they reach the crest and discover the roadway in front of them has dropped out of sight and there is nothing but empty space in front of their car’s hood.”

A decade later, Los Angeles magazine noted:

Baxter later became a proving ground for automobiles, as manufacturers staged elaborate stunts to demonstrate their vehicles’ power. In one such event in 1916, a four-wheel-drive truck loaded with 4,300 pounds of baled hay groaned its way up the grade, pausing twice for newspaper cameras. Nearly 100 years later, Baxter Street continues to bewilder uncertain drivers and confound elongated vehicles.

The appeal of apps like Waze is that drivers can avoid traffic by taking lesser-known routes. While residents may not like this, the more interesting question is how far drivers would let Waze take them. The apocryphal stories of drivers turning into lakes may make more sense when the story begins with a driver frustrated with the ridiculous or unpredictable traffic in many major American metropolitan areas. Would they drive through standing water? (The regular stories of drivers getting stuck on flooded roads suggest yes.) Would they be willing to go off pavement? Would they navigate through extremely tight places? Take a road with a severe and unblocked drop-off? Are there as willing to go through higher-crime areas? Apparently, a 32% grade is not enough so perhaps 40% would be too much?

I know this would not help Waze’s cause but I could imagine the company issuing some sort of award or recognition to users who are most willing to do something unusual to get around traffic.

Transforming LA parking lots into housing for the homeless

To help speed along a plan to provide housing for the homeless, Los Angeles is targeting the development of city-owned parking lots:

The idea of converting public parking to housing has been around for decades in L.A. but has gained little traction. In the 1980s, Mayor Tom Bradley proposed leasing rights to developers to build multifamily housing, but there was no follow-up…

The new parking lot review grew out of an urgency to implement Proposition HHH, the $1.2-billion bond measure approved by the voters to help fund the construction of 1,000 permanent supportive housing units each year.

With taxpayer funds now committed, a new obstacle emerged. The scarcity of suitable land in the city’s highly competitive real estate market could add years to the start-up time for new projects…

In almost every case, the scale of the project would change the character of a neighborhood, potentially bringing new life to aging business districts, but almost certainly stirring opposition in some. The strategy is getting its first test in Venice.

This is a clever way to jumpstart such a project – finding land is always difficult and the city already owns these lots – and one that is likely to encounter lots of opposition. How many businesses or residents next to these parking lots will desire these changes?

Yet, opposing the redevelopment leaves the nearby people arguing in favor of parking lots. This is not typically what people want to see: parking lots are visual blights, they may not receive much use, they include lots of traffic noise, lights, and pollution, and they are less preferable to nice buildings that help bring in revenue and improve the quality of the streetscape (and by extension improve property values). If a developer was to go into a typical urban or suburban neighborhood, very few people would be in favor of transforming an existing building or lot into a parking lot (unless that lot or building was a complete eyesore or vacant for years or some extreme case).

And if you can’t build housing for homeless on these lots, perhaps because of opposition from neighbors or because the lots themselves do not work for housing units, where else could you build?

Solving traffic problems by developing resilient roads

A new study suggests cities and regions should think about their whole network of roads as resilient rather than focusing on main arteries:

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Maksim Kitsak, associate research scientist in the Department of Physics and Northeastern’s Network Science Institute, and his colleagues examine the resilience and efficiency in city transportation systems. Efficiency refers to the average time delay a commuter would face annually due to traffic. Resilience is the ability of road networks to absorb adverse events that fall outside normal daily traffic patterns…

“What we show is actually these two measures are not really correlated with each other,” Kitsak said. “One would think that if the city is bad for traffic under normal conditions, it would be equally bad or worse for traffic under additional stress events, like severe weather. But we show that is not quite the case.”

For example, the study found that the Los Angeles transportation network—while inefficient on a daily basis—doesn’t suffer much from adverse events. The road systems are resilient. They function more or less the same regardless of unforeseen incidents…

Why is the City of Angels more resilient than the City by the Bay? Kitsak said there are many factors that influence transportation resiliency, but one of the most important ones is the availability of backup roads. Los Angeles has many, while San Francisco does not. San Francisco also relies heavily on bridges, which separate the city from other parts of the Bay Area where many commuters live.

This is more evidence that simply adding lanes to major highways or even constructing more major roads is not necessarily the way to go to solve traffic and congestion issues. All the roads (plus other transportation options) work together in a system or network.

Speaking of Los Angeles, this reminds me that the region can illustrate both the good and bad of having a more resilient road network. On the good side, concern about potential Carmageddon and Carmageddon 2 were overblown as the closing of a major highway for repairs was not as disruptive as some thought. On the flip side, a few years ago some Los Angeles residents complained about Waze rerouting cars through their quiet neighborhood to avoid backups on the main roads.

Finally, this study could also be related to claims by New Urbanists that the best option for laying out roads and space is on a grid system. Grids allow drivers and other easy ways to get around problem spots. In contrast, subdivisions (common in suburban areas) that include quiet and occasionally winding residential roads that dump onto clogged main arteries do not contain many alternatives should something go wrong on the main roads.

So is the trick in the long run to create a resilient road network within a region that is not totally dependent on cars? Los Angeles might come up looking good in this study but not everyone would agree that sprawl and lots and driving is desirable.

The same LA bridges in many car commercials

One interesting set of locations is fairly common in car commercials: bridges in Los Angeles. This is not what you might expect: how many people know that bridges are even necessary in Los Angeles? (The Los Angeles River does exist.) This has a long history: a 2004 New York Times story suggests the presence of production companies in southern California plus good weather leads to many shoots in Los Angeles.

One of the past bridge locations was the Sixth Street Viaduct which closed in 2016:

According to Film L.A., the organization that helps the film industry book municipal locations, over 80 movies, television shows, music videos, and commercials are shot on or underneath the Sixth Street Viaduct each year. That’s partially because of the bridge’s swooping metal arches, perched on an art-deco concrete platform; and partially because of the river underneath and that access tunnel: if you want to film something set in Los Angeles that makes reference to the city’s automotive culture, or if you’re just looking for a place to shoot a car chase that’s cheaper and more available than a clogged freeway, the channelized, concretized bed of the Los Angeles River is your best choice.

Except that the bridge officially no longer functions that way, as of last week. It’s going away completely. And the river? It’s on its way to becoming a river again.

Here is a short montage of the bridge being taken down alongside iconic images from films.

The Fourth Street Bridge is also home to a number of shoots and features Art Deco columns as well as views of the downtown skyline. Here is a Google Street View image:

FourthStreetLosAngeles

Are viewers of car commercials more likely to purchase a vehicle if it is shown in Los Angeles compared to other settings? Los Angeles has its own aesthetic which may or may not match with many other places. (In urban sociology, Los Angeles is often held up as the prime example of decentralization. Yet, it also does have a downtown as well as numerous other scenic sites such as the hills behind the city.) In the Chicago television market, we see some car commercials shot in Chicago. Might this help viewers envision themselves driving a new car when they see it in a familiar location? It would be more difficult to do this for all of the metropolitan markets in the United States.

Here are some other common car commercial locations with several more in the Los Angeles area.

Jake Paul, celebrities, and a behavior code for McMansion dwellers

Jake Paul is angering his neighbors while living in a Los Angeles McMansion and this raises a number of questions about with whom the term McMansion is used:

The 20-year-old, who first became internet-famous on the now defunct app Vine, has been living with friends and “coworkers” in a Beverly Grove rental near Melrose and Kilkea. Mic reports they use the house as ground zero for loud parties and for some of his “stunts,” including lighting a pile of furniture on fire in the house’s drained pool and popping wheelies on a dirt bike on the street…

Paul has been living in the McMansion-style contemporary—where rent is $17,459 per month, MLS records show—since June 2016. (Paul is reportedly pulling in “millions” of dollars and is an actor on the Disney Channel show Bizaardvark, so he can afford it.)

The house is described on the MLS as having five bedrooms and five bathrooms. It was recently a Spanish-style duplex, but building permits show a new house was built on the site in 2016.

Beverly Grove has long fought against McMansionization of the neighborhood. Now many neighbors may be wondering, if they didn’t build it, would Jake Paul have come?

Three related questions:

  1. Can people who live in McMansions criticize others for ruining the neighborhood? Or, are the people complaining about Paul also the same ones opposed to McMansions? As the last sentence quoted above suggests, once you start letting in McMansions, it is hard to stop them.
  2. Is there a behavior code for McMansion owners? If your neighbors already don’t like your house, which may often be the case with teardowns, perhaps it would be best to lay low and try not to ruffle many feathers. On one hand, there is a stereotype that McMansion owners are the types who drive in and out of their cars without seeing anyone else yet there are often presumed to be people who have to prove something (and this comes out through their house and maybe through other behavior).
  3. Are McMansions more acceptable for celebrities and wealthy people? When people generally use the term, they are referring to more middle or upper-middle class who are trying to show off their wealth. But, celebrities typically have more resources than the average person. At the same time, the truly wealthy celebrities live in mansions that are far beyond typical McMansions.

To sum up, I would argue that celebrities who don’t antagonize their neighbors are rarely accused of living in McMansions.

Addressing homelessness in wealthy Orange County

Suburbs in Orange County, California are working to address homelessness:

The vanishing benches were Anaheim’s response to complaints about the homeless population around Disneyland. Public work crews removed 20 benches from bus shelters after callers alerted City Hall to reports of vagrants drinking, defecating or smoking pot in the neighborhood near the amusement park’s entrance, officials said…

At the county’s civic center in Santa Ana, homeless encampments — complete with tents and furniture and flooring made from cardboard boxes — block walkways and unnerve some visitors. Along the Santa Ana River near Angel Stadium, whole communities marked by blue tarp have sprung up. In Laguna Beach, a shelter this summer is testing an outreach program in which volunteers walk the streets offering support and housing assistance to homeless people.

Cities across California — notably Los Angeles and San Francisco — are dealing with swelling ranks of the homeless. But officials in Orange County said most suburban communities simply don’t have the resources and experience to keep up.

Susan Price, Orange County’s director of care coordination, said officials are trying to build a coordinated approach involving all of the more than 30 disparate cities that takes into account the different causes of homelessness, including economic woes, a lack of healthcare and recent reforms in the criminal justice system.

With a location like this, the headline just writes itself: “While homelessness surges in Disneyland’s shadow…” Juxtaposition! Yet, this shouldn’t be a surprise in this suburban era. Fewer suburban communities and residents are far removed from what they may have once considered to be “urban problems.” The changes across suburbs in recent decades – more diverse populations, continued job opportunities though there is an increase in the service sector, higher housing prices (particularly in places like California) – have pushed many suburbs to consider new issues.

If Orange County does indeed enact a regional approach to homelessness, it could be a worthwhile study to compare the outcomes with those in the city of Los Angeles. Can wealthier suburban communities successfully address homelessness compared to cities who have addressed the issue for longer periods of time? (Success would not be allowed to be defined as moving the homeless elsewhere.)