Rethinking L.A.'s Streets: Fountains, Art, Potholes, Possibilities?

Mayor Garcetti may have found his "brand" on the streets of Los Angeles. Last Thursday, the mayor issued an executive directive to key city departments to begin what the mayor hopes to become a citywide Great Streets program.

At this stage, the great ideas are many and a bit vague. Fountains? Murals? Sculptures? The emphasis seems to be on the look of things, although potholes, parking, and bicycles were mentioned. "We've ignored the aesthetics of our city too long," Garcetti said in announcing his streets initiative. "The way that neighborhoods look has a lot to do with its livability."

The mayor announced his plans before a conference convened at the Urban Land Institute by Gail Goldberg, ULI's executive director. (Goldberg is a former city planning director.)

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Garcetti offered up some odd metaphors in describing improvements in the past decade to the streetscape of hipsterized Hollywood, Silver Lake, and Echo Park (Garcetti's former city council district). The streets, he said, had "lost their swagger" in the 1990s, but "acts of urban acupuncture" since 2000 have pumped in private investment.

The mayor also thought swagger had returned to Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, 6th Street in San Pedro, 1st Street in Boyle Heights, and Robertson Boulevard in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Critics of gentrification in those neighborhoods question who got poked by "urban acupuncture" -- streets or former residents priced out their neighborhoods and storefronts by rising rents. Los Angeles residents might prefer flatter sidewalks, smoother streets, clean and lighted bus stops, and an equitable sharing of the public right-of-way among pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers before laddish swagger and dubious street art.

For now, the mayor's Great Streets are in a "visioning" phase. Looking ahead, city planners might wonder who will finance more "urban acupuncture," now that the Community Redevelopment Agency and its funding are gone. Bean counters at City Hall could point to chronically out-of-balance budgets. And those with any memory at all can count the several "better streets" bandwagons launched over the past 20 years, all of which broke down somewhere along the way.

Weren't residents supposed have the welcome shade of a million new street trees by now?

Finally, those who know politics will remind the naïve that the mayor can't spend the city's council's money. The council is like a kindergarten classroom; any treat -- sidewalk repair, for example -- has to be carefully divided so that nearly every district gets a share.

The political stagnation is part of the reason why Los Angeles has put off infrastructure maintenance for decades, leaving the city with an estimated 60-year-long backlog of repairs at current funding levels.

Meanwhile, the mayor will play close attention to aesthetics. "I believe that design matters," he said.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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