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Laws That Shaped L.A.: Why is the Los Angeles Skyline So Bland?

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Posted every Monday, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated by a variety of experts - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: Emergency Helicopter Landing Facility "¨
Year: 1974"¨
Jurisdiction: City of Los Angeles "¨
Nominated by: Michael K. Woo

How in the world does Los Angeles - global creative capitol, home of one imaginative industry after the next - manage to possess such a flat, drab and stunted skyline?

Why is it that cities from New York to Shanghai, Dubai to London and Kuala Lumpur to Atlanta can throw up iconic skyscrapers like so many murals, while L.A.'s boxy tops look more like the Appalachians after strip-mining?

The answer? Blame well-meaning text inserted in 1974 into the Los Angeles Municipal Code.

That text - Sec. 57.118.12 of the Code - is titled, "Emergency Helicopter Landing Facility." The text begins: "Each building shall have a rooftop emergency helicopter landing facility in a location approved by the [Fire] Chief." The Code further mandates these helipads be 50'x50' and include a 25' safety buffer as well.

Construction of the U.S. Bank Tower (aka Library Tower), as seen from Echo Park, 1989. Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library.
Construction of the U.S. Bank Tower (aka Library Tower), as seen from Echo Park, 1989. Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Public Library.

The result - as I've written before here and here - is that in barbershop nomenclature, L.A.'s tall buildings are stuck with high and tights, not liberty spikes. A 21st century metropolis deserves the freedom to have both. But there's good news on the flat top front; hope - and not just another tame silhouette - is finally on the horizon.

As other media outlets have noted (here and here and here, and in opposition, here), the newly proposed Hollywood Community Plan permits skyscrapers to be constructed within the subway-served "Hollywood Corridor" area.

But what hasn't been reported is that the plan also, happily, includes an amendment that would exempt tall buildings in this limited area from Sec. 57.118.12's helipads-on-high demands.

"If this provision in the Hollywood Community Plan survives," Los Angeles Planning Commissioner Michael K. Woo said in an email last Friday, "then that will be very significant."

Woo, the Dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona and a former L.A. City Councilmember, would know. He is in great part responsible for this potentially transformative progress, having proposed the change to the City Planning Department staff's initial report.

During a recent conversation at his Cal Poly office and in subsequent follow-up emails, Woo explained what effect this change could have.

"The City Planning Commission action on the Hollywood Community Plan included an amendment which would encourage a more spectacular skyline in Hollywood," Woo said, "by allowing mid-rise and high-rise building to have more visually striking, three-dimensional building tops such as the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building in New York, the Transamerica pyramid in San Francisco, or City Hall" - constructed in 1928, nearly a half-century prior to the 1974 Code update - "in Los Angeles."

Bland 1976 downtown skyline. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Bland 1976 downtown skyline. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

It's no surprise that Woo pushed for the chance to allow architects and engineers to create safe and iconic tops - he has long been out front on the issue.

"It's something that I've thought about for at least twenty years," Woo told me in 2008. "Just because it was so obvious that Los Angeles lacked the kind of dazzling architectural tops that you see in other cities."

The Plan's new amendment, Woo stressed, applies only to Hollywood. "Wouldn't that be a natural place," Woo said, "to experiment with lifting that requirement and substituting some other standard, or some other solution, to the problem of high-rise building safety?"

Woo and others I've contacted over the years about this topic all take responsible and appropriate pains to make clear that they're not opposed to fire safety, first responders, rapid building evacuations or public health. But Woo and others dare to ask a legitimate question: Is having a helipad at the peak of every tall building necessary, much less wise?

Nate Wittasek, senior managing engineer at Exponent Engineering and Scientific Consulting, is a longtime fire and safety engineering expert. Wittasek told me four years ago that technological innovations could make a huge difference in how fire evacuations occur in tall buildings.

Wittasek, who at the time worked for engineering giant ARUP's Los Angeles Fire Engineering Group, pointed to how Emergency Evacuation Elevator Systems (EEES) were already in place in England and Hong Kong. These modern systems, Wittasek said, can cut building evacuation times in half.

Wittasek also told me: "From an engineering perspective, I would simply note that if one has limited resources to work with, and there is a choice between building a half-million-dollar helipad that would likely be used infrequently, if ever, and designing an enhanced vertical transportation system that would benefit far more building occupants, including people with disabilities, it seems to make sense to pursue the latter solution, even in the face of cultural and jurisdictional challenges."

The Bonaventure Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. Image courtesy of the USC Digital Library.
The Bonaventure Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. Image courtesy of the USC Digital Library.

The "cultural" challenges Wittasek mentioned include convincing people to use - not avoid - elevators during time of crisis.

The "jurisdictional" challenges include convincing the Los Angeles Fire Department to not fight changes to the '74 code. An email sent last Friday morning to a department spokesperson wasn't returned by the time of this writing, but an LAFD assistant fire chief in 2010 told Curbed LA's Smith: "Why would I go backwards in public safety for aesthetic reasons?"

He shouldn't. But that doesn't mean that he and his colleagues have to.

Dubai's Burj Al Arab has a helipad - it famously doubles as a tennis court - that's not at the building's zenith. That's a more reasonable way of handling a helipad if one is deemed necessary. Downtown L.A.'s Ritz-Carlton building - a.k.a. "The Jeeves" because it resembles a butler holding a tray - is the unfortunate result of trying to be creative and still keep to L.A. code.

Better still, in West Hollywood, where similar L.A. County helipad rules apply, the nearly-complete Red Building in the Blue-Green-Red Pacific Design Center triumvirate received a waiver to not have a helipad but instead to use better fire suppression systems.

The Red Building, low slung, is nothing like the 73-story Downtown L.A. Library Tower. Red's lower height surely made some difference in the decision to keep the choppers away. But if Woo and his Planning Commission colleagues are listened to during the coming months by the L.A. City Council, then West Hollywood's enlightened stance will spread down the road into neighboring Hollywood.

Of course, all this is not to say that everyone desires high density and tall edifices.

"The impact of a skyline is not only going to be visible from the flat parts of Hollywood nearby, but also from the Hollywood Hills, where I'm guessing that there's probably some divided opinions," Woo said. "That is, there will be some people who would welcome the idea of a more interesting skyline and probably others who don't want any skyline at all."

There's another option that nobody should want, in Hollywood or anywhere else: more of the same - tall, flat-topped buildings that bore when they should soar.

Photo: Downtown skyline as seen from Hollywood, 1987. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

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