Exploring the Benefits of an L.A. River Design Review Board


Proposed design for the 'Hyperion River Plaza and River Watch' by ERW Design, an entry for the NELA Placemaking Contest

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series exploring the idea of a Design Review Board for the L.A. River. Read Part 1 here.

There are many design deserts in Los Angeles -- small bits of odd-shaped lands in the middle of transit routes and bustling streets. There is one right in front of the California Endowment on Alameda. Urban planner James Rojas and artist Carmen Argote once asked citizens to explore what they called the Alameda Triangle Median, a small island squeezed in front of buildings and complexes, with their bodies.

In Glassell Park, another such overlooked space exists -- the oddly-shaped trapezoidal piece of land that serves as the neighborhood's transit hub. For almost a decade, the community has been trying to get something as simple as well-designed shading and seating built, but it seems they would have to wait a little longer. Though the proposal has received support from more than 650 people and has even gotten some funding, it will have to wait a little longer until another more prosaic design is approved.

"We just have a feeling that the city was always a little afraid of this project," said Helene Schpak of the Glassell Park Improvement Association, a few months ago, after the city had set aside their years of work in favor of another plan.

Ironically, Schpak shared that less than a week after that disappointing community meeting, "some representatives came to speak about this new, artistic structure going in the Northeast Los Angeles police station, providing shade and shelter. Everyone was thinking, 'Why this and why not the transit pavilion?' We do modern, artistic things all over L.A.. But for some reason, not in Glassell Park or Cypress park. Why is that? Why can't we do something like that in NELA communities?"

Schpak's plea perhaps reflects the community's own desire for better design in the riverside neighborhoods. In an ideal scenario, if there had been a strong political voice advocating for better design in the neighborhood, the Glassell Park neighborhood might have had increased clout to pursue SCI-Arc's original design and actually get it constructed.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) formally supports design review boards, saying, "Design review boards offer U.S. communities a unique venue for supporting innovative, effective design. A commitment to implementing model design review processes will help to ensure our communities' success and leadership in the 21st century." The organization says that when done right, design review boards are an instrument for smart growth.


Rendering for the Rio Vistas Project by DakeLuna

Norman Millar, dean of Woodbury School of Architecture, holds a similarly approving view of design boards. "If we're going to see the river as the Olmsteds did as a potential spine of green spine of L.A., the thing that supports connections to nature, it would make sense to have a design review board," said Millar. "It would be a sign that L.A. county, Los Angeles, and all the cities by the river see the river as one of its greatest resources. It makes sense. It's about time."

Margot Jacobs, an associate at Mia Lehrer + Architects, also feels supportive of the proposition. "It would help shape the agenda on the river and keep the vision aspirational," she said. Instead of settling for commonplace design, a board could really uplift the meaning of design along the Los Angeles River.

Elysian Valley resident and artist Steve Appleton is intrigued by the prospect. "Something needs to happen," said Appleton, who spoke from experience. "I have a lot of respect for people in Los Angeles and how hardworking they are, but I do think there's probably a need to recognize that we're in a different situation than we were ten years ago because of the amount of money and the projects that are going to happen."

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Appleton offers the Rio Vistas project as an example of the randomness of Los Angeles River design. The project was done by the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation in collaboration with Dake Luna and NELA Riverfront Collaborative. It designed 27 shovel-ready street end projects in Elysian Valley.

While Appleton understands the value of such a project, he found himself wondering who might be the final arbiter of whether these projects would make it off the ground. "I was thinking there might be a point where there will be a review from a design review or professional to give critique and final approval. Nothing like that happened."

Millar says that in the long term, landowners would benefit from the increased design quotient of the area. A 2005 paper submitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Architecture supports his statement. It concluded that good design does have a positive effect on property values, even in surrounding areas and bystanders. It is also able to increase the visibility of the project beyond the neighborhood.

Done right, better design can capture the world's imagination. Take for example, the High Line, an unused elevated railroad track that has been transformed into a sliver of a park in Manhattan. From New Jersey to London, everyone now wants one of their own in the city.


Sci-Arc's proposed design for the Glassell Park Transit Triangle (top), and the City's alternative design (bottom)

The structure of such a body, however, is crucial. The creation of a design review board could take on infinite forms and not one has proven to be the silver bullet.

Millar notes that an L.A. River Design Review board could be similar to the Hollywood Design Review Board in the 13th Council District. It is a body sponsored by the city council district, and it makes its decision based on guidelines that were put together by the California Redevelopment Agencies before it was disbanded. According to Millar, because the board has the office of the 13th Councilperson behind it, it becomes a "politically persuasive tool to get developers and their designers to do a better job." But Millar wonders, given the multiple agencies and organizations that work along the L.A. River, is there a similar entity in Los Angeles with enough clout that could host this?

Should the board serve as purely an advisory body, offering critiques but allowing regulatory power to remain with the river's respective agencies? Or should it actually have enforceable legal clout?

Mott Smith from developer Civic Enterprises cites one stellar example of the former. In the early 2000s, the L.A. Unified School Districts came out with an unprecedented call for school designs that would replace the thousands of temporary schools it had on its roster. Breaking the mold, LAUSD then considered and eventually approved of prefab designs that were a step above the boxy, grim ones we may be familiar with. These included designs with swooping profiles by Hodgetts + Fung, and another by Gonzalez Goodale had glass walls. The winning proposal by Swift Lee Office was an open plan school that had enough flexibility to accommodate 500-student school, library, gymnasium, or community center, depending on the community's needs.

According to Smith, "LAUSD brought in elite architects to review all the school design proposals. The architects came on board to advise the LAUSD. The agency was just getting professional assistance in the room to brainstorm. There was no regulatory aspect."

These are difficult questions to tackle. Most frustratingly, none have clear answers, but if the river truly were as large and important a project as it is purported to be, shouldn't it be given that level of consideration?

What are your thoughts on having a design review board for the Los Angeles River?


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