The Complexities of Creating Good Design for the L.A. River


L.A. River gate at Maywood Riverfront Park, designed by Brett Goldstone | Photo: Laurie Avocado/Flickr/Creative Commons

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


A higher design quotient undoubtedly leads to economic benefits. In New York City, the High Line generated $2 billion in private investments around the park and added about 12,000 jobs in the area. San Antonio's 2.5-mile Paseo del Rio adds about $3 billion to city coffers and impacts 21,000 jobs locally. Further afield, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is continues to attract more than 1 million visitors, half from abroad. In Los Angeles, its river is fast taking on these same lofty ambitions with a diversity of results, as we have previously discussed.

There are those who feel that a design body overseeing development along the Los Angeles River could ensure better outcomes for the area, but the proposition comes with a few complications.

While supportive of the general idea of a design review board to increase energy and activity along the river, Carol Armstrong, director of the L.A. River Project Office within the Department of Public Works and Bureau of Engineering, says "I don't know if that's the answer. The idea of elevating the importance of design is certainly good, but we have to do it in a way that reflects the diverse talents and imagination of the people of Los Angeles. I would also caution against creating another layer of bureaucracy." Armstrong advocates a more open, participative process that allows local voices to surface easily.

As riverside residents already know, the river is a complicated place with no less than 14 agencies overseeing various aspects.

Leigh Christy, Associate Principal at Perkins+Will, the firm that has long been involved in the L.A. River Revitalization including proposals for the Piggyback Yard and the adaptive reuse of the historic Lincoln Heights Jail, says "In the best of all possible worlds, a design review board would help simplify the process and not complicate it further. Or somehow get embedded in something that's already moving."

This added layer of control on the river is also a concern for developer Mott Smith of Civic Enterprises. Smith points out that another entity would guarantee the increase in costs and risks of development on the river, a factor that could intimidate the smaller, often more experimental developers.

"When people suggest design review boards, there's generally a presumption that the primary cause of bad or mediocre design is that developers place a low priority on design and/or that their architects might benefit from a creative shot in the arm," said Smith. "The problem with this, though, is that the hypothesis is wrong. Mediocre design comes as much (or more) from the web of intersection zoning, building code, multiple city department requirements, and related constraints that squeeze development into a narrow, misshapen box. The buildings that get built end up being these weird compromises whose only virtue is that they've successfully avoided a veto from any of the 18 departments that regulate building in L.A. To add a layer of design review on top of this madness probably won't do anything to improve outcomes, just raise expectations and thus the level of disappointment in what gets built."

Great Heron Gates at Rattle Snake Park by Brett Goldstone | Photo: Patrick/Flickr/Creative Commons

Great Heron Gates at Rattle Snake Park by Brett Goldstone | Photo: Patrick/Flickr/Creative Commons

Brett Goldstone and Michael Amescua are both veteran Los Angeles River artists, responsible for many of the river's distinctive gates. Both agree that another governing body on the river, specifically one that scrutinizes design would only hamper an artist's creativity.

"Having more people involved in the river is fantastic for the future of the river," said Goldstone, "but for an artist to do individualistic work to be more daring and creative, I think that's going to have a negative effect." Over the years, Goldstone has seen the regulation increase on projects along the river.

With his first two gates, Goldstone says "Nobody was telling me anything and I could come up with whatever I wanted. Nobody was even sure who had jurisdiction, but now there are many rules in different categories." The artist says that code requirements now cover the height of the fencing, the type of materials to be used, even the amount of spacing in between the bars in the gate. He says that should a design review board be created on the L.A. River, Angelenos wouldn't have seen gates such as his.

Goldstone adds, Angelenos might envision a forward-thinking, courageous design board, but in reality, when groups come together to build consensus, it is often a conservative option that wins out. "Groups tend to veer toward the conservative."

Amescua, in contrast, has always worked with cities on his projects. He's used to the long process of being shortlisted for projects, submitting proposals within a budget, and working with different agencies. He says that another layer of bureaucracy would only hamper the creativity, especially from younger, greener talent who are less patient with the instituted systems.

"We've got to figure out a way to draw young artists in there because they have a lot of great ideas," said Amescua. In response to the idea of having a design review board, he says, "It's another layer of red tape. All the pieces I've done on the river have been reviewed, discussed, argued over." Another body would only lengthen a process that sometimes already takes years to realize. Building on Christy's own suggestion to embed the board on an existing body, Smith provocatively poses an alternative, "What if we replaced the 18 layers of building review with a locally-seated design review board? That would be different. That would be powerful, but that's also very unlikely to happen."


L.A. River Gate on Los Feliz Boulevard by Michael Amescua | Photo: Jennifer Gaillard/Flickr/Creative Commons

Added complexity aside, a successful Los Angeles River design board should rely on a clear mandate, scope of power, and specific design guidelines. "Design review boards are only as good as the standards they're following," said Deborah Deets, landscape architect for the City of Los Angeles.

A theoretical Los Angeles River design review board would need to have a clear jurisdiction. Would that jurisdiction extend beyond the Los Angeles River Overlay Zones recently approved by City Council? What design guidelines will be followed in those zones? Will new ones be drafted or are the guidelines outlined in the RIO overlay or the L.A. River Masterplan enough?

"There needs to be a cohesive vision for the river beyond being a form of economic redevelopment for the city," said Deets. "What's that big vision? How does the design review board make sure that's implemented? What criteria will the review board use for judging?"

Burbank City Council member and professional city planner Emily Gabel-Luddy says, "I have to tell you flat out, I'm not a big fan of design review boards. Why? Because in my experience, the board members got into the details of the design. Should it be a wood frame, metal frame? Should it be a peaked roof or a flat roof? I don't think the architectural style matters as muych as how the buildings are laid out and interact with the river."

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Like Deets, Gabel-Luddy expresses the primary importance of having clear guidelines that express the intention of future development along the river. Without this foundational agreement, a design review board would only be an aimless body subject to the whims of the incumbent.

John Lesak, Principal with preservation architecture firm Page & Turnbull, has been part of the South Pasadena design board and has given many presentations in front of design review boards. He says, "The mission of the design review board needs to be clearly defined. The L.A. River is such a wide-spanning thing that it'd be really important to define the purview of any design review entity."

Instead of creating a new regulatory body, Gabel-Luddy asks, "Can we make it easier for good design to occur?" In the past, Gabel-Luddy has helped set up an urban design studio within the city of Los Angeles, whose role is to enable designers to navigate the complexities of city departments. "It wasn't set up to pass judgment on projects. Project designs have come up to us asking for advice on how to do this, or go about doing that. Project's have trouble getting to where they want to get, a clearinghouse of advisors help smooth that way."


Toad Gate at Valleyheart Greenway by Lahni Baruck, based on a drawing by 5th grade student Michael Harris | Photo: Laurie Avocado/Flickr/Creative Commons

A design review board may seem like an obvious answer to create the river's cohesive identity, but it would be wise to remember that the poster boy projects agencies and politicians now cite did not come a result of a committee but by individuals in a community.

High Line co-founders Joshua David was a former freelance journalist with a specialty in urban design, and Robert Hammond was a part-time painter and former marketing and Internet consultant, when they met at a community board meeting to discuss the demolition of the High Line. At that point, no one else saw the possibilities and, in the room, only David and Hammond were interested in saving the High Line.

Together, they set on a strategic plan to save this spot targeted for demolition. Their plan involved not just design, but building community support, documenting the site, creating design visions, finding advocates in local government, and even filing lawsuits.
As Hammond comments on another interview for the American Society of Landscape Architects, the most important aspect of the High Line's realization wasn't the design, it was to "start the project, and it allowed other people to come along and help us get it done. In some ways, it was an asset that neither Josh nor I was an architect, landscape architect, or city planner. It forced us to basically go to other people for help."

This story from Hammond points to the reality that a successful project isn't just about having the right design, but getting all the pieces of a project together.
"Part of the beauty of the L.A. River is the diverse talent all around," said Armstrong, "We have a lot of design talent in Los Angeles and though we have the traditional AIA structure, but a lot of indigenous design talent in L.A. hasn't necessarily made it into this formal structure. Our challenge is to respect and past and to be open to all that future can offer in terms of design."

By its nature, a design board concentrates a mantle of authority on the shoulders of a few. Is there a way to open the doors to allow for the diversity in Los Angeles, yet still balance the quality of its output? That is a design question for the ages.


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