Can Los Angeles Be a Place for Us?

On Sunday, November 10 at Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach, I'll join Claudia Jurmain in a conversation that includes Frances Anderton, host of "DnA: Design and Architecture" on KCRW; USC History Chair William Deverell; UCLA Urban Center for People & the Environment Director Stephanie Pincetl; environmental journalist Jon Christensen; architect Alan Pullman, and downtown developer Tom Gilmore.

The program (the last of three in 2013) is A Place for Us.

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Making a place for us -- for the millions of Angeleños -- has consumed essentially all of the coastal plain from Tustin to Santa Monica, along with the interior valleys that front the San Gabriel mountains.

The filling of the Los Angeles basin is sometimes a history of regret -- as Deverell, Pincetl, and Christensen have narrated in their work. It's also a history of home.

What constitutes home in 2013 has become more complicated. The genius of Southern California once resided exclusively in its single-family houses; increasingly, when we think of our place, we'll think denser and taller. Mostly, that's because there's no place to go but up.

Much of downtown Los Angeles was already up -- in the form of empty office towers -- when the city council passed a model Adaptive Reuse Ordinance (ARO) in 1999. Office buildings from the 1910s and 1920s, their upper floors vacant, were the equivalent to the dairy farms and walnut orchards of the San Fernando Valley in 1947: acres of developable land stacked up overhead.

Tom Gilmore led the reuse of office buildings in downtown Los Angeles under the ARO. But the momentum seems to be lagging today, according to Gilmore. The ARO's single-minded emphasis on residential conversion has become a stumbling block to developers who want to mingle retail and office space with rentals or condos. The usual bureaucratic delays for any project in Los Angeles hinder reuse. Developers always complain about the environmental quality review process.

Instead of adaptive reuse, almost all of the development downtown today is new construction done cheaply with wood framing and therefore rising only seven or eight floors.

It costs less to build on a former parking lot than to reuse an existing building. The number of existing buildings of the right size, condition, cost, and proximity to the city's urban vibe is limited. All the easy conversions have been made. Investors in downtown aren't like the risk-taking Gilmore anymore. They're risk-averse equity funds and institutions.

A taller, denser downtown is turning out to be a not so tall landscape of undistinguished modern-ish or vaguely "Mediterranean" boxes. It's a design pattern (if you can call it that) already spreading to other neighborhoods and cities.

Can better design make a better place for us? That's a puzzle for Frances Anderton and Alan Pullman.

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