MyFigueroa designs great, but need polishing

Last night, I rode with my wife and daughter to the Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing Merchandising (FIDM) to participate in the Community Redevelopment Agency Los Angeles’ (CRA/LA, or simply CRA) community meeting for their $20 million MyFigueroa project. The money for this project came from delayed state grant awarded to the CRA/LA by the California Housing and Community Development Department. The CRA hired renowned Danish architecture firm Gehl Architects to re-design South Figueroa Street, from 7th Street in Downtown LA to 42nd Street in South Los Angeles.

The design work and research Gehl Architects performed on the MyFigueroa project area is world-class. There were, however, gaps in Gehl Architects presentation (wonderful as it was): they failed to include safety and crash data; there was no Spanish translation service; and they skipped over talking about the 10 freeway underpass. FIDM were not the best of hosts. Overall, I see the project heading for a shelf in the City Clerk’s office, unless it is modified. Some very calculating politics and public relations work is left to be done to ensure a majority of Los Angeles’ City Council and LA’s various department heads are given a clear signal that they cannot let this $20 million opportunity to turn Figueroa into Los Angeles’ Champs Elysee slip through their craven fingers, or turn into a big paper shuffle.

As opposed to most of the high handed work citizens of Los Angeles are used to, Gehl Architects really got down to the street level and designed up from there. They used a lot of direct observations to find out where the activity of street users is currently focused. From this perspective, they designed a series of treatments that move automobiles out of the carriage-way in favor of walking, transit use, and bicycling.

They offered a “Good, Better, Best” set of options for South Figueroa Street. Their “Good” would amount to a revolutionary change in the way Los Angeles designs streets. Gehl Arhitects’ “Best” option is a Los Angeles that finally respects and understands that our city is for people and not just an ugly series of conduits for cars. Flying Pigeon LA officially endorses the “Best” option!

What Gehl Architect’s design consistently took away from South Figueroa Street was the power of the automobile to dictate the tempo and scale of the street. Automobiles are isolated in their designs and kept away from the flow of business and social activity. In their re-configured Figueroa Street, the focus of the street is entirely on humans on foot, on bicycles, using transit, or simply taking in the day shopping or resting on bench. The whole plan looks like the street a visitor expects when they come to a great city like Los Angeles. Gehl Architects has designed a “there” for what is today a huge shunt for belching automobiles trying to cut around traffic on the 110 freeway.

Gehl Architects' Oliver Schulze lays out his firms vision for Figueroa

The were gaps in the presentation. Though not obvious to many in the room, they will open into chasms in the press if left unattended to.

First, happy motorists want to know: “What will I do when the 110 is backed up and Figueroa Street is a pedestrian paradise?”; and, “When I come downtown to eat dinner, where am I gonna park? Have you seen how expensive it is to park around here?!” Happy motoring is seen as a birthright to many Americans, especially to aging baby boomers, who currently own and run the majority of our media and social institutions. In New York, Janet Sadik-Khan was able to shut happy motorists down by presenting easy to understand facts about crashes, injuries, and retail foot traffic that justified the removal of space for cars on the street. This wasn’t just the NYC Transportation head being a “wonk”, this was great public relations. Data is not neutral in a city where only car volumes are counted. The presentation by Gehl Architects lacked a clear picture of how the street will be measurably safer (reduced crashes and injuries, reduced emergency service costs) and how their designs will bring bucket loads of cash to retailers, hoteliers, building owners, and churn money through our local economy. Modeling all that is perhaps asking too much, but an analysis of the street as it exists will help a great deal going forward with “pilot projects” and so forth.

Second, nothing at the presentation was provided in Spanish, though half the room seemed to be made up of relatively short-statured women of a Latin American descent. They voiced their discontent at the end of the meeting. Their discontent should not be ignored. A huge chunk of the population in this project area speaks Spanish as a primary language. We’ve been down this road before. Hire a translator and a get everything presented translated into Spanish. Get it done now! I could write the LA Weekly article about what a bunch of lame, latte-sipping, liberal, effete, douche bags the CRA, Gehl Architects, and their fanboys (myself included) are, about how “precious” and nonsensical the whole project is, based solely on the fact that there was no native language material on hand for half the audience.

Third, I did not see, nor hear, any discussion about the horrible section of South Figueroa Street that passes under the 10 freeway near the intersection with Venice Boulevard. A point worth addressing with some sort of visual demonstration – as this is truly a moat that cuts off Downtown from the rest of South Figueroa Street.

About our hosts, FIDM, they have a lot to improve in the way of bike accessibility and respect for the public. It was kind of sad to be treated like a second class citizen because I arrived on two wheels. I’ve made my case on my personal blog, and I apologize for printing here what belongs there.

MyFigueroa Presentation at FIDM on February 8, 2011

Despite being held in a people-unfriendly facility, and its shortcomings with safety data, the MyFigueroa presentation was quite inspiring. Nothing presented looked expensive or complicated to build. Everything in the designs looked better than what we currently have, from the perspective of local residents, visitors to the area, and the various monied interests both big and small along the corridor. The only thing that will prevent this project from getting built is the political outcry of the motoring masses and the coverage provided by their paid representatives in the LA Times and all other papers of note funded by automobile industry ads. I intend to do all I can to see that the vision Gehl Architects has created for Figueroa gets built. I hope you will do the same.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted February 9, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Wow. That is really despicable treatment, and I’m sorry you and your family had to deal with that! To be honest, that sort of callous, arrogant behavior is a giant part of why I just couldn’t deal with FIDM, let alone downtown LA.

  2. suji
    Posted February 9, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Your blog was promising, until of course we are reminded it is only yet another tool for personal vengeance. Get it right — Fashion Institute of Design & MERCHANDISING. And wouldn’t you know the Park behind the school is locked up at night therefore your bikes were actually safer secured in the racks of the darkened space rather than on the streets of Grand Avenue. Thank goodness nothing happened to them as I’m sure Security and FIDM would have been the ones to blame for not having control over public streets. I almost feel for ya, but as a former nanny, I must ask as to why you would subject your 3 year old to a bike ride without an emergency pair of pants or pull-ups. Riding in the car with a newly potty trained tot is tough enough but a bike ride? As parents, you should anticipate and prepare for such emergencies. I’ve lived in downtown Los Angeles long enough to see the flourishing changes and look forward to the hustle and bustle identical to that of a metropolitan city accommodating lifestyles and families of all shapes and sizes. We’re still far from it, it still lacks infrastructure and has yet to be all that family and kid friendly. Apply your entrepreneurship skills in managing your pedaling lifestyle man. I trust that you are capable of running a business sans such tediousness.

  3. Posted February 9, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    You are right, our blog was promising – it was promising to be about the My Figueroa project. I couldn’t help myself, as I have never been treated with such contempt for having a toddler that needed to urinate. To make you happy, suji, I will take the FIDM negativity and put it on my personal blog, ubrayj02.blogspot.com (where it belongs, no?).

    If you can defend FIDM,suji, can you also get them to change their policies or at least apologize? I am a taxpayer, a citizen, a business owner, and by all accounts a pretty good parent. I deserve to be treated as all the other folks that arrived that night were: with a little bit of respect for my humanity.

    I apologize for emoting such negativity in the most public way possible.

  4. suji
    Posted February 10, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    On Wed, Feb 9, 2011 at 7:49 PM, Flying Pigeon LA wrote:

    Suji,

    Thanks for the comment on my blog post. I guess I got carried away, having never been treated so poorly for having to find a place for my young daughter to pee.

    We brought (of course!) a change of clothes, wipes, etc. Our kid is in a bike, not a space shuttle. So pull-ups are totally unnecessary, and ridiculous, on 3 year old. She’d been potty trained for over a year.

    We could have just let her piss in the park, but we were trying to be polite.

    The park that was “secure” really was not. There were five or six people huddling in various corners in the pitch black. Our bike parked on the street were much safer – in the line of sight of the guards and all the arriving and departing FIDM students.

    I took my vitriol (which I do feel was quite justified), and I took it off the main post, publishing it instead on my personal blog here:
    http://ubrayj02.blogspot.com/2011/02/fidm-fail-at-myfigueroa-meeting-on.html

    -Josef

  5. suji
    Posted February 10, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    On Wed, Feb 9, 2011 at 9:05 PM, Flying Pigeon LA wrote:

    Suji,

    I’ve had some time to think about things, and you know what? The problem is not mine. FIDM really does have some serious issues dealing with non-tuition paying people on or near its property.

    I backed down on my blog because I can feel my blood boiling at your comments. You win, because it is bad for business to get into a flame war.

    I am compelled to throw something back you, however. If one can be so blinded by your love of an institution that you cannot see the negative side of its operating procedure, it is time to look at yourself in the mirror and decide who you are.

    I know who I am, I don’t need patronizing talk about “managing my pedaling lifestyle”. We were treated like shit by the goons at the doors of FIDM.

    What am I to do? Get in a fist fight with one one of FIDM’s guards? I certainly suppressed that very emotion. Instead, I used the only tool I know how: my voice, the written word, and the friends and people I know.

    FIDM has gotten away with treating “little people” that get in the way of sucking tuition up from its students. I am not little people. I am worth more than that, and my daughter most definitely is.

    -Josef Bray-Ali

  6. suji
    Posted February 10, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    you’ve certainly proved me wrong. tedious indeed. i hope your offspring will learn that in order to cultivate greatness, one must overlook the petty. let’s focus on the big picture: creating a welcoming and thriving [city] life for us and our future. one can only hope.

  7. Posted February 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Tedious to you, but it works to change things for the better.

  8. Gustavo
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    It sucks how you were treated at the school. If it’s any consolation, everyone gets asked for ID (or some other kind of clearance) before they get on the elevator – students make fun of this regularly. As someone in the elevator once put it, “Why the (expletive) would I be carrying all this (expletive) if I didn’t have class in here?” Anyway, I agree that their security mob takes the job a little too seriously and should know when to make exceptions.

  9. Posted February 14, 2011 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    Gustavo,

    Thanks very much for adding some context. Knowing that, along with security threats like toddlers, they do the same thing to their own patrons (the tuition paying students) actually makes me not feel so bad anymore. I definitely have a different view of the place after seeing this policy in action.

  10. PC
    Posted February 17, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Why only as far as 42nd St.? Figueroa extends all the way down to the harbor, and is an urban corridor in desperate need of improvement (however you choose to define it) as far south as Imperial Highway.

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  1. […] unveiled draft plans for South Figueroa range from good to wow, though Josef Bray-Ali says they could use some polishing; then again, there are more important things than signing in for a meeting. L.A. will soon get its […]

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