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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