Saturday, October 6, 2007

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Leimert Park

Was in Leimert Park last week, a very interesting place. For those who don't know, Leimert Park is a predominately black neighborhood in South LA (MLK/Crenshawish) that was built as a planned community years ago... Today, the area serves as a center of black culture for Los Angeles.
The park itself is a masterfully simple but effective design, shielding pedestrians from the arterial roads to the south while connecting them to the pedestrian-oriented roads to the North. Meanwhile, a tremendous mix of incomes exists within a few blocks, with the Black Beverly Hills directly west while more stereotypical typical South Central neighborhoods begin to take form a block east. The area serves as a community center for a mixing of people from different incomes (if not race- while the area has a growing Latino contingent, evidenced anecdotally by the 50-50 Latino/Black mix at a bus stop down the street, Leimert Park appears to be frequented almost exclusively by blacks).

Main criticisms: the area is an island. Directly abutting the Southern end of the park are major arterial roads exceedingly hostile to pedestrians, bordered on both sides by unmemorable, sprawling crap (starting with an El Pollo Loco and going down from there). Sadly, city planners seem to have failed to understand why people like Leimert Park so much, because they didn't apply any of its obviously good traits beyond its immediate borders. A damn shame...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Buenos Aires & LA

The American built environment is so utterly depressing, and sometimes it takes a visit to some far off country to show you just how bad it really is...

In Buenos Aires last month, I realized that if I encountered a street in Los Angeles that looked like any random alley in buenos aires, I would die of happiness at how walkable and beautiful that street was... It's such a simple thing, just comparing any street in the US to any counterpart in Argentina, and yet it shows just how horrible the condition of our cities is...

This is, for example, a small side street in suburban Caballito, near where I lived. This area isn't found on any tourist itinerary, and is composed almost entirely of middle- and lower-middle class families. And yet, the street is utterly gorgeous! In the background, a local church towers over small homes & mixed-use buildings built in the first-half of the century (compare, for example, '40's stucco garden apartments)... Everything is oriented towards the pedestrian, and the cobblestone street ensures that cars respect the residential speed limit.

It's such a common street for Buenos Aires, and yet it seems so beautiful to me when taken in isolation like this, especially when I look around at my surroundings...
In West Adams, where I'm living part of the week these days for work, there are many streets with homes from a similar era, but they are poorly preserved, and cars rumble by over cement at 40 mph, a hazard to those crossing what should be a quiet, safe street... Meanwhile, the commercial strips at the edge of these residential zones are all depressingly gray, surrounding by parking lots and obviously built to be as cheap as possible... Where is the pride? If not in one's city, then at least in one's own home or business?

In Morrison Ranch over in Agoura Hills, where our streets were recently repaved, we have the same problems as in West Adams... speeding cars chase children from the streets, while commercial development is built to be as indifferent to human beings as possible, the developers having gone so far as to cement over and fence off the small creek that divides the Hillrise district from commercial development in City Center...

Where is our pride?

Friday, July 13, 2007

"The interiors of our houses have become like modernist art galleries, neutral surfaces upon which we hang our lives, flat screens upon which we project the melodramas of our families.


Builders of large subdivisions came to realize that they could personalize the impersonal with minor decorative flourishes at the late states of construction."

and apparently, we all fell for it...

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Death By Urban Planning

Apparently, another jogger has been killed in Westlake Village by some speeding motorist. It still amuses me that people are shocked by this phenomenon.

When you build a lightly-used street with three, wide lanes (which can be driven comfortably and fairly easily at around 80 mph, I've tried) and then give it a speed-limit of 40, chances are people aren't gonna go 40. When a road is built to be driven at a certain speed, then it makes sense that people will go as close as they can to that speed, no matter what the posted signs say.

Westlake Boulevard was built so that you can talk on the phone, have a bite to eat, and still manage around 50 with relative ease, and no matter what the city tries to do to stop people from doing all of those things, it will fail. The fact is that the street was built so that even the most reckless motorist would be safe. By doing this, of course, the engineers decided to screw the pedestrian (who are generally housewives on morning jogs) and endanger anyone who walks on that street. The street was built for cars exclusively, and any pedestrian is breaking the street's inherent rules by attempting to use it.

Of course, people shouldn't drive recklessly, but the point is that shitty, automobile-oriented engineering enables people to engage in behaviors they wouldn't otherwise consider. Like going 80 on a city street just to write about it in some blog.

Update: Westlake Village has announced a campaign for pedestrian safety in the city. However, the campaign's tilt is towards trying to inform pedestrians in what areas they should walk when there are no sidewalks (i.e. in the direction of oncoming traffic), a completely absurd proposition in a city wealthy enough to just install the damn sidewalks that would solve the problem. The city, apparently, has enough money for gorgeous new signs proclaiming "Westlake Village" to visitors, but not enough money to make actual residents safe when they want to go for a walk. Gotta love those city council members...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Now that my summer plans for Lebanon have been all but destroyed, here's a dose of politics:

The Americans came into Iraq and destroyed a stable, moderate country. Now that the mess has been made, and the Iraqis are dying as a result, why do the Americans think they have a right to "get the hell out"?

It's amazing that Americans refuse to believe that they have only themselves to blame for events like 9/11, and the general hatred of much of the world. It's not rocket science that if you invade a country (or support a tinpot dictator), (help) murder it's people, and then ask why we can't all be friends, those people will spit on you. Ask the Iranians, the Pakistanis, the Lebanese, or basically any other people Americans are afraid will bomb them one of these days.

And you expect that the Iraqis will forget what America has done anytime soon?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Agoura Finds Love

For the longest time, everytime you went into Thousand Oaks, you would see these little white signs at the freeway offramps advertising internet love connections. Well now we've got our own source for commercial eyesore & hookups over here:

Sadly, the site doesn't appear to be very gay-friendly, even if the models look younger than those on the TO site. No matter how young or square either TO or Agoura are, though, at least we both beat out the Valley.

Friday, May 18, 2007

No Village for Agoura.. For Now

Stop Agoura Village: Agoura Hills will reconsider EIR for commercial project

From our anti-development friends at Stop Agoura Village comes word that the city has been commanded to halt the process towards Agoura Village's realization as a result of technical faults in its Environmental Impact Report, notably its biological element (the Santa Monica Mountains are a federally protected area). A few comments:

1. Although the setback was unexpected, the city had this coming. For years Agoura Hills has been building right up against the mountains, one of the country's few great urban sanctuaries, with little or no protest from city residents. I wonder where Ms. Mary Altmann of picturesque Malibou Lake was when the city allowed construction of the vast office complexes along swaths of Agoura South? Her words suggest that her actions are an indicator of NIMBYism much more than of genuine concern for Agoura Hills: "On beach days, if there is a fire, we can't get out to the 101 (freeway) and they didn't address these issues." Huh? I agree that Agoura Hills's rampant expansion into the Santa Monica Mountains needs to be stopped, but what a ridiculous reason! I wish someone who actually cared about our city was working to help it, not some NIMBYist who only wants to preserve her tract of pristine, rural Malibu Ozarks.

2. The City of Agoura Hills needs to take this as a sign o' the times. Agoura Hills has little room left to carelessly sprawl out into, and the majority of growth for the future lies in redeveloping infill land or poorly used land (like land along Chesebro or City Center) into higher densities than we're used to. I'm not saying Agoura Hills should become the next Manhattan, or even LA- the city is essentially suburban and should be kept that way. The majority of residential areas will stay as they are, but mixed-use development should be introduced into our commercial zones (a staple of the Agoura Village Plan). If residents of rural areas like Old Agoura and Malibou Lake want their neighborhoods to remain as they are, they better place their bets on increased density in the City Center.

The bottom line, growth cannot be stopped. This is a fact that must be accepted. However, growth can be managed. It is up to Agoura Hills' citizens to determine how the city will manage its growth. Will they choose the utterly mediocre types of development currently in vogue in the Valley and neighboring Thousand Oaks? Or will Agoura Hills choose to make its own path, one where pedestrian life and livability are given precedence over pure profit?

Think of the children!

A new Agoura Hills law has made parents liable for their kids' drinking.

We build nothing for kids to do and then get mad when they turn to alcohol and drugs? This in the same week that Agoura Village is put on hold... What else are the kids supposed to do?

Throwaway City: A Report on Thousand Oaks in 2007

I was driving around TO today, first along the Boulevard and then in the Los Feliz neighborhood (the strip bounded by TO Blvd, Hillcrest, Duesenberg, & Erbes), and I was struck by how little the city had taken with regards to what was built, where it was bullt, and what it looked like. For the main street of a relatively wealthy city, large tracts along Thousand Oaks Blvd. seemed straight out of a rundown truck stop 30 miles past Omaha.

The Los Feliz intersection is undoubtedly the worst kept in the city, with a bizarrely undersized car rental 2-story anchoring the south end and a boxy, setback mess (anchored by a Chef Burger) along the north side. Then, as you head north and west on Los Feliz Dr., you encounter a complete lack of sidewalks or streetlights, as if no one had informed the city that the area was no longer a horse community bordering the Conejo wilderness. Most of the homes in the neighborhood are nondescript and solidly middle-class (though in most other cities in this country similar homes would have housed working poor), but at some point along the street appears a partially gated block of squeezed-in mini-mansions. Most of the houses on Los Feliz are relatively colorless, but these newer homes are downright tasteless! They have absolutely no relationship to their surroundings, and add absolutely nothing to the neighborhood. Why does Thousand Oaks (and much of the rest of American suburbia) have such trouble understanding the concept of building things that go together?

In a more general context, Thousand Oaks is a perfect example of the poor job modern American cities do in providing for their citizens. If you look at the well-kept, attractive areas of Thousand Oaks, they are almost exclusively well-kept as a result of private money. Compare the walkways of Lakes or the Janss Mall to the potholes and sidewalk-less streets of Los Feliz or North Thousand Oaks. Now, I'd like to clarify, when I label a neighborhood as "nice", or "attractive", I don't mean to say "wealthy". In my mind, nice denotes an area where buildings are at a human scale, where people can walk around without being afraid of either speeding cars or crime. Some of the few examples of neighborhoods that come close to this would be Forest Cove in Agoura Hills or Oakview in Thousand Oaks (south of TO, west of Conejo School Rd), though in a perfect example the neighborhood would include local commercial elements, a factor lacking in both of those two examples. But at the end of the day, the city of Thousand Oaks, despite its tremendous wealth, is failing its citizens. And its citizens don't seem to mind.

Recently I was driving along the 23 north of Moorpark (the road that leads to Fillmore), and what struck me was the sudden transition from relatively small, working class housing to miniMansions just past High Street. Out of nowhere, three partially gated, setback communities with (large towers announcing their distinction from the rest of Old Town Moorpark) erupted out of the hills, forever marring North Moorpark's natural beauty. I wondered, don't these people have any shame? I understand that the housing crisis forces people to live in places they might not love, but anyone living in this community would have money, and the power of choice, andf it surprises me how people don't care how tasteless or gaudy their communities are. At the end of the day, most people just don't care if they have to drive through rundown backwaters to get to their homes, as long as their homes are walled off from the backwater. People have no civic pride, no sense of place or pride in where they live, and it shows, all over the Conejo Valley. Look at most of the region's commercial buildings- apart from complexes like the Lakes or the Promenade, most of the city looks like a modified version of the Kanan Rd./ TO Blvd. Strip Malls (the subject of a previous post). These are complexes of ugly buildings, of throwaway architecture. If Thousand Oaks was destroyed in an earthquake tomorrow, would anyone mind if we rebuilt things completely differently? Whereas in towns in the MidWest levelled by tornadoes we see a struggle to rebuild civic buildings and streets that defined the city as distinct, in most of the Conejo Valley there are very few places that really define the region. The Civic Arts Plaza is an example of a distinct building (though the architecture doesn't inspire much civic pride in my heart...), but most of the CV looks like any other colorless patch of suburbia. One of the few things that distinguish the area in this sense, the natural beauty, is being degraded more and more everday. Traffic is reaching crisis levels on the 23 (and is pretty bad on the 101 too), and housing is so unaffordable that in the Janss-Gainsborough neighborhood of Thousand Oaks bungalows meant for 4-5 people (a "single family") today often hold up to 10 people (multiple families), with people sleeping in converted garages for exorbitant amounts (at a clinic that I worked in that neighborhood, I came into contact with patients that would pay around $700 a month for the privilege to live with their families in non-air conditioned, 2-car garages). The Conejo Valley is rapidly becoming another San Fernando Valley, a nameless, colorless, tasteless expanse that no one loves.

Today I was in a camera store in north Los Feliz and I saw, tacked on the wall, a piece of paper that read: "But we'll LET ALL THINGS BE EXACTLY AS THEY ARE and it will all work out the way it is supposed to." This attitude seems to be the mantra of the Thousand Oaks City Government, and unless it changes sometime soon, expect an evermore degraded quality of life in this region.

It appears that the Agoura Hills City Council has caved in and demanded a revised EIR for the Agoura Village specific plan. I'll comment on that when I have time.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Redeveloping Our City Center

Until the 1950's, Agoura Hills was a small town, a waystop along El Camino Real, and it's main street (an amenity every American city had until mid-century) could be found along what is now called Agoura Rd. Today, however, this strip is lackluster and divided from most of the city by the 101 freeway, a hodge podge mix of homes, a school, a small theater, a restaurant, and offices. The zone is rarely if ever used or visited by Agoura residents, especially since Agoura Rd. was widened to acommodate high-speed cars and thus make pedestrian traffic along the road risky. Today, in place of what was once our town's quaint, pedestrian core, most Agoura Hills residents instead spend their time shopping in the run-down commercial centers sprawling out from the intersection of Kanan Rd. and Thousand Oaks Blvd, what I will call the City Center.

Where Our Money Should Be Going... (Kanan Rd & TO Blvd)

The area's core consists of a series of chopped-up, oversized strip malls containing a variety of chain stores (Ralph's, Blockbuster, Starbucks) as well many locally-owned venues (A sushi restaurant, a pet store, Italia Deli, The Fashion Channel, Char Fasl, etc). Despite this great variety of amenities (including many, many diverse restaurants), the area makes no effort to allow pedestrians to move between the malls, forcing them to brave alleys and traffic arteries or to drive the few feet between each stop. In addition to being poorly integrated, the shopping centers have a pretty rundown, nondescript appearance (though on the southern shopping center there is a slight Country Western theme), and are isolated from the streets (which are pretty well-frequented by pedestrians) by large surface parking lots. Despite this poor choice of architecture and design (a theme throughout the eastern Conejo Valley that i will touch upon later), this commercial center is the heart of Agoura Hills, and on any day of the week you can see people lounging outside eating sandwiches, falafels, burritos, whatever.

So why, if our existing commercial facilities are so rundown and poorly designed, are we even venturing to talk about building a whole new commercial district in Agoura South? The Ventura County Star article refers to this as a part of a larger plan to revitalize our down-on-it's heels- "Downtown" district, and I applaud the city for moving to build a forward-looking, mixed-use neighborhood that harkens back to the city's pre-suburban nature. However, the vast majority of Agoura Hills' population lies north of the 101 Freeway, so it makes sense for any pedestrian oriented development to start out in the northern part of the city, where it is accessible and within walking distance of local residents. Although I applaud early renderings of "Agoura Village", as it is slated to be called, the truth of the matter is that this is a barely-concealed attempt to boost sales-tax revenue while ignoring how the city's existing, heavily-used facilities are falling into disrepair. Right now, it is easy for Agoura Hills residents to ignore how we have abandoned our history behind a facade of new suburban office buildings- however, if the current decay continues on unalleviated, it will be hard for residents to ignore the massive trash heap polluting our city center.

Where Our Money Is Actually Going... (Whizin's Ctr Along Agoura Rd)

My suggestions to the city: Push back Agoura Village for the time being- it's a good idea, but there are more important things to focus on. At the very least, develop the Village in stages concurrently with City Center repairs.

My suggestions for physical repair: Rebuild large portions of the City Center's commercial buildings so that they are built up to the street in most parts, possibly with a plaza or two. Also, create connections between the various shopping center, such as a large, distinguished crosswalk on TO Blvd before Kanan, where many people currently run across. Parking should be placed behind the buildings. Thus, the City Center will begin to resemble the Janss Mall a bit more. Also, better, wider sidewalks with trees should be built to connect the areas near the freeway to the City Center. If the city is really serious about mixed-use, they should consider adding condos or apartments, as well as possibly moving to rebuild the apartments at the intersections northeastern corner. However, this would probably result in a need for underground parking, a great expense for the city and for retailers. However, if Agoura Hills wants to build a pleasant, walkable Downtown for residents and tourists alike, then the expenses involved with such upgrades would easily be recouped over time.

If the City of Agoura Hills is serious about building a a Downtown that will last as a part of this city's history, then it must be willing to take risks and invest time and money in projects that aim for this goal.

Agoura Hills: An Introduction

Agoura Hills is a city comfortable in complacency. After the spate of development, terminating in the 1980's, that rebuilt this rural enclave into a leafy suburb of the San Fernando Valley, very little of the development ocurring in the city really affected many residents. Of course, there was construction- in Agoura South (as opposed to Westlake North), office buildings and hotels went up like there was no tomorrow, and a beautiful, if architecturally disjoint, City Hall was built amid the city's southern hills. However, all of this development was concentrated in the southwestern and southcentral corridors of the city away from all residential tracts, and voters thus had no problem voting to lure thousands of cars into the city every morning, as most of these cars were led to to the opposite side of the city. Because of this, residents have become comfortable ignoring decisions of planning vital to Agoura Hills' future.

As residents of Agoura Hills, we must examine the city we have created (or, rather, allowed our superiors to create among us), and determine if this is the city we want. Only once we have ascertained this can we decide on what kind of future we would like. Thus, the desire of this blog is to serve as a forum for various views on Agoura Hills' current state and it's future, and in this way to affect some sort of democratic dynamism on a process that is too often weighted towards inertia and stalemate.

I will be posting on various topics, hopefully at a rate of about twice a week, and if there are any comments they would be greatly appreciated. I will, however, forewarn all visitors that this site does not in any way claim to be impartial. This is our city, and we should all have our say in it's governance.,_California