Los Angeles, California
Few cities have devoted as much space, money and energy to moving cars around, over as long a period, as Los Angeles. Today, though, the birthplace of car culture is becoming a leader in repurposing some of its abundant street space for other human activities.
In October, 2013, LA’s new mayor, Eric Garcetti, used his first executive directive to establish a Great Streets program. It was designed to transform 15 corridors — one in each council district — into celebrations of the culture and commerce particular to the surrounding communities. A working group drawn from the departments of planning, transportation, cultural affairs, public works and several others would implement the program. His announcement declared:
Our Great Streets Initiative will take advantage of this underutilized asset to support thriving neighborhoods. We will develop Great Streets that activate public spaces, provide economic revitalization, increase public safety, enhance local culture, and support great neighborhoods. By reimagining our streetscape, we can create transformative gathering places for Angelenos to come together, whether they travel by car, transit, bike or on foot.1
The mayor and city government upped the ante on the cultural component in May 2015, by offering Great Streets challenge grants, awarding up to $20,000 to community groups to develop projects that “re-imagine our streets as vibrant public spaces.”2 The community-driven initiatives eligible for the grants include cultural programming for public space, or events that draw people to a Great Street. Local matching funds can be raised in partnership with ioby.org, “a crowd-resourcing platform for citizen-led, neighbor-funded projects.” (IOBY stands for In Our Back Yard.) “Community money could go to a mural, or painting on the street or sidewalk, or creating a performance space,” said Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the LADOT. “Really any creative use that adds to community culture and vibrancy.”
Broadway Dress Rehearsal
“We have to be willing to try things out,” Reynolds said. “We don’t know how it will turn out – and that’s one of the best things about it.”
One aim of the Great Streets initiative was to begin experimenting with changes that could be implemented quickly, examined for their effect and then made permanent or removed, depending on the outcome. In that spirit, LADOT officials in the summer of 2014 launched what they called the Broadway Dress Rehearsal, implementing basic elements of a longer-term master plan3 for the revival of a signature downtown street where a consultant noted numerous safety issues for pedestrians and bicyclists and that “more people walked along Broadway in six hours than motor vehicles drove by in a 24-hour period.” 4
The department reduced six lanes (four for travel and two for loading) to three and used the remaining space to create pedestrian zones along 10 blocks of Broadway, from 2nd to 11th streets. New curbs, bollards, 5,500 potted and other plants and decorative concrete paint established plazas for people where cars once drove. Area businesses put out tables with umbrellas and chairs. The long-term plan includes curb extensions at the intersections to shorten crossing distances for people on foot and provide yet more public space.
Pop-up Broadway demonstrated creative use of the new public space
Later that year, in September, the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and LADOT worked with the aptly (or ironically) named group CARS – Community Arts Resources – to create a two-day event, dubbed Pop-Up Broadway, to demonstrate how local arts and creativity could make use of the newly created public space along the signature street teeming with people.
The stretch of Broadway from Olympic to 7th Street “came alive with street performers, cultural programming, site-specific visual arts installations, pop-up storefronts, plein-air painters, dancers, musicians, bike rentals and video projections,” as CARS reported.
In addition to the new spaces created by the Dress Rehearsal, Pop-up Broadway used empty storefronts, construction fences, blank walls and sidewalks. The events were designed to help Angelenos “view streets as a canvas for experimentation, turning streets into public spaces that reflect the vibrancy of our city. We’re the creative capital so there’s no better place to show the world how arts and transportation can come together than Los Angeles,” said Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the LADOT.
In the same way that city officials are piloting streetscape interventions and innovative programming on Broadway, LADOT also is using the project as a test case in pioneering new methodologies for assessing the success of those activities that can be used on future projects. In November 2014, the LADOT released a report called Broadway Dress Rehearsal: Pre-Installation Existing Conditions 2014. In doing so, the department said:
LADOT is committed to understanding and reporting on how projects impact neighborhoods, and evaluating their overall effectiveness in achieving project goals. By using established metrics that illuminate how new public spaces and street design impact the life of the street, we can track trends over time, evaluate project performance, and inform future program direction.5
The 82-page report presents reams of facts, figures and graphs documenting the “before” conditions on Broadway from 2nd Street to 11th Street in downtown Los Angeles. As an article in LA Streetsblog reported, “There is information on motorists yielding, motorist encroachment on crosswalks, bike and pedestrian counts, speeding, collisions, spending, tax revenue, and even pedestrian group size and posture (standing vs. sitting).”
“We do counts of things you can easily observe,” the DOT’s Reynolds said, “the traditional ‘How many people? How did they travel? Where are they going? How safe? What mode?’ But we are also doing an intercept survey of how people feel about the place before and after. And we are looking at, ‘What are people doing? How long are they there?’ etc. We are also looking at sales tax receipts before and after. We are testing the hypotheses that we have and we’ll see if we’re right or not.”
In 2012, when Eric Garcetti was a City Council member, he championed LA’s first street-to-plaza conversion, a two-lane swath at the juncture of Sunset Blvd. and Griffith Park Blvd in the Silver Lake neighborhood. Formally named Sunset Triangle Plaza, residents quickly dubbed it Polka-Dot Park for the green on green circles painted on the pavement.6
“They put up planters and bollards and christened it, and it became home to a farmers market twice a week,” said Reynolds. Chairs and shaded tables completed the picture. “There’s a piano sitting in the plaza and someone randomly will be playing piano. There’s a public bike repair station that someone will be working in. They’ve had concerts and other performances there. It’s a really special place and there are people there all the time. It makes the neighborhood feel connected and ‘claimed,’ where before it was a little traffic sewer.”
It also became the inspiration for Los Angeles People St, a new program begun in 2014 that allows community members to apply for a plaza, parklet or bike corral on of their own streets. For winning applicants, the city funds changes to pavement and traffic signals, while community sponsors agree to fund other amenities — tables, chairs, performance space, etc. — and program activities, from yoga classes to plays.
“It took a year or so to develop a kit of parts and the application process,” said Reynolds. “Each plaza or parklet has to have a community partner that has skin in the game, that fundraises and takes ownership. Unusually for transportation projects, these can move pretty quickly. We had seven complete applications come in late 2014, and already we have three plazas and four parklets in diverse neighborhoods.”
People St is funded partially by the DOT’s annual budget, part from a sales tax under the Measure R referendum that also funded rail transit, and from community contributions.
“We are learning a lot about how challenging this is even when you have a strong partner and a good agreement,” said Reynolds. “You need to engage the political leadership and make sure everyone is on board and that you have backup plans if the money doesn’t come through as quickly as promised. We will get the calls is if it is not maintained or becomes a problem area; we can intervene and adjust if it isn’t working. We have to do a little bit of capacity building, and some neighborhood groups have to grow up to be able to raise $50,000 and take responsibility for the place.”
But that community ownership – of both financial support and cultural programming – are the keys to promoting the social cohesion and engagement the city is after, she said.
We want to nurture the intersection between placemaking, creativity and transportation. Government first shows the leadership with the initial funding, but the expertise and authenticity needs to come from the community. – Seleta Reynolds, LADOT
- Read the Mayor’s full executive directive press release here: http://www.lamayor.org/press_release?page=16
- Source: http://www.lamayor.org/mayor_garcetti_announces_great_streets_challenge_grant
- Read more about the long-term effort to revitalize and restore the historic street from the Bringing Back Broadway initiative: http://www.bringingbackbroadway.com
- From Nelson-Nygaard’s summary of the project: http://nelsonnygaard.com/projects/la-broadway-dress-rehearsal/
- Read the full report (pdf) and the blog post announcing its release here.
- Quotes in this story come from this insightful LA Times pieces on People St. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/11/local/la-me-silver-lake-space-20120311