Nate Berg

A pilot project aims to pave the way for community-led reuses of L.A. streets.

The automobile is undoubtedly the dominant mode of travel in Los Angeles. But to write off the city as made up entirely of car-driving, bumper-to-bumper rush hour commuters is clearly an over-generalization. A growing group of Angelenos is finding ways to make transit, cycling, and walking (and, often, a combination thereof) relevant and viable in their daily lives.

A physical example of this transition opened this weekend in the city’s Silver Lake neighborhood. On a short strip of street bordering a small triangular park within a vibrant commercial area, officials from the city’s departments of planning, transportation, and public works partnered with the county’s public health department to close the street off to car traffic and convert it into an outdoor plaza. On 11,000 square-feet, the roadway has been effectively removed form the automobile grid with the simple application of paint (in glowing neon green polka-dots), bike racks and planters around the edges and seating in the middle. The project was inspired by similar street plazas created in New York City and San Francisco.

“In L.A., 60 percent of our land area is devoted to streets and parking lots. So the real hope here is that we can take that and transform it into something really different than just spaces for cars,” says Bill Roschen, president of the city’s planning commission.

Roschen helped spearhead the street-to-plaza project, part of an effort called Streets for People. His intention is to spread projects like this one throughout the city.

“It’s about culture change,” Roschen says. “It’s looking at streets as not always for cars, but a real shared effort around mobility.”

At least a hundred people were milling around the plaza for its opening day ceremony this past Sunday – an especially warm and sunny day. A line trailed out of the door of a café right on the plaza’s edge, and people moved chairs to find some shade underneath the umbrellas sprinkled throughout the area. Kids ran around, while adults and community members crowded around local officials to talk about – and congratulate each other on – the project.

Paulina Quintana runs a children’s clothing boutique right on the plaza, and she says the removal of car traffic and street parking is a welcome change. Having more pedestrians around means having more people coming in to her store, a pattern she’s observed in the past when this same street closes down for a Saturday farmer’s market.

“That’s my biggest day anyway, when the road is closed,” Quintana says.

And while selling more baby clothes and cups of coffee at the café next door are likely results of this new plaza’s creation, the inspiration was a little more serious.

This first project was enabled through grant funding from the L.A. County Department of Public Health, which has begun to pay more attention to the connection between growing obesity rates and access to outdoor public spaces. With federal funding, the department was able to dedicate both staff and money toward developing new parks and public spaces, especially within neighborhoods. Margot Ocañas has been working with the county to facilitate these types of projects. In coordination with Roschen, she's helped to put the grant money to work.

“I pushed hard to apply monies to making physical changes,” Ocañas says. “It’s great to do plans, but plans aren’t going to change obesity.”

One obstacle Ocañas says she first had to overcome was that physical park projects like this aren’t exactly familiar turf for the stethoscopes-and-antibiotics world of public health officials.

“Purchasing paint? Negotiating community meetings on technical transportation plans? That’s not anything that they’ve gotten into before,” says Ocañas.

But she says the department has made big strides to not only understand that realm, but also to coordinate with disparate city departments working on the shared goal of combating public health issues that plague the city and county.

Part of the answer was making the process easier. A typical park project can take years (or more) and cost millions of dollars. This plaza conversion – even with the associated first-time learning curve – essentially went from idea to ribbon-cutting in a year for a total cost of about $25,000. With a template now in place, future projects will likely be able to come about much faster. Roschen envisions the creation of 30 to 40 plaza projects per year, but Ocañas’ expectations are a bit more reserved. She’s hoping three to four will be open by mid-summer.

“We are borrowing from New York. They have their pedestrian plaza application process,” says Ocañas. “They have a good model in place. We’re getting our muscles warmed up to head that direction. Community initiation is key.”

The community, it’s hoped, will be the source of new projects – from identifying locations to gathering neighborhood support to raising money. The first plaza, however, was selected by officials as a good spot to start the process. The local city council district and neighborhood groups had long wanted some sort of park project in the area, but this exact transformation didn’t take the heavily community-centric approach officials hope future projects will.

That’s meant that some residents have felt left out of the process. One attendee at the opening ceremony was particularly upset.

“It’s an abomination. It’s hideous. It looks like a cheap Nickelodeon show,” says Clifford Lecuyre. He says he shops in the area every weekend and that removing street parking will stop people like him from wanting to visit.

“You eliminate parking for bike racks. Are you kidding me? This is Los Angeles. Where do we park?” Lecuyre says. “To eliminate free parking in L.A. is a sin.”

The plaza’s creation resulted in a net loss of eight parking spaces. Lecuyre says he plans to collect signatures to have the plaza removed.

During speeches at the opening ceremony, Lecuyre periodically interrupted with a loud “Boo!” At first another crowd member simply yelled back “Shut up!” but eventually most of the crowd countered the outbursts with significantly louder applause in support of the plaza.

The project is intended to be a one-year trial. If the community likes it, it can stay. If voices like Lecuyre’s grow louder, the street could be returned to its previous use.

“It’s temporary. If we got it wrong somewhere, we can redo it, we can reconfigure it. Time will tell that in this spot we didn’t get it wrong,” says City Planning Director Michael LoGrande.

He argues that this type of pilot project could be a very effective way to quickly provide the public spaces neighborhoods want and need.

“I think by moving quickly and showing people we can take chances, we can try things that are pilot programs and not necessarily go through a huge process that people lose interest in because it takes too long to see results,” LoGrande says. “In government, we have to be nimble as ever, and show small successes.”

Another crucial element is allowing the community to drive the process. Especially when city budgets are tight, empowering neighborhood groups to devise, fund and maintain projects like these may be the only way they can happen. And Roschen argues that community members who really do want their neighborhoods’ public spaces to improve now have a mechanism to do just that.

“It’s all doable because they’re not expensive. It’s all doable because it happened fast. But there’s not funding in place to do these. It’s not like you can go ask somebody for one of these. You have to want it bad enough to take leadership in your own community to do it,” Roschen says. “What it does is it allows people a way to take influence over their own neighborhood.”

All photos by Nate Berg

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