Sunday, December 31, 2006

It Takes a Village

In which we discuss the birth of a new town inside the old one

I received a mailer the other day from the PR department at Universal City, my theme park neighbor to the east. The mailer included a colorful, fold-out brochure that outlines a plan to build a new community, called Universal Village, on the southern slope of the hill that rises up from Barham Boulevard, now occupied by the Universal Studio back lot. According to the Brochure, the new development would "bring together the apartment dweller, the first-time buyer, the studio up-and-comer, the executive and the empty nester" in a village-like, pedestrian-oriented community of 2,900 units that's close to shopping, the MTA and studio offices. It is to include a "town center," parks, "a system of hiking trails" and a "Great Street" to connect it all together.

Universal's plan ties into the ongoing effort by City Hall to correct some of the many glaring errors in city planning, zoning and transportation that have made Los Angeles the noisome carbuncle that it is in many places—due mainly to the city's reliance on autos and freeways for transportation. This plan won't actually solve any of those woes. Rather, it's a plan for building a new bit of city the way the old city should have been built in the first place.

Although the folks currently living down slope from the proposed village site might disagree—they're the ones who will have to endure a year or two of pounding and dust during construction—on the surface it seems like a pretty good plan.

As an urban sophisticate with San Francisco in his background and Helsinki ice in his veins, I'm supposed to have nothing but contempt for things like planned communities and shopping malls. I don't. I have contempt for bad planned communities and ugly, indoor mega malls surrounded by a desert of searing parking lot. As Virginia Postrel pointed out in the L.A. Times a few weeks ago, new shopping malls like The Grove are "beginning to fulfill their inventor's dream: to re-create the human-scale European city 'filled, morning and evening, day and night, weekdays and Sundays, with urban dynamism.'" Shopping malls are not as 20th century nor as American as their critics would like to think. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin spent half a lifetime pondering the 19th century arcades of Paris, the equivalent of our modern day shopping malls, in his unfinished "The Arcades Project." In fact, I like a well-designed mall so much that I once proposed giving Broadway in Downtown L.A. to Rick Caruso, the genius behind The Grove, to redevelop. Needless to say, this post got considerable attention. The best new malls, along with the new housing experiments often built adjecent to them, fill a need that people feel for the urban experience—to interact with others while maintaining distance, even anonymity. It's an experience you can't get zipping in your car from one parking lot to another.

Universal CityWalk—the shopping and entertainment complex adjacent to the proposed village—doesn't live up to the dream. It's lively enough, but it's trashy. Most of its shops are low- and middle-brow chain stores that cater to a less than tony patronage, the kind of people who collect Hard Rock Café sweatshirts and think a birthday party at Bubba Gump's Shrimp Co. the height of chic. I'm hoping that the proximity of the new village and its upscale denizens will, you know, class up the joint. It's faint hope but a hope nevertheless.

But the funny part of all this is the reply card sent along in the packet with the Universal Village brochure. It includes the following check boxes:

YES, I support the… plan
YES, you may list me as a supporter…
YES, I am interested in living at Universal City…
YES, I want to learn more…

There's no simple "No, I don't support the plan…" much less a "No, I think this plan's a total schtinker..." Maybe they've taken a cue from the current occupant of White House and just don't allow dissenting opinions. It's just as well. It's not like a silly little thing like public opinion could ever stop a major Hollywood movie studio from doing just about anything it wants, anyway.


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