Striped Buildings.


A developer presented a plan for senior housing, on a site at Vose and Van Nuys Boulevard, at last night’s Van Nuys Planning and Land Use (PLUM) meeting.

This is along that very wide part of Van Nuys Boulevard where the blight of downtown Van Nuys gives way to an airy nothingness of expanse into the Valley moonscape. Eight lanes of roadway go north and go south, past McDonalds, Aamco Transmissions and Earl Scheib’s Paint and Body.

The proposed four-story complex is on land now occupied by Baires Auto Market. Baires is housed in what looks like an old pancake house, white framed and peaked roof, in a mid-century Protestant style, where blueberries and syrup were poured after Sunday services.

Renderings of the new four-story age and memory challenged facility show broken blocks of verticality, indented and tinted, dressed up with trees and vines.

An architect and a corporate spokeswoman described the frailty of the intended residents, ideally desiccated and disabled, unable to drive, and therefore not capable of making more traffic. Kitchenless units will be occupied by dwellers who will dine in communal dining rooms, monitored and managed by round-the-clock workers, arriving in shifts, parking in one of 61 underground spaces.

Over 80, weak, needing assistance, losing their memory, infirm; the suffering of age was advertised as an attribute. For here would come those who would not need schooling or parking spaces, but just a temporary place to live before death.

And there was the illustration of the new building, broken up in colors and pieces, a collection of cliches, impossibly inoffensive.

All over Los Angeles, along the new condos on LaBrea in West Hollywood, over in Santa Monica, and here in Van Nuys, we live in-between newly erected stripes and corrugated boxes.

The new buildings have mass. But it is presented not in grandeur, but shame; fractured, divided, sliced, multi-tinted. It is a style meant to soothe communities, and to disguise big projects by making them seem small and insignificant.

It almost makes one long for the arrogance of brutalism.

The new architecture is poll-tested and market-driven, without balls or bravado.

State of the Union


Chicago, IL
South Side
2013

“Tonight, I propose a “Fix-It-First” program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country. And to make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden, I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children. Let’s prove that there is no better place to do business than the United States of America. And let’s start right away.

Part of our rebuilding effort must also involve our housing sector. Today, our housing market is finally healing from the collapse of 2007. Home prices are rising at the fastest pace in six years, home purchases are up nearly 50 percent, and construction is expanding again.

But even with mortgage rates near a 50-year low, too many families with solid credit who want to buy a home are being rejected. Too many families who have never missed a payment and want to refinance are being told no. That’s holding our entire economy back, and we need to fix it. Right now, there’s a bill in this Congress that would give every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing at today’s rates. Democrats and Republicans have supported it before. What are we waiting for? Take a vote, and send me that bill. Right now, overlapping regulations keep responsible young families from buying their first home. What’s holding us back? Let’s streamline the process, and help our economy grow.” -Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, 2/13/13

North of the Galleria.


A development is planned for a big, empty lot on Sepulveda, north of the Galleria, near the intersection of the 101 and 405 freeways.

The developer is selling it as a “walkable” and “green” project which will enhance the area and promote health and urbanity.

The pedestrian oriented apartments will be within walking distance of PF Changs, the Cheesecake Factory, Fuddruckers and Ben and Jerrys.

I’m not sure that a walkable neighborhood promotes fitness. I live in Van Nuys and see many people walking along Kester, Victory, Vanowen and Sepulveda.

And they all seem to be wearing rubber tires under black spandex tops.

But back to the proposed construction…..

My quarrel with it concerns the colors. They are ugly and outdated.

Before WWII, Los Angeles built predominately in white with red-tiled roofs. Since the mid 1980s there has been a trend to break-up large masses of facades with clashing, discordant colors.

But the idea of building dense housing near densely developed Ventura Blvd can be good if public transportation, including bike lanes, buses and trains, eventually carry people around instead of the insanity of the automobile.

Gift of the Pinoy.


Across the street from where I live, over the past few years, a succession of health care workers have taken care of an older Guatemalan born man and his wife.

When we first moved here, I would see the old, white-haired, squinting man come out of the cyclone fence gate, and pull up weeds or pick up litter in front of a narrow strip of lawn that bordered a lush garden of banana trees, cacti, grapefruit and Birds of Paradise.

The pink stucco house with the old red tile roof and its inhabitants entered the driveway in a large van from which emerged people on crutches, and on canes, carrying shopping bags and sometimes waving to me.

Then there were strange faces, workers, behind the gate, sweeping the driveway, watering the pots of geraniums, staring across at me, as if I lived beyond their imprisonment, in a free world of orange trees, athleticism, sunshine and youth.

I thought that perhaps some of the men who looked over were looking at me, cruising, or maybe trying to ascertain if I were gay.

The old man and his wife, and his family who used to come outside, have gone away, and now I only see Filipino faces entering the house; and I wonder often if the old man is sick or dead and what has happened to the wife who once kindly brought me a bag of backyard grapefruits.

The weather was ambiguous and tentative today, opening up to sunshine and clouds, wind and stillness; so I went outside and took a long, wooden citrus picker and harvested some of my oranges on the tree.

A white Honda pulled into the old man’s driveway. And two men, a young man, and a woman got out. The woman went into the house, and the three males walked out of the shadows, into the sun, and suddenly appeared on my driveway.

Short, smiling, in sweats and baseball caps, they introduced themselves: a father, his brother, and a 20-year-old son.

The young one asked me about my house. He wanted to know how long I lived here, what the neighborhood was like and who I lived with.

He said that he and his family lived near Beverly and Normandie. He worked downtown, in a restaurant, on the 54th floor of the Wells Fargo Building.

The father took a bite of the orange and said it was sweet.

I told the son about my Filipino connections, the friends I know who come from there and visit there.  My ignorance of the Philippines is immense. There is simply nothing I really know about the people, food, language or culture;  yet somehow I retain a great admiration for them.

“Do you live here with your wife and children?” the son asked.

“No,” I said. “I live here with my partner. And sometimes we have a roommate. But that doesn’t usually work out.”

“You have a really beautiful place. We want to buy a house. Maybe get everyone together and chip in. It’s so loud where we live and it’s so quiet and peaceful here,” the son said.

He admiringly looked at my modest blue Mazda 3, sitting in the garage. “I’ve seen you driving that car. So that’s what you drive.”  In his earnest search for life knowledge and practical know-how he seemed to have found me and imagined that I had answers.

I had gone for a run that morning, and then showered and put on an old, gray Pringle cashmere inherited from my late father. To the family from the Philippines, the ones who came over today and look after the old sick ones across the street, I was blessed. My clothes and my house and my face and my education, designations of class and wealth and privilege, they all worked like a stage show in front of these visitors’ eyes.

But the truth is that my situation seems as tenuous and fragile as the dried out branches on the orange tree.

Last night, it was time for that yearly meeting with the accountant who laid out, in numbers and boxes, ominous red digits and impending taxes.  Like a heart patient who visits the cardiologist, an unemployed man dreads April 15th. Despite the withdrawing of pension money, the borrowing of money, and maternal cash infusions, the balance sheet is indeed awful. How long we might live here is anyone’s guess.

But today, there were smiles and handshakes and humanity under the California cumulus. The Pinoy brought a gift to me today. They showed me again what it means to have been born lucky, even when you think you are not.

“Walkville” Opens in North Hollywood


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One of the most exciting developments in San Fernando Valley urban planning is nearing completion in North Hollywood near the Red Line Terminus. Walkville is a 5,000 unit housing development which is entirely green. Landscaped bike and walking trails wend their way alongside apartment buildings where children, seniors and families live.  The goal is to encourage walking, which explains the wonderful name:  evocative of health, fresh air and friendliness.

Locally-produced and sustainable materials, from Burbank, Sylmar and Pasadena were given priority during sustainable housing construction; roofs are commonly equipped with solar and photovoltaic panels, and make Walkville one of the largest home solar energy districts in Southern California. To encourage carbon reduction, a program supports tree conversation and planting. As far as water is concerned, a system for rainwater infiltration into the ground covers 80% of the residential area. A new ecological sewage system has been invented too, that reuses organic household waste and generates energy.  The LADWP offers Walkville residents a 35% discount on their water and electric rates.

Councilman Tony Cardenas, builder Eli Broad, architect Frank Gehry as well as architecture supporters Brad Pitt, Robert Redford (who grew up in Van Nuys and feels a strong connection to the town), Nancy Reagan, Michael Eisner, Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Anniston (who grew up in Sherman Oaks), Comedian Jay Leno (“If it’s made in Burbank I’m for it!”) and Maria Shriver all contributed both financial and public support to the $250 million dollar undertaking.

A five-acre orange grove, the first such agricultural planting in the San Fernando Valley since 1939, will produce over 500,000 oranges a year. Herbs, walnuts, organic milk and free-range chickens may be introduced to produce locally grown foods for consumption and sale. 1300 Valley Oak trees, native to Southern California, will shade the development. Small stores, selling everything from coffee to groceries to housewares, are planned on the Vineland Avenue side. The best news is that 70% of the people who have moved to Walkville have given up their cars. They will ride the Red Line train to Hollywood, downtown LA and Pasadena and take the Orange Line bus to Woodland Hills.

The article you have just read is a satire. None of it is true, at least for the City of Angels.

Minus the celebrities, it actually and accurately describes a real town, called Vauban,  in Southern Germany.

Here is the way things really are in LA, a city where the NIMBY needs of Brentwood and Beverly Hills outweigh the greater good for all.

Jury Duty.


For the past four days, I served on a jury for a civil trial held in the Los Angeles Superior Court downtown.

I am always nervous about anything to do with courts, or cops, or the law.

I made my usual, environmentally correct decision to take the Orange Line to the Red Line train and enter downtown Los Angeles the way most inhabitants of any other city around the world go into the center.

LA, by train reminds me of those days, long ago, when I rode the IRT and BMT and IND around New York, and sat next to, and stood next to, urbanites of all ages, races, and incomes.

The trains are much less crowded in this city, but they are also browner, poorer and younger than the lines that run underneath the Big Apple. Our riders are often students, or medical workers, or immigrants with babies, shopping bags and wired ears. We don’t have many Wall Street types riding down to work.

The Superior Court Building, where I reported to, is a block long structure of appalling monotony and unimaginative design with hallways of mausoleum tinted marble illuminated by unending straight strips of ceiling fluorescence. Built in 1958, it seems to have been designed by a somnambulistic Stalin.

Potential jurors wait in a long line outside, then pass through the usual metal detectors and into a large, second-floor, blue seat upholstered waiting room where a woman explains the glories, the duties and the obligations of service.

Before long, I was taken out of the room and led into a courtroom where two attorneys interviewed potential jurors and then spit out those who were not deemed useful. I was picked, and then sent out on an hour and a half lunch.

I love downtown, or should I say, I am exhilarated walking around the city streets.

I ran down to the Grand Central Market and soon struck up a conversation with a fellow juror who became a bud for the next few days.

My case involved a woman and her three adult children who live in an income qualified apartment building where the management certifies tenant finances annually. She was being evicted, on the grounds that she had violated her lease by lying and doing other things that disqualified her from renting there.

I was ready to see the witnesses as clichés but there they were, humans, caught up in stupid system of management and tenant, worker and unemployed, rule maker and rule breaker.

The defendants were an immigrant 52-year-old single mother with a 21-year-old daughter who already had two children, one 7, another newly born. A teenage boy, testified, admitting that he used drugs. Another son worked for a restaurant. And they were given a thirty-day notice to quit, to get out of their apartment of the last ten years.

I learned that there are apartments, numbering in the tens of thousands in Los Angeles, where private companies are subsidized by the Federal Government to offer low cost housing for families. And these companies employ, mostly women, often poor, overweight and Spanish speaking managers, who must account to their bosses for every private and financial dealings of their tenants. Nothing is proprietary when one is recertifying to the management. If you are pregnant, if you go to school, if you are moving out, if you work, you must tell the building manager.

And this family: struggling, fatherless, low-income; was in court, to protect and fight for their place of residence and to refute the management company’s claim that they had failed to play by the rules of their lease agreement.

The prosecuting attorney was sharp, organized and well-armed with the facts. The defendant’s attorney was young, slickly dressed and stammering.

Yet we jurors, disparate, unalike, strangers; we gathered in the windowless room around the rectangular table and discussed with humor, civility and curiosity, the facts of the case and concluded that they did not warrant an eviction. The family could stay.

There is a lot that is wrong with America and sitting here, as I usually do, in front of a computer, in my house, listening to NPR, I tend to forget that there is another world out there, a place of beating hearts, and stamping feet and speeding trains, a place that mailed me a jury notice and demanded my attendance so that I could be an actor in a legal and family drama already cast.

I felt part of something bigger…. and dare I say… proud to be an American.

Housing Values May Not Increase in Coming Years.


Builder William J. Levitt/Time Magazine/ July 3, 1950

The NY Times speculates that speculation in housing today may not produce future gains, such as those enjoyed by our parents and ourselves over the last 40 years.

In Los Angeles, housing is extremely overpriced in a few areas of the city, mostly near the beach. And there are factors that will keep some areas very affordable for many years, undesirable facts that include: bad schools, unsafe streets, illegal immigration, hot weather, bad air and sparse public transportation.

If the economy was healthy, and unemployment was lower (it is now 12.5%, third highest in the US), the housing market might be OK.

But real estate reflects an unethical past. Loans were handed out regardless of income. Lying was built into the system. A fake, subsidized increase in values, brought on by mortgage-backed securities, produced a bubble.

And now we are living in the morning after.