A Breath of Fresh Exhaust

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The balconies at the Da Vinci offer a view of the Hollywood Freeway.

A while ago I wrote a post about a project going up in my neighborhood. The site was less than 200 feet from the Hollywood Freeway, and the developer was capping it with rooftop decks. In light of the extensive research showing elevated health risks for people living near freeways, this seemed absolutely insane. But after a few phone calls and e-mails I confirmed that both the Department of City Planning (DCP) and the Department of Building & Safety (DBS) had signed off on it. And while I don’t have much respect for the the folks at City Hall these days, this seemed like a new low. I felt like they’d really crossed a line.

I was so wrong. The City crossed that line a long time ago. Turns out they’ve been routinely approving new residential projects near freeways that include rooftop decks and/or balconies. In spite of years of research that has shown strong links between exposure to freeway traffic and increased health risks, especially for children, the DCP and the DBS have okayed a number of projects near freeways that offer these amenities.

For over 20 years, USC has been gathering data on health impacts related to living near freeways. By the early years of the last decade, they were warning that residents in these areas faced significantly higher risk of asmtha, heart attacks and lung cancer, and that children were at risk of suffering permanent lung damage. In 2005 the California Air Resources Board published a handbook that specifically warned against residential construction within 500 feet of freeways. The City of LA, however, argues that the need for new housing outweighs the health risks.

But even if you buy that argument, how can you justify approving amenities that put people in direct contact with some of the most toxic air in the nation? Balconies and rooftop decks are not necessary. And in fact, when they’re placed on residential structures less than 500 feet from a freeway, this clearly fits the definition of a hazardous building as outlined by the LA Municipal Code:

Whenever a building or structure, used or intended to be used for dwelling purposes, because of dilapidation, decay, damage or faulty construction or arrangement, or otherwise, is insanitary or unfit for human habitation or is in a condition that is likely to cause sickness or disease, when so determined by the health officer, or is likely to work injury to the health, safety or general welfare of those living within.  [Emphasis mine.]

So allowing these features creates buildings that the City’s own Municipal Code defines as hazardous. Does that stop the City from approving them? Of course not.

The City does require that new buildings provide a certain amount of open space, and certainly developers will tell you that rooftop decks and balconies are one way of fulfilling that requirement in dense urban areas. But let’s look at a couple of the objectives listed for open space in the City’s General Plan….

2) to provide safer play areas for children

4) to increase natural light and ventilation

Can anybody argue that a balcony placed a couple hundred feet from a dense concentration of nitrogen oxide, CO2 and particulate emissions fulfills these objectives?

Sure, there are a number of apartment buildings near freeways with balconies and/or rooftop decks that were constructed long before the health risks became clear. But City Hall has known about the dangers since at least 2005. Let’s take a look at some of the residential projects they’ve approved over the last ten years or so….

Here’s Patio del Cielo at 4410 Sepulveda in Sherman Oaks. You could translate “cielo” as either “sky” or “heaven”, but obviously the implication is you’ll be living somewhere far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. Not too far removed from the San Diego Freeway, though, which is just about 200 feet away.

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Traffic lining up for the freeway in front of Patio del Cielo.

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Rush hour traffic on the San Diego Freeway.

The balconies/decks that adorn these homes along 2775 Cahuenga are between 100 and 300 feet from the traffic on the Hollywood Freeway. And since this housing complex is right on Cahuenga Blvd., from June through September residents can enjoy the spectacle of thousands of cars inching their way past during Hollywood Bowl season.

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Balconies at the front of 2775 Cahuenga.

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Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway near 2775 Cahuenga.

The Carlton, at 5845 Carlton Way, has both balconies and rooftop decks. I bet you get a stunning view of the Hollywood Freeway from the roof. It’s just about 200 feet away.

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The Carlton is the white building on the left.

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A view of the rooftop from the rear of The Carlton.

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A view of rush hour traffic near The Carlton.

But first prize for really bad planning goes to the Da Vinci, at 909 W. Temple. Developer Geoff Palmer has made a fortune building massive residential complexes near freeways, but this may be his masterpiece. The Da Vinci sits right where the Hollywood and the Harbor Freeways meet. And just like every other Palmer apartment block I’ve seen Downtown, the developer has made sure that residents can get their fill of diesel fumes and particulate emissions simply by stepping out onto their private balcony.

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Would you say those balconies are 100 feet away from the freeway?

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Traffic on the freeway north of the Da Vinci.

You could argue that a number of Palmer’s buildings went up before the adverse impacts of living near freeways were fully known. But City Hall approved the Da Vinci years after our elected officials had learned about the dangers. Again, they’ll tell you that we can’t afford not to build near freeways. But giving people balconies so they can get a face full of auto exhaust? How do you justify that?

I’ve suggested before that people write to the Mayor if they feel this needs to stop. Obviously, it hasn’t had much impact. But I’d like to suggest something a little different this time. How about writing to the Mayor and copying your congressional rep? Maybe if City Hall heard from someone at the federal level they’d think twice before approving hazardous amenities on apartments next to freeways.

Try using the following subject line….

Why Does the City of LA Keep Putting Residents’ Health at Risk?

Here’s Garcetti’s e-mail address.

mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

And if you don’t know who represents you in Congress, use the link below to find out.

http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/

Columbia Square

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There are a number of different Hollywoods. It can be a noun or an adjective, a brand or a concept, a nostalgic fantasy or a nasty slur. But there’s also a physical place called Hollywood, and it’s been through a lot of changes over the years. About a century ago it became the center of the film industry, and what started out as a sleepy suburb grew rapidly. Its fortunes rose and fell as the studios left, radio and TV moved in, radio and TV moved on, and the internet conquered the world. For decades people have been asking how to bring media back to the Hollywood area to revitalize the local economy.

Columbia Square has played a key role in putting Hollywood, the place, back on the media map. Opening to great fanfare last year, the project brings together residential, office and commercial space to create a media campus. The owners were spectacularly successful in landing major industry tenants long before the project was completed. Columbia Square was widely hailed as a major step forward in Hollywood’s revitalization.

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The El Centro side of Columbia Square

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The front of the campus along Sunset

I have to say I’m pretty impressed myself. I was skeptical about how this modern media campus would come out, and I was pleasantly surprised. This was a complex project, and roused a certain amount of controversy when it was first proposed. But the developer did an admirable job, not just engaging the community, but actually responding to residents’ concerns. And here’s it’s probably a good idea to give some background….

Columbia Square, located on Sunset between El Centro and Gower, was first built in the late 30s by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Creating a major, state-of-the-art radio/recording studio in the area was seen as a boost, not just for Hollywood the place, but also Hollywood the brand. New York had dominated the national radio market since the beginning, but this was a sign that LA was trying to change that. The look of the building was an integral part of getting that message across. CBS chose modernist William Lescaze to design the project, and the building was one more landmark in LA’s long engagement with progressive architecture.

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The courtyard at the front of the complex

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Another shot of the courtyard

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One of the restored structures, now occupied by Neue House

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A view of the courtyard looking toward Sunset

As TV took over in the 40s and 50s, a number of popular shows originated from Columbia Square, but it was radio that kept hanging on through the years. Broadcasts continued to emanate from the studios until 2007, when the last tenant left. Then the building went dark, and for a while no one was sure what would happen to it. The property changed hands a few times, and different ideas were thrown around. In 2009 the City released an EIR for a project that included a 40-story tower. If you’ve been following development in Hollywood for any length of time, you can probably imagine how that went over.

But then a new developer took charge, and things changed dramatically. When Kilroy Realty Group acquired the property in 2012, they took the time to listen to the community and made some changes, crucially lowering the height of the tower to 22 stories. This is pretty amazing when you consider that the City had actually approved 28. They also decided to rethink the layout of the campus, allowing for more open space to engage the public. And they agreed to work with local preservationists to restore the historic Lescaze structures.

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Stairway leading to the rear of the campus

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A space to hang out in

The end result is a jewel. I’ve actually gone to Columbia Square a few times since it opened, just to walk around and take pictures. (And because the weather was different each time, the light in the photos keeps changing. Sorry if it’s a little jarring.) I think it’s important to mention the people involved in making this happen. The firm of House & Robertson designed the campus and the new buildings. In restoring the original structures they worked with Historic Resources Group. And the landscapes were created by Rios Clementi Hale Studios. The Los Angeles Conservancy was so impressed with the finished product that they gave the developer their 2017 Preservation Award. It’s worth reading the Conservancy’s description of the project to get an idea of how much time, money, and work went into the restoration process.

Columbia Square from the Los Angeles Conservancy

I’m so knocked out by the new complex, and by the way Kilroy approached the project, that I hate to voice any reservations. While I was writing this post I kept asking myself whether I wanted to make any critical comments, because in some respects the revitalized ColumbiaSquare is a model of what redevelopment should be. But there are a couple of things I think it’s important to note….

First, while the residential tower is beautiful, the prices are way beyond what the average person living in Hollywood could afford. And the addition of a couple hundred high-end apartments is just another step in the ongoing gentrification of the area. Even as I write this, more low-income tenants are being pushed out of their homes.

Second, while the City has tried to portray this, and other projects like it, as transit-oriented development, it’s highly unlikely that the people who live at Columbia Square will be taking transit on a regular basis. The City has been pushing this line for years, and the results have been disastrous. Transit ridership in LA is lower now than it was back in the 80s, and continues to decline. City Hall’s continued insistence that building high-profile, high-end megaprojects is going to get people on busses and trains just shows how clueless our elected officials are.

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The Gower side of the campus

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Landscaping and benches along Gower

But let’s end on a positive note. I want to congratulate Kilroy, and all the others involved, in coming up with a project that has so much to recommend it. This is an unusual instance where a major developer respected the local context, and more important, the local community. The new Columbia Square is a beautiful piece of design, and it’s brought some major media players to the area, along with hundreds of jobs. Over all, it’s an important step forward for Hollywood the brand, the concept, the industry, and the place.

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They Work by Night

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There was a night, maybe a couple years ago, when I was going home after visiting a friend. I was at a Red Line station, waiting for the train to come. There were probably about twenty or thirty people standing on the platform. But before the train showed up, an interesting procession emerged from the tunnel. A group of vehicles rolled slowly out of the darkness and into the light. One of them was a flatbed truck with a few guys in orange and yellow vests riding along. The people on the platform called and waved to them. They waved back. The truck kept rolling along, and so did the rest of the vehicles in the caravan, and in a minute or two they were out of sight.

Don’t ask me why, but after that happened I kept hoping I’d catch another glimpse of these workers and their machines. It’s probably a sign of how dull my life is that I get excited about seeing an MTA maintenance crew. But I guess part of why this caught my attention was that I’d never really thought about who kept the subways running. The city we live in is woven together by massive infrastructure networks, but most of us rarely think about how they’re maintained. We just want things to work, and we get ticked off when they don’t. But most of us are completely clueless about the massive effort it takes to keep LA running day in and day out.

So I kept hoping I’d catch another glimpse of the workers who maintain the trains. And since then, whenever it happened I snapped a few photos. As far as I can tell, most subway maintenance is done at night. These people spend hours rolling around in shadowy tunnels doing the many large and small jobs it takes to keep the trains running.

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A caravan of maintenance trucks.

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Another shot of maintenance trucks.

One night I got a shot of this….

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A rail grinder.

I’d never seen a rail grinder. I didn’t even know they existed. But they’re routinely used by rail lines all over the world to maintain tracks and increase their lifespan. I went looking on YouTube and found a video. Interestingly, there are dozens available. (I guess there are a lot of folks out there whose lives are as dull as mine.) The model you see here is different from the one I saw, but it gives you an idea of what these things look like in action.

Loram Rail Grinder

And if you want to find out more about what rail grinders are and how they work, here’s the article from Wikipedia.

Rail Grinders

Last weekend I was making my way down the stairs at the North Hollywood station and saw a couple of trucks on the track and some workers hanging out. I pulled out my camera and started taking pictures. Then I thought, why not ask them what they’re doing? Turns out they weren’t doing maintenance, they were installing the hardware to make cell phone access available on the subway. I asked them if I could take their picture, and they said yeah.

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Here are the rolls of cable they’re installing.

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The point of all this being, this stuff doesn’t happen by magic. So many of the things we rely on every day, subways, cell phones, roads, sidewalks, TVs and water taps, are only there because people put them together and people keep them maintained. Most of the time the folks who do all these jobs are completely invisible to us. But I think it’s good to remind ourselves that they’re out there. They make the city work.

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People’s Climate March in Wilmington

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The communities clustered around the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach face higher health risks due to contamination than any other part of LA.  With diesel trucks, heavy machinery, oil refineries and industrial waste all causing impacts on the local enviroment, the people who live in this area have suffered from the effects of toxic air, toxic water and toxic soil.  They’re getting it from all sides.

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Thousands of people showed up for the march.

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A shot of the crowd with the stage in the background.

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This sign caught my eye.

So the People’s Climate March had a special meaning for the folks who live in these communities.  Last Saturday, April 29, there were demonstrations in cities across the US, and here in LA protesters congregated in Wilmington.  They started with a rally in Banning Park, and then marched to the nearby Tesoro Refinery to voice their fears about increased levels of contamination.

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Even protesters gotta eat.

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And they gotta check their cell phones.

Jane Fonda and Robert Kennedy, Jr. both showed up at the rally to talk about the importance of protecting the environment.  Representative Nanette Diaz Barragán gave a fiery speech, railing against the injustice of subjecting low-income familes to hazardous levels of contamination.

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The crowd gathered in front of the stage.

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Spirits were high.

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Representative Nanette Diaz Barragan lays it down for the crowd.

It does seem crazy that at a time when the vast majority of scientists agree on the dangers of climate change, the US government is doing everything it can to roll back environmental protections.  But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen politicians put corporate profits above the public good.  Which is why we have to keep reminding them that they were put in office to serve us.

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Protesters getting ready to march.

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It took a while to get things started.

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Lots of folks carrying umbrellas.

Marching is good.  Staying engaged with your elected officials is even better.  This is going to be a long fight, but we’ve won before, and we can win again.

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Tesoro Refinery

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

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During the month of April there were plenty of reminders in newspapers and magazines, on radio and TV, of the civil disturbance that rocked Los Angeles twenty five years ago. I’ve seen plenty of coverage of those events over the years, but for my money the most honest and most insightful account of what went down is still Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

I went back and watched it again recently. If you’re not familiar it, Smith started by interviewing scores of people who lived in LA at the time the violence broke out. Using only the words of these witnesses, she constructed a one-woman show where she transforms herself into one character atfer another, weaving together an amazingly complex panorama, not just of the events of April 1992, but of the city at that time.

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly. A video of the entire performance is available via WNET, a PBS affiliate. Here’s the link.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

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LA River Clean-Up: Willow Street Estuary

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Yesterday I went down to Long Beach to take part in the annual LA River Clean-Up, organized by Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR). The Willow Street Estuary isn’t far from where the river flows into the ocean, and it’s one of the few stretches where the bottom is earth instead of concrete.

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It wasn’t hard to find the clean-up.

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Dozens of people beat me down there.

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The people working the registration table were keeping busy.

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Everybody got a pair of gloves and a bag.

There were already plenty of people there when I showed up a little after nine. It took just a few minutes to sign the waiver, grab a trash bag and do the orientation. Then I joined the crowd of people climbing down the bank to the river.

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Heading down the bank to the river.

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Hundreds of people combing the river bed for trash.

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Lots of families showed up.

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Kids were some of the hardest workers.

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It wasn’t all trash.  I found this face staring at me from among the rocks.

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A few guys waded all the way across the river.

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This is just some of the trash that was collected.

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The work wasn’t hard, and it was a great day to be outdoors.

If you don’t know what an estuary is, don’t feel bad. I didn’t either until I looked it up on the net. Generally speaking it’s where a river nears the ocean, and fresh water meets salt water. They’re an important part of the ecosystem, filtering runoff and serving as a breeding ground for fish and birds. Watch this video from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to learn more.

What Is an Estuary?

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The water is placid as it emerges from under the Willow Street Bridge.

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The surface gets a little roiled where the river narrows.

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From the estuary, the river rolls down to meet the ocean.

Aside from organizing the LA River Clean-Up, FOLAR presents events throughout the year. They’ve been working to preserve and restore the river longer than anyone else, and they’ve racked up an impressive list of accomplishments in their 30 year history. If you want to get involved, start by visiting their web site.

FOLAR

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Protest to Save the Planet

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The vast majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is a threat and that it’s caused by human activity. But the White House is determined to ignore that threat, and has taken steps to back away from agreements the US has signed to reduce global warming. On top of that, the new administration has proposed to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by almost a third, and roll back regulations designed to protect our air and water.

But scientists are fighting back. Last Saturday was Earth Day, and to push back against Washington’s assault on the environment a broad coalition of academics and activists organized the March for Science. All across the country Americans gathered in cities big and small to speak out in favor of protecting the planet.

When I got off the subway at Fifth and Hill the streets were already packed.

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The street was jammed when I arrived.

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Glad to know it was okay to take photos.

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Even Hello Kitty fans turned out to protest.

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The sidewalks were so crowded it wasn’t always easy to get around.

I could hear people speaking over a PA in Pershing Square, so I headed over there. The crowd was so thick I couldn’t get near the stage, so I wandered around and snapped a few photos.

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I couldn’t get near the stage in Pershing Square…

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…so I made my way through the throng…

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…to another part of the plaza…

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…where I ran into Santa Claus.

Here are a few signs that jumped out at me.

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My favorite sign of the day.

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The scariest sign of the day.

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The most honest sign of the day.

Finally the march got started. A huge crowd headed up Hill Street and then over to City Hall.

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The crowd getting ready to march.

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Protesters made their way up Hill Street.

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Another shot of the march.

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And yet another shot of the march.

Earth Day is over, but the fight is just starting. We need to speak out loudly against policies that put profit ahead of the planet. To learn how you can get involved, visit the March for Science web site.

March for Science

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