Help Koreatown Hang On to Liberty Park

LP 01 Across Med

Los Angeles is notoriously behind the curve when it comes to providing public parks for its citizens. In rating 100 US cities on their park systems, The Trust for Public Land put LA at number 74. And while the city as a whole is lacking in public space for recreation, there are some neighborhoods where the need is especially acute.

Like Koreatown. This dense urban community has plenty of asphalt and concrete, but not much green space. So it’s disturbing news when a proposed project threatens to take away one of the few parks available to residents.

Liberty Park was completed in 1967 as part of Beneficial Plaza on Wilshire Blvd.. Designed by Peter Walker, its graceful curves and striking contrasts make it a unique experience. Walker was just starting his career in the 60s, but has since been become an internationally recognized landscape architect.

LP 10 Walk Pers

A view of the park facing away from Wilshire.

LP 12 Sm Tree

The park provides much needed green space in Koreatown.

 

LP 14 Reader

Liberty Park provides a quiet space in the middle of a busy urban area.

LP 20 Steps Const

The park sits at the foot of the former Beneficial Plaza.

But even more important than the park’s design is the place it holds in the community. In an area where parks are scarce, this is one of the few places where people can escape to relax on the grass or read in the shade of a tree. It’s also been a gathering place for the community, whether to celebrate Earth Day or to rally behind the South Korean team during World Cup Soccer.

LP 50 Lawn Shadow

A tall grove of trees provides much-needed shade.

LP 52 Trees Steps Pers

Looking through the trees toward the building that now houses Radio Korea.

LP 56 Trees Beer

The park’s design offers some interesting contrasts.

LP 58 Trees Bldg

Looking up from beneath the trees.

The proposed project is a mixed-use complex rising 30+ stories, and if approved in its current version it would reduce Liberty Park to nothing more than a few scraps of green space. It’s frustrating that the City of LA only required the developers to prepare a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for this new complex, allowing them to get away with a relatively low level of environmental review. It’s even more frustrating that the MND concludes that this project will have no impact on historic resources. This is ridiculous. Beneficial Plaza as a whole holds in important place in the area’s history, and there’s nothing else like Liberty Park in all of LA.

LP 60 Bush Row Orange

A view of the park facing Serrano.

LP 62 Side Run

A view of the park from the Oxford side.

But it’s not too late to preserve this beautiful and unique public resource. A group called Save Liberty Park has been working hard to raise awareness, and hopefully they can get City Hall to change course on this. They need your help. Here’s the link if you want to get involved.

Save Liberty Park

LP 90 Red Car

I Can’t Vote for Measure M

Construction moves forward on MTA's Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

Construction moves forward on MTA’s Regional Connector in Little Tokyo.

I ride public transit almost every day. I really believe we need to invest in building a better transit system. And I used to think we were doing that, but not any more.

Measure M, the LA County Traffic Improvement Plan, is an ambitious attempt to do a lot of things. By adding another half cent to our sales tax, the County hopes to fund a variety of projects, with a good part of the money going toward enlarging the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s rail system. The MTA has already embarked on an ambitious program of building new rail lines and expanding others. You’d think that would be a good thing, but looking at the facts, I’m really not so sure.

For years now the MTA has been building rail all over LA County. First we got the Red Line and the Purple Line, then the Green, Blue and Gold Lines. The Expo Line was recently extended west, and the Crenshaw/LAX Line is currently under construction. You’d think that with this massive investment in rail, taking public transit would be so easy and fast that everyone would be jumping on board.

But that’s not what’s happening. In fact, transit ridership in LA County is lower than it was 30 years ago. When the LA Times reported this disturbing fact at the beginning of the year, the article sparked a lot of heated discussion. Some claimed that the Times was giving a distorted view. Others looked to the future, saying that stats would get better with time. But in the reading I did, there was one crucial fact that no one commented on. The County’s population has grown by over a million since 1990. To my mind, when you take that into account, there’s only one conclusion you can reach. Our current approach has been a disaster. If the population has grown by more than 10% over the past 30 years, how can we say that a decline in ridership during the same period represents anything but failure.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

Another shot of construction on the Regional Connector.

There are a lot of different theories floating around as to why ridership hasn’t grown along with the system, and I’m sure there are a number of factors in play. But I think one of the most important factors is the City of LA’s insane approach to planning. I read a lot of the stuff that comes out of City Hall, and over and over I hear the refrain that transit and land use must be considered together. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? It would make sense to think about where you’re putting housing at the same time as you think about where the next rail line goes. In theory, people could just step out of their apartment, walk down to the platform and catch a train wherever they’re going. Who needs a car?

The problem is, when the housing starts at $2,000 a month, and often goes much higher, you’re really not building housing for the people who use public transit. For the most part the people who depend on the MTA can’t afford that kind of rent. And the people who can pay that much are more likely to own cars. What’s even worse, as the rail network has expanded, City Hall’s policies have actively encouraged gentrification around new rail stops. It used to be pretty much anybody could afford to live in Hollywood. Not any more. As the Department of City Planning approves an endless parade of high-end housing projects and chic hotels, as they continue to hand out liquor permits to trendy restaurants and clubs, rents keep spiralling higher and the demographic most likely to use transit is being squeezed out. A similar scenario has already played out in North Hollywood, Downtown, and Highland Park, and you can look for more of the same in Leimert Park and Boyle Heights in a few years. So while City Hall claims to be thinking about transportation and land use together, in reality their policies are driving transit riders farther away from transit hubs.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Construction site for Purple Line extension at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another problem I have with Measure M is the fact a large portion of the funding goes toward road and freeway improvements, and this is something many people have commented on. There are those transit critics who complain that the MTA is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars, but they never seem to mention that a huge share of our tax dollars also goes to subsidizing travel by car. If we’re trying to reduce our use of fossil fuels and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, then our focus should be on investing in public transit. But Measure M continues our current policy of investing in both at the same time. How’s this working? Well, our recent experience with widening the San Diego Freeway tells the story. After years of work and millions of dollars, traffic is still awful. We do need to maintain roads and freeways, since busses travel on both, but massive investment in “upgrades” is just encouraging people to keep driving their cars.

I’d love to see us build a transit system that made travelling by rail and bus attractive to a majority of Angelenos. But that isn’t what’s been happenning. Instead, a bizarre tangle of policies has led to a decline in transit use even as the County has continued to grow. The City of LA seems dead set on continuing its drive to build upscale urban enclaves, forcing low-income Angelenos away from transit hubs. And for all the money Measure M would put into transit, it would also spend a lot of money on keeping people in their cars.

Sorry. I can’t vote for Measure M.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and La Brea.

Remaking the May Co.

Construction of the new Academy Museum has begun.

Construction of the new Academy Museum has begun.

A while ago I was at LACMA, and as I walked down a flight of stairs on the west side of the campus I looked over at the May Co.. It had a big hole in it. Construction had started on the new museum for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

May Co. building with a section removed.

May Co. building with a section removed.

Looking through the May Co. to Fairfax.

Looking through the May Co. to Fairfax.

It’s taken a long time to get to this point. The project has been hampered by controversy, ranging from construction impacts on the community to issues with the design. Hopefully all that’s been resolved. At any rate, the May Co. is being taken apart so that it can be put back together again, this time with a massive annex that will contain a state of the art theatre.

A view of the site facing Fairfax.

A view of the site facing Fairfax.

The rear of the building.

The rear of the building.

The original May Co. building was designed by Albert C. Martin and Samuel Marx and it opened in 1939. For decades it was a major department store, but as malls began to draw more shoppers it went into decline. LACMA took it over 1994, but it seemed like they never used it much. In 2014 the Academy made a deal to lease the property with the goal of building a museum. After a long search, Renzo Piano was brought on as architect.

A view of the site facing Wilshire.

A view of the site facing Wilshire.

A view of the empty structure.

A view of the empty structure.

And a closer view of the interior.

And a closer view of the interior.

I’m glad things are moving forward. People have been talking for years about how LA should have a museum devoted to film, and it’s high time somebody made this happen. According to the Academy web site, “The Museum will provide interactive, immersive, and engaging exhibitions that will pull back the curtain on moviemaking and highlight the history and future of the arts and sciences of film.” Sounds good to me.

Heavy machinery and piles of debris.

Heavy machinery and piles of debris.

Check out the Academy’s web site to learn more.

Academy Museum

They’ve also got a cool timeline for the May Co., showing photos of the building through the years.

May Co. Building Timeline

I know it hasn’t been easy for the Academy to deal with all the challenges of creating a new museum, but it looks like they’re on their way. Let’s hope it’s smooth sailing from here on.

The corner of the building at Wilshire and Fairfax.

The corner of the building at Wilshire and Fairfax.

Talking About Displacement

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

Speaking at a recent Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, MTA CEO Phil Washington talked about how the growth of LA’s transit network has been accompanied in some areas by gentrification and displacement. Washington is concerned about the fact that low-income residents are being pushed out of the communities they call home, and he wants the MTA to do more to address the problem.

It’s good to hear somebody at the MTA talking about this. The question is what can actually be done. Earlier this year the MTA Board agreed that when new residential units were built on the agency’s land their goal would be to set aside 35% for low-income renters or owners. That’s fine, but it’s not nearly enough. What we really need is to have the City and the County commit to changing their planning practices. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas serve on the MTA Board. They should both support Washington and take a public stand against displacement. Then they should push for the City and the County to create policies to address the problem.

While gentrification is happening all over the city, the growth of LA’s transit system definitely seems to be a catalyst. Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, and Highland Park have already seen thousands of low-income residents displaced. Leimert Park and Boyle Heights seem to be next on the list as the MTA continues its rapid push to expand, bringing an influx of developer dollars to neighborhoods near rail stops. As property values skyrocket, rents go up, too, and low-income tenants who can’t afford to pay must find somewhere else to live. Tenants in rent-controlled apartments can be forced out by landlords who use the Ellis Act to convert their units to condos.

I’m really glad to hear Washington talking about displacement, and I hope others back him up on this issue. This is a conversation we need to have, and it should have started long ago.

MTA construction in North Hollywood

MTA construction in North Hollywood

Sunday Afternoon

WL a 02 Grass Relax

Not too long ago I took a trip down to Westlkake/MacArthur Park. It’s a popular gathering place on weekends. Thousands of people show up there to play games, listen to music, attend worship services, or maybe just lie on the grass and stare up at the sky.

The park was created by civic leaders back at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s bounded by Sixth, Alvarado, Seventh and Park View. Originally christened Westlake Park, the name was later changed to MacArthur Park, after the five star general who played a prominent role during WWII. Some years ago there was an intense debate over which name was more appropriate. When you ride the Red Line to Seventh and Alvarado, the automated PA announces Westlake/MacArthur Park.

When I first came up out of the subway, the first thing I saw was the crush of street vendors lining the sidewalk. There were dozens of people selling everything from jewelry to DVDs.

Street vendors on Alvarado.

Street vendors on Alvarado.

On the other side of Alvarado there were also people selling juices and ices from carts.

More vendors on the other side of Alvarado.

More vendors on the other side of Alvarado.

The City is currently considering new rules to regulate vending on sidewalks and in parks, and the debate is pretty contentious. Merchants in brick and mortar stores are angry because they’re competing with people who can operate with no overhead, and so offer lower prices. There are definite health concerns about vendors selling food without a license. But these people are just trying to make a buck like everyone else. This is their livelihood. I’m sure the debate will continue for years to come, and I doubt anyone will find a solution that makes everybody happy.

There was a woman at the corner of Seventh and Alvarado bellowing through a megaphone about how people should give their lives to Christ.

A woman evangelizing at Seventh and Alvarado.

A woman evangelizing at Seventh and Alvarado.

I’ve gotta say, this really drives me crazy. I know she feels like she needs to preach the Gospel, but there are plenty of Christians who do the same thing without resorting to amplified rants on a street corner.

At the corner of Seventh and Alvarado you have Langer’s, a deli that’s been around forever. I haven’t been there for years. Some day I’ll have to go back and check it out.

Langer's

Langer’s

Up at Wilshire and Alvarado stands the Westlake Theatre, which opened in 1926. It stopped showing movies a long time ago. For a while it was a swap meet, but it looks like it’s completely closed now.

Westlake Theatre

Westlake Theatre

The park bisected by Wilshire, which runs right down the middle of it, but there are tunnels running underneath that allow people to pass from one side to the other.

A view of Wilshire facing Park View

A view of Wilshire facing Park View

A view of Wilshire facing Alvarado.

A view of Wilshire facing Alvarado.

Now let’s head into the park.

Entrance to the park at Seventh and Alvarado.

Entrance to the park at Seventh and Alvarado.

But first, make sure you know the rules.

Sign posted inside the park.

Sign posted inside the park.

As you can see, a lot of people are just looking for a shady spot where they can hang out and relax.

Trees provide plenty of shade.

Trees provide plenty of shade.

But not everybody is kicking back. Soccer is big here, and on weekends teams of kids take turns honing their skill on the field. Families line up around the perimeter, watching, cheering, coaching.

Kids playing soccer.

Kids playing soccer.

Families standing on the sidelines.

Families standing on the sidelines.

Soccer stars of tomorrow.

Soccer stars of tomorrow.

This looks like a pretty innocent shot of a food truck parked on Wilshire. But notice the graffiti on the concrete. “MS” stands for Mara Salvatrucha, a brutal gang that has a presence in the neighborhood. Fortunately, gang violence has been declining all over LA for several years. And the crowds of people enjoying the park didn’t seem concerned for their safety. The vibe was very relaxed.

Food truck parked on Wilshire.

Food truck parked on Wilshire.

The Levitt Pavilion offers a wide range of entertainment, and it’s free.

Levitt Pavilion

Levitt Pavilion

Performers getting ready for a show.

Performers getting ready for a show.

This is one of the tunnels that goes under Wilshire, linking the two sides of the park.

Tunnel running beneath Wilshire.

Tunnel running beneath Wilshire.

Mural running the length of the tunnel.

Mural running the length of the tunnel.

The lake is a draw for birds of all kinds. Please don’t ask me to name the different varieties. I know some of them are ducks. Other than that, I have no idea.

Birds at the edge of the lake.

Birds at the edge of the lake.

If you want to learn more about the park’s history, the link below will lead you to an article on the KCET web site that talks about its origins. Aside from the information, it includes some amazing images of the area through the years.

How a Neighborhood Dump Became a Civic Treaure

And this article on Wikipedia offers more detail on some interesting chapters in the life of the park.

Westlake/MacArthur Park on Wikipedia

WL a 90 Wtr Kids

Pros and Cons of Expanding Transit

It’s hard to even keep track of all the different projects that the MTA is working on throughout the county. New rail lines are being constructed, old ones are being expanded, and improvements are being made to increase safety and ease of use. The photos below represent just some of the projects that are currently under construction.

In Little Tokyo, work is beginning on the Regional Connector. This will be a 1.9-mile underground light-rail system that connects the Gold Line to the 7th Street/Metro Station. It will also make it easier for passengers to transfer to the Red, Purple, Blue and Expo Lines.

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Construction on the Crenshaw/LAX Line started last year. This will be 8.5 miles of light rail running from the Expo Line to the Green Line, with below-grade, at-grade and elevated segments.

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

This project could provide a huge boost to businesses along the line, although there are already signs that it could encourage gentrification which may drive long-time residents and business owners out of the area. Click on the link below to see what may be in store for the community once the line is finished.

Plan to Turn BHCP into a 24-Hour Community

There are smaller projects going forward, too. In North Hollywood, a subterranean tunnel will connect the Red Line station to the Orange Line station just across the street. This is a great idea, and hopefully will reduce the number of riders dashing across Lankershim against red lights in order to make a connection.

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

The photos below are a few months old, but they show MTA crews working on the Purple Line expansion at Wilshire and Fairfax. By day, traffic flowed through the intersection as usual. But at night, construction crews would show up with barricades, heavy machinery and blinding lights. This project highlights the problems of constructing a major transit line in a dense urban area.

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

All this sounds great in theory, but this kind of rapid expansion brings plenty of problems with it. I don’t have a car, so I use public transit almost every day. If you ask a simple question like, “Are you glad that the MTA is expanding its transit network?”, I can give you a simple answer like, “Yes.” But if you ask, “What long-term impacts will this expansion have on the City of LA?”, the answers are much more complicated.

In my mind, the biggest thing to worry about is whether or not we can afford all these projects. The MTA is facing a long-term budget shortfall, which could seriously impact its ability to function. Last year they raised the cost of the day pass and the monthly pass by 40% and 30% respectively. But there are almost certainly more increases to come, and it’s uncertain whether riders will pay the higher prices. Here’s an article that LA Streetsblog published in January of this year. It explains that while last year’s fare increase brought revenue up, it may have brought ridership down. If that trend continues, we’re in deep trouble.

MTA Revenue Up, Ridership Down

The MTA is receiving tons of federal funding for these projects, but those funds depend not just on increasing ridership, but also on increasing the share of operating costs covered by fares. If we see a decrease in ridership and/or revenue, we may not be able to count on the money from the feds.

Some people will point to the fact that the LA City Council just voted for a huge increase in the minimum wage, saying that this will enable low-income riders to afford future fare hikes. I don’t buy it. First, the cost of living in LA is increasing at a phenomenal rate. The amount we spend on housing is skyrocketing, DWP rates could easily double or triple, and food is getting more expensive as the impacts of the drought become more pronounced. A significant rise in the cost of public transit will be just one more blow to the bank accounts of minimum wage workers. And there are thousands of MTA riders who don’t even earn minimum wage. LA is the wage theft capitol of the country. Lots of people who work in the restaurant and garment industries are already being paid below the minimum, not to mention the undocumented workers who will take whatever they can get. Many of these people need public transit to get around, and none of them will earn a nickel more after the minimum wage rises.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t extend the reach of public transit, but I do question whether this massive expansion is sustainable. I guess all we can do is wait and see.

Midnight at Wilshire and Fairfax

W&F 1 Scaf

Last week I went to one of the screenings in UCLA’s preservation festival. I think I left around eleven, and then caught the bus on Wilshire. I got off at Fairfax, where I have to transfer. It took a while for the next bus to show up, so I took some photos while I was waiting. It seemed like there was a lot of stuff going on….

Night time is when the MTA crews show up to work on the Purple Line extension. You don’t see them during the day. Just metal plates lying all over the street. But at night these guys set up their barriers and their lights and go to work.

MTA crews work on the Purple Line at night.

MTA crews work on the Purple Line at night.

Just across the street, the old May Co. building is surrounded by scaffolding. It seems that the Academy is finally starting the process of transforming this dinosaur of a department store into a new museum devoted to film. I have no idea when it’ll be completed, but I’m glad to see that work has begun.

Scaffolding set up on the west side of the May Co. building.

Scaffolding set up on the west side of the May Co. building.

I was standing there on Fairfax snapping photos, when a few runners went speeding past. At first I thought it was just some people who lived in the neighborhood out for some exercise. But then another group ran by, and then another, and then it was a steady stream of people racing down Fairfax. My guess is that a couple hundred people went by, but it could have been more.

Runners stampeding down Fairfax toward Wilshire.

Runners stampeding down Fairfax toward Wilshire.

More runners heading down Fairfax.

More runners heading down Fairfax.

As usual, there was a homeless guy camped out in one of the recessed areas along the side of the May Co. building.

A homeless man taking shelter for the night.

A homeless man taking shelter for the night.

And of course there’s Johnie’s, blazing away in the darkness. The banks of lights that surround the building are slowly going out, but those that are left let you know that this classic coffee shop has not gone away. The place has been closed for years, but the flashing lights seem to be insisting that it’s still open for business. That it’s still alive.

Johnie's refuses to die.

Johnie’s refuses to die.