Not Van Nuys Blvd at Oxnard

Why not Van Nuys Bl. at Oxnard?

On Architizer, an architectural website, I found a photo and description of a residential/commercial development built in Mountain Brook, AL in 2014.

Pleasant, as all ideal architectural plans and photos are.

But it also fired up an idea…

Why couldn’t buildings like this go on the NW corner of Van Nuys Bl. and Oxnard St.?

Where currently there is a large, unoccupied glass building that once housed a car dealer (what else?) it is now a yawningly empty welcome to the alleged business and government district of old Van Nuys.

The Mountain Brook, AL buildings (architects: Wakefield Beasley & Associates) anchor the street with ground floor shops, landscaping, sidewalks, trees and diagonal parking. They invite people to walk and to park in front.

276 apartments are built above the stores, with one, two and three-bedroom plans, and are spread between the structures. Various modern amenities, including fitness centers, parks, yoga and meditation areas, wifi, are added to entice renters.

What is it that makes this type of building a dream and not a reality on the main street of Van Nuys? Why, in a city starved for housing, is there not a furious effort by Councilwoman Nury Martinez and the City of Los Angeles to rev up the pace and quality of apartment construction?

Stylistically, the traditional look of this building would probably elicit snickers from the Christopher Hawthorne/Frances Anderson crowd. It is much too literal and polite and pseudo-historic for a cult which takes its abstract, contorted meals at Frank Gehry’s feet.

Frank Gehryism

But Van Nuys is starved for anything that can bring us up from the homeless, trashy, neglected place we are today. An above-average, but suitable design such as the one from Mountain Brook, AL is better than shopping carts full of garbage and people sleeping in cars.

It would work because it cares about the urban context around it.

Sepulveda Fantasy

It’s a futile fantasy exercise to go the website Architizer and see what they are building in other wealthy cities around the world where 100,000 homeless people do not sleep on the street and it is isn’t considered normal to have shopping baskets full of trash polluting parks alongside $2.5 million dollar homes.

Here is a new apartment in Nantes, France designed by Hamonic + Masson & Associates. I think it’s rather pleasing, sleek, uplifting and progressive. It must be nice to live in such a bright, spaciousness, well-thought out structure. 

Imagine this apartment house along Sepulveda Boulevard between the Orange Line and Victory in Van Nuys, presently a junky, one-story collection of car washes, Pep Boys Auto, Wendy’s, Fatburger, a mini-mall with a mattress store, a paint store, Jiffy Lube, etc. Can you picture the day The Barn is gone and there is nowhere to buy an Amish Shaker Dark Mahogany stained dresser with metal pulls for $953 that even your Aunt Irma in Cerritos would hide in her garage.

How we would mourn if Pep Buys Auto and its grease, graffiti and garage doors full of axles on hydraulic lifts were banished forever and replaced by something modern and residential befitting a city in the third decade of the 21st Century.

What would it look like if all that were replaced by a 15- story-tall apartment with curving balconies and pleasing design within walking distance of public transportation, and convenient access to Costco, LA Fitness, Target, CVS and a Chinese market?

A building like that one replacing all the decrepit garbagetecture that lines Sepulveda between the Orange Line and Victory……imagine that?

Chief Design Officer?

Los Angeles should consider creating a position in city government to promote projects like this. I’m thinking a “Chief Design Officer”, perhaps someone with architectural knowledge and connections, to fire up a redesign and redevelopment of Van Nuys.

I’m surprised they haven’t invented this title yet, since this is such an architecturally minded city. 

It reminds me of a coincidence……

I had lunch with a city government man, last summer in Van Nuys. It was July 11, 2018. He rode the bus out to Van Nuys, perhaps for novelty or amusement. I met him on Aetna near the Orange Line. He claimed an important title, one that might be able to bring good things to Van Nuys. I was eager to meet him and see what might get started here.

We were scheduled to walk around the area and really explore how to improve it. I imagined we might go for a few hours along the boulevard, or the Orange Line, and see what kind of housing, lofts, beer gardens, cafes, tech companies could be built here. But the man was interested, obsessed mostly, in watching the semi-finals of the World Cup when England played Croatia.

We walked into the dismal State Office Building in Van Nuys, an awful mid-1980s strip windowed government place, and he was transfixed with it. But he still was eager to get somewhere, anywhere, and watch that game.

Every place we walked past he peered into the windows to see if they had a large screen TV, but alas, none did.

I suggested the Robin Hood tavern so we took an Uber there and sat amidst the packed crowds and watched the World Cup.

He had worked as an architecture critic at the LA Times and was coming to our district to see it for the first time, but first he had to watch that soccer match at The Robin Hood. We spent two hours in The Robin Hood, drinking beer and eating BLTs.

We parted and he promised to follow up and have “my intern” call you. But nobody ever did.

That was over six months ago.

The other night he was attending The Golden Mike awards ceremony where KPCC’s Larry Mantle took a lifetime achievement award. So I read on Twitter.

I’m going to write Mayor Garcetti and Councilwoman Nury Martinez and suggest they create a new government position for someone qualified who can get Van Nuys some top designs and bring up the depressing level of listlessness that infects our forgotten section of Los Angeles.  Needed is a person without pretense who doesn’t just kiss the ass of the fashionable, the powerful, the media stars who blow words and wishes over the suffering people of this city.

Maybe should even be the Chief Design Officer since I actually have a track record of preservation, clean-up, and heightening community awareness in Van Nuys and vicinity.  “Option A” which would have obliterated industrial, small shop Van Nuys with a 33-acre Metro light rail repair yard was defeated after this blog united community members to fight for the preservation of local, productive, creative, skilled industries near Kester and Oxnard.

But back to the CDO position…….

I don’t think they would hire me.

Frances Anderton has never heard of me. And I didn’t graduate from Berkeley and I don’t live in Silver Lake. And I have never given a graduation speech to the students at SCI-Arc.

I’m pretty sure those are the qualifications one needs to get hired for being a $200,000-$300,000 (?) a year Chief Design Officer.

Letter from an Old, Practicing Architect in Los Angeles

12602 Moorpark St. Studio City, CA. 91604
12602 Moorpark St. Studio City, CA. 91604

Driving down Moorpark St. in Studio City last week, I passed a notably austere and well-designed apartment under construction. I stopped and walked around and shot some photos of the building which had precise lines, solid forms and possessed an architectural sensibility of the 1930s.

I later looked up the architect online and wrote him an email. To my surprise, he responded in detail. Even more surprisingly, he is a man who has been practicing architecture for over 50 years.

Here is what he had to say about the state of planning and architecture in Los Angeles, especially as it relates to the San Fernando Valley.

I have not disclosed his name to protect his privacy.

Dear Andrew:

Thank you for the complimentary words regarding my apartment project. They are truly appreciated. I looked at your excellent blog.

Your involvement in trying to better the quality of life in Los Angeles is noble. I suspect, however that you are constantly faced with the frustration and anger of dealing with a Los Angeles bureaucracy that has become stifling and counterproductive.

The planning department has been a dismal failure as long as I can remember and has continually failed to address the real and important problems that have faced our city.

Old Montgomery Ward. Panorama City, CA.
Old Montgomery Ward. Panorama City, CA.

I am sure you know the recent history of the Valley better than I do. I came to Los Angeles as a child in 1948, just after WW2 ended and lived in West LA.

A trip to the Valley was a bit of an adventure. Mostly open space. And it was hard to find a restaurant or much of anything. I did not realize then what we were soon going to lose. Tough-minded, enthusiastic, returning soldiers were coming to LA during this period wanting only to work and raise families in peace.

I was fortunate to have a few of these men as instructors at the U.S.C. School of Architecture. The Valley provided an abundance of cheap land on which to develop housing. And with the coming of these returning soldiers, a major Valley building boom began. Housing tracts and apartments were built as quickly and cheaply as possible. It was an exciting event to see a searchlight in the sky and drive towards it to find what new business opening it heralded.

Macy's, North Hollywood, CA.
Macy’s, North Hollywood, CA.

All of this was happening with virtually no master planning. One bland community rolled into another. As I drive the Valley today, I find it kind of fun to try to identify the architectural styles, if you can call them that, of each of the building booms in the 60 plus years since the end of the War. Thank God for the mature landscaping that is making the Valley environment somewhat more pleasant. I find myself, grudgingly, seeing a kind of quirky nostalgic beauty in whole thing. But enough rambling. No easy answers.

15300 Valerio St. Van Nuys, CA 91405
15300 Valerio St. Van Nuys, CA 91405

The specific problem you face in trying to elevate the quality of Architecture in LA is a tough one. It entails getting greedy bottom line developers to take an interest in the environments that they are building. They only ‘design’ that these developers relate to is that which they feel is necessary to rent or sale their product. This design is too often provided by their spouses or a friend with “good taste.”

A developer buddy of mine once exclaimed with the excitement of discovery that he had figured out how to build a modern building. It is simple he said – no details, white paint and a flat roof. He unfortunately built a number of large apartments in the Valley with his newly discovered understanding of modern architecture.

The developers must be taught that they have a moral responsibility to the community to provide good environment. Good luck on this one. Developers must also be taught that over time a well-designed building will make them more money.

Archwood St. near Van Nuys Blvd. Van Nuys, CA 91405
Archwood St. near Van Nuys Blvd. Van Nuys, CA 91405

The bureaucracy must be scaled down and restricted on the number of code provisions and roles that they can enact without public input and approval.

I have acted as an Architect, owner builder, and small time residential developer in LA for over a half a century. In the early 1960s, both the California State Board of Architectural Examiners and the A.I.A. for being an “Architect-Developer” chastised me.

There was a conflict of interest they said, not understanding the value of having the Architect as the developer as to opposed to a bottom line businessman. I chuckled when some years latter I ran across an ad for a course called the ‘Architect as a Developer’ sponsored by the A.I.A.

Studio City, CA.
Studio City, CA.

Yours is not an easy road to travel, but please keep it up.

If things are ever going to get better, and I am a pessimistic about this happening, it will take a rising up of the community, under leadership like yourself, to demand the changes you that you are seeking. Thank you for your efforts and good luck.

Van Nuys Bl. 2016
Van Nuys Bl. 2016