Saturday, October 06, 2007

Home, Is Where I Want To Be

I was down in the LA area this past week. It’s the first time I’ve been down there in about 15 years. I was at a conference for 3 days in Valencia, which is northern LA county. It was very odd. The whole place looked like it had sprung up in the last 6 months. The area surrounding the hotel was packed with shopping centers and malls. I visited one large mall and 6 or 7 large shopping centers within walking distance of the hotel.

Every evening I would go for long walks and in a mile in either direction all I saw were malls and shopping centers, with car dealerships at the periphery. There was really only one mall, in the traditional sense. It was two stories, and seemed to go on forever. It easily had 3 times the number of stores as our local Bayshore Mall (which is really on the shores of the bay). Then at all of the major intersections there were these large shopping centers that were like a mall turned inside out. Each one was anchored by an Olive Garden, TGI Friday’s, or maybe a Pier 1 Imports. They were the new kind of strip-mall where the strip had been convoluted a bit so the stores weren’t all in a straight line. These strip-malls all had names like “River Oaks” or “Maple Canyon” but there wasn’t a river, canyon, maple or oak to be seen.

They all had the exact same architecture too. And not just the shops, but the hotel, shops, malls, and business parks were all done in the same sort of California Mission style with a twist of Italian Renaissance. They all used the exact same stone veneer with stucco and touches of metal work. Next to or behind most of the shopping centers there would be an “Urban Living Center” that was done in the same style as everything else. These were massive condominium complexes with hundreds or maybe thousands of units.

There was one shopping center that did not have an Urban Living Center attached to it. It was anchored by a Myrvn’s at one end, and a Target at the other. It was not as stylish as the others and it was more like an older style strip-mall where the design was very linear. The architecture mostly looked the same as the others, though. Then I noticed that some parts looked different, but there was a transition point where it went for the original look to the new Mission/Renaissance look. It was actually in the middle of being transmogrified so it would like everything else. There was a point were a Subway Sandwich shop was in the middle of being born again in to its new Mission/Renaissance look.

The other thing I noticed was there was not one non-chain restaurant to be seen. I must have passed by literally hundreds and hundreds of store fronts, restaurants, and food courts. There was the occasional nail salon or dry-cleaner that was not a part of a larger chain, or at least the names weren’t recognizable to me as being a part of chain. As far as food went, though, it was all chain restaurants. And they had them all, including 3 Startbucks within 200 yards of the hotel, and Starbucks coffee in the hotel room.

The streets in this area were all 4 lanes in either direction, and as they approached the intersection the street would widen to 10 or 12 lanes in total to accommodate left and right hand turning lanes. The posted speed limit was 50 MPH, but most people were doing well over that. The sidewalks were wide and winding, but with the exception of the few Mexican immigrants walking to and from the bus stop, I was the only person on them. I’m not kidding at all. I never saw another person on these sidewalks and I walked for hours. To be honest, it’s not too surprising. With the 8 lanes of traffic whizzing by at 70 MPH it was a little like walking next to a freeway.

The streets were so wide at the intersection that it was usually a challenge to get across before the light turned. At the really large intersections, the Walk/Don’t Walk signs had big red timers that would count down from 30 seconds to let you know how much time you had left before the light turned. An older person, or someone not in good health would not make it in time.

All of the areas around the main mall had pedestrian bridges to cross the street. The bridges sometimes connected up with a complex of sidewalks that meandered behind the Urban Living Centers and Business Parks. They were really very nice. They were well landscaped and you were far enough away from the streets that the noise was not deafening. My walks were always in the evening after the conference. It would be about 6 or 7 in the evening and the weather was very nice, being in the high 70s. Still, not one person on any of the sidewalks – NOT ONE!

I’m not sure if this was downtown Valencia or not. Even though there were the business parks, there were no skyscrapers or large collection of businesses that would have defined a downtown as I know it. I don’t think I ever saw a building more than 4 stories tall. I assume there must be more to the city, although I didn’t explore it by car. I guess maybe this was just the shopping district, because really, that is all there was.

I may sound a bit like a country bumpkin describing his first trip to the big city. Really, I’ve lived in and visited many large metro areas before. I’ve just never seen one that was so dominated by shopping while at the same time being so devoid of pedestrians. It was very odd.

5 comments:

Bones said...

These strip-malls all had names like “River Oaks” or “Maple Canyon” but there wasn’t a river, canyon, maple or oak to be seen.

Once upon a time, there were. I hate what happened to LA. Sixty years to pave over just about everything they could.

Welcome back.

purejuice said...

marshall berman, among many others, argues that no pedestrians is the end of democracy. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, is his master work (title a quote from Marx.)

Greg said...

Bones,

It is just dripping with irony, isn’t? I suppose the malls wouldn’t be as inviting if they called them something like, “Concrete Hell” or “Cheesy Crap Island”.

PureJuice,

That’s funny, because a friend of mine here in town jokingly calls me a communist because I walk a lot.

Oh, and flying out of LA was an experience. When I landed, it took 40 minutes to get the rental car and drive to the hotel from LAX at 9:30 in the evening.

When going home, I left the hotel at 6:15 AM to catch a 9:05 flight (2 hours/50 minutes). With traffic (the 405 was a parking lot) and all of the TSA security checks, I got to the gate 10 minutes before the flight left.

burrito said...

That's exactly the kind of awfulness that made me become an urban planner - to try and prevent more of that auto-dominated wasteland stuff. I now live in Vancouver BC which (usually) balances the cars with the pedestrians and cyclists and it's so much saner.

Alicia said...

You would probably like this youtube series.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwd4Lq0Xvgc&mode=related&search=new%20urbanism%20andres%20duany%20mixed%20use%20sense%20of%20place%20small%20town%20living%20neighborhood%20zoning%20dpz%20suburb%20suburbs%20mcmansions