CRA Unveils Draft Plans for South Figueroa, Public Mostly Positive

The South Figueroa Corridor Plan proposes changes for more than just Figueroa Street.
The South Figueroa Corridor Plan proposes changes for more than just Figueroa Street.

A standing room only audience descended on the Fashion Institute of Design on South Grand Street to listen to a presentation from the embattled Community Redevelopment Agency for a ground breaking and popular proposal to transform the South Figueroa Corridor.  When people discuss Los Angeles’ streets, they usually use terms such as “car-oriented” or “ugly.”  The new South Figueroa, aka My Figueroa, would be a truly beautiful street designed for people to walk, bike wait for transit or just enjoy life outside as well as a way to shuffle cars from one area to another.

The South Figueroa Corridor Project covers three miles of South Figueroa from 41st Street to Seventh Street as well as a half mile of 11st Street between Figueroa and Broadway, a half mile of Martin Luther King (MLK) Boulevard just south of Exposition Park, and a half mile of Bill Robertson Boulevard from into Exposition Park starting at MLK Boulevard.  While there are different proposals being studied for each part of the corridor, Oliver Schultze, from the world-renowned Gehl Architects in Copenhagen, promised that every part of the corridor would see some sort of improvement.

Good.

The project team offered three proposals for different sections of Figueroa, a “good,” “better,” and “best” options.  Whether a segment qualifies for good, better, or best depends on the amount of funding available and the current level of street life in the segment.  The good option consisted of an eight foot separated bike lane traveling the length of the corridor in each direction, an eighteen inch separator, car parking and bus bump outs, and a transit only lane for buses and streetcars.  In addition to creating a safe place for cyclists, removing them from car traffic and the sidewalk, it also created a 22 foot buffer between the sidewalk and the first regular vehicle travel lane.

As Joe Linton noted from the audience, “I love that protected bike lanes are the base proposal.”  Figueroa street would be the first street in Los Angeles to feature protected bike lanes.  In fact, no city in Los Angeles County has these special bike lanes, although Long Beach is adding some as we speak.

Better

While the base design is pretty amazing “for Los Angeles,” once we get into the “better” and “best” designs one starts to see some ideas that would turn Figueroa into a world class street.  The “better” segment begins to actively re-purpose space reserved for the private automobile and give it back to humans, or as Schultz put it moves “progressively into the carriage way.”  Instead of a separated bike path, there’s a much wider  “flex lane” which serves as a continuation of bike path,  pedestrian walkway and a very limited space for car traffic (deliveries, etc.).  The transit only lane for streetcars and buses remains in the proposal, after a wide divider for bike parking, street trees and other street beautification projects.

Best.

By the time we begin discussing the “best” segments, you might start thinking we actually live in Copenhagen.  Figueroa is shrunk to two traffic lanes, a transit lane and a large pedestrian plaza. The sidewalk is large enough for restaurant or coffee shop seating before we even get to the flex lane.  Then, there’s another space reserved for pedestrians or just sitting outside on a bench.  Schultze noted that in some segments of Figueroa, there will be 5,000 people walking through in just an hour and pedestrians make up the majority of street users.

From parking lot to public space.

For 11th street, Schultze proposes closing the segment to all traffic besides local traffic and deliveries by creating a “Paseo” as seen above.  Bill Robertson Boulevard would undergo a similar treatment, with the north end being closed completely and the south area turning into an adjacent “Olympic Park.”  As for MLK Boulevard, the team determined that the amount of car traffic would make reducing the travel lanes a more difficult proposal, but that other treatments could still transform the area.  In the above image, the project team unveils a linear park proposal that manages to keep most of the parking and still creates a different, more public, feeling for the space.

Jay Varata, the CRA director for the area, summed up the entire proposal by noting that this plan is “…a chance to do something very unique in Los Angeles.  A chance to look at pedestrian space in a new way.”

But the plan isn’t near the final design phase yet.  Currently the team is soliciting feedback from the first designs, getting cost estimates to complete their plans and will hold another series of hearings in April before selecting a “Locally Preferred Alternative.”  From there, the proposal will undergo final design before going through the hearing process for a final project.  Staff didn’t rule out the possibility that the project would be segmented or go through pilot stages in advance of a corridor long project.  However, Melanie Smith, one of the project consultants did note that, “This all needs to happen very fast.”

Friendly comments from the audience asked the speakers to put in more information about the safety benefits of the project to head off political opposition, work with the Downtown Streetcar team to make certain the pictured trolley line makes it from the poster board to the street, and work with planning to make certain the project doesn’t become an engine for gentrification.  The project team noted that the state grant they received to create this project was only possible because of the large amount of affordable housing present and planned for the corridor and that local agencies, including LADOT, are enthusiastic about the project.

Deborah Murphy, the lead consultant for the grant and a member of the L.A. Streetsblog Board of Directors, noted that the connectivity to transit, not just the streetcar, was a key part of the proposal.  “If we were having this meeting six months from now, everyone would be asking how this connected to the Expo Line.”

More concerned comments pressed the team about what would happen to displaced cars and what accommodations were being made for street parking for automobiles.  With the traffic plan not completed, the staff could only hazard a guess on the first question.  The second one was kind of a hilarious statement on the defensiveness of car culture warriors.  There are over 545 acres of car parking garages within a quarter mile of the project.  However, the questioner complained that these spaces were the “most expensive in the city.”  So why was the question so odd?  Because even a cursory look at the plan above reveals that the proposal would actually increase on street parking.

I questioned Schultze about that before the presentation.  After all, it was Gehl Architects who created the graphic illustrating all the car parking along the corridor that we featured last week.  He explained that creating short-term parking that it increases the customer base for business.  With 60% of Figueroa’s facades facing away from the street, creating foot, bike and car customers is a key part of transforming the street into a true public space.

Another question asked whether this was a contained project, or if we could expect more projects such as this in all parts of the city.  Earlier in the evening I joked with Schultze and Murphy that it was nice to discuss a project where Streetsbloggers were asking, “Why not us?” instead of “why us?” when discussing changes.  The team noted that the scope of this project is the Corridor, but they have received feedback from City Departments that this is the test case for a broader remaking of the city.

Murphy summed up the purpose of the program, and the city’s need to embrace this kind of change by noting that the city has invested in infrastructure for cars over all other modes for too long and that, “Everyone deserves a great place to walk, ride their bike, wait for transit or whatever.  We have a lot of making up to do.”

  • Vito

    Amazing! Yes Please! Build it now!

  • Carlton Glub

    Let’s get it done “Best!”

  • Bottom line AEG should be paying for this. 20 million is the executive bathroom cleaning budget for these buffoons. The money invested in this project should go elsewhere in the city.

  • I brought it up last night, that bit about the safety data to show that removing cars has a big impact on the street. They really need to dig up that data and come with it on their sleeves to combat the happy motoring one-liners (Wheres all da parking! I gotta get through there when the freeways all backed up!).

    If this were to happen, and the effects were measured and publicized, this would be a total revolution in the way the City of LA does business. The good thing is that it would justify a level of public spending that many would be happy to support – thus (hopefully) ensuring good union jobs, and with those jobs, the backing of much of our elected leadership.

  • I’d like to see more how cars would be able to enter the “flex lane,” and what limitations to auto traffic there would be there. Are there designated entries and exits for cars? What would the speed limit be?

  • LAofAnaheim

    I actually love the idea of increasing on-street parking. Why? Walk Main street or Spring street during Anti-gridlock zoning (rush hour) and non-anti gridlock zoning (outside of rush hour), and you’ll see how much safer the sidewalks are with a parked car in between cars going at 40 mph. I hate off-street parking as it just allows for significantly more car usage (more convenient, abundant amount of space, etc…).

  • Chris L

    @LAofAnaheim – Yup. Nothing wrong with some on-street parking. It creates a buffer for pedestrians, and calms traffic. I suppose when I rail against parking here and on SkyscraperPage, I should specify that I’m talking about off-street parking.

  • I could easily see myself — and 45,000 of my anime otaku amigos — walking through this scene or taking the streetcar to Anime Expo.

    Hopefully, I won’t be over the age of 50 when this happens.

    And yes, we do need street parking. Where else will the gourmet lunch trucks park?

  • Absolutely amazing. If we can get that vision executed/materialized, LA will never be the butt of bland suburban jokes again.

  • Carter L.

    In the last rendering, a wood telephone pole (or two) is shown in the background. People would have to look far and wide to see something that peculiarly, intrinsically ugly in cities like Copenhagen. But even in a make-believe, idealized image of an LA streetscape, such homeliness can’t be excluded?

    Utility companies of LA need to get off their duffs and help improve the appearance of the Southland by placing more of their power lines underground.

  • Rich Alossi

    I was at the meeting and made a general comment (inartfully, as I have problems verbalizing my thoughts sometimes) about how I currently *hate* walking on Figueroa because of the inability of car drivers to make room for pedestrians, how I feel like I’m taking a risk with my life when I’m on the street. I fully support the “best” option along as much of the corridor as possible.

    I think the next meeting needs to be done a little better though. There were concerns that were raised by people who live along the corridor, and some who don’t, and those concerns are commonplace enough in a city like LA that they should be addressed in the presentation, and not by a bunch of angry motorists during Q&A.

    For example, the people who complained about car parking. The architects should have had that map of the parking along Figueroa handy as a slide to show people. The commenter suggested that there’s nowhere to park in Downtown. The insiders in the crowd (Streetsblog readers, etc) kind of hissed a little. Then when the architect said that there’s 32,000 spaces nearby, the commenter asked “Yeah, but how much do they cost?” That’s really the issue… people want *free* parking. Well, this doesn’t solve that problem. It doesn’t address the issue either way. No parking will be taken for use by the project, and that should be really touted front and center. Otherwise you waste 20 minutes on answering the same questions over and over.

  • Joe

    While I’m all for improving the corridor, I do have some questions/concerns:

    In the “better” and “best” options, where would bikes travel? The flex lane is positioned between two pedestrian areas, which means that peds are going to wander into it without looking, which in turn means that the safe speed for bicycle travel is about 5mph. Of course, many cyclists will go faster, which means people are going to get hurt. Allowing bikes in the transit-only lane would be okay, except that there will be issues with the streetcars being unable to pass. Plus, riding parallel to rails makes it easy to catch a wheel and fall. And putting bikes in the car lane again raises problems with passing; this might not be a problem in Copenhagen, but too many LA motorists feel it is their duty to assault any cyclist whom they cannot pass. I hate riding on streets where cars can’t pass me safely, because then they end up passing me unsafely.

    I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is. A bike lane in between the transit lane and the car lane, perhaps? (Putting a bike lane in between the transit lane and the sidewalk will result in ped-bike collisions while getting on and off the streetcar.)

    I do like very much that none of the designs use up 14 feet of space for private car storage. (Remember, parallel parking with a single traffic lane means that motorists will continually block traffic while parking, searching for a parking space, or waiting for a spot to open up.)

  • The flex lanes are basically a massive bikeway/walkway (for 12 to 15 mph bike traffic) that allow service vehicles to access nearby buildings. The pace of movement is quite slow.

    At least that has been my impression based on all the videos of these things I’ve seen online.

  • I would prefer a separated bike lane, as seen in Good above, to a bikeway/walkway that puts pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars all in the same shared lane. The flex lane looks okay in the illustrations, but to me it seems like it presents a lot of opportunities for conflict.

  • I will try and dig up some footage others have posted online of such promenade.

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