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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”