Form (and Speedy Implementation) over Function Yields Semi-Obsolete Street Furniture in Boyle Heights

The Butterfly Effect

A butterfly bike rack perches on 1st St. in Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A butterfly bike rack perches on 1st St. in Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

When the butterflies, flowers, and decorative benches first started popping up along 1st Street in Boyle Heights last year, reviews were mixed.

Okay…

That’s not really true — the reviews I heard were largely not that great.

Particularly from business owners that had been given some advance notice — but no choice and no recourse — about what would be appearing outside their front doors.

A large yellow butterfly stakes out space in front of Espacio 1839. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A very large yellow butterfly stakes out space in front of Espacio 1839. Staff there said they had originally been told they would be getting a flower bike rack. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

After the large ficus trees that had destroyed the street’s sidewalks had been ripped out, the sidewalks repaired, and new trees planted, the colorful bike racks that appeared soon after were a bit incongruous with the new landscape.

The reference to the natural world served to point out just how devoid of greenery the street now was.

The arrival of bike racks mimicking elements of the natural world served to point out the lack of nature along the street. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The arrival of bike racks mimicking elements of the natural world served to point out the lack of nature along the street. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

And while complaints did tend to highlight how garish the yellow butterflies were, the kicker, for many, was that the new racks and furniture were poorly placed and not particularly functional.

Some people didn’t know what they were or preferred relying on parking signs.

The parking sign pole is preferred by some to the butterfly rack outside Espacio 1839. Source: Espacio 1839 instagram
The parking sign pole is preferred by some to the butterfly rack outside Espacio 1839. Source: Espacio 1839 Instagram

Others (myself included) found the racks hard to use — the awkward shape of the butterfly and the shortness of the flower coupled with the roundness of its center make them both complicated to lock up against, depending on the type of bike you have, how you lock your bike (I take off my back wheel), or whether another bike is already locked to it.

The flowers, especially this one at a little sitting area at Bailey (behind Mariachi Plaza) are kind of adorable in a setting like this. But not that easy to lock up your bike to. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The flowers, especially this one at a little sitting area at Bailey (behind Mariachi Plaza), are kind of adorable in a setting like this. But they’re not that easy to lock up your bike to. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

But the thing that made the least sense was the placement of the furniture.

Existing bike racks were removed from in front of Homeboys’ continuation school — where they were sorely needed — and benches were placed in front of two bars that open at 6 a.m. Where benches appeared at other sites along the street, they were at some distance from the new trees which would have eventually provided shade.

A bench sits outside the Las Palomas bar. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A bench sits directly outside the Las Palomas bar near Mariachi Plaza. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

And the bike racks appear to have been placed in the door zone at almost every opportunity.

Usually when I spot racks around the city, they tend to be placed in the red zones between parking spaces for cars so as not to block access either to cars or the bikes.

Not always.

Usually placement of bike racks is good. Usually. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Usually placement of bike racks is pretty good. Usually. (An older rack at the corner of 1st and State in Boyle Heights) Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

But usually.

No such protocol appears to have been followed along 1st Street.

Nope, red zone totally ignored, here. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Nope, opportune red zone totally ignored here. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Butterfly adeptly blocks access to passenger side doors. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Butterfly adeptly blocks access to passenger side doors. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Flower menaces the owners of a van sporting a disabled placard. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Nope, don’t even think about opening that back door. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Nope, says the flower to the owners of the van sporting a disabled placard. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Not today, says the flower to the owners of the van sporting a disabled placard. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The situation is made worse when bikes are actually locked to the rack. A passenger might be able to maneuver around a rack. But bikes take up even more space in front of car doors and can present a challenge, particularly for folks with mobility issues or young children in car seats, or risk getting damaged by those who fling their doors open.

My own bike locked up to a butterfly rack (where another bike was already locked) presents an obstacle to someone looking to get in and out of passenger-side doors. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
My own bike, locked up to a butterfly rack (where another bike was already locked), presented so much of an obstacle that the driver wound up parking a foot off the curb and encroaching on the bike lane running on the other side of his vehicle. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

When I first asked about this problem with the street furniture last October, I was reassured by Paul Gomez, from the Public Affairs office at the Dept. of Public Works, that the initial placement locations were chosen by Metro design consultants with the help of the local advisory committee and the general public. And that the final placements were determined by Bureau of Street Services (BSS) designers (in consultation with Metro), first in accordance with the BSS’ “Furniture Placement Requirements” guidelines and then reviewed and approved by the L.A. Department of Transportation Bikeway Section.

They saw no problem, in other words.

And yet, when I stopped by Espacio 1839 last week to say hello to a friend, the arrival of two new regular old bike racks outside their store, properly placed, seemed to signal recognition that there had indeed been a problem with the original racks.

One of Espacio 1839's new racks. The LADOT placement marks are still visible on the pavement. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
One of Espacio 1839’s new racks. The LADOT placement marks are still visible on the pavement. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Staff told me that when a Metro representative had come through to ask about how business owners felt about the new furniture (a few months after the original placement of the butterfly rack), they had spoken out about its poor placement.

The two new standard racks were meant to mitigate that problem (as was, it appears, the one that went in across the street in front of Deportes Prieto, top left in above photo).

But the butterfly rack still remains in place, and will likely stay there, as removing it would damage the new concrete (per Gomez’ October correspondence with me). Meaning Espacio’s sidewalk is now cluttered with extra street furniture. Considering that so many of the 30+ decorative racks along 1st St. are poorly placed, anyone else seeking to get more functional bike racks added to the street can expect to be contributing to clutter.

The landscape in front of Espacio 1839 now includes a surplus of bike racks, including one that is largely unused. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The landscape in front of Espacio 1839 now includes a surplus of furniture. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

This is not exactly how the Eastside Access Project was supposed to go.

The butterflies, flowers, and benches are part of $12 million in improvements intended to “connect two key Boyle Heights [Metro] stations and the 1st Street commercial district currently separated by the I-5/I-10 freeway underpass and transform [the corridor] into an amenity and asset for Boyle Heights” and “transform the walking environment between Mariachi Plaza and Soto St. stations, making it a more enjoyable and safer place to walk.” [See the full Eastside Access plan, here, and Metro’s website for the project, here.]

The plan is supposed to be fully implemented by the end of 2015, according to a press release on a groundbreaking for decorative sidewalks sent out two years ago.

But it appears that much still remains to be done, including: the transformation of the corners at 1st and Cummings into placitas (below), the planting of the remainder of the 180 trees (two trees for every one of the 90 removed), the placing of fitness equipment, seating, curb extensions, and bike racks around the Evergreen Cemetery, the installation of shade elements, and the implementation of some of the more artistic elements of the plan, like the decorative sidewalks (promised in that 2013 press release), decorative bike lanes, and decorative guardrail panels around Metro stations.

Screenshot of the placita envisioned for 1st and Cummings, as well as the art meant to line the freeway overpass. Source: Metro
Screenshot of the placita envisioned for 1st and Cummings, as well as the art meant to line the freeway overpass. Source: Metro

As of this writing, there has been no word from Councilmember Jose Huizar’s office on which of the remaining elements of the projects will be fulfilled, what the timeline for that might be, or whether the community (and the proper city agencies) will be consulted ahead of time to ensure that the improvements end up being viable.

There is no information about the project on the councilmember’s website, either. The only thing resembling plans are found on Metro’s website (or in this Metro Access Brochure from 2013) and those documents are quite outdated at this point.

Given Huizar’s seemingly genuine effort to act as a champion for more livable streets, his important role in cheerleading for the Mobility Plan (just approved by the full City Council yesterday), and his dedication to making downtown more accessible for those on bike and on foot, the haphazard implementation of the Eastside Access project has been disappointing to see.

Hopefully, the councilmember’s office will do better in steering the Great Streets plans for one of Boyle Heights’ other key corridors, Cesar Chavez Ave. Those plans have not been released just yet, but Great Streets is holding an informational session tonight at Boyle Heights City Hall, from 6 to 8 p.m. Stakeholders are encouraged to stop by, hear about the plans, and meet some of the team that won the challenge grant to help transform the street. Great Streets will also be out on the corner of St. Louis and Cesar Chavez this Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

  • mcas

    While the failure to use the red zone point is a good one, the rest of this article complaining about bicycle and pedestrian amenities for the benefit of drivers is really off-message for streetsblog — and, silly. First, about 80% of all trips are Single Occupancy Vehicle trips, so this would actually have very little affect on the vast majority of trips. Second, automobiles already dominate nearly every inch of our public spaces — so, it seems rather surprising that a Streetsblog writer would want to further expand their dominion to sidewalks by wanting to limit the placement of furniture to further accommodate these space-hogs…

  • sahra

    You’re applying a generic analysis to a community where such an analysis does not necessarily apply. First of all, folks in Boyle Heights are far more dependent on transit, walking, and biking than folks in better-off areas of LA…so this is not a call to privilege drivers/driving; it is a call for folks to get infrastructure they can use (and to not see money wasted on stuff they can’t, just so boxes can be checked). And Boyle Heights is a community of families and 1st St. is a street of restaurants, so, if folks are coming in cars, they are often coming in groups. And many are coming (in groups) from other parts of LA County (according to the business owners I’ve asked about this) that are not well-linked by transit to get cuisine that reminds them of home. Or they are musicians (mariachis) carting around large instruments and trying to get to gigs (or supplies for gigs). Or folks are picking up 100 trophies at the trophy shop (his customers never use transit). So, the street needs to accommodate a variety of users, whether you like that or not. And given that the street has already been put on a road diet and has semi-green bike lanes, promoting coexistence between the users doesn’t seem like an off-message idea.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I rather like the looks of the bike racks, but they’re so different from what most folks are used to seeing that some additional cues should be given letting people know they’re intended to be used as bike racks (perhaps a bike image stenciled on the ground next to the racks?). That said, some colorful bike racks actually shaped like bicycles probably would have looked nice and would not have required any additional visual cues to indicate their purpose.

    As for the unfortunate placement of the bike racks, rather than relocating them, perhaps it could be an opportunity to roll out parking-protected bike lanes where space permits (probably just between Breed St & Saint Louis St) and in areas that can be restriped to remove the mid-block median.

  • ubrayj02

    If this was the worst thing LA does to people on its streets I could live with it. Your coverage of Boyle Heights improvements shows how much is for brochures and how much is for people who actually use the street. It isn’t that hard to design for people well, but it takes focus from the top to cut through the silly little “bling” internal newsletter highlight reels councilmembers and others see.

    The lack of focus on end users is disturbing. Reminds me of Metro!

  • Salts

    I agree. I understand value of community engagement and functional infrastructure but I’m having difficulty connecting to this post. Far too often we get infrastructure that is so focused on function that aesthetics are abandoned altogether. If entering/exiting the car in a parking space mere steps from their destination is the biggest inconvenience drivers on 1st St face that is still a quite positive experience compared to that of transit users, bicyclists, and pedestrians. So many positive additions have been made to 1st St (so much so that residents say it gets too much attention) and then this post zeros in on a relatively minor problem in a council district where the council member has a fantastic record of improving the quality of life and listening to constituents. This is the kind of complaint we would criticize if it came from a more affluent neighborhood. This post might be better if it more generally criticized impractical bicycle accommodations throughout the city with this being one example.

  • sahra

    I find it weird that people are struggling with this one. I guess because, for the people I know in the community, something that so transforms the look and the feel of the street, including the space directly outside their front doors, is a significant issue… I think some of our readers come at this from the bike lens (as your comment and the one above do) while the community members are coming at it from the larger lens of how their communities are “improved.” I may not have made that framing clear in the story, probably because I have written about the streetscape on 1st (when residents wondered who the improvements were meant to benefit) and Cesar Chavez (Great Streets, bad sidewalks/lack of investment) before… But to speak to the framing — both in South LA and Boyle Heights, there is a long history of folks almost getting things they almost need in almost the form they need them. Leaders get to say, “look what we did for the community!” and residents and business owners sigh and say, “Yeah, thanks yet again for all the stuff we can’t use and aren’t sure we wanted in the first place.” And to your point about Huizar — that is kind of a larger point I am getting at… this kind of haphazardness never would have never flown downtown. And i would not have been so roundly chided by his PR person for requesting basic information about the program as I was when I started asking about it last fall. The program is no more transparent now than it was then. Yet, you can find quite a bit of information about Broadway or the renewal of Pershing Square on the councilmember’s website. The disparity is in both transparency and implementation is troubling. And it matters because as we now move into an era of “hacking” the public space, where sidewalk interventions are meant to “activate” pedestrian zones and “enliven” the pedestrian experience (Great Streets is about to do just that on Cesar Chavez, for example), it is important to ask questions about what works, how it works, and where it does and does not work, and why it does or does not work so that planners/leaders can have the outcomes they claim they are aiming for.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Trees should be planted in bulbouts in the parking lanes, not on the sidewalk.

  • neroden

    Seems like there should be a “best practices” book for sidewalk & street furniture design. Because the people who designed this street… didn’t read the best practices.

  • BHNeedsLove

    “where the council member has a fantastic record of improving the quality of life and listening to constituents” – yikes, really? DTLA and Highland Park look great- new pocket parks, street conditioning, bringing back Broadway! But come speak to the organizations working in Boyle Heights and the folks on the street. Union de Vecinos tried to get a crosswalk in a busy street for over 2 years. Huizar ignored their request and so UDV painted it on their own. 48 hours later it was removed. Ask the various orgs working on legalizing street vending out here how much his office has helped. The street furniture is beyond RIDONCULOUS – there was NO public input and yes steal, hot-ass benches are placed in the middle of nowhere – classic city-driven, silo planning. Would be nice to get community-driven design in Boyle Heights. Lets not have the Mariachi Plaza fiasco again. Thank you for writing about this – the minute these flowers and butterfly’s went up the WEEK before Ciclavia Eastside event everyone here in BH knew it was a bandaid effort to show others BH is on the up and up! The point of talking about these issues is not simply to discuss street furniture – this is about a larger, systemic issue of planning equity. Why can’t Boyle Heights get the level of investment like Bringing Back Broadway or Highland Park? And I’m not talking dollars and private funding – that answer is clear why not. But when it comes to City dollars? to streetscaping? to tree canopies? to aesthetically and functional bike racks? the end.

  • User_1

    Butterfly looks rad! Great to see someone thinking outside the box.

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