When I got a message from a friend that a car had plowed into Sunset Triangle, I ran the few blocks from my house. No one was hurt; it had happened early in the morning when the plaza was empty. But the damage to the new pedestrian-only thoroughfare was extensive. Giant planters had toppled and rolled, their drought-tolerant succulents scattered across the asphalt -- asphalt that only two weeks before had been painted in blinding acid-green polka-dots to help signify that cars were not allowed.
The Silver Lake plaza opened on March 4, the first of many planned for the city as part of the program Streets for People. This particular plaza is a pilot project that will close a tiny strip of Griffith Park Boulevard, from its intersection with Sunset Boulevard to Edgecliffe Drive, for one year. Declaring this single Los Angeles block unfit for cars, even temporarily, is a sign of coming-of-age for our auto-bound city. But it's a decision that many Angelenos are not too happy about.
As I examined the squished plastic planters and scuffed through the piles of dirt, a range of scenarios ran through my mind. Did a driver simply not see the planters in the dark? Did they follow Google Maps' suggestion that this was indeed still a street? Or worse -- my eyes widened as I considered the suggestion -- could someone hate the plaza so much they'd pilot their car directly into it to prove a point?
It was not vandalism, the Department of Transportation representatives on the scene assured me. They knew it was a hit-and-run, and likely an alcohol-related one since the driver abandoned his car after hitting a parked one. They assured me that they'd clean up the plaza, replace the planters and examine the possibility of safety improvements. They did: By that evening, a maintenance worker was watering the replanted replacement pots.
Closing streets in L.A., whether it's for the marathon, CicLAvia, or a yearlong pilot project, is not a popular pastime, and detractors -- and there are many, if you believe the comments on local blogs -- are very concerned about the Sunset Triangle.
At the opening, a vocal opponent booed loudly during the public statements, telling The Atlantic Cities that eliminating parking was "a sin" and denouncing the "cheap Nickelodeon show" decor. In a blog comment he claimed he had "hundreds" of people who felt the same way.
I've heard more of these complaints: The free farmers market-day parking was removed, the residents weren't given enough notice about the changes, the colors melted someone's retinas. But I felt conflicted in a different way. Personally, I was behind the idea, but I worried that its temporary, pop-up execution didn't achieve its goal of making a sacred space for pedestrians. It wasn't convincing enough to change people's minds about what street for people could be.
And even though any driver drunk enough could have easily jumped the curb and crashed into a building, the accident was now cited as a reason the street -- any street -- should not be car-free in Los Angeles.
The plaza cost about $25,000, which was funded by a grant (maintenance is handled by the Silver Lake Improvement Association). So compared to a park (or even a parklet), this is pretty much the most bang for its buck that the city can get for a public space. That's the point of a pilot project, says Bill Roschen, president of L.A.'s planning commission. "It's just paint plus chairs," he says. "We didn't change any infrastructure."
Roschen and designer Frank Clementi, whose firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios donated all their time for the project, were inspired by the new pedestrian plazas of New York. According to Clementi, the design choices are largely utilitarian. The movable cafe tables and chairs were chosen for their track record in places like Times Square and Parisian parks. A bike corral featuring the DOT's cute new bike-shaped racks is found on the eastern flank. The very basic planters dot the perimeter and a small chained gate allows access for farmers market vendors and trash trucks.
And about that color. Clementi has a very good reason for choosing the eye-searing fluorescents that he did: not many colors are available when it comes to street paint. "Red, yellow, they're all taken," for various DOT reasons, says Clementi. Besides, he wanted the street to be visible for safety as well as a way of branding its new use: "You have to be over-the-top with it." Thankfully, three weeks of bike tires and airborne dust have scuffed the plaza with a welcome patina, mellowing it into gentler shades of chartreuse and ectoplasm.
Julie Choe, the attentive owner of the cafe Mornings Nights, whose customers occupy many of the new cafe tables, waves off the complaints about the color or missing parking spaces. ("We only lost five spots," she says, exasperatedly. "It's not a legitimate complaint.") She thinks there's a bigger issue no one's talking about. She believes the plaza has, ironically, made the area safer.
When she was first approached about the project, Choe recommended closing the entire street because it was incredibly dangerous. "We've had so many people almost get hit there," she says of the narrow sidewalk. "And we'd always see that stop sign get blown," she says, pointing to another corner. Where the car sideswiped the planters, she's seen three bike accidents from drivers who didn't see the bike lane.
Now, she's seeing some other changes rippling out into the neighborhood. It's important to note that there is a park already here, an actual grassy triangle with a neglected fountain, broken benches and a few rocks. Last week the benches in the park were repaired and Michael McKinley of the Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance, the organization that maintains the park (and recently filed for bankruptcy), was seen painting the fountain a complementary shade of orange. "Kids from school eat lunch together on the grass," says Choe. "That never happened before."
There have been challenges: Choe's the one who has to haul out the tables and chairs in the morning, when she's there by herself. But it's worth the extra work, she says. "I wish people would give it a little more time," she says. "These people here are taking pride in it."
I've visited the plaza more than a dozen times during its opening weeks, at various times of day. I've eaten my lunch and lingered over gelato there. I've brought my laptop and discovered plentiful free WiFi -- in fact, I've written most of this article sitting at one of the cafe tables. At all hours I've seen Angelenos arrive on foot and on bike -- some regulars who greet their fellow plaza-mates by name, some curiously settling into the chairs for the first time, taking in the perfectly framed view of Sunset curving toward the glowing towers of downtown.
But the best part about the plaza is the basketball. Yes, a basketball hoop that's wheeled out from a bakery parking lot almost every day.
As I watched the daily games of pickup, I started to see that it's not really about the space, it's about programming. What happens in the triangle? The farmers market is already here two days a week. When will someone start up a food truck Monday or open mic Thursday?
It occurred to me that the plaza is not the underwhelming umbrellas or the ho-hum planters, but what happens between them. Can I like what a public space does, even if I'm not in love with the public space itself?
The plaza is not perfect, but that's the thing: If people want different furniture, or think the dots should be a mural by a local artist instead, that can be changed next March. Likewise, a group could could raise money for their own plaza, come up with their own idea, and the city will help them implement it. That's the vision of Roschen, who hopes to see 30 to 40 in L.A. within a year. "Neighborhoods can ask for it and then do it themselves."
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Instead of worrying about what it looks like, as I was, I recommend spending a few hours here on the asphalt, which is looking less puke-colored every day. Hopefully you'll see beyond the green -- it's not easy, but it's possible. Here's what I saw on a recent afternoon: musicians setting up for an impromptu performance, dogs blissfully sunning themselves, people reading books (actual books!).
I mean, on a street where cars once wildly careened (and hopefully won't careen again), as drivers shaved off a few blocks between themselves and the 5 freeway, there are kids playing basketball almost every afternoon.
I ask you the same question I asked myself at that moment: How could this possibly be a bad thing for my neighborhood?