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First, Listen to the Neighbors

Roger Sherman, with ears

PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEINRoger Sherman, with ears

Roger Sherman was 29 years old and fresh out of Harvard when he and a friend won an international competition to design the new West Hollywood Civic Center.

His plan included two observation towers, a palm grove, and a cylindrical glass hall where the City Council would meet. A 13-member jury unanimously picked the project, which was estimated to cost $24.5 million.

Sherman moved from Boston to turn his vision into reality but soon found himself caught up in a community revolt. The Sierra Club opposed the project because it was to be built in a park. The park was on the western edge of the city, which angered residents on the city's less affluent eastern side.

A majority of the City Council dug in and defended the project, while opponents started gathering signatures for a referendum. Two years after the design was awarded, the referendum passed and the project died.

Sherman's beautiful plans never left the drawing board.

Sherman stayed in Los Angeles, designing innovative projects here and across the country. But he still bore the scars of his first encounter in West Hollywood.

For a working architect, it's not uncommon to have one's vision compromised or shredded by stakeholder opposition. And yet, Sherman found that architecture school had left him ill-prepared for the political dimension of the job.

He brooded on the experience for years, puzzling over its lessons with his students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and UCLA. His ideas eventually grew into a book, L.A. Under the Influence: The Hidden Logic of Urban Property, which tries to nudge the profession toward a better understanding of politics.

"Ultimately, it's unavoidable," Sherman said. "You're gonna all go through the meat grinder . . . It becomes very Sisyphean. You're forever rolling a boulder up a hill, and somebody will inevitably dash your hopes."

The book, published in June by The University of Minnesota Press, argues that architects need to take on the role of mediators of development disputes. Through design, they can incorporate competing interests and arrive at a project that is more complex and interesting because it reflects the bargaining process that created it — rather than just the architect's initial vision.

In effect, he claims that NIMBYism can be harnessed to improve design. It's a message that has particular resonance in Los Angeles, where development disputes are the primary mode of civic engagement.

It's no surprise, then, that for inspiration Sherman turns to a dozen or so locations around L.A. The sites each represent accidents of planning — where, for some reason, officials failed to segregate competing uses into their separate sphere. They could be considered nuisances, but to Sherman, they point the way forward.

Consider, for example, the famous case of Hugo's Plating. In the 1970s, the owners of the plating shop refused to sell to make way for the Pacific Design Center. So the center was built around the tiny tar-paper shack, and ficus trees were planted to conceal it.

In one sense, it was an eyesore. But it was also a startling oddity, and over the years it became a cultural landmark — until the owners finally agreed to sell, and it was demolished.

That's the kind of thing that Sherman is celebrating.

"You may think the nuisance is ugly," he said. "But it's also fascinating. It's a view into how the process occurs."

He also writes about things like oil derricks and billboards, which abut and coexist with shops and apartments. For example, there is a two-story house on 8th Street in Westlake, close to MacArthur Park, which has a V-shaped billboard across the front of the second story.

An eyesore? Sure. But Sherman notes that the billboard shades the second-story porch, and the access ladder can be used as a fire escape. It's a visible negotiation. It's architecture.

Sherman's great nemesis is not community opposition, but rather the planning profession and zoning laws. In his view, planning rules exist to suppress the kind of conflict that he wants to expose.

"If you assume the neighborhood is your opponent, then zoning is used as a form of prophylactic to take all friction away from the urban development process," Sherman said. "It takes away the life of what makes cities cities."

He argued that cities would be better off without any zoning rules at all. Failing that, he said cities ought to have "free zones," where pretty much anything goes –— effectively the opposite of an overlay zone where rules are more strict.

It's at this point that you can feel the churning stomachs of neighborhood association presidents. Without height limits, usage restrictions, and setback requirements, what leverage would they have to influence a project?

Well, there are still planning boards and elected officials who can require the parties to sort their differences. But without arbitrary zoning rules in place, Sherman argues, that sorting out can become a more creative and dynamic process.

Consider how it works now. Developers have an incentive to put up a big box that maximizes the zoning envelope. That proposal is used as a threat against the neighbors, and the end result is some compromised version of the original plan.

"It ends up being a stupid and not artful way of realizing things," Sherman said. "It's not rational."

Instead, Sherman argues that architects should come into a negotiation with a Plan A, along with a series of backup plans to address potential objections. The end result might be a symbiotic compromise that neither side would have envisioned at the outset — like the billboard that complements the second-story apartment.

That would require more flexibility than architects typically display.

"Instead, most design professionals today doggedly attempt to prematurely fix the outcome before the project is submitted to this process of haggling, with often flawed results that feel compromised both to the architect and to the stakeholders," Sherman writes.

In thinking about this, Sherman can't help but return to the West Hollywood Civic Center, and what might have been. After the referendum passed — by a mere 150 votes — several years went by before the city moved to a new City Hall. The building is functional, but a far cry from the early ambitions.

"The City Council people had a sense of noblesse oblige, that they knew better than the citizens," Sherman said. "With some strategic thinking between the city and ourselves — instead of treating the political opponents like the enemy — it could have been different."