by Alissa Walker
In 2015, Silver Lake achieved peak juice bar.
When I conducted an unofficial census, I found five juice bars within five blocks. There was a juice bar across the street from a juice bar. There was a coffee shop that had served juice as a matter of course but suddenly rebranded itself as a juice bar. Inside Shinola, the concept store for the revitalized Rust Belt brand from Detroit, there was a juice bar. A juice bar! From Detroit!
Juice bars seemed to have become the preferred urban typology for my Los Angeles neighborhood. Even as the neighborhood council fought to keep other things out—an apartment building, a hotel, a bar that served alcohol instead of juice—juice bars upon juice bars on top of juice bars within juice bars were welcomed with open arms to the juice bar capital of Southern California.
In the midst of this Great Juice Bar Renaissance, cold-pressed beverages weren’t the only things increasing in numbers on our streets. When raw-food chef and Instagram celebrity Amanda Chantal Bacon opened a Moon Juice in Silver Lake, a handful of homeless residents were living on the sidewalk below her business. By the time it was profiled in Vogue—”Better Skin, Better Sleep, Better Sex”—at least three dozen people had erected temporary housing there, cooking their meals over camp stoves just a few feet from where organic cashew milk was being expressed on the spot.
The neighborhood’s homeless population appeared to double and then triple within a matter of months, illustrating a wicked incongruity in Silver Lake’s planning process. How could the neighborhood have approved so many juice bars, yet rejected a giant housing development that would have brought at least 300 units, many of them affordably priced, to Silver Lake’s increasingly expensive rental market? The four-story modern complex reportedly inspired by Richard Neutra’s home and studio nearby was deemed a “massive deviation from the visual character” by the neighborhood council.
Perhaps the neighbors would have liked it better if it served juice?
This phenomenon is not limited to Silver Lake, of course. From Highland Park to Hollywood, Santa Monica to Skid Row, a housing crisis is strangling Los Angeles, exacerbating increasing inequality and contributing mightily to pushing more people out into the streets. Yet neighborhoods fight developments like the one rejected in Silver Lake and propose few good solutions.
The Reason Foundation recently asserted that instead of encouraging residential density, the city should enable residents to commute—of their own free will, of course!—even farther distances by digging a series of freeway tunnels connecting disparate regions to the tune of $700 billion. The free market at work! Perhaps there is a particular type of laissez-faire Angeleno who would rather spend hours a week under the region’s mountain ranges than live any closer to the neighbors.
I thought my neighborhood was moving in the right direction as I gazed from my kitchen window to watch a high-density urban-infill development being built. It was one of several new projects on my street enabled by the city’s recently passed small-lot subdivision ordinance, created to add “stealth density” to empty pockets of already fairly densely populated areas of the city instead of pushing sprawl and traffic ever farther out to the edges of the metropolis. I bragged that my progressive neighbors were adding more affordable housing to an already highly walkable, transit-accessible neighborhood of LA, where it is actually possible to live without a car.
The neighbors did not share my enthusiasm. “Eyesore!” one snorted when I ran into him strolling the block. He didn’t like the contemporary style, but mostly he didn’t like the fact that it was three stories taller than the single-family home it had demolished.
Recently, the A+D Museum put on an exhibition entitled Shelter, which offered buzzworthy solutions for LA housing. The ideas that weren’t particularly new; but in the hands of talented architects such Michael Maltzan and Barbara Bestor, they offered timely thoughts for a changing city. A sleek, prefabricated apartment plopped on a swatch of backyard behind a single-family house was simply an updated take on the “granny flat.” I was excited. Perhaps, this would be an easier sell to my picky neighbors.
But as I strolled the models of stacked white boxes, envisioning extra housing snapped into the grid as easily as a handful of Lego bricks, I became increasingly anxious. That tower of micro-units fringed with drought-tolerant greenery—sure, it might be harder to foist this upon a neighborhood with a fear of heights, but it could happen. However, it would be a greater feat to convince the city to reduce the amount of space devoted to parking those residents’ cars.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona found that 14 percent of the land in Los Angeles County had been designated simply for parking cars. That works out to the equivalent of 3.3 spaces for every car in the county. Three parking spaces take up about the same amount of space as the micro-units that many cities are scrambling to build to fill their own housing shortages. Los Angeles could easily be housing one or two more people in the same amount of space we’ve set aside for each of our cars.
Some of the streets around my home go under the nearby 101 freeway. And I’ve watched the underpasses become increasingly residential, just like the sidewalk in front of the juice bar near my home. It is one of the cruelest ironies of the housing crisis. Thousands of people without homes are now living under our freeways, which destroyed thousands of homes when they were built, while space for cars takes space that could be used for houses.
It is no secret that Los Angeles bulldozed dozens of its neighborhoods to make way for its beloved cars, but it’s hard to envision just how much land LA has ceded to its freeways. In L.A. Freeway, an Appreciative Essay, the 1981 book that began as an undergraduate thesis, David Brodsly estimated that about 250,000 people had been displaced by the freeway system in Southern California. Writing in the Los Angeles Times recently, architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne estimated that Caltrans owns about 9,000 acres of land along its freeways in LA and Ventura counties. By contrast, LA’s Griffith Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country, is about 4,000 acres.
Over the past half-century, LA neighborhoods that were severed by the construction of our freeway system have suffered the most. Blocks of homes immediately surrounding the freeways have seen their values plummet. Living near a freeway was marketed as a convenience but quickly seen as dangerous due to noise and pollution.
But that is about to change—and faster than we think.
As more and more cars run on electricity, they’re getting quieter and safer, from a public health perspective. Autonomous vehicles will change our idea of the freeway even more. A self-driving future likely means more shared cars and, therefore, fewer of them on the streets. It also means we’ll need to devote far less space to parking and vehicular flow. By some estimates, we could shrink our streets and parking lots by 80 percent. The flow on our freeways could be reduced from ten lanes of human drivers to a hyper-efficient robot-navigated two lanes. The blocks surrounding our freeways will become cleaner, greener, and safer. And what we choose to do with them could truly make a difference for LA.
When laying the grid for the cities founded by the Mormon Church, Brigham Young mandated that all streets must be wide enough for an ox-driven cart to make a U-turn, a traffic requirement that became obsolete within a few decades. In cities such as Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, however, these planning decisions remain visible to this day in freeway-like boulevards that stretch across eight, nine, ten lanes of asphalt.
In one Salt Lake City neighborhood, a group decided to erect a temporary development to help illustrate the possibilities of narrowing these roads. The concept of “road diets” have become popular in many cities—dedicating a lane of vehicular traffic to public transportation, bikes, or a pedestrian plaza—but the Salt Lake residents took it even further. With a series of structures designed to be exactly as wide as two vehicular traffic lanes, their pop-up proposal added parks, restaurants, retail, office space, and, yes, housing to underused road space.
Similar ideas have been proposed for extra-wide streets in other cities, but nowhere would this idea be more effective than on LA’s freeways. It’s not even that radical of an idea. Cap parks have already been proposed for many local freeways that are below-grade, and freeway removals have proved to be beneficial for many cities without affecting vehicular congestion. There’s no reason why we can’t begin to give back some of that land for people to live, especially as our burgeoning transit system continues to grow and connect the city in more effective ways.
Imagine living on the 101 Greenway, a revitalized corridor between Hollywood and Downtown LA. Your 300-unit building is close to a new rec center and farmers’ market on an elevated stretch that takes in sweeping views of the Santa Monica Mountains. Electric buses and cars still whirr along dedicated lanes of the adapted freeway, but the rest of the lanes have been devoted to running trails and bike lanes—an actual bike freeway!—all clearly demarcated from vehicles and neatly feeding into the surrounding neighborhoods. The Red Line is a quick stroll away. Did I mention the views?
We might not need to keep battling to make density more palatable to neighborhood councils across the city. Land could be easily allocated from Caltrans, keeping costs down to build the affordable housing the city desperately needs. Converting the freeways could instantly turn some of the least desirable real estate into the most desirable locations by making these forgotten spaces livable. It could also knit back together neighborhoods destroyed by cars, transforming a soon-to-be-useless piece of overbuilt infrastructure into a much-needed public asset.