When Michael Maltzan visited Los Angeles in the 1980s with a group of architectural students, he was comfortable in a way that many of his fellow travelers were not.
L.A. conveyed the same low-density, car-friendly vibe that he grew up with in the Long Island suburbs — the sense that “you could just go,” he recalled Friday.
Los Angeles, in some ways, still clings wistfully to that identity even as it grows up instead of out, builds light rail instead of freeways and transforms its long-neglected downtown into a cultural center and home to tens of thousands.
The challenges and promise of that transition were the focus of discussion at the Los Angeles Times Summit on the future of cities, held at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
“I think there’s a psychological change,” said Maltzan, the founder of Michael Maltzan Architecture. There “is more anxiety, fear around development,” than decades past, when L.A. just kept pushing out and out.
Now the city is folding back on itself, ind the boundary pushing has to come by way of architecture and innovative infrastructure projects that wire density into commercial thoroughfares without overwhelming neighborhoods, he said.
Instead of a bridge having one use, it can be equipped with solar panels to generate electricity and collect stormwater — as Maltzan has proposed for a reimagined Arroyo Seco Bridge in Pasadena.
“For me that’s the future of infrastructure,” said Maltzan, whose firm designed the One Santa Fe apartment complex in the downtown Arts District and the Sixth Street Viaduct that will span the Los Angeles River.
Paul Schimmel, partner at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, said the international arts gallery found its inspiration in the past, in the form of a more than century-old flour mill in the Arts District.
“It was really the space,” that allowed his firm to transform the building into an enormous gallery space that is fast becoming a community hub with its courtyard and restaurant.
For much of its modern history, Los Angeles was obsessed with private space — the joys of a backyard, a single family home and a solo drive down an open freeway.
But now there is a hunger for walkable public areas, a need that is reflected in plans for the Los Angeles River corridor, downtown’s Grand Park and the popularity of neighborhoods like the Arts District.
“We’re returning to a sense of community,” Schimmel said, adding that the city needs to improve access to pedestrian areas.
“Maybe do a little work on the streets,” he said wryly.
As to whether $6 coffees and upscale apartment construction were driving artists out of the Arts District, Schimmel said he suspected the neighborhood was too expensive for artists before the arrival of bars and restaurants.
But the transformation was much slower than he expected. “In the early ’80s I thought it would be the next Soho,” he said.
“People love the idea of what it was” — a gritty creative community, Schimmel said. Though some of the grit has been scrubbed off the downtown arts scene, “it seems to have roots,” he added.
Moreover, the messy sprawl of the L.A. Basin still offers plenty of relatively cheap industrial space that artists can turn into studios, Schimmel said, citing moves to warehouses in the Interstate 10 corridor.
He also suggested it was time for Santa Monica, an arts incubator in the 1970s and 1980s, “to make its next big move … This is a community that needs to step up again and take the leadership it has in the past.”
Other panelists discussed a more disturbing change in the Los Angeles landscape: the explosive growth in homelessness.
In 1980, people were not living on the streets, said Tanya Tull, founder and CEO of Partnering for Change and an expert in family homelessness.
“Just about everything we’ve done” to address the homeless problem nationally, Tull said, “we’ve done wrong.”
Funneling most funding into supportive housing for the mentally ill will not end homelessness, she argued. “We cannot build ourselves out of this.”
Rather, Tull said, rent subsidies are critical to countering the spiraling cost of housing in Los Angeles that has driven families and individuals to the streets and kept them there, sometimes for years.
She also said local government should be more open to nonconventional housing, such as the “teensy” apartment units San Francisco is experimenting with.
“Don’t you think it’s better to have a tiny apartment than a tent?” Tull asked.
Brian Lane, a principal of Koning Eizenberg Architecture, which designs affordable housing projects, argued that L.A. needs to shed the notion that a neighborhood always equals single-family homes.
The city has “miles and miles” of single-story commercial strips that can be rebuilt with greater density and create neighborhoods around transit hubs, he said.
Sam Polk is a former hedge-fund trader on Wall Street who is working on another shortage — healthy fresh food in poor city neighborhoods that he calls “food deserts.”
Polk founded the nonprofit Groceryships, which does educational outreach to improve eating habits in parts of the city dominated by fast-food restaurants.
He also co-founded Everytable, which prepares meals in a central kitchen and then sells them to go in storefronts.
The prices vary according to what a neighborhood can afford.
Someone living in South L.A., for instance, pays $4 for the same meal that costs a buyer $8 on the Westside.
“Healthy food is a human right,” Polk said, pointing out that it simply took some innovative thinking to develop the Everytable business model.
In perhaps the most optimistic prediction uttered at the Summit, he declared: “We are on the verge of becoming one of the great cities of the world.”