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How do spaces become places? Making LA's creative community thrive

Tuesday, May 27, 2014, 7:30pm - 9:00pm
The NoHo Arts Center 11136 Magnolia Blvd. North Hollywood, CA 91601 Map and directions
Creative placemaking in Los Angeles: Could turning spaces into places make L.A. a vibrant city for all?
Creative placemaking in Los Angeles: Could turning spaces into places make L.A. a vibrant city for all?
KPCCRadio (via YouTube)

How do you take a neglected eyesore of a space and transform it into a useful, popular place?

It just takes a little creativity, both in vision and in making it happen. That's according to the four panelists  at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum May 27 event at the NoHo Art Center in North Hollywood.

“Sometimes the opportunity is right under your nose,” said Valerie Watson, urban designer for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. She noted how a restaurant owner in Cypress Village envisioned a better use for a closed-off pedestrian tunnel. Once a haven for “undesirable activity,”  the Cypress Village Art Tunnel is now a popular gathering place for art walks and curated exhibits.

“If you’re resourceful and thinking differently about space, you can create something magical that becomes the centerpiece for your community, Watson said.

Below are some other suggestions for creative placemaking by our panelists, filmmaker Marshall Lewy, president of the Barnsdall Art Park Foundation, Rudy Espinoza, executive director for the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN) and Maria Rosario Jackson, an urban planning and cultural policy specialist on the National Council on the Arts. 

9 Tips for creative placemaking:

Explore! “The sense of adventure and willingness to explore is so important to being a fully engaged Angeleno,” said Jackson. “I’m lucky because when I was a kid, my parents were perpetual tourists, so we never stopped discovering the city. Every Sunday was an adventure to another part of L.A.”

Stop comparing L.A. to New York City. “Our neighborhoods are different,” said Lewy. “When I came here to live in 2000, people told me I had to go check out Los Feliz, so I drove to what seemed like the end of the earth — I live in Los Feliz now — and stood at the corner of Vermont and Franklin, asking ‘Where’s this cool area?’ not realizing that one street can qualify as a really cool neighborhood in L.A. Once I realized that, these neighborhoods really opened up to me and now they feel incredibly rich.

Get out of your car. “I got to know the city through bicycle rides,” said Watson. “It allowed me to explore all the neighborhoods and collection of places you might miss just driving on the 10 (Freeway).”

Think of streets as a “canvas for placemaking.” Los Angeles has 7,500 miles of streets that can be used for “public art and public life,” Watson said. Whether for street vendors, “parklets” or art shows, “streets are really our biggest asset when it comes to not just placemaking but encouraging mobility choices. Our streets are where it’s really happening.”

Consider new uses for existing spaces. Esperanza Community Housing Corporation converted an old garment factory in South Los Angeles into the popular Mercado La Paloma, a large market, with spaces that could be used for restaurants, art exhibits, performance and retail. The developers were warned that they needed an anchor tenant, like a Starbucks, for the project to succeed, “but fast forward 10-15 years and they’re still there, winning awards, with restaurants always in the top 100 Zagat guide.” Jackson said. “It shows anything is possible….we just have to have a little more faith in the assets we already have.”

Add more uses in existing spaces. Such as a taco shop that hosts a comedy night every Tuesday, or punk rock concerts in garages and backyards, or a liquor store that hosts a potluck dinner for people to share their favorite records.

Understand that vision doesn’t always mesh with zoning. It’s important to understand the rules governing land use in your community, and if you don’t like the rules, to start questioning why they’re there, and help to change them, said Espinoza and Jackson.

Government doesn’t have to be the enemy. The city is trying to demystify its processes, Watson said, and has just launched a large open data website that tracks the processes for past projects. She said the Department of Transportation has also created a method to evaluate parking projects before and after they’re installed, to better understand their impact on neighborhoods.

Connect the dots and get creative in finding funding. There are some public funding opportunities, the panelists said. But placemakers need to cast a much wider net to finding money for their projects. Espinoza warned that many private funders prefer to put their money in tried and true projects, so getting money for a new project can be challenging. One option, Espinoza said, is to try Kickstarter type campaigns, asking a variety of people and organizations to chip in to make the project happen.

Lewy agreed. “There’s a lot of money in this city and it’s pretty woeful how much doesn’t make it out into helping the community,” he said. “We need to encourage wealthy people to help with making projects happen.”

By Jeanette Marantos


This program was made possible in part by a grant from the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs.