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You are here: Home » Blogs » Los Angeles' Slow Burn

Los Angeles' Slow Burn

Josh Stephens on
Dec 12, 2014

I noticed the da Vinci apartment complex for the first time only a few months ago. How could I not notice it? It looked like a plywood ocean liner beached against the northbound side of the 110 freeway. Rising 4-5 stories at the time, it hovered over the freeway, uncomfortably close to the roadway. I remember hoping that it would have serious soundproofing. And air filtering. 

The Da Vinci cut an impressive profile on the L.A. skyline, even before it went up in flames. And did it ever go up in flames.  

When I woke up Monday morning to read the headlines and see the photos in the online Los Angeles Times, I knew that the structure in question was the Da Vinci. No other pile of kindling in downtown Los Angeles could have created flames the height of skyscrapers. Now the roughly one-million-square-foot complex has been largely reduced to ash. Nearby buildings suffered damage from radiant heat, and a freeway sign nearly melted. It's not quite the Great Fire of Rome, but it's pretty bad.

Now the question in L.A. is whether something good will come of it. 

Suspicions of arson and speculation about an "architectural hate crime" have arisen. Feelings of schadenfraude and poetic justice are rampant. I imagine that, for some urbanists in Los Angeles' smart growth crowd (of which I consider myself a member), the only thing better than the destruction of one faux-Italian megablock apartment complex would be the destruction of four faux-Italian megablock apartment complexes.

It's hard to say which L.A. real estate developer is more reviled: Don Stirling or Geoffrey Palmer? Stirling ran one of the world's worst basketball teams (the Clippers), owns dozens of mediocre midcentury apartment complexes, and has roundly been decried as a racist. Palmer doesn't have a losing record or a history of bigotry, but he does have terrible taste and terrible timing.

Though Palmer claims credit for participating in the revival of downtown Los Angeles, his is a funny version of revival. His four major projects are each an affront to urban living. They are self-contained fortresses, with residential units sitting atop enormous plinths full of parking. If his residents ever walked on the perimeter sidewalks (unlikely), they'd be dwarfed by the walls that keep the city at bay. Some of his developments have pedestrian bridges, ensuring that residents never have to set foot in the actual city or encounter undesirables.

Designed in a style that is kindly described as "Italianate" (I guess Italian-ish was taken), each has an anachronistic name and design flourishes, like balustrades and tile roofs, meant to invoke...  I don't know. Siena? They're hideous. Trust me. True to its name, the da Vinci was set to follow this pattern. I'm sure its replacement will do the same. (See a photo of Da Vinci's sister ship the Visconti here.)

The one and only thing about Palmer's properties that can be considered remotely "smart" or even urban is the density. Da Vinci was to have 526 units. Palmer packs a lot of people into relatively small footprints. So do prisons. 

Palmer probably didn't fiddle while the Da Vinci burned. His company has hundreds of millions of dollars riding on it. But he otherwise has been the Nero of downtown Los Angeles. As we consider the ash heap of the Da Vinci, commentators have already started to wonder whether the fire represents a turning point in Los Angeles urbanism. Is this our Pruitt-Igoe? 

I tend to think not, and not just because Palmer will surely build an identical replacement. The regulations, tastes, financing mechanisms, stakeholder passions, and general civic attitudes that created the Da Vinci are almost as old as the Pantheon. They will not be erased in a day. They're the same forces that have created soulless suburbs and all the other lousy apartment buildings in Los Angeles. The Da Vinci is unique for its size, but not for the way that it retreats from the cityscape or for the way that it segregates Angelenos from each other. And then there's the market: Palmer wouldn't be building the Da Vinci if he didn't think that at least 526 people would want to live there. 

The Da Vinci was a disaster long before it burned down. Progressive planners and urban critics knew it was a disaster. Developers behind downtown's real success stories, the adaptive reuse of scores of old commercial buildings, probably concurred. But, like public attitudes towards climate change and natural selection, the convictions of the progressive elite -- such as they are -- don't matter much, especially in a field that measures change by the decade. It's easy to say that this fire never should have happened. We've been developing better ideas about cities for a long time. They're being enacted elsewhere downtown and in other pockets throughout L.A., but they haven't reached the mainstream yet. 

Of course, we can gladly consider the Da Vinci a turning point. But to call it a "point" belies the glacial pace of change. The process of making a better city is usually a long, wide arc. It's amazing, of course, how quickly lousy cities can grow (Las Vegas, Dubai), but how long good cities take. You have to bake them slowly and gently, and wait patiently for them to rise. So, we're in a turning era, if anything. We need to stay the course, keep the faith, and know that a true renaissance is coming. 

***

If there's a truly heartbreaking story in this disaster, it's the destruction of holiday gifts that had been donated for needy senior citizens and stored across the street from the Da Vinci. LA CARES, the sponsoring organization, is now scrambling for donations and a space to store a new trove of gifts. I've made my donation. I can think of another potential donor, with a $3 billion real estate portfolio, who should be wiling to write a much, much larger check.

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