Oakland might be famous for having “no there there,” but maybe no place is more sorely lacking a “there” than the San Fernando Valley. A team of architects and other professionals who are working with business boosters, however, hope to give the San Fernando Valley the city center it has never had.

One year ago, an “urban design assistance team” sponsored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) San Fernando Valley Chapter published the Panorama City commercial area concept plan. The document lays out ideas for converting a congested, 1.33-mile stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard into a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly city center. This strip of Van Nuys Boulevard is the heart of Panorama City, a community within the Los Angeles city limits.

When the San Fernando Valley - or, simply, “the Valley” - attempted to secede from the City of Los Angeles two years ago, the lack of a city center became a public issue, said Julie Dercle, a professor of urban studies and planning at California State University, Northridge. The new city would have had 1.4 million people spread across 220 square miles, but no downtown. About the same time that secession was failing at the polls, a nonprofit business organization, the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, joined with the AIA's team to identify a center and figure out how to make it function like a downtown. The result was the concept plan, which has since been endorsed by the Los Angeles Planning Commission, and has become a catalyst for renewed government investment and fresh interest on the part of private developers.

For half a century, the San Fernando Valley was the ultimate suburb, a post-World War II sprawl of tract houses, shopping centers and office parks that covered over some of the most productive farmland in the United States. The Valley was the original “edge city,” Dercle said. The 5.5 square miles known as Panorama City was originally developed right after the war on the site of the Panorama Dairy by Henry J. Kaiser and developer Fritz Burns. Houses and stores provided for people working at the nearby General Motors and Lockheed plants. By the 1990s, the Valley was essentially built out as a massive suburb, and portions of the Valley - including Panorama City - had fallen on tough times, partly because of the closing of plants like the GM and Lockheed facilities.

In recent years, the four smaller incorporated cities around the Valley - Burbank, Glendale, San Fernando and Calabasas - have either refurbished their old downtowns or created two ones. “But,” said Economic Alliance President and CEO Bruce Ackerman, “nowhere in the 28 communities that make up the Los Angeles portion of the valley is there a town center.”

A shortage of housing is a big problem in the Valley, so Ackerman's organization undertook a study. In doing so, the group found a pronounced need for a town center and a sense of place. The Economic Alliance then went to work with the AIA's urban design assistance team, which is headed by Jerry Pollak, a semi-retired architect and planner who worked for years with shopping center design guru Victor Gruen.

Pollak drove all over the Valley - this is L.A. after all - before settling on a stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard as the ideal spot: The 280-acre site lies in the heart of the Valley, Van Nuys Boulevard is a primary north-south artery, there is a MetroLink train station, numerous government buildings are nearby, and the area is ripe for redevelopment.

“It has all the attributes of a major center,” Pollak said.

Yet the site is also difficult. Few buildings actually face Van Nuys Boulevard because, like so much of the Valley, development has been overwhelmingly oriented toward the automobile. The Panorama Mall and the Panorama Plaza both turn blank walls toward the street. The Plant, which reuses part of the closed GM factory, is a power center that sits behind a giant parking lot. An adjacent movie theater is hidden from the street. In fact, the most visible structure in the district is a 13-story office building that has sat vacant since the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

But the bones for a city center, including the public infrastructure, exist, said Dercle. “The pressure on housing and land is enormous … and the only place to go is up. This is a perfect place to put two or three more stories above a mall for apartments or condos,” she said.

Tom Rath, a city planner who volunteered to work with the AIA team, said development during the last decade has been significant - Panorama City has one of the few two-story Wal-Marts, for example - but has done nothing to improve the overall situation. “There's been a great deal of investment in Panorama City. You just can't see it,” he said.

The concept plan envisions a 24-hour, mixed-use district with a heavy orientation toward pedestrians. The plan proposes a series of interior courtyards and plazas with direct connections to Van Nuys and Roscoe boulevards as well as other streets. Existing buildings would be redeveloped or retrofitted to provide a friendlier face to the street. Centralized parking structures would be provided so that surface parking lots could be developed. Landscaping and street furniture would be extensive. And, in one of its boldest moves, the plan proposes pedestrian walkways above all four corners of the congested intersection of Van Nuys and Roscoe boulevards. The overall idea is to “activate” the district.

“They came up with all sorts of ideas,” said Rath, who gives team members a great deal of credit. “The big problem is that it's basically a built environment.”

Ideally, backers would like Van Nuys Boulevard to mimic Pasadena's thriving Colorado Boulevard. The demographics are quite different, though. Where Pasadena is a mostly wealthy community, the median income in Panorama City is 20% less than the average in Los Angeles. Thus, implementation of the Panorama City plan becomes even trickier.

Pollak, Ackerman and other backers of the plan, however, see reasons for encouragement: Los Angeles County has announced its plan to build a 130,000-square-foot social services center at the site of an existing ice rink in the plan area. The Los Angeles Unified School District has already begun construction on a new high school next to Van Nuys Boulevard. New fire and police stations are proposed, and the city's Planning Commission has adopted the concept plan as a guideline for all future development. Additionally, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has approved a five-year revitalization strategy. The five-year plan calls for the agency to upgrade the streetscape, provide incentives for property owners and businesses to construct pedestrian pathways and improve facades, work with stakeholders on forming a business improvement district, design signs, and work with developers on the redevelopment of vacant buildings and lots.

Plan supporters believe that private investment will follow this renewed interest on the part of public agencies.

“Developers want to see public expenditures, like on landscaping,” said Pollak, who thinks private development could start as soon as next year. Ackerman agrees, and so does the city's Rath, who said he has received about 15 serious inquiries this year.

Maybe most remarkable is the unofficial, grass-roots nature of the Panorama City effort. Government agencies provided no money for the commercial area concept plan and played almost no role in the document's preparation. A small grant from the AIA covered some of the hard costs associated with the plan, team members and students donated their time, and the Economic Alliance paid for printing and distribution. Professor Dercle, who has since joined the design team, thinks the plan has come at precisely the right time.

Despite the strong market demand, real estate is relatively affordable, Dercle said. So now is the time, she said, for public agencies and developers to purchase and assemble properties for redevelopment.

Julie Dercle, California State University, Northridge, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, (818) 677-7395.
Jerry Pollak, Urban Design Assistance Team, (818) 909-3757.
Bruce Ackerman, Economic Alliance of San Fernando Valley, (818) 379-7000.
Concept plan website: