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The Dreadful Secret Behind a Nearly Perfect Commercial Strip

Josh Stephens on
Apr 28, 2020

I logged into the New York Times the other day, doing my best to dodge the Great Bleach-Injection Debate of 2020, and was shocked and delighted to happen upon an article about an exquisite Los Angeles neighborhood that I somehow had never heard of. 

Called "Belvedere Heights," it includes a perfect little main street with an unbroken row of independent stores, mixed use, low-rise buildings, and rich architectural details. There are bay windows, streetlamps, and balconies—and fire escapes! Display windows snuggle up against the sidewalk, and each building has only a single storefront, each with its own distinctive facade. Judging by the design, its heyday must have been in the 1920s, give or take a decade. (There are no street trees, though. Curious.)

It seemed like it would be a cool place for me to check out, next time I’m able to check out someplace other than Walgreens.

Alas, the New York Times section I was reading wasn’t the national section or the real estate section. It was the arts section. Belvedere Heights isn’t near downtown Los Angeles. It isn’t antique, and most definitely is not mixed use. It’s at Melody Ranch studio, in the Santa Clarita Valley community of Newhall. It was built in the past few months. And it’s used for one thing: it’s a set for a television show. 

"Penny Dreadful: City of Angels" is a new supernatural noir crime drama on Showtime, following up a 2016 rendition set in Victorian London. Noir being our endemic genre, a vintage Los Angeles location was a must. Detectives and demons alike will have a field day in their version of 1938. In one block alone, they’ll have plenty of places for mischief to play out: "empty nightclub, a shuttered cinema, a vacant rooming house." The show features undead antagonists like a shape-shifting succubus, but its themes also cover real monsters, such as the development of the Los Angeles freeway system and the violence it inflicted on minority communities. 

(If the story sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve seen a version of it in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?". "Penny Dreadful" replaces toons with actual people.)

The supernatural elements provide "a fun way, a really entertaining way to tell the story of the building of a freeway," said the show’s co-producer Michael Aguilar. Fair point. In a show about ghouls, vampires, and murders, its commentary on Los Angeles’s built environment is, perhaps, the element that should give us the biggest fright of all. 

New York Times reporter Alexis Soloski notes that the establishments along "Penny Dreadful’s” street are "relics of a past that never quite existed." But that’s not true at all. Neighborhoods like it absolutely could have existed, most likely somewhere in what is now downtown Los Angeles’s Financial District, which is the poster child for the notorious federal urban renewal programs of the 1960s. Old photos (such as this and these) are shocking: the neighborhood of Bunker Hill once included low-rise mixed use Victorian and post-Victorian buildings (including some that were probably dilapidated and probably home to not the savoriest of characters). Then came HUD-funded bulldozers, and up went the high-rises, concrete plazas, and parking lots. Or, as the show suggests, maybe it was just covered up by the 110 Freeway. 

The material destruction was one thing. We can’t un-demolish the past. The regulatory carnage is another matter. 

Take a look at the photos (here and here) of Belvedere Heights and consider everything that, with too few exceptions, state and local regulations forbid today (or, if not forbidden, are rendered prohibitively expensive, in part by regulations): 

  • Storefronts hugging the sidewalk. Gotta have setbacks
  • Sidewalks with curbs. Gotta have those parkways
  • Seismic codes’ Public Enemy No. 1. 
  • Second stories. What’s going on up there? A building should do only one thing! 
  • Third stories. Hold my sherry. I think I’m going to faint...
  • Bars (you can’t see them in the photo, but it’s noir, so you know they’re there). Liquor licenses are literally harder to get than marijuana licenses.
  • Attached buildings. Gotta make space for parking — and curb cuts. 
  • A two-lane, two-way street. Most commercial zoning correlates intensity of use with traffic capacity, ensuring that the busiest retail environments will be the least pedestrian-friendly.
  • Timely infill development. Not with bureaucratic delay and CEQA suits. 
  • Architectural details. California has notoriously high construction costs, due in part to some contracting regulations. 
  • Low-cost housing. Development of new affordable housing costs up to $1 million per unit. 
  • Narrow lots. Not illegal, but often financially infeasible, partly because regulations elevate the cost of development and, therefore, developments have to be large to pencil out. "Assembly" is the name of that game. 
  • Independent businesses. When you add up all the regulations above, it’s pretty hard for mom and pop to hang a shingle anywhere. (Never mind. Shingles aren’t allowed either. Want a billboard? That’s no problem.) 

I have to give mad props, no pun intended, to "Penny Dreadful’s” art directors. They have, with paint and plywood, created an object lesson in what is wrong with modern-day urbanism. 

Behold Belvedere Heights's small storefronts and shared walls, nesting comfortably side-by-side-by-side. Compare them to the mega mixed-users, with five stories of wood on top of massive concrete podiums and underground garages, that take up entire city blocks and look like beached cruise ships. They technically engage the sidewalk with ground-floor retail (usually a City Target or a Ross Dress-for-Less), but they also tend to be hideous and oppressive.

There’s not a commercial strip in California that couldn’t accommodate this type of development if it was allowed to (maybe minus the bricks). The only chief constraint is parking, in terms of number of spaces and curb cuts. Well, we can figure that out too. Maybe it’s a shared parking scheme. Maybe it’s alleyways. Maybe it’s diagonal curbside parking. Maybe it’s no parking at all. 

In the real Santa Clarita, the closest thing to a main street is the Home Depot parking lot. If I had to choose between living in Belvedere Heights and the outer ’burbs, I think I’d try my luck with the succubi.

This is what fiction is for, of course. Beyond its escapist frights, "Penny Dreadful" is an allegory for race relations and sociopathy. It’s showing us what we ought not do. But it’s also showing us something we ought to do — something we ought to build. But, like the proverbial debonair vampire, the true horrors do not lie on the surface. It’s easy enough to see a high-rise or to speed down a freeway and think that things are OK. But the accretion of laws, regulations, and social conventions have made it all but impossible to revive our better angels. Belvedere Heights reminds us that, to create great places, we first have to envision them.

Of course, many people, including planners and developers, have been trying valiantly to undo the damage of postwar 20th century urbanism. They’ve made progress. But, to use an unavoidable metaphor, there is no silver bullet that will erase, revise, and repeal all the bad regulations all at once. My emotional reaction to Belvedere Heights tells me that we have to keep at it. 

Like most things in a noir drama, Belvedere Heights will end up dead, dismantled, and recycled for lumber and props until the next period piece comes along. If only we could figure out a way to banish more of our demons and bring this urban fantasy to life. 

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