Flower Street Pedestrianism
July 1, 2011 Leave a comment
On a recent afternoon, I walked from South Park to Bunker Hill, nearly the entire length of Downtown Los Angeles, timing my walk from work to a certain apartment. On my walk back, I took Flower Street south. I began in between 2nd and 3rd, where Flower curves off of Hope to create it’s own line in the city’s grid. What I noticed was that Flower Street, through the length of Downtown, makes a great study in pedestrianism.
Begin in the north and you find yourself looking at possibly one of the worst pedestrian stretches of Downtown. In it’s favor, there ARE sidewalks, and there is a bus stop on the west side of the street. Other than that, however, this block in between the World Trade Center and the Bank of America Center greets ground-level pedestrians with thick concrete walls and bridges overhead, crowding you into a cave.
Moving further south, you get to the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. This is truly a Downtown Landmark (who doesn’t enjoy a night at the Bona Vista rotating cocktail lounge, with great 360˚ views of Downtown and the Hollywood Hills?), and is one of the best designed towers in the city. It’s actually four towers, connected by a larger, central tower, and space-age-like elevators zooming up and down the outside of the building. The Bonaventure has been featured in movies and is often a tourist attraction itself. It’s even known to give discounts to the Downtown community. That being said… one of the best towers in the city is one of the worst when it comes to interacting with the ground-level pedestrian.
The tower is built on a pedestal at least three floors high, made of gray concrete boxes that protrude from one another. They crowd over the sidewalk, closing in pedestrians and blocking any views you might have of the tower when standing below it. The hotel was built with retail all around the lobby, like a shopping mall within the hotel. The problem, I think, is that it was built like a suburban shopping mall, where a visitor parks and walks inside the walls of the building to do their shopping in a closed environment.
Compare this to the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco (note that it’s the same family of hotels). Of course, the St. Francis is a historic building and a very different style structure, with the Bonaventure being a modern skyskraper, but they both have retail built into the hotel. The St. Francis provides retail at ground level, with it’s own exterior entrances. Pedestrians can enter stores such as Victoria’s Secret directly from the street and, continuing through the store, exit out the back of it into the hotel’s lobby. The Hotel Lobby, of course, has it’s own grand entrances on the street as well. A configuration like this would have turned the Bonaventure, one of Downtown’s best towers, into one of Downtown’s best developments.
Now, I must note that the bridges connecting all the buildings I’ve mentioned so far are pedestrian bridges. I’ve specifically used the term “ground-level pedestrian” up until this point, because the buildings in this area south of Bunker Hill do provide pedestrian connectivity between them via a series of bridges. It is actually a very thorough, connected network that provides access to most of the buildings in the area… the problem is it leaves the streets dead. Unless you are going to a building for a specific purpose, you will never use the bridges and will not discover a new restaurant or store in the area simply by walking (or even driving) by. By grade-separating pedestrians, the ground-level street is less safe for anyone who does find themselves walking the area (at risk to faster, unaware cars and theft, being usually alone) and there is no sense of community on the streets.
Continuing south, we see a change, however. The pedestrian bridges disappear as you cross 5th street, and you’re greeted on both sides by public spaces. Yes, space, in the middle of Downtown Los Angeles, there is some open space. Of course, these are small examples, but they’re good. One is a park and one is a plaza (both different, both effective and necessary). On the east, you have the LA Central Library, with Café Pinot and the Maquire Gardens outside. The Gardens offer a small but beautiful oasis with their grass, trees, paths, fountains, art and sculpture, and the café is usually full of diners enjoying the Southern California sunshine. On the opposite side of the street, there is a City National Plaza.
It’s not like the grand plazas of Spanish and Spanish colonial cities, but it’s a great example of a Los Angeles plaza. With a large fountain in the middle, landscaping around the sides, tables, chairs, umbrellas, and multiple restaurants around the area, City National Plaza provides a great place to grab lunch, conduct an outdoor meeting, or just relax. It’s open and visible from the street and very inviting.
Granted, it sits between two office towers and I was there around lunch time. It may not be as full or active during other times in the day, but it would certainly still be a nice place to stroll through, take a seat, or splash some water in the fountain.
Move south from here and you begin to feel as if you’re in a really big, busy city. This is a feel that Downtown Los Angeles is often missing, but that’s ok because it fits the laid back style and is actually the reason I like LA compared to New York (I find Chicago and San Francisco to be near-perfect mixes of the two). However, every Downtown needs to be active, and as you near 6th, Wilshire and 7th, you find that the streets get far busier with both pedestrians and cars. You pass the Standard Hotel with a lobby-level barbershop, Pegasus Apartments, with the Daily Grill and a new bar, plus new restaurants currently building out. Maria’s Italian Kitchen is on the other side of the street. When you reach 7th, you’re surrounded by one of Downtown’s greatest corridors of historic office buildings that are still active today, retail, and restaurants that continue to expand. You even find a subway stop on the corner of the street. Who knew Los Angeles had a subway? I find that most people form Southern California don’t even know this. The corner of Flower and 7th in Downtown is really one of the centers of our transportation systems, allowing you to access or transfer to every rail line Metro operates. And the portal is under the beautiful and historic Roosevelt Building (where more restaurants are set to open soon).
Supposedly, as part of Metro’s Regional Connector construction they are planning on improving the pedestrian experience between 6th and 7th on Flower. There was originally supposed to be a connector station on the northern block, but it got cut due to funding. To encourage those in the Financial District to walk the extra two blocks to the 7th Street / Metro Center station, they plan on doing a number of improvements for pedestrians in this area. Let’s make sure this happens.
On the south side of 7th street, in between Flower and Hope is Macy’s Plaza. While it’s home to retail such as Victoria’s Secret and Express, it’s also widely considered one of the worst designed places in Downtown. For starters, you could take the roof off the plaza and make it a true plaza from the front. It already has wide sidewalks leading to its entrance off of 7th Street, and this would make it a great open air plaza with retail all around the sides.
If you continue south on Flower, you see the side of Macy’s Plaza. A brick monstrosity with nearly zero pedestrian interaction. There are some photos of Victoria’s Secret Models in the (relatively small and set too-far-back) windows, but even that is not enough to lure shoppers inside off of Flower Street.
I’m not an architect and not well versed in building, so I don’t know how you improve a badly designed structure that appears to be solid brick on the outside with steel likely on the inside… My idea for the front (removing the glass roof) was simple, but I have no such ideas for this. I’ll keep thinking. You should too.
Moving south past this area you get to Ralph’s Grocery store, Watermarke Tower, The Met Apartments, The Petroleum Building, and other residential and office buildings. The journey down Flower ends here in South Park. As you move further south and leave the core of Downtown it becomes mainly a transportation corridor for Metro’s Blue Line, brand new Expo Line, and southbound car traffic. Pedestrian activity is less important in this area until development occurs along the street, and it serves its purpose as a transportation corridor rather well all the way down to Exposition Blvd.
It amazes me how walking one street through the length of Downtown can show so many different methods and amounts of pedestrian interaction. Clearly, as with any city and anything, there is room for improvement. But the bright spots are bright, and getting better.