Posts by Gary J. Lai

A view of South Park, DTLA, in all its glory. Photo: Gary Lai

This is the final post in a series which follows my move to Downtown Los Angeles.

Looking back, two things stand out: 1.  I haven’t made clear the connection between these observations with landscape architecture and urban planning, and 2. I’ve focused primarily on the positive aspects of living in Downtown Los Angeles.

Postwar, Los Angeles became a template for the future of American cities.  American logistics and engineering know-how had helped win two world wars; the expertise and the optimism that came with winning helped bolster confidence during peace, entrenching the idea we could engineer our way through any problem imaginable. Los Angeles would prove to be the perfect place to test this theory. Growing by leaps and bounds from the war-production years, Los Angeles needed infrastructure.

The city had plenty of space, and consequently the planners and engineers of Los Angeles would set out to prove their theories: constructing freeways would solve our transportation needs, building concrete channels would solve our flooding problems, air conditioning would address challenges related to climate, and massive aqueducts and dams would deliver water to quench the thirst of city’s growing population.

While individually every one of these solutions would prove successful to a certain degree, the large infrastructure projects attached to these solution inevitably delivered equally large and pervasive problems associated with their creation.  Freeway-only construction caused urban sprawl, horrendous traffic, and air pollution.  Channelizing the Los Angeles River caused an ecological crash and seasonally dangerous water flow conditions. The ubiquity of air conditioning across the city caused a spike in energy consumption, while the California Aqueduct system caused an over-reliance on imported water to support our growing population across Southern California.

Fast forward to today, and we’re left dealing with an infrastructure that doesn’t work and causes more problems than it solves.

Modern urban planners and designers are looking at a new paradigm: multi-modal transportation systems, housing densification and green infrastructure.  In plain language, this means modern planners are looking for people to move back into the cities from the suburbs, use different modes of transportation besides the car, and create natural systems to process the by-products of urban living. Current trends show millennials are moving back to America’s downtowns, a trend apparent to anyone who has visited DTLA in the last few years.

Being an advocate of this new form of urbanism, my wife and I decided to move into the urban core when we sold our house.  This would be the truest test of our beliefs. Would children of the suburban age like us enjoy urban, downtown living?  The answer is yes…but, not overwhelmingly so.

The aforementioned posts documenting our move and life in Downtown Los Angeles already spells out the benefits enjoyed since moving. But what are the cons? Here are a few honest observations about what we don’t enjoy about life downtown:

  1. Noise: Downtown is very noisy. Cars roar past with their stereos on full blast and emergency vehicles blare sirens regardless of hour.  People will yell at each other either in anger or in drunken celebration with similar frequency.
  2. Pollution: While air pollution throughout the LA Basin is widespread and not overly worse in downtown, our surrounding neighborhoods are visually dirtier.  Litter is everywhere. There is so much litter the street cleaners and neighborhood hosts cannot keep up.  This issue is complicated by our city’s worsening homeless population.
  3. Spiraling homeless problem: For the last decade, we have let the streets of LA become the catch-all location for mental illness, abject poverty, substance addiction, and plain bad luck. The challenges associated with the homeless are complicated – socially, economically, and politically. We will unlikely solve this problem anytime soon. But one should accept, for now, living in high-density areas in Los Angeles County means living with the homeless.
  4. Space: Living downtown also means trading the space of suburbia for smaller accommodations.  Housing in Downtown Los Angeles offers little to no outdoor spaces for single-family-owned properties.  This fact alone might be a deal-breaker for most Americans who equate the “American Dream” with a yard.

I don’t believe post-war planners meant to create the monstrosity known as modern day Los Angeles.  I believe these planners initially were guided by good intentions and informed assumptions about how the world would work in the future. The identifiable mistake was arrogantly doubling and tripling down on these initial strategies, even after data began trickling in proving their assumptions wrong.

My hope is the next generation of planners do not to repeat these mistakes of the past.  If we believe densification is the answer, planners and designers must acknowledge both the positives and negatives associated with this type of living by adopting the lifestyle themselves. In other words, we must practice what we preach. Only then can we make informed decisions to improve the lives of future Angelenos who will follow our footsteps back into the city.

Grand Center Market just turned 100 years old this month! This is the neon billboard art installation sponsored by one of my favorite spirits companies. All photos and videos by Gary Lai

We’ve been in Downtown Los Angeles since May, and we’ve generally been pleased we made the decision to move here. I began this series with general impressions about Downtown, followed by some thoughts about my new commute, and last checked in about the surrounding food scene around our neighborhood. This month I’d like to share the types of daily activities we enjoy in our neighborhood.

For those who remember DTLA ten years ago, they may recollect a section of Los Angeles normally empty after 5pm on weekdays, and virtually a ghost town during the weekends. This is certainly no longer the case.

After toiling at our Silver Lake house, getting it ready to sell for the first couple of months after moving, we returned home early on the 4th of the July. There, we found ourselves spending the evening celebrating the holiday with 30,000 of our closest friends. We walked to Grand Park, located just a couple of blocks away, where the Independence Day celebration and fireworks were on full display. It was refreshing to simply walk to watch the 4th of July fireworks show – no car required – a “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” experience.

Next up was the Nisei Festival and the taiko drum exhibition.

My wife and I have made it a point to visit the Nisei Festival every year, but this was the first time we could walk out the door, cross the street, and join the festivities!

My colleagues at AHBE Lab have written numerous times about the funicular at Angel’s Flight.  I won’t repeat their observations, but I wholeheartedly believe every Angeleno should enjoy a breakfast or lunch at Grand Central Market, followed by an ascent up Angel’s Flight at least once.

 

 

 

This is the view from the top of Angel’s Flight! There aren’t many California Plaza businesses open during the weekends, but it’s still a good gateway to the MOCA, Broad Museum and Disney Concert Hall.

You might even discover the completely unexpected along the way, like this Legos art installation across the street from the Wells Fargo Center.

Besides the Kinokuniya Book Store located in Little Tokyo’s Weller Court, the Last Book Store on 5th and Spring is the other “must-see” destination for book lovers.

Overall, this urbanist’s Downtown Los Angeles experience has been good…with a few exceptions. It can still feel a little strange to be driving “home” toward Downtown, rather than away, as was once the case. But Downtown is definitely become more and more our home. Next month I’ll share a few of my final impressions – both the good and bad – in celebration of 6 months of DTLA living.

Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.


Photo: Gary Lai

By the the time I turned sixteen, I knew I was going to be an architect.

It was 1984 and I was in the middle of my final year of drafting class at Lowell High School in San Francisco.  I had a great teacher, Mr Amundson, who encouraged me to submit an entry to the AIA Student competition. It was supposed to be my crowning achievement as a senior.

I worked for months on the competition project – a cabin in Tahoe, California. The solar industry was currently in its infancy, but I decided to design my cabin according to energy efficient theories. The resulting design was a cabin stocked with all of the most current thinking in passive solar design: heat sinks, passive ventilation, and energy conservation solutions.

Building the model was painful and time consuming. Forty blades and four very expensive large sheets of 1/4″ foam core boards later, my first model emerged.

My cabin was designed with an automatic ventilation system that opened its vents and windows around the cabin based on the thermostat. I envisioned a small greenhouse that heated the cabin in the winter. In my youthful overconfidence, I was sure I was going to win.

Alas, it was not to be. I didn’t even place. But I did receive an honorable mention for “Energy Conscious Design”.

In my disappointment, I submitted college applications for Electrical Engineering programs throughout the country instead of architecture. Rejected by all of the engineering schools I applied to, I was accepted as an undecided major at University of California, Davis. It was there I would discover landscape architecture, and as they say, the rest is history.

Almost 35 years later, I finally broke down and decided to throw out the yellowing model representing my youthful hopes and optimism. I had decided to focus my career on sustainability just a few years before, but looking at this poor Tahoe cabin model sitting at the bottom of the garbage can, I was left to wonder what took me so long to come to this conclusion.

Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.

Infographic: Designxel.com

Design isn’t easy to teach.

Great design requires both an intuitive sense and a fierce dedication to research and knowledge. A great landscape designer listens to the client and distills their wants and needs with the requirements of the site to create a harmonious whole. A designer might only get one chance during his or her entire career when circumstances align to create a perfect amalgam of client, budget, team, and know-how for the possibility of designing a classic, timeless project. As an instructor of design at a small arts college, my mission is to try and get my students ready for their moment. But is that what I should be doing?

Real design jobs are hard to find, and few and far between. In the architectural design industry, a primary designer must have proven experience to be entrusted with the direction of a multi-million dollar project. Even then, projects are usually team-driven, with only a “Starchitect” given the freedom to enact a singular vision. Yet, the majority of architectural and landscape architectural programs around the country teach us to be just that: a singular, primary designer.

The reality is most architects and landscape architects are job captains and project managers. We turn dreams into real world built projects, on time and on budget.  It is not what we got into the profession to do but it is what we end up doing. Yet, despite this, almost all college architectural and landscape architectural curriculums do not have mandatory classes in project management and development or business. We learn imperfectly through trial and error on the job. This system might have worked through an apprenticeship paradigm of 100 years ago, but in today’s job market of high expectations, impossible deadlines, and low fees, there’s no patience for on-the-job training.

Infographic: Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA)

Recent graduates are expected to hit the ground running and be able to manage systems and projects after only two to three years on the job.  Couple this with relatively low wages for the amount of schooling required to become a landscape architect and is it any wonder that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are both predicting a shortfall of trained professionals in the next decade?

Look, I fully recognize the counter-argument: as educators, we must teach to a higher bar. How can we expect to produce qualified designers if we don’t try and teach them design to the highest standard? Also, with building projects becoming as complex as living entities, there simply is not enough time to teach everything the students need to know for their first job. If we teach project management, would we be sacrificing design for practicality?

I believe there is plenty of room for compromise. If we are not teaching our professionals the job they are expected to do over the course of their careers, we are not doing our jobs. Good design is important, but so is good construction document practices and project management, both which make up the bulk of our profession’s work.

Adding a mandatory professional practice and business track to a five year program will not impede the next Frank Lloyd Wright. However, without teaching our students the business of our business today, we might never might see the Lloyd Wright of tomorrow.

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When I went to my doctor last month, she was pleased about my weight loss, something I attribute to the walking during my commute (and also to the stress of preparing to sell the house). But my doctor also cautioned, “There’s an awful lot of places to eat around there.” Boy, was she right. My wife and I have tried to be good about cooking at home, but we’re surrounded with seemingly every type of cuisine imaginable. It’s been tough to stay strict.

Places like Chinatown or Little Tokyo were originally segregated slums that were eventually turned into working tourist attractions after many of the Jim Crow-era laws were overturned during the middle of the 20th Century. In an attempt to attract tourists, many restaurants catered to the relatively bland palates of middle-America whites, a trend that gave birth to common dishes like sweet and sour pork, chop suey, teriyaki chicken, and egg foo young.

Authentic ethnic cuisines eventually moved further away to neighborhoods like Gardena or San Gabriel, where communities established menus catering to the tastes of their distinct populations. As Americans of every color started to develop a more adventurous palate, “fusion” food emerged, relying upon a pastiche of flavors taking inspiration from a variety of ethnicities. Consequently – and somewhat ironically – the Japanese food available in Little Tokyo today is…um, just okay. The new wave of modern restaurants opening all across Downtown serve my favorite foods.

So, let’s move onto my recommendations. Across each point of the compass, good food can be had for every meal. I’ve picked my favorite in every direction:

North, Breakfast
Two blocks north of my apartment is Jist Cafe near 1st and Judge John Aiso Street. The family has owned a cafe in Little Tokyo for generations and this is their latest. The owner is like your Japanese Ba-chan (Grandmother), one that insists on serving the food and clearing the tables herself so she can chat with her guests. My sister-in-law actually found this place on Yelp when Cafe Aloha down the street was inexplicably closed.

Their speciality is the Cha-Hsu Hash, shown here with two poached eggs and side of rice. Cha-Hsu is a marinated pork popular with both the Chinese and Japanese American communities. I can imagine my doctor cringing, but if I got a heart attack leaving the restaurant after eating this dish, I would die a happy man. Yes, it’s that good. I know the rice and potatoes is kind of an unusual combination, but it doesn’t matter, because you’ll want to soak up every drop of the gravy. My wife’s blueberry pancakes in the background weren’t too shabby either.

South, Lunch
In the AVA apartment building just south of my apartment on Los Angeles Street is Seoul Sausage. The original “restaurant” was a very successful food truck, but the owners are trying their fortunes with a brick and mortar establishment. Come for the food, stay for the beer. It should be a busier place than it currently is, so hurry before people catch on.

I ordered the Bahn Mi Sausage Sandwich with a side of Tots; my wife ordered a fried chicken bowl. The sandwich isn’t a traditional bahn mi, but an approximation consisting of chicken-apple sausage, mortadella, jalapeños, and about twelve other ingredients I can’t remember. The sandwich was good and went especially well washed down with a beer.

West, Dinner
Just a block and a half up 2nd street is Badmaash – Indian Fusion.  I lived in Berkeley, CA, which has some of the best Indian restaurants in the state so I’m really spoiled. To date, Indian food in Southern California has been decidedly “meh” for me, so I stopped trying. If it wasn’t for the smell emitting from this restaurant as I walked past on my way home from work, I probably wouldn’t have tried Badmaash either. Silly me. Badmaash is equal to, and in some ways superior, to any Indian restaurant in Berkeley.

During out first visit to Badmaash we went with the tried and true menu items for comparison: Chicken Tiki Marsala and good ole Saag Paneer. Both dishes were so good we began eating before I was able to take a photo. Next time we will try some of the fusion dishes; if they are as good as the Cheese and Chili Naan pictured above, we should be happy diners.

East, Dessert
Two long blocks east, down 2nd, through Little Tokyo, and crossing Alameda into the Arts District at Traction and Hewitt is Pie Hole. With several other locations around SoCal, there are options, but I recommend this specific location if pie remotely interests you. Heck, this place is so good, it might convert you to pie despite its somewhat expensive prices. It’s worth it.


The Mexican Chocolate Pie is as close to a sure thing as anything in this world. If you only go here once, order this pie. If you return, order this pie again before trying something else during a third visit.

So there you have it, my favorite restaurants across Downtown Los Angeles. In case you’re wondering, we’ve tried all of these restaurants in just three months since moving to DTLA. And, yes, my doctor is pissed. I’ll let you know how it goes next month.