Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative aims to inject new life into L.A., starting in the heart of Mar Vista

Mayor Eric Garcetti Photo by Ted Soqui

Mayor Eric Garcetti
Photo by Ted Soqui

By Joe Piasecki and Gary Walker

They say nobody walks in L.A., but don’t tell that to Mayor Eric Garcetti.

At the heart of Garcetti’s back-to-basics agenda prioritizing public infrastructure and efficient delivery of basic city services is a core belief that Angelenos no longer wish to live in their cars.

“L.A. is a collection of more than 80 neighborhoods. In the past it was all about regional-center ability to get into a car and go someplace else to eat, shop, work and live. I think people hunger for local options that are truly close,” Garcetti said. “Every neighborhood needs to have a main street built to human scale, where people can meet and spend time with friends and family and experience the character of their neighborhood.”

He calls the road map for this vision the Great Streets Initiative.

Equal parts urban design philosophy, city government reorganization and infrastructure improvement program, Great Streets targets 15 multi-block stretches of sprawling L.A. roadway for a series of small upgrades unique to each street that, when taken as a whole, are expected to produce a neighborhood-level town square effect.

Think shade trees, crosswalk upgrades, fresh paving, new signage, sidewalk dining tables, pocket parks, public art, bike lanes, even just the thoughtful placement of public benches and trash receptacles. In conversation, Garcetti often refers to the process as “urban acupuncture” — “the insertion of a small burst of energy to transform the body of an entire neighborhood,” he explained.

“It’s about smart choices, dynamic strategic points on a street that will have a larger effect on the overall neighborhood and its vibrancy,” Garcetti said. “Small things make a big difference that collectively inspires a full-scale makeover — inspiration for people to have a sense of place and want to spend time there.”

On the Westside, Mar Vista will become ground zero for Garcetti’s urban experiment: specifically the mile-long portion of Venice Boulevard that stretches from Inglewood Boulevard west to Beethoven Street.

Garcetti selected Mar Vista as a proving ground for Great Streets at the urging of area City Councilman Mike Bonin, an evangelist of Venice Boulevard’s potential to become a thriving neighborhood-serving commercial district made up almost entirely of mom-and-pop shops.

Just this April, a nonprofit Mar Vista Business Association formed with a similar vision in mind.

“There are wide sidewalks
that have a lot of potential for a more pedestrian-friendly environment, an emerging and increasingly vibrant business district that is largely mom-and-pop, and then there are all the other things that people look for in a neighborhood: three [grocery] markets, different restaurants, barbers, a dry cleaner, a post office, a library and a lot of walkable residential areas behind Venice Boulevard on either side. You have a heartbeat in the Mar Vista Farmers Market, which has been drawing people in and demonstrating the pedestrian potential for the neighborhood,” Bonin said.

As much as Great Streets puts a make-or-break emphasis on the small stuff, specific details of what will come of the effort in Mar Vista — and how the city will pay for it — don’t yet exist. But that, too, is by careful design.

Whatever changes come must first be introduced and vetted for community support during a series of public meetings in which residents and stakeholders will be asked to weigh in, Garcetti and Bonin said.

During a recent walking tour of Venice Boulevard with L.A. Dept. of Transportation Manager Seleta Reynolds, both Bonin and Reynolds declined to state what improvements they’d like to see.

“We’re not trying to say what this should be, because that’s up to the community to do. Even my brainstorming out loud could make it feel to people like ‘the government is going to tell us what they want to do,’” said Bonin, who is planning to host the first community meeting sometime later this year.

“The most important part
about Great Streets is getting the community engaged in telling us their goals for the street,” Reynolds said. “There’s no single definition of a great street, but if I ask what your favorite street in L.A. is you probably have a street in mind that, during some part of its lifespan, serves as true public space. You think about why certain streets come to mind and it’s because they’re gathering places.’”

And the funding? That, too, all depends on what people want, according to Reynolds. If it’s bike lanes, those could come out of existing transportation funding. Landscaping efforts could fall under public works or the Dept. of Water and Power. Beautification and public art, the Division of Cultural Affairs.

“There are a lot of different ways you can bring funding together,” she said. “What I want to know is what people love about this neighborhood and how I can help them get more of it.”

Or, as Bonin put it: “What you have an appetite for will determine where you go shopping.”

The catch-as-catch-can funding mechanism for Great Streets was deliberate and factors into a reorganization of city government workflow processes, Garcetti said.

“I hope Great Streets can be part of my transformation of City Hall internally and externally. We have 54 different departments often doing different aspects of a single job, and those features don’t always connect in a coherent way. Sometimes at City Hall we think we have to do everything ourselves and forget the real leverage is getting the people of L.A. to participate,” he said.

In June, Garcetti planted $800,000 in seed money to fund the Great Streets Studio, a collaborative room at City Hall where mayor’s office staff members work with the heads of nine city departments or bureaus: Planning, Cultural Affairs, Transportation, Public Works, Engineering, Street Services, Street Lighting, Sanitation and Economic & Workforce Development.

The timeline for Great Streets completion could take three to five years, “but people won’t have to wait that long to start seeing a difference,” said Garcetti, who’s planning a series of “pop-up events” at Great Streets locations next year.

Sarah Auerswald, head of the new Mar Vista Business Association, agreed that local stakeholders should play a key role in determining the outcome of Great Streets attention on Venice Boulevard. In fact, she’s already begun an outreach effort.

“Our effort has been to make everyone aware of what’s happening and to engage everyone so they can participate,” Auerswald said. “We have to be the ones to tell the city the priorities of our businesses and our residents.”

So what is it that Mar Vista would like to see its share of Venice Boulevard become?

Diana Rogers, manager of the Mar Vista Farmers Market, said she wants to keep the kind of village feel her Sunday market already promotes.

“We’ve really encouraged people who come to the market to walk or bike, and [Great Streets] has the potential to bring more of that to Mar Vista. I think the nucleus is already there to build on because the market really brought a lot of cohesion to the corridor,” Rogers said.

“We have a lot of people who drive through our community, and if we could get them to slow down and get out of their cars, they might stop and shop at our stores,” said Morgan Elzey, manager of the artisan restaurant The Curious Palate. “More bike lanes and parking for bicycles would be great additions.”

When it comes to pedal-powered travel, Venice Boulevard already has significant resources to build on, said John Ovall, manager of the custom bicycle shop LABrakeless.

“There are three other bike shops on Venice Boulevard besides us. Having more bicycle-friendly options, like maybe widening the bike lanes, would be great,” Ovall said.

Jolie Chitwood-Cox, owner of the Venice Boulevard specialty gift shop Soaptopia, would like to see some attention paid to the alleyways behind the shop. Chitwood-Cox and some other shopkeepers use alleyways as entranceways, she said.

Out front on Venice Boulevard, “maybe some benches and new trash receptacles would be nice, too,” she added.

Great Streets does, however, have its skeptics. Locally, that includes Steve Wallace, president of the Mar Vista Homeowners Association.

“I’m all in favor of making Venice Boulevard a great-looking street,” he said. “My only sour note on this is the initial investment in the street does not go very far. They’re stating more funds may be available later, but there are no guarantees of this happening.”

As the then-president of the Venice Boulevard Streetscape Improvement Association, Wallace worked with former Councilman Bill Rosendahl on a Venice Boulevard beautification plan with $100,000 earmarked for the project in 2006. The effort launched by trimming trees, installing decorative trash cans and landscaping the Venice Boulevard median. Wallace said Garcetti should consider the elements of the boulevard’s plan from eight years ago before trying to reinvent the wheel.

“Since there is a master plan that the city has already heavily invested in financially, why do all that work again?” Wallace asked. “The previous councilman said he would have the master plan completed by the end of his term in office, so we are hoping that some way Councilman Bonin or even the mayor can finish the job.”

Garcetti said the prior work of people like Wallace and the emerging Mar Vista Business Association were major reasons he and Bonin chose to direct Great Streets resources to Mar Vista.

“We tried to focus on places that already had the beginning of some momentum. The question is: what can we do to get to the finish line? Mar Vista — and Venice Boulevard in particular — has some incredible independent businesses that have people bringing shopping, eating back to the neighborhood. There are good transportation links and a wide street that’s underutilized. That’s what made me kind of fall in love with it,” Garcetti said. “It feels like a small town, even though you’re in a big city.”