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Whimsical improvements make Western more walkable

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In Koreatown, strip malls now feel like gathering places

Colorful benches, tables, and even houseplants (made from steel) are sprinkled around a Koreatown intersection as part of Welcome to Western.
All photos courtesy LA-Más

The new palms that greeted CicLAvia revelers as they crossed into Koreatown on Sunday aren’t freshly planted trees. The laser-cut aluminum fronds that march up and down Western are affixed to street light poles, creating a neon-green parade down the corridor.

The faux palm trees act like an urban canopy of sorts, complementing clusters of bright perforated-steel benches and planters sprouting monstera leaves—all casting geometric shadows on the colorfully painted pavement below.

Part of an initiative named Welcome to Western, these streetscape improvements designed by LA-Más are designed to make the busy, car-centric stretch of Western from Third Street to Melrose more walkable. The first phase of the improvements, which are funded by City Council districts 4 and 10, was installed in August with more to come in the upcoming months.

These first changes are mostly clustered around First and Western, although the palms continue for several more blocks in each direction.

The improvements are functional in that they provide dignified respites frocm LA’s relentless sun, but they also create delightful destinations where you might plan to meet a friend. On Sunday, the seating areas were well-used by families needing to make a pit stop along the CicLAvia route, with kids’ bike helmets bobbing among the colorful installations.

“It really is about welcoming people and opening up the street,” says Elizabeth Timme, LA-Más co-principal.

The way the furniture is arranged feels like a series of public living rooms. There are places to read a newspaper (in one of three languages sold in boxes on the corners) and enjoy a pair of bungeoppang, the popular fish-shaped pastry made fresh in the back of HK Market.

The project site, which was selected through Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets initiative in 2014, was originally chosen because it lacked public space and is the northern gateway to Koreatown.

But that doesn’t mean it lacked cultural assets, says Timme.

“Koreatown is an institution,” she says.

Through its research, LA-Más realized its goal for the project was less about “branding” the area and more about helping everyone to better use the sidewalk—including reclaiming underused areas of strip-mall parking lots.

The communal table outside of HK Market has become a gathering place for diners, commuters, and families.

Some of the new seating and bench elements were designed for specific street vendors who serve the surrounding blocks. On a recent tour, a taco truck pulled up at the corner, giving its customers perfect proximity to the large communal table, and, more importantly, its shade.

Instead of sourcing neighborhood-agnostic elements like LA’s standard bus benches, which feel plopped onto the sidewalk with little regard for the existing streetscape, LA-Más designed its own custom pieces and pulled its bright palette of colors from the surrounding blocks.

The colors match the HK Market logo.

The coral of the table perfectly matches the HK Market logo across the parking lot; the three-tone green street lamps seem sampled from the Bank of Hope sign. The effect is that your eye is drawn past the new additions and into the neighborhood itself.

Another delightful trick that LA-Más employed: The parts of the streetscape that it couldn’t change—the blue diagonal lines demarcating disabled parking zones, bright yellow bollards, white crosswalk stripes—were incorporated into the design through color or pattern, turning the functional parts of LA streets into sculptural accents.

Even the city’s bus benches are drawn into the fold, making the generic tubular green feel almost like it was part of LA-Más’s plan.

All the tables, stools, and decorative elements were custom-designed by LA-Más and fabricated in Los Angeles.

When it came to choosing materials for the elements, there wasn’t much leeway—LA’s street furniture rules dictate that everything needed to be made from durable powder-coated steel.

But just as the team started to bid on pieces of steel from a local fabricator, the Trump administration’s new tariffs created major price fluctuations. The tariffs so dramatically gouged the project’s budget that instead of having four hubs open by the end of the summer, the designers could only afford to produce two.

More funding is being procured, says Timme, but the process has been gut-wrenching for the designers. “We were incredibly impacted, both in the scope of the work and how we could give back to the community.”

Timme and her LA-Más co-principal Helen Leung say they met with every business and property owner on the street and organized well-attended public events, gathering input not only on what the project should look like, but how the changes could best serve the neighborhood.

To make sure Welcome to Western doesn’t feel abandoned over time, LA-Más is working with Koreatown Youth and Community Center to handle maintenance duties and tend to the newly planted landscaping (including more actual trees).

The forms of the palm trees and other plants that add greenery to the street were inspired by Henri Rousseau’s lush paintings.

But the possibility of a few defaced utility boxes isn’t LA-Más’s biggest concern.

“Graffiti and vandalism doesn’t bother me. The traffic and the way people drive really bothers me,” says Timme, who was hit by cars two times while working on the project (she wasn’t seriously hurt).

While other Great Streets projects were paired with infrastructural enhancements like road diets, bike lanes, curb extensions, or better pedestrian crossings, Western got none of those safety

Yet it’s remarkable how much LA-Más did without changing traffic patterns. Even something as simple as painting the street lamps a minty green, with that bus-bench green accent at human height, offers a rewarding experience for people walking.

Plus there’s something to the idea of elevating the city’s most basic infrastructure into these colorful, eye-catching landmarks.

Instead of a top-down, cordoned-off approach that’s often paid for by developers, maybe functional linear parks like this that stretch along busy corridors—much like the way CicLAvia works—are a better idea for carving out more public spaces for LA.

A network of sidewalk living rooms could offer residents a more enjoyable way to shop, work, and play without getting in their cars, while still remaining immersed in their neighborhood’s vibrant street life.

And it could be done in a way that enhances, not erases. What Welcome to Western does best is denote that these blocks are special, not because of what a handful of designers decided should happen on these corners, but because of what was already happening there.

Kelsey Keith, Curbed’s editor-in-chief, will be serving on LA-Mas’s fundraiser committee in November 2018. She had no involvement in the planning, execution, or editing of this story.