The stretch of Western Avenue between Melrose and Third Street is known for its furniture stores, Korean barbecue joints, and the country’s oddest Kentucky Fried Chicken outpost. A wide, busy LA artery, Western serves as the northern gateway to Koreatown, but it isn’t very inviting to people who aren’t in cars.
This summer, the corridor will add colorful streetscape changes as part of a project named Welcome to Western.
According to Elizabeth Timme and Helen Leung, who are leading the Welcome to Western project at LA-Más, local residents, community groups, and merchants asked for a better walking experience that could connect the street’s storefronts.
“The goal is public realm improvements that are meant to support the pedestrian environment adjacent to small existing businesses,” says Leung.
This part of Western had received a Great Streets designation from the Mayor’s office in 2014, when the previous councilmember, Tom LaBonge, was still head of the fourth council district. As part of the initiative to deliver people-friendly improvements to 15 business districts across LA, the city added murals, utility box art, Wi-Fi streetlights, and high-visibility crosswalks.
This next wave of improvements will add more to the street. After LA’s Community Redevelopment Agency was dissolved in 2012, the council district continued to receive bond money originally intended for those shelved projects. The office had about $600,000 in funds that needed to be allocated to redevelopment, and Western was an obvious place to spend it, says Nicholas Greif, director of policy and legislation for the fourth district’s current councilmember, David Ryu.
“This was one of the commercial corridors that hasn’t had a lot of attention and didn’t have the type of community organizing that can often lead to improvements,” he says.
To make an even greater impact on the neighborhood, Ryu’s office contacted councilmember Herb Wesson’s office to collaborate on the project, since council district 10 starts on the west side of Western (there’s also a few blocks of council district 13 near Melrose). The team then brought on one of the active local organizations as a partner, Koreatown Youth and Community Center, which already was tackling beautification projects like tree planting and graffiti removal on the street.
The selection of LA-Más to lead the effort was a clear choice, says Greif. The nonprofit had worked on similar pedestrian-oriented projects and streetscape improvements, but even more importantly, it had the outreach experience. “We knew they had a great track record in community building,” he says.
As Leung and Timme began talking with merchants—“we knocked on every single business owner’s door,” says Leung—the vision for the corridor crystallized.
While walking on Western, they noticed many of the businesses were located in strip malls, including large ones that dominated almost every corner.
“We started looking at the strip mall as this unfinished courtyard space,” says Timme. “In Koreatown, this can be very vibrant, but when it meets the street it’s very abrupt.”
Making these outdoor spaces more welcoming to walkers could also support specific needs of businesses—some of the bustling storefronts, like Meson Cafe, for example, had built their own benches on the sidewalk for customers to sit.
By dividing the corridor into three hubs, LA-Más developed a series of kits that could be combined to serve the different needs of each area. Depending on what each business owner wanted, a kit could include an outdoor dining table, sidewalk patterns, colored crosswalks, bus shelters, play areas, and benches.
Another problem that needed to be addressed was the lack of greenery along the corridor. The area has a high rate of transit ridership but Western has little shade on its sidewalks and bus stops, plus the neighborhood has low ratios of parkland per resident in general.
The youth center had planted trees, but it would take time for a true urban canopy to form. So LA-Más experimented with shading structures attached to existing utility poles that look and act like trees. This “faux greening” will help spruce up the corridor by adding color and shade until the real trees grow in.
Welcome to Western will also address a bigger problem—the fact that the street lacks basic infrastructure for those not in private cars, says the owners of West Bev Vision.
The optician is located behind a busy bus stop, and the narrow sidewalk and lack of shade forces bus riders to crowd under the storefront’s awning and into its doorway. People actually leaned on the front window so much that it eventually cracked the glass, according to the store’s manager Miriam Rodriguez.
She says she’s excited for the Welcome to Western changes, noting that their requests included benches, trash cans, and cleaner sidewalks.
“It will be good for the whole street. It will clean it up a lot,” Rodriguez says.
These changes are being deployed as these blocks of East Hollywood, Melrose Hill, and Koreatown are seeing an influx of housing development. But the addition of housing, as well as a major change to the street’s appearance, also brings worries about displacement.
Welcome to Western’s goals are similar to those of a proposed design ordinance that will require new developments to improve the streetscapes of nearby Historic Filipinotown and Westlake. The ordinance hasn’t been as well-received due to concerns from activists that it will exacerbate gentrification.
LA-Más tried to address the issue of displacement as part of the outreach, which took specific steps to ensure that businesses, especially those that rent, will be able to stay to enjoy the improvements.
Business owners were offered support services, including how to take out small business loans, renew leases with property owners, and negotiate sharing costs for improvements. The fourth council district also worked with the Valley Economic Development Center to conduct an economic assessment of the corridor, which looked at the mix of businesses, including the number of vacancies.
Some of the success of this project might be attributed to the team’s agility in bringing the ideas to fruition. The engagement process took about nine months, which included four community workshops, including a tree-planting event to present the final designs earlier this month. Now, LA-Más is approving the physical changes with the city’s street services and the public works department, and the improvements should be installed by July.
“Having the businesses engaged in the feel of the street is what’s most important to us as a community organization,” says Joe St. John, chief operating officer of the Koreatown Youth and Community Center, which will work with the city to maintain the corridor for the next five years. “It’s great to have council districts that support our mission.”
The combination of colorful, eye-catching design elements which do double duty as shading structures or seating areas is money well-spent for the neighborhood, says Greif.
“We think public art is a cost-effective way to create community and improve commercial corridors so they have viable businesses.”