Editor’s note: Click here to listen to a recording of two hour meeting.
Last night, Larchmont 2021, a group made up of local business organizations and neighborhood representatives (including the Larchmont Buzz, the Larchmont Boulevard Association (LBA), the Larchmont Business Improvement District (BID), and the Windsor Square Association) held its second of three planned “community conversations” about the future of Larchmont Blvd. The first event, held two weeks ago, focused on retail trends…and last night’s topic was “placemaking” – how to enhance the street and make it a “people first” space for the future.
As with the first conversation, last night’s was introduced by Larchmont Buzz co-publisher Patty Lombard, Larchmont Business Improvement District representative Heather Boylston, and Windsor Square resident Gary Gilbert. The conversation was moderated by local architect and urban planner John Kaliski, who welcomed two guests – Howard Blackson, an urban designer from San Diego, who has specific expertise in neighborhood development and advocacy, and Lindsey Wallace, Director of Strategic Projects and Design Services for the Main Street America Institute, which originated with and still maintains close ties to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
What is Placemaking?
Opening the session, Kaliski said the goal of the evening would be to learn about best practices and short-term improvement ideas that could enhance the retail segment of Larchmont Blvd. between 1st Street and Beverly Blvd., and help ensure its success in the future.
Kaliski also offered three different definitions of “placemaking,” for those new to the concept. The first was from a publication by MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning:
The second definition came from the Project for Public Spaces:
And the third was from Danish Architect Jan Gehl:
Following those introductions and definitions, Kaliski introduced Blackson, asking him to address three questions:
- What factors affect neighborhood placemaking?
- What placemaking trends shape successful main streets for the future?
- What are your placemaking recommendations for Larchmont Blvd.?
On the first question, Blackson said there are several techniques that are being used to energize today’s streets. The first – akin to the idea of mixed-use (residential/office/retail) buildings that have been popular for the last decade or so – is the idea of “mixed-use streets,” where the street itself hosts a variety of users and uses, including things like vehicle traffic, parking, bus stops, passenger drop-off zones, parklets, food trucks and more…all located in the actual street space.
Next, said Blackson, the COVID-19 pandemic – during which people began walking more and needing more kinds of COVID-safe outdoor spaces – sparked a whole new trend in “curbside management,” including locating new kinds of business and social uses on sidewalks next to streets, and even in some cases in the edges of the actual street space. These include sidewalk dining (such as we’ve seen with LA’s Al Fresco dining program), small curbside parklets for dining or gathering, and even widening sidewalks to include some former street space.
Blackson said that Larchmont, in particular, might be able to use some of these techniques to create what he calls a more layered use of the street itself. For example, the first graphic below shows what a traditional street often looks like – with spaces only for vehicles, maybe some passenger drop-offs, and a few bikes.
But a more modern pattern, Blackson said, might add in various zones – or “layers” – for things like walkways and street furnishings…with more specialized speed zones that keep slower kinds of traffic nearer the curbs, and faster traffic in the center of the street, furthest from pedestrian uses.
Blackson provided several examples of this kind of layering from streets in Detroit, Tokyo, and other cities, which show new kinds of commercial and recreational spaces “creeping out into the street.”
Blackson also noted that buildings, too, can be created or remodeled to provide new kinds of uses – such as residential, office, and/or hotel space – both above existing retail spaces (at left in the image below) and even above the street space itself (lower right-hand image below).
And finally, Blackson said, there’s the Barcelona “superblock” model, in which several blocks are combined into a cohesive neighborhood with different kinds of uses and streetscapes arranged around one or more neighborhood main streets.
Meanwhile, Blackson noted that smart phones are already changing our mobility patterns, which will also contribute to the re-shaping of our streetscapes – by requiring more space for things like ride share pick-ups and drop-offs, and making less street parking necessary as more people use alternate kinds of transportation.
Overall, Blackson said people should keep three principles in mind when planning for the mixed-use streets of the future:
- Design/plan at the neighborhood scale, including thinking about potential loss of street parking space as an opportunity to gain other kinds of people-centered spaces.
- Design/plan for time, not speed – people will spend more money on the street if they’re encouraged to stay longer, instead of just dashing through.
- Change our “first come-first served” attitude about parking.
Building for social/cultural value will always translate into economic value, Blackson said, but the reverse – building for economic value first – does not always translate into social/cultural value.
Lindsey Wallace – who lives in Chicago, but was recently treated to a Facetime-based walking tour of Larchmont Blvd. with Kaliski and Lombard – also spoke about the more people-centered “pivot” the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to our thinking about public spaces. She quoted Matthew Wagner, chief program officer of Main Street America, who said “Get used to it – the pivot is not going away,” as the world recovers and re-opens.
In fact, Wallace said, we’re actually in a great “opportunity phase” at the moment, able to see what happens with new streetscape innovations – many of which have been discussed for years – as they’re finally tested in the real world.
Wallace also said that while much planning is done for “entrepreneurial ecosystems,” in our communities, those visions often don’t include planning for the physical space where the economic activity will take place. And yet there are many reasons to think about streets as “places.” And “people-first streets,” she said, have many benefits, including health, safety, equity, community, economic vitality, and environmental sustainability.
Next, Wallace focused on two kinds of streetscape tools that could be very useful in creating people-first spaces on Larchmont – “parklets” and “pedlets.”
A “parklet,” she said, is a small gathering space adjacent to or actually in the street space, which can contain street furniture, landscaping and other amenities, and can be used for dining, seating, or just gathering. (Like our new Al Fresco dining spaces on Larchmont and elsewhere in LA.)
Meanwhile, Wallace explained, a “pedlet” is an extension of pedestrian space into the street, allowing more space on the sidewalk to be used for dining, retail or other purposes.
According to Wallace, both parkets and pedlets can have great benefits for streets where they’re used.
In fact, Wallace said, cities that have studied the impact of parklets and pedlets have found that the economic benefits far outweigh the cost of the lost parking spaces they replace.
In summary, Wallace offered her own five tips for planning Larchmont’s future and enhancing its value to the community:
- Extend the life of new COVID-19 space design strategies
- Provide clean and safe parking options, including improved lighting at night
- Research ordinances that other cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco, have created to protect and support “legacy businesses” (those that have been on the street for many years and are often destinations that draw customers to the area)
- Do a building inventory and an accessibility audit for the street, to help think about how some of the more lackluster buildings could be improved, and how things like broken sidewalks could be impeding pedestrian traffic, especially for those with specific mobility considerations
- Consider establishing some formal or informal design guidelines and/or suggested best practices to help create a more specific look for the area
And finally, Wallace also suggested looking at certain kinds of both private and public financial support for these efforts, including rent relief and grant programs to support older businesses and encourage new ones, the use of short-term leases and/or pop-up businesses, and private foundation and non-profit grant opportunities…in addition to the afore-mentioned legacy business support ideas.
The following questions were raised by the moderators and attendees following the main presentations:
What kinds of organizations can help move these kinds of discussions forward – the BID, the LBA, others? And what kind of active management will this process require?
According to Wallace, the impetus for the kinds of changes being discussed can come from any kind of “main street” organization – the Business Improvement District (property owners), the LBA (business owners), or others that can create the kinds of partnerships and relationships that will be needed. You just need to decide what to do first, and then determine specific roles for participants, moving forward from that point.
Blackson agreed, saying it’s actually good to have multiple layers of oversight for projects like this, especially when there will need to be compromises between city and private priorities (e.g. safety vs. commerce). Blackson said that San Diego has been trying something called an “enhanced” or “public” BID, which focuses more on public, not just business, interests in a specific district.
Where do we start with re-imagining curbside areas? And what about the street medians (relics of our streetcar days) – should we be thinking about those, too?
Wallace said that, first, we should definitely keep the COVID-prompted street changes that have occurred so far. But she said she thinks another good place to start would be re-thinking our surface parking lots, and what might make those spaces more attractive for other uses. Also, ask people what they’d like those spaces to be.
Blackson said one good place to start would be reimagining the Beverly/Larchmont corner – which he referred to as the street’s one “100% corner” – the one that’s the busiest, most urban, and most lively. He also suggested looking at the alley behind the businesses on the west side of Larchmont, which could be a big asset for more parking, loading space, and other uses. Regarding the median, Blackson said the center lane on the street is currently used for loading/unloading, but it’s possible that some of that activity could be moved to the alley or the sides of the street, which would once again free up the center lane for traffic or other uses.
What are “hyperlocal amenities” and why are they so important?
Wallace defined these as singular businesses – such as Chevalier’s Books – that are unique to the street, give it its special feel, and serve as specific destinations that actually draw people to the area. She also said there are a variety of incentives (both public and private) that can help support these businesses and make sure they continue to thrive.
What happens if all our “parklets” just become new dining spaces – do we lose our broader mix of businesses?
Wallace reiterated that parklets don’t have to be used for dining – they can have many different purposes, support more than one business at a time, or just be a gathering spot for people on the street. And Blackson pointed out that part of the beauty of parklets and pedlets is that they can be removed or reconfigured if they’re not doing what you’d like for the street – unlike big new plazas or parking garages, which are both more expensive and much more permanent.
What kinds of improvements would you suggest for Larchmont north of Beverly Blvd.?
Blackson said he’d like to see more new mixed-use developments on that part of the street, containing both residential and retail space. Attendee Patricial Carroll noted that there is currently a new development planned for 500 N. Larchmont, but reported that instead of retail space, the architects have put parking on the first level, which does nothing to enhance the pedestrian experience. Blackson agreed, saying “That’s deadly,” but he suggested that if the project designers aren’t ready to commit to first-floor retail space, they could also make the building “retail ready” – with the first floor space used initially as housing or offices, but ready to convert to retail space later.
At the same time, however, Blackson said it would also be a mistake to mandate that there be retail space everywhere in the neighborhood — some streets, or segments of streets, he said, are “B” streets, with a quieter, more residential character, and that’s OK. And the northern part of Larchmont definitely does have a different character than the southern part.
Meanwhile, Wallace suggested that wayfinding systems, and other kinds of signage, could be used to help unify the two ends of the street. New signage could also help with parking issues, she said, by making sure people are aware of the big garage on Larchmont, and showing them where to enter. (If that garage were better used, several people suggested, there would be less need for street and other surface parking.)
Finally, Boylston suggested that perhaps the northern part of Larchmont might be a good place to put some additional vehicle parking space…although she agreed with Blackson that it might be best to just accept that the north end of Larchmont will always be quieter and more residential than the area south of Beverly.
What about people who don’t find parklets appealing because they don’t enjoy eating next to cars and traffic?
Wallace says she hears this complaint about street dining frequently, but noted that the flexibility of these features can help with that. For example, a dining parklet could be placed on the sidewalk, and a pedlet used to route foot traffic around it, while also providing a buffer between diners and car traffic.
Blackson added than traffic also tends to move a lot slower on streets where there are layers of uses like parklets and pedlets, which makes a big difference in noise and safety. He also suggested that we might consider closing the whole street – as we do with the Larchmont Family Fair once a year – several times a year or even more often…something other cities have done successfully to create a truly “shared street” that puts pedestrians first.
But what if the city wouldn’t allow that? (The city has always said “no” when this has been suggested in the past.)
Blackson said you probably don’t want to close the street permanently, because people do still use it to get to the local businesses, but you “just need to put the cars in their place” when planning for a more comprehensive mix of uses. And Wallace agreed, noting that other cities that have tried “open streets” projects, closing them temporarily to cars, have found people really love them.
How can we survey people who use the street to find out how many are local, how many come to us from other places, and what kinds of businesses and amenities each of them would like to see?
Wallace said an “intercept” survey, in which the people doing the survey (perhaps using iPads to collect survey responses) actually walk the street and catch people on the sidewalks, would be a good way to do this. And there are free or affordable tools such as SurveyMonkey that can be used to collect responses and tally, graph, and analyze the data.
Over the last 20 years or so, many neighborhood-serving businesses (such as the grocery store, hardware store, hair salons, post office, etc.) have left Larchmont and been replaced by more and more food-serving businesses, which tend to attract more non-local customers. How do we curate an optimal mix of businesses on the street?
Wallace said this is something Main Street America studies frequently. They start by looking for “gaps” in the local business mix – what kinds of businesses are needed, what kinds of businesses are over-represented, etc. – as well as the kinds of spaces currently available for new businesses. Then they try to define what the market wants and figure out ways to attract those kinds of tenants to the available spaces. But, she said, this is a lengthy process, and involves both data analysis and community engagement, as well as time to figure out how to recruit the kinds of businesses you want.
Meanwhile, Blackson added that the world has changed over time, so it’s reasonable to expect that the business mix on the street will change, too. For example, he said, since COVID hit, people work from home more, and retail has become more delivery-oriented than store-based…while dining and drinking coffee are now our major forms of socializing, in a way they never were before. “I’m a bit disappointed,” he said, “that our greatest retail innovation is the to-go drink.” But that’s our reality at the moment, he said, and in some sense, “the tenants you get are the ones you deserve.” Still, however, he said, “We can do better; we can do more.”
Can you expand on that? If you change the street, does it provide an opportunity to change what happens in the storefronts? Or does the changing storefronts dictate changes to the street? Is it a “chicken and egg” question?
Blackson said that allowing temporary testing of new uses (on the street with things like parklets, and in storefronts with things like short-term leases and pop-ups) is a good approach for today’s changing landscape. This helps us see how new concepts and ideas work, and whether we should bring back more old-fashioned service-style businesses, without investing lots of time, money and space (which building a new parking garage or grocery store would require).
Different generations or other different groups of neighbors may also have different ideas about what constitutes a “neighborhood serving business” and the kinds of businesses that would be best to see on the street – younger people might want more restaurants, while older people might want a post office or a salon.
Wallace said this is a great point, and that’s why community engagement is so important in planning for the future of the street.
Boylston added that everyone wants to protect Larchmont’s small-town feel in the big city, but we also don’t want to feel left behind – people today do also want high end dining and shopping on the street.
Finally, Backson noted that in its earliest days, 100 years ago, Larchmont was very modern, with its streetcar line and business district, but today we need to figure out the tradeoffs between hanging onto the charm of our historic past and adjacent historic neighborhoods while still keeping up with the modern world.
“We’re not here to slash and burn,” he said, “but we are here to stay alive, and maintain the ability to change.”
The third and final Larchmont 2021 community conversation – a community meeting to “share what we have learned and invite community stakeholders to ask questions and share ideas” – is planned for Monday, July 26, at 7 p.m. via Zoom. Register here if you’d like to attend.