Lisa Padilla is trying to make Los Angeles more accommodating to pedestrians and mass transit. As a principal at Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership, she has focused on urban planning. She worked on the master plan for West Hollywood's $34 million redevelopment of Santa Monica Boulevard, and she's now helping design parkways and stations for the proposed Exposition light rail project that would snake west from the USC area toward the beach. Padilla went to school at the University of California, Berkeley, and worked in the Bay Area before moving back to Los Angeles when her husband took a job at USC.


Question: How do you create pedestrian-oriented urban plans in suburban, car-obsessed L.A.?
Answer: Everyone says L.A. is auto-centric but we have enormous potential in areas that are already pedestrian friendly. The key is creating places that have many mixed uses and giving people a reason to be there they live in the area, they walk to work, it's where they do their marketing and daily errands, etc. The automobile's role should be balanced with pedestrian use and transit. It's not that complex.


Q: Is retail always the anchor that spurs redevelopment?
A: That argument concerns me. Great public spaces aren't always based around a retail experience. They can be built around civic institutions, public parks and natural resources, like our coastline or the mountains. We need to be thinking about more urban parks for those people who don't have access to a car or transit. There are many public spaces in L.A. where you can have a great experience and not spend money to shop.


Q: What are the elements you need to make a downtown come to life?
A: The one key element is people who live in the neighborhood. Downtowns that are designed for visitors coming in just to support the retail don't work. I studied architecture at Berkeley and worked in San Francisco for seven years. We worked on the first residential development south of Market Street. It was all industrial waterfront, and it was hard to fathom why anyone would want to live there. Today, it's heavily populated, with retail, residential and mixed use all thriving. What I learned from that experience is that there is often potential in places you would least expect. It just takes a lot of people with imagination and persistence to be able to see that.


Q: There have been several failed attempts to revitalize downtown L.A. What's different this time?
A: I would say the vibrancy of the housing market. It's just accelerated beyond anyone's expectations. With that comes the issue to ask collectively of how we can accommodate people from all different socio-economic backgrounds in downtown L.A. All the best downtowns around the world accommodate everyone at every level of our culture.


Q: Artists, small business owners and low-income residents say they're being priced out.
A: I'm not involved in any downtown housing projects, per se, so my opinion in this area is generalized. But I know architects tend to be socially oriented people; the spaces we build impact cities in a meaningful way, so we often get very active in those communities.


Q: How big is the role of the urban designer in bringing downtown L.A. to life?
A: Design has everything to do with how projects work. How beautiful they are, how they function, how people perceive downtowns. For so long, the conversation has been about when downtown will be back. But I tell people all the time it's already happened. I remember riding the bus down Broadway with my grandmother in the 1960s and the place was humming with activity. It feels that way again, and some of the things I remember as a child never left.


Q: The redevelopment of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood must have been a challenge.
A: Public infrastructure projects take time. It's not like constructing a building on a clear site. Reconstructing a major boulevard and trying to accommodate 60,000 vehicles a day is a big challenge. Having said that, I think West Hollywood did a great job and actually set a local model for community outreach. It's a bit like having your house remodeled: your kitchen and your addition will be great once they're done. But you know there's a period that's going to be difficult and everyone has to weather it.


Q: Regarding the Exposition light rail line project
A: Public agency contracts prohibit us from talking with the press without their permission. I can provide general information, but as to specific issues on that project


Q: What's the overall strategy?
A: The first objective is to provide improved transit service through all the neighborhoods on the line, and to link neighborhoods that are not well connected to other parts of the city. Generally, we've been asked to not only look at the design of the Exposition transit parkway and stations, but to think about the potential opportunities around the station. It's not just about adding track-way.


Q: Do you go back to where your designs have been implemented and wonder what you could have done better?
A: Always! We are our own toughest critics, and want desperately to learn how to do better. Architects try to be more innovative with each new project. Just like any other creative process.


Q: Critics would argue that urban planning in L.A. is an oxymoron the city is just too large and diverse for any cohesive plan.
A: Check with any local urban historian and my husband is one so I know and you'll see that there has always been a very active planning process in Los Angeles. The proof is how many other cities look to L.A. for case studies. We have many examples of how to solve problems of physical design and new developments, given all the many diverse neighborhoods and cultures.


Q: Brokers and developers all say the future of L.A. is mixed use and more vertical density.
A: We will see increased densities as communities feel it's appropriate. It's got to happen given the lack of space left to build and the continued demand for residential housing within the city of L.A.


Q: How about some influential projects outside L.A.?
A: Millennium Park in Chicago is of interest to me. It had to accommodate a range of different people in a key part of the city. It was a collaborative team that worked together. The projects that bring together all the different creative processes are the most intriguing to me.


Q: What's the toughest part about your job?
A: The length of time it takes from design inception to realization. Public projects are very complex in terms of the whole political funding context. As a designer, you have to really stay focused on getting the best results for both the client and the community. You need a lot of patience.


Q: What are the keys to success?
A: The first thing I didn't learn in architecture school is that the architect is a consensus builder, especially on a large public project where you have multiple clients and community interest groups. The second is that we have to stay flexible. The image people have of architects is that we are single-minded in our visions. But the process is, in reality, very fluid. Where you can't compromise is the standards and quality of the design.


Q: What did you do on Exposition Park?
A: We were the master planners, and we designed and built the California Science Center and the Exposition Park Intergenerational Community Center. The master plan was implemented in a series of phases that were new neighborhood parks and promenades.


Q: What area of L.A. would you most like to redesign?
A: The projects that I've worked on have been spread all over Santa Monica, West Hollywood, downtown, Pasadena. I'd love for them to one day connect and form a ring of improvements throughout the entire city. I feel enormous civic responsibility and loyalty to L.A., so having brought meaningful improvements to the city is the most important thing to me.


* LISA PADILLA
Title: Principal
Firm: Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership
Born: Whittier, 1963
Education: B.A., architecture, UC Berkeley
Career Turning Point: Returning to Los Angeles from the Bay Area and working for public clients
Most Admired People: Father, who was a fire captain in Vernon for 30 years; mother, who was a homemaker; and husband
Hobby: Competitive tennis
Personal: Lives in Altadena with husband, Greg Hise, an urban historian

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