With bicycles, buses, ferries, planes, rideshares, sidewalks, subways, taxis, and trains at Angelenos’ disposal, why would any sane person choose car-dependency? Nobody Drives in LA celebrates sense and sensibility in transportation.
If you’ve been downtown there’s a good chance that you’ve noticed the concrete overpasses above the streets, but probably never thought much about them. My curiosity was only sufficiently awakened after the Los Angeles Times published an article about these pedways, which they described as being built as “the first phase of what would become a mechanized people mover.”
The Calvin S. Hamilton Pedway, as the system is formally known, is a network of elevated walkways that was first presented in the 1970 Concept Los Angeles: The Concept for the Los Angeles General Plan. Hamilton was the city planning director at the time, having taken the position in 1964.
The plan, adopted by the city in 1974, promoted dense commercial developments connected to one another by a rapid transit system. The plan was abandoned in 1981 when federal funding for the project was eliminated. Hamilton stepped down from his position in 1985 after a criminal investigation.
Other than the pedways Hamilton’s transit plans never materialized, but there are several public transit options serving the area around the pedways, including the Metro‘s Red and Purple subway lines, Metro’s Silver Line metroliner, dozens of Metro bus lines, the San Gabriel Valley‘s Foothill Transit, LA DOT‘s DASH and Commuter Express buses, Montebello Bus, Orange County‘s OCTA, Torrance Transit, and Santa Monica‘s Big Blue Bus. The near future promises both the Los Angeles Streetcar and Regional Connector stations. And finally, although hardly the most useful option, there’s also Angel’s Flight.
In Mike Davis‘s City of Quartz, the author mentions Bunker Hill‘s pedways in a list of “tropes in an architectural language warning off the underclass Other.” Although in Concept Los Angeles the pedways’ stated purpose is, as mentioned earlier, to connect people to people mover — part of a larger plan to ease traffic congestion — they do seem to have an alienating effect. If the pedways are intended to serve as a warning to the street level Morlocks, however, they have apparently failed. A recent letter from the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council to councilperson José Huizar complained of “groups or gangs on the pedway, drinking, smoking dope and playing loud music. It’s a great spot for vandals as they are out of sight from the street below.”
Undaunted by either description, I set out to explore them and encountered mostly business people, walkers in exercise gear, and cigarette (not dope) smokers.
Although I hadn’t planned on it beforehand, my walk along the pedways turned into something of a tour of landscape architecture and public art. CRA/LA‘s Art Program requires that downtown developers working in CRA/LA’s contribute 1% of development costs to art projects. While some of the public art seems site specific (especially the athletic-related pieces of the Morgan Adams Jr. Sculpture Garden in front of the YMCA), some are arguably examples of what is often derided as “Plop Art.” For the curious, much but not all of downtown’s public art is located near the network of pedways. The landscape architecture, on the whole, was rather pleasing although omnipresent signage reminds visitors that these are not true public spaces and “loitering” or engaging in behavior that “may become annoying” is grounds for removal.
I started my walk at The Figueroa Courtyard, an office complex built in 1978 for the Pacific Stock Exchange, and originally named Exchange Square. Its low profile and landscaping are rather incongruent with its high rise neighbors, but very typical of the sort of office parks one finds in suburbs. Though business parks are rarely celebrated in their natural habitats, in the 1970s its fans nicknamed the gray complex “The Garden.” When it did open it was given a more prosaic name, the Gilbert W. Lindsay Mall. Respecting the “no trespassing” sign at the pedway’s end, I turned around.
BUNKER HILL TOWERS
The nineteen-story, Robert Evans Alexander-designed Bunker Hill Towers opened in 1968. After the demolition of 7,310 pre-existing homes and forced relocation of their residents, Bunker Hill Towers became the residence for nearly all of Bunker Hill’s remaining residents. More than a decade would pass before the nearby residential Angelus Plaza and Promenade Towers opened. Long before the redeveloped loft crowd “discovered” downtown thousands lived in such residences, including Cathay Manor, Little Tokyo Towers, and hardest to ignore, on the streets.
In the towers’ quiet courtyard a man took off his shoes and sat in the shade as occasional cyclists and pedestrians passed through. Another paced along the bars protecting an almost empty pool. Back at the intersection of the walkways connecting Figueroa Courtyard, Bunker Hill Towers and the World Trade Center is a plaque honoring Calvin S. Hamilton.
THE WORLD TRADE CENTER
With such a grand name, I was surprised at how uncannily deserted the World Trade Center seemed to be after hesitantly entering through a rather nondescript entrance on the building’s north side. Looking through the windows of empty office spaces I spied empty patios. In fact, there were more people on the large frieze, History of Commerce, than in the hallways.
A man stood in front of the Consulate General of Iraq looking bored, a group of Chinese dined at Cutting Board Deli, and two security guards surveyed the quiet scene. One of the guards proved knowledgeable and eager to share his opinions of the pedways and the way their increased usage seems to reflect the changing nature of downtown. He also added that anyone who wants to complain about broken lights along them or tagging should take it up with Caltrans and not him.
LA HOTEL DOWNTOWN
A pedway extending west from the World Trade Center connects to the 14-story LA Hotel Downtown. Since it opened in 1983 as the Sheraton Grande, it’s gone through several owners and designations. Until 2009 the building was also home to the strangely musty yet much-missed Laemmle’s Grande 4-Plex. Right now the hotel is undergoing an expansive and expensive renovation. Access to the hotel from the pedway requires a room key, so I didn’t attempt to enter.
BANK OF AMERICA PLAZA
The 55-story, Albert C. Martin & Associates-designed Bank of America Center opened in 1974 as Security Pacific Plaza. The skyscraper, the fifth tallest in Los Angeles, acquired its current name in 1992 and sits atop the roughly four acre Bank of America Plaza, which I found to be rather agreeable. Although the grounds north of the plaza were utterly deserted, those south of the Center were comparatively full of office workers reading, lunching, and otherwise quietly enjoying themselves. At the edge of the crowd, an apparently homeless man even practiced something resembling tai chi. The plaza, designed by Peter Walker & Partners, includes a rather stunning central water feature, although the most recognized feature is probably Alexander Calder‘s painted steel sculpture, Four Arches.
On the other side of Grand Avenue is Wells Fargo Center, home of the Wells Fargo & Co. History Museum and City Club Los Angeles. Another block east across Olive Street is California Plaza, which is home to several shops, public art pieces, and a water court that hosts Grand Performances — a series of free performing arts events. A short walk north up Grand are MOCA, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the newly opened Grand Park, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum (still under construction).
WESTIN BONAVENTURE HOTEL
The Westin Bonaventure Hotel looks like something out of Robocop. Typical of architect John C. Portman Junior‘s style, at its heart is a large atrium and multi-story labyrinth of walkways, shops, and mostly empty seating pods. The building’s inward orientation and imposing exterior make it feel, if not as impregnable as a fortress ideally is, something like an arcology, biosphere or space station. It’s designed to provide everything one would need for tourists and business travelers within its walls, although most of it shuts down after lunch. I just managed to grab a bánh mì from Mr. Baguette before its closing time of 3:00 pm. Forced to order my food to-go, after wandering around the building I ventured back out into the lawless outlands.
STUART M KETCHUM DOWNTOWN YMCA
Heading east along the most highly elevated walkway in the system, I approached the Stuart M Ketchum Downtown YMCA. Unlike most of downtown’s public art, most examples located in the building’s Teresa W. Lindsay Courtyard‘s Morgan Adams Jr. Sculpture Garden are figurative and more human in scale. Although Citigroup Plaza to the south of the Y is accessible without the use of a pedway, I returned to the Bonaventure and back across the street on another pedway.
Crossing over South Flower on the pedway connecting to Citigroup Center, Mark di Suvero‘s 1982 steel sculpture, Shoshone, commands attention and is reminiscent of Four Arches. Would anyone notice or care if the two sculptures were switched? Its interchangeability and generic character are matched by that of the 48-story Citigroup Center, yet another shiny, no-nonsense, flattop skyscraper designed by Albert C. Martin & Associates. It opened in 1982 and is the eleventh tallest building in the city. Passing through it, however, visitors reach more interesting landscapes and attractions, namely Robert Maguire‘s grand Bunker Hill Steps which lead down to Los Angeles’s wonderful Central Library.
UNION BANK PLAZA
The forty-story Union Bank Plaza, completed in 1968, was the first skyscraper erected as part of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project. Like most of the buildings in the project it was designed by Albert C. Martin & Associates, albeit in collaboration with New York‘s Harrison & Abramovitz. The plaza, designed by landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, was fairly tranquil upon my visit but for the roar of traffic on the adjacent freeway interchange that separates Downtown from the Westlake neighborhood. The plaza’s public art is a sculpture by Jerome Kirk, titled Aquarius. I only received a few curious glances as I crossed between the gentle fountains of the plaza’s pond on a low bridge before the onlookers returned to gesticulating expressively and talking on mobile headsets.
The Albert C. Martin & Associates-designed Manulife Plaza is connected to Union Bank Plaza by a pedway, but signs warn against entering the 21-story building from it so I descended a stairwell to the street level, where stands Christopher Keene‘s Salmon Run, completed along with the building in 1982. Though obviously made with artistic skill, the sculpture of bears feeding on fish feels more like advertising for the Canadian insurance company than true public art.
I ended my exploration at the two 52-story towers of Arco Plaza (designed by Albert C. Martin & Associates). City National Tower and Paul Hastings Tower were completed in 1972 and are the tallest twin towers in the city. Instead of connecting to either tower, the pedway from the Bonaventure ends in a staircase that descends to street level, near Herbert Bayer‘s sculpture Double Ascension, renamed thus after Bayer’s corporate sponsors nixed the artist’s original name, Stairway to Nowhere. Underneath the plaza an escalator connects to the retail catacombs of 505 Flower and I explored its mostly empty corridors and food courts half expecting to encounter the Grady Twins.
After escaping 505 Flower, I opted to remain in the neighborhood with a visit to the library. Although today’s oft disparaged Bunker Hill bears almost no resemblance to the romanticized, Victorian neighborhood of old, there’s still considerable charm to be found amidst the skyscrapers.