Greater Streets — Visiting Silver Lake’s Sunset Triangle Plaza

It’s the tenth anniversary of Silver Lake’s Sunset Triangle Plaza. In its first decade, Silver Lake’s first (and thus far, only) street-to-plaza conversion has truly emerged as one of the primary hubs of the community. That’s no small feet when the actual center of the neighborhood is a giant, fenced-off reservoir and none of the neighborhood’s decentralized ring of commercial corridors can incontestably be described as its high street. A big renovation is now planned for the plaza and now is a chance to make your voice heard about what you’d like to see improved. At the end of this piece is a link to a survey.

THE BEGINNING — THE OSTRICH FARM RAILWAY & CHILDS’ HEIGHTS

The area in which the Sunset Triangle Plaza is now located has been part of Los Angeles since 1781, when it was founded. Development of the area wouldn’t begin in earnest for over a century, though. In 1886, M.L. Wicks began construction of a railway through what’s now Silver Lake along what are now Sunset and Griffith Park boulevards. It was built for the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm Railway, and its purpose was to convey passengers to an ostrich farm in Griffith Park where thrill-seeking Angelenos could watch ostriches eat oranges and do other fun things. In October of 1887, Wicks began construction of another train line toward Santa Monica. It branched off from the Ostrich Farm Railway at what’s now Sunset Triangle Plaza.

A detail of a Childs’ Heights depicting the train lines and junction

Perhaps sensing an opportunity, attorneys John S. Maltman and Oliver A. Ivers began platting a subdivision around the train lines, Childs’ Heights, in 1886, at the same time that Wicks was securing his right-of-way through the area. Lots in Childs Heights went on sale in 1887. Brochures for the tract promised, “The Soil is Fine | The Views are Charming | Best Water in the City Piped to Every Lot.” The map shows that the traffic island bounded by Elysian Park Avenue (now Sunset), Imogen Avenue (now Edgecliffe), and Childs Avenue (now Griffith Park) and located at the junction of the two rail lines was for sale. Another brochure shows many of the lots marked “sold,” including the triangular park — but actual development seems to have come more slowly. The oldest home in the tract today was built in 1902. The park, for that matter, seems never to have been built upon.

The ostrich farm closed in 1889 but, by then, the railway was run by the Los Angeles County Railway Company, an agency with ambitions beyond transporting people to gawk at large birds. The railway to Griffith Park would be extended to Burbank, a brand-new suburb in the San Fernando Valley that had only opened two years earlier. Beginning in January 1889, a new train line branched off from the route to the Valley and headed west toward Santa Monica from the junction where the small, triangular park is located. In 1894, the Los Angeles and Pasadena Railway, one of the biggest local rail transit agencies of the day, bought the railway. In the decade that followed, a fair number of houses and apartments began to pop up throughout the tract.

SILVER LAKE BECOMES A STREETCAR SUBURB

Pacific Electric Railway (PE) was founded in 1901 and would go on to operate the biggest interurban network of electric streetcars that the world has ever known. In the communities then still more often known as Edendale and Ivanhoe (but today characterized as Silver Lake), PE acquired a railway in 1908 that ran all the way from Downtown Los Angeles to Burbank via the Glendale City Center. In 1911, PE took over the Los Angeles and Pasadena Railway and began running its San Fernando Line past the triangular park, through the Cahuenga Pass, and to its distant terminus in the city of San Fernando. Childs’ Heights and Silver Lake finally had something even modern urbanites would recognize as a true mass transit network and in order to provide pedestrian access to this network, the city built more than fifty still-extant walk streets, stair streets, and public stairways in Silver Lake (and hundreds in other streetcar suburbs). Silver Lake, like much of early 20th century Los Angeles, was built around the street car, not the private automobile as is so often erroneously stated.

APARTMENTS AND NEIGHBORHOOD CHARACTER

Several apartment buildings opened around the junction in the 1910s and ’20s that were much larger than anything built in the neighborhood up until then — and ironically the sort of buildings that would be violently opposed today by the chorus of NIMBYs who invoke, in bad faith, “neighborhood character” in their objections to any and all new development. None of these buildings were constructed with a single parking spot between them. Today we call such developments TODs or “transit-oriented developments.” Back then, such buildings didn’t have a special acronym — it was just common sense. Why, in that era, would anyone living anywhere but on a farm want to be saddled with an automobile — especially as more train lines opened and the city was densifying around them into a walkable place.

A century-old relic of Silver Lake’s “Manhattanization” and an illegally-parked off-road vehicle.

The first zero-parking apartment was a sixteen-unit apartment at 3700 Sunset, which was completed in 1917. It was followed by an even larger, 23-unit Spanish Colonial mid-rise at 1600 Griffith Park. The largest was the handsome, brick, four-story, 32-unit Crestmont Arms, which opened in 1929.

The zero-parking Crestmont Arms, Coffee Memes, and the excellent Pine & Crane

When Silver Lake NIMBYs invoke “neighborhood character” and scream about the “Manhattanization” posed by (I’m not kidding) duplexes; it’s worth remembering that Silver Lake’s neighborhood character was, until the implementation of parking minimums in the 1930s and beginning of economic segregation and downzoning in the 1960s, increasingly typified by modest mid-rise apartments such as these — as well as garden apartments, bungalow courts, courtyard apartments, fourplexes, and other multi-unit residences. One also has to wonder — were there Silver Laker NIMBYs in the 1900s who complained about the change in character as uniplexes were built and roads where paved where formerly there had only been alfalfa fields and pastures? And why does preserving neighborhood character always inevitably mean turning back the clock to the post-segregation/pre-Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 years?

COMMERCIALIZATION — “DOWNTOWN SIVLER LAKE”

First came the trains, then came the residents, and finally, businesses began to open in Childs’ Heights. The area around the Sunset Triangle was emerging as the heart thriving, and walkable community. One of the oldest restaurants. in the city, Millie’s Cafe, opened in 1926, inside a building that had been constructed four years earlier. The building at 3636 Sunset (currently Bacari) was built in 1924. The building at 1527 Griffith Park (home to the Win~Dow and Breadblok) was built in 1925. Buildings at 3601 Sunset (currently Yummy.com, originally a Van de Kamp Bakery), 3713 Sunset (currently Bar Moruno), and 3612 Sunset (currently a 99¢ only, originally Food Mart) opened in 1933, ’34, and ’36, respectively. A small, Art Deco building at the corner of Edgecliffe and Griffith Park opened in 1940.

THE END OF THE TRAIN ERA

Henry Edwards Huntington’s Pacific Electric Railway, despite its vast area of coverage and ridership, had never been a a true public transit network — just a mass transit one.. Huntington’s company was privately owned, usually operated at as loss, and was primarily meant to serve as incentive to buy lots in Huntington’s newly developed streetcar suburbs. Ones the lots had sold, the trains had served their true purpose and Huntington resisted maintaining them, opposed the unionization of his workers, and voters rejected giving his company more money to do so as they opted, increasingly, to buy automobiles. At the same time, there was no public transit agency to take over operations. Then, on top of it all, Huntington died in 1927.

The trains at “Sunset Triangle Junction” soldiered on until 1952 and ’53. Los Angeles had then only just launched its first, true public transportation agency, Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (LAMTA) — although its original mandate, as created in 1951, was to study the feasibility of building a monorail between Long Beach and Panorama City. It turned out not to be feasible. LAMTA’s scope was broadened in 1954 but, by then, Los Angeles was a thoroughly car-dependent city. In 1966, Ed Ruscha drove along Sunset Boulevard with a motorized camera mounted in his vehicle. The results were stitched together in a grimly beautiful collage of depicting every building on the street — and every surface parking lot where buildings had once stood in more walkable days but had been knocked down to accommodate empty automobiles.

BUSINESSES COME AND GO

In the decades that followed, as demographics and tastes changed, so too did the businesses around the plaza. Many have come and most have gone, Crestmont Automotive Parts, A & P Food Store, Marukane Food House Market, El Conquistador, The Jungle, The Flamingo, Being Alive, Club Secrets, Cliff’s Edge, Jade Cafe, Morning Nights, Cloud Hookah Lounge, Cru Vegan, Enrique Auto Parks, Fandango Salon, Roo Coffee, Sunset Junction Bike Shop, and Mh Zh. Andrea and Romeo Guzman have witnessed a lot of the change, having opened United Bread & Pastry there in 1985.

THE PARK AND BEDPAN FOUNTAIN

The bedpan fountain and an apparently DIY bench

I wonder it the slightly Ballardian traffic island there was ever really intended to be a park. It seems unlikely as, I don’t believe, it’s ever even had a name. I call it the Sunset Triangle Park. It’s become more park-like over the years. There are a few Mexican fan palms that I suspect are nearing the end of their lifespan. There are some plane trees that I think may be London plane trees but might, I guess, be sycamores. There are also sweet gum trees — a favored tree for hostile landscape architecture. Sadists love to plant it in parks because it’s pretty (especially in autumn) enough to be enjoyed from behind a windshield but also conveniently drops incredibly spiky seed balls that make playing, relaxing, or sleeping underneath them painful and unadvisable. Sadly, in Los Angeles, they are a common feature in parks. In 1995, on the recommendation of the Silver Lake Improvement Association, Joel Mueller designed a fountain that was installed there, which made it feel more park-like. Not too long after, a prankish artist was inspired by the fountain’s appearance to install a plaque that read ““In Memoriam, Mildred P. Flaggerty, 1888-1962, Inventor of the Bedpan, Los Angeles Civic Council 1977.” It seems to have vanished sometime in the not-too-distant past.

Sweet gums (left) and, I believe, London plane trees (right).

THE CREATION OF THE PLAZA

In March 2012, the block-long stretch of Griffith Park Boulevard next to the tiny, unnamed, pocket park was permanently reclaimed from automobiles and named the Sunset Triangle Plaza. It was, by design, done cheaply and quickly. It was decorated with lemon grass-colored green polka dots on a grape green background. The design was by Frank Clementi of Smith-Clementi Architects. Some planters were installed, mostly planted with succulents from southern Africa and purple inch plant native to the Caribbean mainland. There were also knew bicycle racks installed, a bike repair kiosk, and a basketball hoop.

The bike racks and bike share

Almost immediately, the Sunset Triangle Plaza began to take root and improve. The Silverlake Certified Farmers’ Market, which predates the plaza and was launched in 2001, was originally just on Saturdays but is now on Tuesdays as well. In its first summer, a free film series was launched called the Silver Lake Picture Show. In most years, it’s taken place from late June until mid-September. Vivian Ku‘s Pine & Crane opened in 2014 and proved to be not just one of Silver Lake’s best restaurants, but one of the best in the city. A Metro bike share opened. Not long ago, someone donated a refrigerator to be used as the Silver Lake Community Fridge — which is cleaned, maintained, and stocked with food by volunteers.

The Sunset Triangle Plaza, in other words, has improved over there years — but there’s still room for lots more. Here are some of the improvements I’d like to see.

SHADE & LANDSCAPING

The intersection of Edgecliff and Griffith Park — currently used primarily by idling vehicles — could benefit from more shade than is provided by utility lines
  • The plaza needs more shade and better landscaping. African succulents are pretty, and tolerant of both drought and sun. They’re great for Southern Africa but don’t provide nearly as much benefit here. Our native plants — which evolved here for thousands if not millions of years in symbiosis with native flora, fauna, fungi, and microbes.
  • The grass in the pocket park is constantly overwatered and kept in a quasi-swampy state. Perhaps this is meant to make life more difficult for the people who sleep in it although if so, attacking the most vulnerable members of our community seems both psychopathic and perverse. Whatever the reason — it’s not working. People continue to live in the park, in a soggier state, and the grass looks terrible. And water is wasted during a drought. Replace thirsty, over-watered, non-native grass with more appropriate native plants.
  • Replace hardscape with permeable pavement.
  • Cut into the street, if feasible, to create space for more trees — otherwise, install sun shades or other cooling canopies.
Drought? What drought? Gotta soak that sidewalk next to the Dead Marshes

PUBLIC AMENITIES

  • The plaza has always needed a self-cleaning restroom. if you don’t provide restrooms for the people, the people will make their own restrooms I.’m not sure what those who oppose public restrooms think will happen without them but I can’t say that I’m surprised by the outcome. As someone who visits the plaza several times a week, I always wince at the acrid smell of sun-baked urine and, a lot more often than I’d like, encounter fly-covered human feces in a parking lot. It seems to me that every park of a certain size and popularity should have public restrooms. Why should the burden be on businesses to accommodate and clean up after an endless stream of customers, park residents, park visitors, farmers’ market shoppers, filmgoers, Dream Center volunteers, the Hollywood/Los Angeles Beautification Team, and the Silverlake Trash Club as they go from business-to-business begging to be allowed access.
  • The park doesn’t just need restrooms but drinking fountains. Right now, the model is to leave to to private individuals to buy bottled water and then donate it to the community fridge for those in need. This is insulting. Much of this bottled water is stolen from public lands by massive corporations. The water is full of micro-plastics and the bottles fill our rivers and oceans. The bottles, additionally, require the extraction of petrochemicals and waste tremendous amounts of water in their manufacturing.
  • The park, like all parks, needs seating. Again — it shouldn’t be up to the businesses to provide seating. Nor, for members of the public, does seating for businesses feel welcoming — and when it’s the only seating — it makes the whole space feel like a quasi-public one.

SAFETY AND SECURITY

  • More eyes on the street make for improved safety. More evening programming will keep people in the plaza later. The plaza should encourage evening use — further requiring access to restrooms after business hours. Live music, I think, would be very nice — so long as it’s not amplified and ends by a reasonable hour. I saw somewhere that Vivian Ku suggested a ping pong table. I think that that would be spectacular.
  • Security cameras don’t prevent crime and police, in my personal experience, never do anything with the footage when it’s turned over to them. Instead, pay for a full-time security guard, park ranger, or park caretaker.
  • I support the plan to add more lighting but it must be done in a way that minimizes light pollution and its negative effects on birds, insects, and humans that live nearby.
  • The greatest threat to public safety, however, isn’t from vandals and burglars — it’s from cars. This area is unfortunately a high collision network. We need bulb-outs at nearby intersections, narrower car lanes on Griffith Park Boulevard, and more street trees everywhere.

ACCESS

An e-scooter blocking the sidewalk and an illegally parked off-road vehicle blocking a fire hydrant
  • Improve non-vehicular access to the Sunset Triangle Plaza. Most Angelenos say that don’t want to drive as much as they do but, understandably, don’t feel as though it’s safe or practical to get around in anything but a car. Induce demand for walking, biking, and riding the bus whilst simultaneously reducing demand for cars.
  • There should be no reason that anyone who visits a farmers’ market — other than a vendor — to drive to them. The whole point is that they come to you. Sunset 4 All, which will create a bi-directional, protected bike lane along Sunset, will attract more cyclists. Widen the ridiculously narrow sidewalks on Griffith Park Boulevard to make them ADA compliant.
  • Expand the plaza into the block of Edgecliffe between Griffith Park and Sunset — already closed twice a week and right now constantly abused by scofflaws who idle their cars in “no parking” spots.
  • Replace and maintain the bicycle repair station, which was vandalized almost as soon as it was installed.
  • Create a parking corral for e-scooters.
  • Relocate and upgrade the bus stop for Metro’s 2 and 4 lines to the park.
  • Add meters to street parking on surrounding streets to generate revenue and discourage all-day parking.
  • Close the driveway gap between the park’s “west” and “east” and design the driveway to feel like.a pedestrian space that cars may enter with caution — and not a space for cars inside a plaza that pedestrians must enter with caution.
  • Increase designated commercial loading zone areas on Sunset to make it easier for wholesalers to deliver to the markets, bakeries, and other businesses.
  • Create short-term parking spaces for drivers employed by food delivery platforms so that they don’t have to park illegally.
  • Consider making the area around the plaza permit-only parking to prioritize car-dependent residents living in buildings without assigned parking spaces over people driving from elsewhere within the neighborhood.

EXPAND THE MODEL TO OTHER AREAS

Another view of the block of Edgecliffe that should be closed to cars — and an illegally parked sedan.

The Sunset Triangle Plaza was created to be a pilot project in order to demonstrate how quickly and cheaply such amenities could be created. We should also highlight how successful it’s been for surrounding businesses. Only then, I suspect, will there be a push in other commercial districts for the creation of similar plazas. If there were any silver linings in the COVID19 Pandemic, one, surely has been, that every last Angeleno now realizes one, how nice it is to eat outside and two, how nice streets are when there aren’t cars on them. That’s why the L.A. Al Fresco and Slow Streets programs were so popular.

Sadly, though, we haven’t created many other streets-to-parks yet. It hasn’t even expanded to other parts of Silver Lake. While the city designated two Silver Lake intersections as Landon Dorris Square and Joseph Gatto Memorial Square, fifteen and seven years later, respectively, they remain squares in designation only. Meanwhile, just up the hill from the Sunset Triangle Plaza on Maltman, there’s a proposed park park-to-street conversion (or a “street vacation”) — where CD13 supports taking a public, park-like area and allowing it to be developed with a private uniplex. This is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.

If we get this right, on the other hand, it will inspire similar street-to-plaza conversions not just in other parts of Silver Lake, but in cities in other countries. Street-to-plaza conversions are an essential tool — along with expanded and improved mass transit, improved and expanded active transit infrastructure, building more affordable housing, and preserving existing green spaces — for making Los Angeles more livable.

If you like any of those ideas, feel free to share them. Please share your own with me and the comments as well with City Council District 13, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council., and the Silver Lake Improvement Association. And please fill out this survey!


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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesVICEHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture.
Brightwell has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles.

You can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreads, iNaturalist, Instagram, Mastodon, Medium, Mubithe StoryGraph, and Twitter.

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