After years of community conversations, planning, and stalled projects, the Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacoima is getting closer to moving forward on a wide range of initiatives to bring new life to Van Nuys Boulevard, the area’s main thoroughfare. One of four demonstration corridors chosen for ULI’s Healthy Corridors project—which aims to redefine corridor redevelopment by considering the health outcomes of residents and visitors—the boulevard is getting a fresh look, with every aspect of the area’s health under review.
“The difference now is there is actual momentum to rethinking the street,” says Max Podemski, planning director of Pacoima Beautiful, a local advocacy group.
The Pacoima neighborhood, with a population of more than 100,000, is on the northern end of the sprawling San Fernando Valley, famed for its devotion to the car. Slicing through the valley is Van Nuys Boulevard, a north–south corridor often used by commuters as an alternative to the perennially clogged Interstate 405. A quarter-mile (0.4 km) stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard is also the heart of the Pacoima community, a center for business and cultural events.
To help the community transform the Van Nuys corridor in health-promoting ways, ULI Los Angeles established a local demonstration corridor leadership group composed of district council members and other local stakeholders. The group started its engagement with the community by gathering existing data on the street, which quickly prompted a rethinking of its approach.
“This street has been studied to death,” says Melani Smith, a Los Angeles–based urban planner and chair of the leadership group. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.”
Instead, the group, “cataloged all the wish lists already made and presented them back to the stakeholders,” says Smith. By reacting to the community’s interest, the group was able to quickly move forward to prioritize the needs. “People got on board with that,” Smith says. To help move the discussions forward, the group formed a partnership with Pacoima Beautiful, which was already working on street improvements and had credibility in the community.
In many ways, Van Nuys has advantages over other corridors. Shops and businesses are already oriented toward the sidewalks, and local artwork covers dozens of walls along the stretch, part of an acclaimed collection of compositions known as Mural Mile. Also, plans are already in development to extend mass transit to Pacoima—either light rail, streetcars, or bus rapid transit—contingent on a vote to raise the sales tax.
“There is an incredible, vibrant culture on the street,” says Jonathan Nettler, director at ULI Los Angeles. “The bones are quite good.”
But there are also inherent problems. Pacoima is a low-income community where 20 percent of the residents are living below the federal poverty line. The five-lane road is not pedestrian friendly: only about half the intersections have crosswalks. Also, there are no bike lanes in the study area, and Van Nuys often takes on the characteristics of a freeway, especially during rush hour. The community is also dealing with a wide variety of health issues, including high levels of diabetes, stroke, and childhood obesity.
As part of the Healthy Corridors approach, the leadership group reached out to the leading health organizations in the area, adding a twist to the planning process. “When you get health people involved, you can talk about a different set of outcomes,” Smith says. The health aspect included discussions about providing healthy food alternatives, encouraging consumption of locally grown produce, and developing pedestrian-friendly environments—all in the context of a holistic approach to improving the corridor.
Though some form of mass transit may be coming to Pacoima in the future, the group decided not to emphasize hypothetical scenarios. “We didn’t want to get caught up in ‘transit is coming,’” Smith says. “Don’t wait. Improve the street now.” They also decided to focus resources on the small geographic area and establish clear priorities rather than try to deal with all the area’s challenges.
After the stakeholders were brought together, a visit by a group of national experts in health, real estate development, planning, and architecture helped bring issues into focus. During the ULI Fall and Spring Meetings in 2015, local leaders participated in forums with these national experts and local leaders from the other demonstration corridors—Vista Avenue in Boise, Idaho; Federal Boulevard in Denver; and Charlotte Avenue in Nashville.
“The biggest takeaway for me is the learning opportunity from other cities and how they are approaching issues, which can inform our own solutions,” says Carter Rubin, program manager in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office.
The ULI effort coincides with Garcetti’s Great Streets program, which is also looking at ways to improve the economic and cultural vitality of streets. The Healthy Corridor initiative helped bring together stakeholders and focus the discussions, according to Rubin, who oversees Great Streets. “A lot of pieces have been falling into place in concurrence with the ULI effort,” he says. “I credit the ULI team for inviting us to think broadly about health.”
The ULI community effort culminated in March with broad participation in CicLAvia, a recurring event promoting public spaces and bike-friendly environments throughout Los Angeles. The local group created the ULI Health Zone, which included health screenings, plant giveaways, a pop-up parklet, and information promoting a healthy lifestyle. “We were able to draw on stakeholders we’d engaged with and bring them all out,” Smith says. “We wanted to show what implementing these concepts would look like and at the same time connect people to the health resources available to them,” Nettler says.
CicLAvia also provided a platform to demonstrate in a tangible way the different elements of a healthy street, with people participating in art projects, biking along the road, and seeing firsthand how to cook healthy food.
The city is now moving forward with plans to reshape the street, including improved pedestrian access and steps to slow traffic through the district. If current plans are approved, crosswalks and a bike lane will be added, a center median removed, streets narrowed, and small outdoor seating areas created along the corridor. The city is also pursuing a grant to establish an arts incubator and hire an arts curator.
“I have never heard more people talking about the opportunity in the public right of way,” says City Councilman Felipe Fuentes, who represents the area. “This gives us a chance to think about multiple solution sets.”
The Healthy Corridors effort generated several specific ideas to increase activity on the street, ranging from increased marketing to more community events. Fuentes’s office is also pursuing possible property acquisitions, and plans are progressing for the transit system, which will offer more opportunities for making significant changes.
The combination of the ULI initiative and the city’s Great Streets program has created a “perfect storm” to get things done, Fuentes says. “There is a real confluence of interests, energy, and planning to finally bring Van Nuys revitalization in the whole sense of the word,” he says. “This is a perfect opportunity to deal with many issues.”