WELL before recession and riots, the verdict was already in: Southern California was sprawling itself further and further into community-wide malaise for lack of a sense of place.
America's first city of cars was up to its rearview mirror in freeways but barely loafer-high in places to get out and walk. Even automatic transmissions had more gears than Los Angeles had places for the noncelebrity masses to strut their stuff.
Sure, there were the old standards: Venice/Muscle Beach, Westwood, Oldtown Pasadena, Melrose Avenue. But in the helter-skelter race to flee the inner city and build suburban enclaves, most planners forgot about the need for Main Street, town square, or city plaza - the soul-centers for commerce, culture, and hang-out socializing that make communities thrive.
Enter CityWalk, a combination promenade and entertainment city that has sprouted about 10 miles northeast of downtown and about 20 miles inland from the ocean. What started in May as a theme park's answer to connect its disjointed attractions has already become the city's hottest new place to see, be seen, and just be.
More than another trendy outdoor mall of smart shops, restaurants, and retail shops, CityWalk includes a relocated museum, nighttime college classrooms, festival space, and the right expanse of lights, fountains, and cafes to attract people for no particular reason.
Outdoor bands, video, and ubiquitous street performers fill the gap between what designer Jon Jerde has called ``the something missing between urban and suburban ... the urban village.''
A $100-million private development at Universal City - joining MCA Universal's 18-theater cineplex to its entertainment park - CityWalk is a new twist on the national trend of urban face lift that began with Boston's Faneuil Hall Market Place in the early 1970s, followed by Baltimore's Harborside and New York's South Street Seaport.
``CityWalk didn't rely on the reprogramming of something that already had historic or aesthetic appeal,'' says James Nelson, MCA vice president of planning and development. ``It started from scratch from a parking lot - and that's why its success is all the more startling.''
Tommy Gilmore, general manager of CityWalk, calculates the average daily attendance at 25,000 people, about 10,000 higher than early projections. During the day, the mix is heavy on tourists, while evenings and weekends pack in the locals like sardines. Parking records show huge numbers are staying well beyond the time it takes to eat, shop, or attend classes.
``CityWalk is probably going to change the recreational center of gravity of the whole [San Fernando] Valley. Maybe even all of L.A.,'' wrote one commentator in the Los Angeles Times.
``The question was how could we frame something for the city that told tourists what this city is about, but was also real for real-live residents,'' says Richard Orne, senior architect for Jerde Partnership, which was the central designer for CityWalk. ``L.A. is sort of the world where fantasy meets reality. We wanted to reflect that.''
At one end of the promenade, a faux beach sprouts real palm trees, muscle builders, and beach-chaired restaurant patrons ogling a 40-foot giant-screen TV rising against the sunny sky. Three dozen of the city's trendiest retail shops, outdoor cafes, bookstores, and sweet shops are punctuated by some of the most unusual architecture, facades, and spires found anywhere in the city.
``The idea of coming up with a single kind of architecture that this city is known for proved impossible,'' Orne says. ``The place is a collage of styles layered one upon the next.''
Early reviews say designers have captured the city's quirkiness and eclecticism and avoided the homogenized feel of many malls and theme parks. The California iconography - neon towers, surfboards - is both hip and genuine, while mirroring all that is fake and real in the city that spawned it.
``This place is completely real and unreal at the same time,'' says David Choly, a Valley resident who frequents CityWalk. ``That's what L.A. is. If it was just another mall, people would stay away in droves.''
Besides first-time knockoffs of major Southern California restaurants - seaside Gladstones, for instance, and a cafe designed by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck - CityWalk has become the headquarters for the Museum of Neon Art and an extension center for University of California at Los Angeles night classes.
There are 21 restored, vintage neon signs that once adorned real Southern California locations, such as ``Steele's Motel,'' ``Conde's Restaurant,'' and ``Melrose Theater.'' Computer-driven water fountains shoot jets of water directly out of the promenade floor at one end of CityWalk and produce crashing waves in a pool at the other end. Street performers gather patrons in numerous locations from noon to 11 p.m. for mime, juggling, and singing.
Called by Daily Variety, ``urban thrills without the ills....'' and by the Daily News, ``a respite from an urban jungle,'' the new attraction has also been raked over the coals for elitism.
A reviewer for Landscape Architecture dubbed it ``enclavism, [which] will continue to be the environmental response of this new-feudal generation [with] devastating consequences for the republic.''
But designer Jerde puts a more positive spin on his vision: ``Los Angeles' self-consciousness is going away, and it's being replaced with pride. L.A. is the barometer of the 20th century. Everything is going through it. The cannons are here and they're loose.''