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A Beverly Hills Redo

By Erik Skindrud, regional editor

Tail lights stream by the intersection of Beverly Drive and Dayton Way in this nighttime time-exposure view. The star-like street lights here are SELUX Stradex fixtures fitted with metal halide lamps.

It's one of the best-known shopping districts in the country, but by the late 1990s, Rodeo Drive was seeing business trickle away to surrounding areas. So the City of Beverly Hills hired a team of design professionals, which selected a number of new, European-flavored elements.

The so-called "Golden," or "Business Triangle" of Beverly Hills, Calif. is a relatively compact area three blocks long. This is the home of Tiffany, Cartier, Versace and several hundred other top-end boutiques clustered north of Wilshire, bordered by Santa Monica Boulevard to the north and west.

The triangular layout has its advantages--but also its disadvantages. The layout gives the shopping district walkability but it also creates traffic and parking headaches. Solving those issues were at the core of the team's thinking and design philosophy.

The Ritorno fixture (lower here) uses a unique design that shines a 70-watt metal halide lamp straight up against an aluminum reflector, which diffuses the light over a wide area for pedestrians. The Stradex fixture at the top of this pole is directed down onto the street.

The Big Picture

"You tend to lose your orientation in a triangle," project landscape architect David Schneider explained. "Because you end up in the same place when you take parallel streets. It can be disorienting, so we decided to give each street its own look and character to assist pedestrians who might be unfamiliar with the area."

Schneider is a principal at Fong Hart Schneider + Partners in Costa Mesa, Calif.--a firm that has recently completed work for Southern California's Disneyland and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The Beverly Hills neighborhood had many other issues beyond getting lost, of course--namely the need to resolve conflicts between cars and pedestrians. The latter, after all, form a pool of potential customers.

The early, conceptual work on what became known--a bit prosaically--as the Beverly Hills Urban Design Program, was completed by the planning group Moule & Polyzoides of Pasadena, Calif.

The "park-once" concept emphasizes the importance of getting visitors to use the neighborhood's large parking structure at the northwest corner of Brighton Way and Rodeo Drive. Making the rest of the area pedestrian-friendly was a key to prompting visitors to leave their cars and navigate on foot.

"The block length of 600 feet made it difficult for pedestrians," landscape architect Schneider said. "If you were stuck in the middle of the street, and wanted to cross to a shop on the other side, you might have to walk 300 feet to a crosswalk, cross the street, and walk 300 feet back to the shop. Or you would have to J-walk. So Moule & Polyzoides was very much into what the City of Santa Monica has--which is the 'park-once' design."

Making it easier for visitors to browse and navigate without yielding to the temptation to return to their cars centered on cutting the blocks in half with additional crosswalks. With the new design, pedestrians can cross the sometimes bumper-to-bumper traffic every 300 feet, instead of only at the street intersections--which are spaced two football fields apart.

On Rodeo Drive, 30-foot-tall, median-mounted poles with 150-watt, pulse-start lamps illuminate streets, sidewalks and storefronts without visually obstructing retailers. The pulse-start lamps were selected for energy efficiency, lamp life and warm, consistent color. Louvered, concealed landscape uplights enhance pedestrian sidewalks.

Lighting Visions

The design team knew that the mid-block intersections would present a safety challenge. Drivers might not expect to see pedestrians crossing at the midpoints--especially at night. Prominent lighting at each crosswalk would be needed to make the streets pedestrian-friendly and pedestrian-safe.

The team selected SELUX light fixtures for their cutting-edge look. The New York-made lights and pole elements are designed to complement each other with banner arms, pedestrian push bottoms and integrated traffic signals. This versatility enabled engineers to create a total of 33 pole configurations.

This was a dramatic change from the lights that had formerly illuminated Rodeo Drive and its neighboring streets. The design team decided that the SELUX lights' look was bold and postmodern enough to match the area's increasingly international tone.

The brightly-shining Stradex fixture at right extends towards the street on a roadway extension arm. The 400-watt lamp sits on a 30-foot pole to illuminate a wide area.

"Originally, there was a very traditional light fixture on these streets," Schneider said, recalling the planning process. "But the area had progressed to a much more international style--so we wanted something that was more cutting edge.

"We were also taken with the SELUX lights because of their modular design," he added. "The poles themselves are not just decorative and attractive but have multiple attachment points.

These are nodes where features can be added at a later date. It might be additional lighting elements or it might be something as bureaucratic as a parking sign."

The elements at the midpoint intersections include Ritorno area fixtures to illuminate the sidewalk, with the smaller and more directional Stratex lights focused on the street below. Also attached to these crosswalk poles are the usual signals that tell pedestrians when and when not to cross a street.

An additional and original feature at the midpoint crosswalks is more landscape illumination, which helps grab the attention of drivers as they approach the crossing zones.

Rodeo Drive presents an exotic, palm-oasis feel with its plantings of mature date palms down the center median and more juvenile king palms along the pedestrian hardscape. As seen here, a diverse collection of human visitors crowd the area daily.

A Theme For Each Street

The postmodern light fixtures and poles were deemed the perfect complement to Rodeo Drive's theme (dubbed "International" on plans), but were considered versatile enough to fill out the complete neighborhood, including the parallel streets Beverly Drive ("National") and Canon Drive ("Residential"). The complete project includes a total of 300 light poles and a greater number of individual fixtures, including dozens of lights on cross-streets Dayton Way and Brighton Way--which are both narrower, one-way streets that function as "pedestrian connectors" for the shopping district.

Using the same lights and light poles throughout helps tie the area together with a common look--even though Rodeo, Beverly and Canon each get a unique makeover as part of the project. The details of each street's redesign were determined by an assigned color and plant palette, and by the street's geographic orientation.

The latter consideration led to some variability in sidewalk width on east-west-running Brighton Way and Dayton Way. To maximize sunny sidewalk space planners made the north sidewalk wider to take advantage of that side's additional light--especially in winter. The plan increased sidewalk space throughout the project area, but the increase was even greater on the two cross-streets, where the north-side sidewalk grew to 16 feet--with the south side built to half that--eight feet.

"The northern side was markedly widened, to allow for cafe seating and other daytime use," Schneider said. "Part of the idea was to keep the streets fairly narrow to keep traffic slow and encourage visitors to stay and do some shopping."

Rodeo Drive's International theme is enhanced in several ways. Among the most prominent was widening sidewalks to 18 feet, enhancing the Continental, Old-World feel of the shopping street while encouraging pedestrians to stay and enjoy the ambiance.

A special galvanizing, sanding and finishing process for the poles ensured recessed base plates and a 50-year life. For maintenance, and ease of replacement, the base plates match CalTrans (Department of Transportation) standards.

Rodeo's assigned color palette emphasizes light tones, primarily white. The design team beefed up the center boulevard planters to reinforce the European look. Befitting Rodeo's status, the projects most expensive plant elements were added here--impressive, 40-foot-plus date palms were planted down the center median, with elegant king palms in sidewalk square-hole planters.

The king palms (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) presented a unique challenge. The trees flourish in Southern California and are somewhat showier than other palms, with bright red fruit and white trunks (which fit Rodeo's color scheme). They are also pricy (close to $2,000 for an average specimen) and hard to find in large numbers. Planners had originally set their sights on trees close to 20 feet high, but had to lower their standards to plants from 14 to 16 feet high when confronted with the supply. A total of 88 king palms were placed on Rodeo Drive by March 1.

To complement the gray-toned palm trunks, Schneider and the landscape planning team chose white-blooming agapanthus and a dwarf philodendron, "Xanadu." The plants were placed in small planters cut out of the concrete hardscape.

The team considered more elaborate hardscape shades and patterns during the design process but settled on traditional white concrete. "The city felt they already had a great image with the sidewalk as it was," Schneider said. "They decided to stay with an understated sidewalk."

The seven-year process included master planning, approvals, design, testing, budgeting and installation. Each street was defined and divided by character and use: exclusive international retail (Rodeo); local retail/service (Beverly and Canon); and the pedestrian connectors (Brighton and Dayton).

One added hardscape feature turned out to be dark aggregate bands that designate the midpoint and corner crosswalks. The dark rectangles are created with a lithocrete process--i.e. crushed aggregate is pressed into wet concrete. The dark areas help create the illusion that the painted crosswalk patterns continue up onto the sidewalk.

A block to the east, Beverly Drive lacks Rodeo's concentration of shops but includes a number of destinations, including the new Museum of Television & Radio and restaurant landmarks like Nate & Al's and Il Fornaio. The new color theme here is yellow-- a tone brought out by the yellow flowers of cassia trees and complemented by the rust-colored trunks of California's native washingtonia palm trees. Considering the street's heavy pedestrian traffic, the team limited planter areas to narrow 10 x 4 foot dimensions. They also specified tree grates to maximize walking space around the cassia trees.

Another block east, Canon Drive is the last main street included in Beverly Hills' Urban Design Program. The official theme here is "Residential," with the street serving as a transition between the shopping district and the more suburban environment surrounding it.

The Canon color scheme is red-toned, with the bright pink flowers of the South American Tabebruia impetiginosa dominating the scene in spring. Plantings on Brighton Way and Dayton Way, the one-way streets that connect Rodeo, Beverly and Canon, include more red. Brighton Way sports the redish blooms of Albizia, and Dayton the yellow blooms and pink seed capsules of Koelruteria.

The light poles allow clutter-free attachment of permanent and seasonal signage and traffic signal hardware from multiple vendors. The spacing between mounting nodes meets strict California Department of Transportation and accessibility requirements.

Finishing the Job

Contractor Landscape FX of Redondo Beach, Calif. completed the plantings and landscape work while Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based contractor Griffith Company did the street alternations. By March, about 200 of the planned 300 total light poles had been installed, with the south end of Canon Drive the last phase planned to be completed.

Southern California's phenomenally wet rainy season this year played a role in delaying the project's conclusion, said Ara Maloyan, senior project civil engineer on the project for the City of Beverly Hills. "The rain has put a damper on the whole project," he said in March. "Everything in the public right-of-way is being removed and reinstalled in this part of town."

The project has been proceeding slowly but steadily since Aug. of 2003, with the last touches expected by the end of this summer. A faster timetable was prevented by the need to keep the area open for tourist traffic and business--construction takes place during the early-morning hours and was completely halted during December and January for the busier Holiday season.

Creating wider sidewalks was one of the design team's top goals. Parking space was minimized (note the red curb here) with cars directed to underground parking structures (pointed out in a median sign). White-flowered agapanthus creates interest along the median.
Photos courtesy Moule & Polyzoides, Lighting Design Alliance, SELUX Corporation

So far, the schedule--and the design--has received nothing but praise from the city--and from the local merchants who fund the $18 million redesign through a Mello-Roos Community Facilities District (the total will be paid back over the next 25 years).

"The work only takes place at night, to keep the shop owners open for business," project landscape architect David Schneider said. "The city has gone a long way to keep them happy."

The crosswalk pattern painted on street asphalt is continued on the sidewalk with the help of dark-toned crushed aggregate pressed into the concrete. The crescent-shaped planter at left is occupied by daylilies and a stainless steel control box.

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June 16, 2019, 10:36 pm PDT

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