Where the Sidewalk Starts: Los Angeles should better utilize its open rooftop spaces

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

A few weeks before the end of every semester, I find myself standing in the 70th-floor lobby of the Wilshire Grand, looking out across the seemingly unchanging expanse of north Los Angeles. This is one of my favorite views — the Wilshire Grand is architecturally unimpressive, but the view from its 1,099-foot vantage point makes me feel small and insignificant. It reminds me that even though another semester is coming to a close, at least from this view, the skyline will remain familiar.

Part of the reason for the apparent stagnancy is the number of flat, clustered rooftops in view, each marked with a large, encircled “H.” Though I draw comfort from the dependably omnipresent helipads, L.A.’s rooftops can be repurposed for better use. With the number of development projects happening downtown, L.A. should invest in developing existing rooftops in tandem to become more sustainable, efficient and welcoming to residents.

The primary goal of the 1974 law requiring rooftop helipads was to assist in fighting skyscraper fires — particularly rescuing those trapped by fire on top floors. However, technology like automatic sprinkler systems and designated fire elevators have made these helipads nearly obsolete.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti lifted the law in 2014, hoping for “a sea change for Los Angeles design,” as reported by the Los Angeles Times, but since then, not many existing rooftops have changed. In 2016 the Wilshire Grand building was topped with an 18-foot spire, in a failed attempt to add a skyline landmark, like the Seattle Space Needle or the Chicago Willis Tower. But in terms of developing the existing skyline, L.A. remains flat-topped and homogenous.

One of the ways L.A. can repurpose rooftops is by creating publicly owned private open spaces, like San Francisco and New York have done. Urban renewal policies from the ’50s pushed urban centers to be more than just workplaces. As a result, more community spaces for people to share and to live in were created. San Francisco passed the 1985 Downtown plan requiring public art spaces in new privately owned buildings or developments exceeding 25,000 square feet. Many of these spaces manifested as rooftop gardens like the Market Street Sky and Crocker Galleria terraces.

L.A. was not as dense and populated as New York or San Francisco at the time, and didn’t need to develop these open spaces. The city was having trouble attracting people as well as retaining them. However, now that L.A.’s population has more than doubled and sidewalks downtown bustle with pedestrians commuting from their apartments to their workplaces to retail locations, the need for public spaces grows greater.

In addition to creating more public spaces, L.A. has the opportunity to use rooftops as a way to make buildings more efficient and sustainable. From solar panel installation to rainwater collection, there are lots of additions that could provide clean energy for Angelenos.

The Shanghai Tower, a spiraling building with 128 floors, collects rainwater to be used for its air conditioning and heating systems at the top of its spiraled roof. While it doesn’t rain heavily in L.A., we have plenty of sunshine, which can be converted into energy by rooftop solar panels. Wind turbines, like those installed on the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China, could also be installed.

While we have plenty of rooftop bars and restaurants, they are far outnumbered by boring, flat-topped roofs. L.A. could be more creative with its buildings, not only for the sake of the skyline aesthetic, but to also make buildings more efficient, sustainable and community-oriented.

Breanna de Vera is a sophomore writing about urban planning. She is also the opinion editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Where the Sidewalk Starts” runs Mondays.