Small businesses and streetscapes, boulevards and bodegas: These aren’t the typical aspirations of up-and-coming architecture firms. But the self-described “scrappy Angelenos” at the helm of LA-Más, a nonprofit architecture and policy practice, see things differently.
The name alone—which translates to “Los Angeles more,” as in, amplify the characteristics, personalities, and businesses at the heart of this sprawling city—says it all. For LA-Más, what makes Los Angeles great isn’t big budget mega-projects and neighborhood makeovers, it’s what’s organically happening on the sidewalk.
“Beautification is a Band-Aid approach,” says architect and co-executive director Elizabeth Timme. “This city faces serious issues. Many people can’t afford to stay here. Pretty things aren’t good enough. We’re here to do something for those who don’t have a voice and deserve more.”
That work begins at a smaller scale, at home and at work. Since LA-Más opened its studio in the northeast Frogtown neighborhood in 2014, its has measured success one block—or small business—at a time, working on streetscaping, signage, and design for entrepreneurs and public projects, sometimes with four-figure budgets that would barely purchase a used car.
But LA-Más believes that working on a micro-scale can create sustainable change.
“It’s great to work with small-business owners because they are putting their heart and soul into delivering something the community needs,” says Helen Leung, a planner, policy wonk, and co-executive director of the studio. “They’ve been doing that work for decades. To be able to add something that reflects their investment is an incredible gesture.”
Timme and Leung’s diverse backgrounds—designing places, and creating the policies that do (or don’t) make those places possible—are at the heart of LA-Más’s street-level approach. Architecture thrives when cities provide a framework for experimentation and community involvement; regulations and rules need design to take shape—and make an impact—at street level. A holistic vision, ones that pushes back against bureaucracy and restrictive rules, makes all the difference.
“We can all be NIMBYs if we don’t get to shape growth,” says Leung. “It’s not that residents of the communities we work in don’t want anything big done. It’s that they want it to benefit the people who are already here.”
The studio now numbers about a dozen, and includes architects, planners, fabricators, and part-time research fellows. They work out of a rehabbed building near the Los Angeles River—a former halfway house and weed dispensary that once served as a recording studio for James Brown—which now functions as an office and woodshop.
Timme, a third-generation architect, moved to LA from Houston in 1994. During her time as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design—and, later, during formative experiences working in Rwanda and Liberia on hospital projects as a development officer for MASS Design Group—Timme reveled in the possibilities of low-budget projects unconstrained by onerous rules.
Leung is a second-generation Chinese-American who grew up in the William Mead Homes, a public housing project near LA’s Chinatown, as well as Frogtown, and has seen gentrification’s impact firsthand. She worked in then-councilmember, now-mayor Eric Garcetti’s office for community projects, focusing on neighborhood outreach. During a successful effort to open a community garden in Hollywood, she began to appreciate the numerous players and people involved in a seemingly straightforward effort, and how complex issues like affordability and accessibility can’t be solved with pretty park space alone.
Many of LA-Más’s early projects focused on signage and street redesign in underserved neighborhoods. During a project in Watts, LA-Más interviewed store owners along a central artery in the area, Wilmington Avenue, to create engaging new hand-painted marquees.
Faded block lettering and plastic banners became eye-popping images of pinatas, bike chains, and deli meat. A bodega in MacArthur Park beamed with an interior and exterior paint job, highlighting the fruits and vegetables available through the citywide Healthy Neighborhood Market program. A flashy redesign of the menu and facade at El Atacor #8, a Mexican restaurant in Montebello, that helped emphasize the restaurant’s healthy options made the owner literally cry with joy; finally, a facade that showcased his values.
Their efforts went beyond skin-deep cosmetic change: LA-Más worked with council members and local officials in Watts to integrate design with impactful business assistance. The Wilmington Avenue project helped them realize that businesses also need to redesign their websites, navigate the permitting process for new signage, and feel empowered to demand more attention. Accordingly, many of the group’s subsequent projects include education and training components—so community members, not the firm, become the hubs of knowledge.
“We want to combine design expertise with common sense,” says Timme, “to give people the ability to [claim] more power. This is where we get into issues of displacement. Small business owners aren’t just competing with Amazon and big -box stores. They need to have a voice to talk to councilmembers.”
The same approach, marrying policy changes and proactive, pedestrian-friendly design, has informed their public realm projects like art walks in Frogtown and sidewalk redesigns on Reseda Boulevard that added furniture, new awnings, and repainted sidewalks to illuminate a commercial strip.
The recently completed Go Ave 26 streetscape project, which remade a desolate stretch of sidewalks near the Lincoln/Cypress Station on the Metro Gold Line, added wayfinding and safety features to help improve access, navigation, and pedestrian safety. This low-cost effort to take back the environment for pedestrians took policy and political muscle, since numerous agencies and local groups, like Caltrans, needed to be brought on board.
LA-Más continues to seek out knotty intersections of policy and the built environment where they can make a difference. Currently, the firm is focused on Welcome to Western, an effort to improve public space on a stretch of Western Avenue between Melrose and 3rd Streets, working with an array of Korean- and Latino-owned businesses and community members. They’ve also been pushing for local legislation that would allow for accessory dwelling units, backyard additions they believe can help existing homeowners expand households without having to move, or make more money renting out part of their property.
“Growing up in LA, we’ve heard a lot of promises for the city,” says Timme. “We’re pragmatic idealists, and we want to see a future for LA that’s inclusive and progressive. But we’re not interested in any bullshit.”