by Lance A. Williams
When the St. Louis Rams became the team selected by the NFL owners to relocate back to Los Angeles, they were aided in demonstrating their community vision by one of the strongest advocates for environmental sustainability within the community of local landscape architects. Mia Lehrer, President of Mia Lehrer + Associates is no stranger to innovative projects and the prospect of participating in a massive new stadium project provided the kind of challenges that she has long relished. Talk about a game-changer…
The fact that ML+A had been embedded for ten years in Inglewood, the self-glossed City of Champions where the stadium is being built, was a definite plus. Her corporate team had started off developing a Specific Plan for an urban infill project adjacent to the Forum where the Lakers and Kings previously played prior to relocating downtown to the Staples Center.
ML+A’s canvassing effort put them in close touch with local residents. Queries of residents regarding their open space needs yielded solid ideas and the realization that many people liked to walk, ride bikes, and be out in the open. What emerged from these discussions was a clear vision and an expectation of what could be accomplished in a city with a reputation as one of the baddest, hard core neighborhoods in the region.
According to ML+A’s findings, people were on concrete every day around the Forum grounds with all kinds of physical exercise activities happening in the large asphalt parking lot. The landscape architects concluded that a strong open space component in this development was extremely important to the community’s acceptance of the infill project.
Lehrer noted her familiarity with the city and its residents’ quality of life needs. “I’ve been working on the transformation of the old race track, Hollywood Park, for the last ten years. Then it was going offline as they say because people are watching races on TV. It was a sad moment in a lot of ways. But in the sense that it was going to allow for density of housing, and alternative civic spaces in Inglewood, that was very exciting. There was also a provision of 25 acres of park and from a sustainability perspective, we were striving really, really high.”
“There was always this thirty acre site above us because we worked on the Forum also, where we did some restoration, and some garden work. Unfortunately nobody had let us get rid of a lot of the asphalt as of yet. With the economy improving, there was an interest in those thirty acres. Mayor Butts said that the community did not want another big box retail. He said, ‘We want activity, we want jobs, we want intensity in our community that is healthy’,” noted Lehrer.
Then, by January of this year, following a textbook due diligence process, NFL owners voted 30-2 in favor of relocation. The Rams came to town, with the looming possibility that the San Diego Chargers or the Oakland Raiders might join them. Expectations of a big boost to Inglewood’s pocketbook and collective morale, international media exposure, and a return to the Showtime glory days took on epic, SuperLotto-winning golden ticket proportions.
Enter HKS. The worldwide icon of stadium building had been hired to design and build a state of the art facility that promised to set the standard for mixed-use, destination stadiums. HKS is notable in this country for building such iconic edifices as the recently-unveiled U.S. Bank Stadium for the Minnesota Vikings; Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Indianapolis Colts play and the annual NFL rookie combine is held; and the “House that Jerry (Jones) Built”, AT&T Stadium for the Dallas Cowboys.
According to ML+A associate Kush Parekh, when HKS met with Lehrer and her team, “They were impressed with our passion and project history,” as well as the goodwill built in the years of infill planning and execution in Inglewood. They pronounced Lehrer’s team a valuable asset and a viable collaborator to transform the site into the wondrous Taj Mahal depicted in the well-circulated, dynamic renderings.
By virtue of Mia Lehrer + Associates having worked so hard over the years to make the business case that their profession is an integral part of so many community-benefit endeavors, pushing hard for the importance of open space to health and well-being, suddenly they are placed in a unique spotlight as a standard bearer of sustainability to be broadcast to millions of people on national TV for half the year, beginning in 2019.
Is this the ultimate manifestation of the triple bottom line with the added bonus that the project will benefit an underserved community for many years to come? Time will tell.
But this opportunity was many years in the making for Mia Lehrer. Born in El Salvador of German-born Jewish parents, Mia has made the type of significant inroads that are the result of taking the challenging, circuitous route.
“I grew up in a small county where everybody does things. And my father was always involved in many things. So getting things done and inspiring people to support you in the activity of building things was also in my DNA,” said Lehrer, citing early formative influences.
Heading east after high school, she attended Cambridge-area institutions for her professional education. After a stint at Tufts University’s Jackson College for Women, she earned a Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) from the Harvard University School of Design. While there she met and married Michael Lehrer. They have been together 40-plus years.
Mia was the proverbial sponge. “I had a few professors who were incredibly inspiring and who raised a lot of questions and loved sharing and telling stories,” she recalled. Department Chair Peter Walker and Martha Schwartz, Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture helped her grow professionally as a landscape architect and became lifelong friends in the process. Mia and Michael moved to Los Angeles to begin their life together.
Her early career was marked by opportunities to build gardens as her practice grew. She pursued the corporate track to middling success until her genuine interests pushed her toward a more fulfilling direction.
A seminal point in Mia’s developing career was that after doing a few small residences, she got involved in some very large residential projects. “Someone had called Martha for a project but she couldn’t do it because she was so far away, she noted.
Mia and Michael had met some up and coming film producers, including Jan de Bont, Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher. Later, she worked for Dustin Hoffman and Jamie Lee Curtis. “It was one of those ‘you know this one, you know that one’ occurrences. They were all building things before any of us was really ready to build anything,” she said. “So I started balancing my work with the really wonderful movie industry folks. They’re enlightened about design and they can visualize things.”
Mia’s career odyssey continued with a shift to public sector interests. By 1992-93, she was working on the LA River with the poet Lewis MacAdams. “Basically, I wasn’t working with him, I was helping to clean the river. I discovered that you could go on Earth Days and clean the river. Then I started working with ASLA and the AIA and ULI on some charrettes on the river. It really opened my mind to the fact that we have so much to offer in the public sector.
“When we did the charrettes, that’s when I realized the power of design in certain issues. You can talk a lot, you can write a lot, but if you can draw, if you can help people visualize solutions, then you have the ability to contribute in a very different and meaningful way,” she noted.
Public service combined with a strong need to become part of the community that she is serving has become an integral part of ML+A’s unique work ethic. It is certainly one of the selling points of her current work.
“I think that I pride myself in nurturing a team that has a set of values that really advocate for community, advocate for design and beauty and a level of environmental justice. I was talking with a friend who spoke of people whom you might consider as provocateurs that are really involved in the community; really involved in advocacy. So I said that’s a better term that I can call myself – a provocateur as opposed to a troublemaker.
“We’re engaged in the community and we love highlighting design. We are agents of change. We’ve brought change to the Vista Hermosa Park; we’ve brought change to the Natural History Museum; we’ve brought change to a new park at 1st and Broadway. Those projects as well as planning projects like the LA River, like Silver Lake, like work we’ve done in Wilmington, are all projects where we sort of look at design in a very site-specific, culturally specific way.
“We tell a story about the environment, the drought, water, and access to spaces. So I’m very proud and I strive to build space but I’m also very proud when the spaces can be inhabited and the messages that people take to their schools, to their homes and to their families are about a better understanding of urban ecology and what it’s about to live in this world and to share across countries and cultures.”