Frank Villalobos '70, Architecture
President, Barrio Planners
|"Barrio Planners was founded with the intent of coming back to the neighborhood and instigating change through environmental design, landscape architecture and community involvement."
Nearly 25 years ago, five Cal Poly Pomona
architecture and landscape architecture
students took the lessons they’d learned
in the college classroom about serving the
community through design, returned to
their neighborhoods in East Los Angeles
and launched their careers. Together they
founded the nonprofit Barrio Planners.
“We gave it a ’60s-style name so
that it would be recognized and have
a better image within the community,”
says Frank Villalobos, who is president of
the firm. “Barrio Planners was founded
with the intent of coming back to the
neighborhood and instigating change
through environmental design, andscape
architecture and community involvement.”
The Cal Poly Pomona-educated
founders, Raul Escobedo, Manuel Orozco,
David Angelo and Villalobos, achieved
immediate success in their formula of
including the community in their design
“We had the opportunity to redesign
a public park in Pomona that had been
taken over by the Sharky gang, so we got
their input along with the community,
incorporated a modernistic Mexican
design and named it Sharky Park.”
In 1974, they won a national award
for the project’s design, leading to many
other park projects in the early years.
“We have included community input
in all of our designs since then,” says
Villalobos, who received his bachelor’s
degree in architecture in 1970.
In recognition of this service to
society, Villalobos was honored this year
as a Fellow of the American Institute of
Architects, one of the most prestigious
distinctions in the profession.
With the firm’s commitment to
community in mind, Villalobos has had a
front-row seat to the social, political and
economic realities of East L.A. during the
last three decades.
“A lot of people who search for a
place to settle down usually will choose
where they want to live by whatever
economics it takes to get there. East
L.A. is a port of entry from Mexico. It’s a
transitional community, and people leave
once they are more affluent.
“What we saw at that time was local
people suffering from a lack of political
representation, and as a result, seven
freeways were built right through East L.A.,”
he says, which consistently uprooted and
displaced residents. “We resented that we
all grew up there having to move to make
room for the freeways and then having to
To combat the blight, Barrio Planners
helped create Ramona Gardens Park using
community input and successful design.
With pride of ownership, the neighborhood
took care of the park. But the synergy was
doomed when yet another freeway was
planned to raze the green space.
“Barrio Planners sued California
Department of Highways, and we were
able to keep the park,” says Villalobos,
but ultimately the government came back,
exercised eminent domain, tore down the
surrounding homes and built the freeway
anyway, leaving a park today with no
neighborhood to enjoy it.
With the groundswell of community
support they’d cultivated from the time
they first planned the park and the realization of how important their leadership had
been in the fight to save the property, albeit an overall defeat, Barrio Planners decided to
become a for-profit business in 1982.
“We incorporated, so we could participate in political activism. And honestly, being a
nonprofit design center barely paid the bills.” They were now able to compete with other
firms for larger projects.
While Barrio Planners still concentrates on projects that serve the community, the scale
has greatly increased. Today, in a joint venture with two other firms, Barrio Planners is part
of Eastside LRT Partners, and Villalobos is the lead architect responsible for the design of the
Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension stations, which will be completed in 2009.
The lessons of Ramona Gardens Park remain in the firm’s mission. A year ago, a Barrio
Planners’ project headed by cofounder Escobedo ‘68 and Luz Maria Chavez ‘86 — the
expansion of White Memorial General Hospital — was completed. And while the facility’s
capacity increased, and the physical plant was enlarged, the surrounding community not
only provided input for the master plan, but also the neighborhood remained intact.
“The hospital respected its boundaries, and the design didn’t require acquisition of
property outside its ownership.
“In every one of our projects we keep the community as the No. 1 client even though
they aren’t the ones paying for it,” says Villalobos.
“But they are the ones who will ultimately inherit the property as a landmark.”