L.A.'s Latest Park Marks a Shift in the City's Psyche

Sam Hall Kaplan's picture

Do we sense a subtle shift in the too often pedantic world of planning and design from private conceits to public conscious constructs, and in of all places Los Angeles, as evidenced by the heralded dedication this summer of a new downtown park?

To be sure, the first phase of the 12 acre park is a promising space, linking in a series of terraces edged by select plantings and brightly painted seating, from the neomodern Music Center to the west to the neoclassical City Hall to the east. Helping in particular these dog days of summer is a refurbished memorial fountain that invites wading and splashing, as well as the office workers out of the adjacent government buildings.

By Al Pavangkanan [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

But it is another matter whether the park designed with a welcome flair by the firm of Rios Clementi Hale Studios and serving as a stage for an ambitious schedule of events can attract enough people to lend the space urbanity. For that a new subway station and a convoy of food vendors will be critical, and maybe also a few performing buskers.

The fact is parks are, and always have been, a hard sell in L.A., where in its past suburban mode protected private space had been the preferred landscape. If there were clamors for open space initiatives by the usual chorus of planning liberals, prompted by the periodic publication of good government studies bemoaning its dearth, they were quelled with cat calls from fiscal conservatives to suck it up and simply better appreciate the region's sprawling beaches and sequestered backyards.

Underserved communities just have never gotten much sympathy in sunny Southern California, where the lush flora and the low-slung housing tend to camouflage the scattered slums. Given the region's segregated and fractured cityscape, public parks in Los Angeles frankly have had few advocates. Why else indeed has the revitalization of the L.A. River with all its marvelous potential languished for so long?

But to quote one of my neighbors, a poet musician, the times they are a changing, and from my perspective for a variety of interesting reasons that reflect evolving lifestyles of an emerging socially conscious citizenry and the practical politics of the powers-that-be tying knots on to the end of their frayed ropes.

Walking and biking is definitely on the rise, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, if you trust the flood of articles and blogs from across the country documenting the varied programs. I personally ascribe to CicLAvia and LA Streetstblog. And then there is the miracle of Google's search engine, spewing out millions of hits revealing an increasing number of communities forming alliances and lobbying for improved pathways and bikeways.

Whether it is the personal pressure to lead a more healthy lifestyle, or to save money by not having to commute wherever by gas consuming private automobile, or to keep pace with the seemingly constant increase in mass transit fares, more and more people are walking and pedaling to get where they have to, for work and whatever. What we have is a burgeoning constituency. Politicians who ignore this do so at their own risk.

The theory is that be it walking or biking, more people are on the street, in public spaces, and therefore if not interacting, then just more aware and hopefully more respectful of other persons. Citing a host of sources, L.A. urban designer William Fain observes these are the settings for the small everyday interactions that foster reciprocity and respect, in short that generate civility.

He writes in a modest, meandering collection of essays If Cars Could Talk, "this interaction doesn't happen in our cars, and it doesn't happen in our homes, it happens in public spaces that are well-knit into our everyday lives." Prolific Californian historian Kevin Starr adds that a city's greatness is measured by the quality of its public spaces; "that in countless social, economic and environmental ways, everyone in a city benefits from a high quality pedestrian environment."

So much for academic musings.

For another less intellectual perspective, Grand Park can be conversely considered a political expediency, the completion of a long promised park that was to be a $50 million public bow to a $2 billion private package crowning the city's premier cultural district. Shepherding bureaucrats made careers of it.

Actually, the park really was an after thought in the political and bureaucratic machinations that has marked the history of the redevelopment of Grand Avenue, that included the 12 acres known mostly then as a site for noon time assignations among office workers.  It was in effect a $50 million bond put up by the developer, Related of New York, whether or not the project moved forward.

Setting the tone of what turned out to be a tortuous redevelopment effort was Disney Hall, the much-honored architectural icon that was to anchor the area and attract high-end investments, which in turn would regenerate the center city. These are the things that always read well in prospectuses and press releases.

Despite a distinctive design that generated worldwide attention and garnered architect Frank Gehry every conceivable honor plus additional commissions, the building failed as both a focal point and financial stimulus. Bilboa it ain't. What you have now is a piece of plop architecture mooning the streets instead of activating them.

As I wrote then, and bore the slings and arrows for having done so, Frank's forte is not urban design. Nevertheless, he soldiered on for Related, holding on to the commission for the adjacent housing and commercial conceit like a pit bull, while the pricey proposed project withered. The faltering economy has not helped. I don't expect much more from the adjacent Broad Museum as designed by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, another Grand Avenue conceit that is hoped to generate the populace needed to fill the empty benches in the park.

So it turns out that the Park is the tail of the Grand Avenue project that is wagging the dog. It is just that Grand Park, to be grand and its coat healthy, is going to need a lot of nutritious biscuits from the event planners, and learn a few new tricks. Given the proclivities of L.A.'s emerging downtown population, a dog park might help.

Sam Hall Kaplan is a venerable planner, writer and academic persevering in Los Angeles.



Grand Park

judith hansen

Newly back from a couple of months in Berlin, yesterday I wandered over to Grand Park to take a look. I had followed online some of the hype ("LA's Central Park") and criticisms but wanted to see for myself, as both a neighbor and park lover.

Standing at the Music Center and looking down it's pretty nice. Miraculously the gorgeous fountain was retained and even improved on. Kids can use it. There are bathrooms and Starbucks under one roof to the side. Nice. The furniture is cheery, nice, and there is grass to lie on, nice again.
I like the explanations of planting zones...well done and informative. The winding trails remind me of wonderful Buena Vista Park a few blocks away. Really nice. But the killer...

Yesterday was 86 degrees, not the hottest day. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, not the hottest time of day. But I have photos to reveal (I raced home for my camera) that the ONLY people sitting at the park were huddled under the Starbucks overhang, or were trying to keep their limbs tucked into the shade of the few trees giving any protection. (ask for photos!!!)

I don't know all the tree types but how can anyone plant trees for concreted downtown which don't provide shade? Come look. It's almost criminal that a palm tree is considered a tree. It's a telephone pole without wires and a little topknot. It offers nothing. And the jacarandas are so heavily pruned that they offer almost nothing. HERE ficus/fig trees could be grown which are fast,
sturdy and don't do the bad things they do on streets. Here they belong...or something that protects people from the sun.

HELLO. We have a very serious sun problem in LA. It's great to have...but we must be protected from it because it is just plain dangerous. This is not refutable science.

There must be umbrellas installed or porticos or tents or something. Maybe not even trees.
LA's Central Park? As it is now it's a pretty place but almost unusable on any bright sun day.

Please make the park usable.

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