A Tricky Spot for Los Angeles’ New Grand Park

According to Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles has very few truly urban parks. Most reside along the periphery of the city, along the beaches and coastline or in the mountains. So the new 12-acre, rectangular $56-million Grand Park, which opened in downtown Los Angeles in July, represents an attempt to “rewrite that civic story line” and create “a central gathering spot, in the heart of downtown, for all of dizzyingly diverse L.A. County.” Unfortunately, the location for this bold attempt at creating a more public civic realm in L.A. isn’t ideal though. So the attempt, which is “imperfect but encouraging,” may be seen as just one small, incremental step in transforming L.A. into a less-car centric place. 

Hawthorne is largely positive about the park’s actual design. Landscape architects Mark Rios, FASLA, and Tony Paradowski, Affiliate ASLA, of the Los Angeles-based landscape architecture, architecture, and urban design firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios have produced a “series of spaces that are equal to that outsize ambition. With bold graphic design (by the firm Sussman/Prejza), bright magenta lawn furniture and streamlined architecture, the park rejects the easy nostalgia and the bland, focus-grouped inoffensiveness that mark so much public-sector design in L.A. these days.”

However, he also wonders whether the park is in the “right” place. It seems the park’s location and topography pose some real challenges to its future success, even if a growing residential popultion creates demand for more public programs in the park and provides enough support for a Frank Gehry-designed band shell for music.

Hawthorne writes that the park occupies what was previously the L.A. Country Civic Center Mall, an awkward space “squeezed between government buildings,” and, on one side, involves navigating a “90-foot drop” between a few streets. A “more natural location” would have been a “perfectly level” site nearby, but that has been taken up by the L.A. Police Department headquarters. In fact, Hawthorne writes, an earlier master plan saw that site as the best fit for a new central park. But negotiations among the development committee and the developer led to the unlikely Mall spot, which is largely used by visiting jurors, being turned into a park. Through a unique arrangement, the developer agreed to fork over $50 million for the park to the county if it got to develop another nearby parcel as a high-end residential and retail district.

Rios Clementi Hale faced the challenge of transforming a “relic of post-war planning” into a place with a “sense of openness,” while also connecting it with the rest of downtown. Hawthorne seems to think the sharp grade is the major issue: “There is also the site’s steep grade. With the possible exception of the Campidoglio in Rome, it is hard to think of a successful urban gathering space that is on a hilltop or (worse yet) a hillside.” Also, a few large concrete ramps leading into a parking garage that present obstacles to the user experience had to stay due to budgetary constraints.

On the positives: the hot pink furniture is exciting and moveable. “The furniture here — and this is a rarity in L.A.’s parks — isn’t tied down or fixed to the ground. Visitors will be able to move it around, grouping tables together for a large gathering or dragging chairs from the sun into the shade.” To reflect the diversity of the city’s population, the planting scheme is drawn from around the world. Instead of all natives, there’s a diversity of plants, which Hawthorne thinks is a good thing.

There are also some great views: “Perhaps the most surprising element of the new park is how dramatically it reframes views of some of downtown’s best-known landmarks. From the overlook plaza you can turn and catch a glimpse of Disney Hall. The 1962 Hall of Records by Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander, among the most underrated modernist buildings in Los Angeles, can be seen from a new angle from the performance lawn and may gain some new admirers as a result. And throughout the park the City Hall tower is a dramatic, insistent presence.”

Overall, The New York Times was more positive in its review, but perhaps in a more superficial way: “Depending on whom you ask, it elicits comparisons to New York’s Central Park or San Francisco’s Union Square — and a couple of the most enthusiastic supporters even liken it to the Champs-Élysées.” Seen as part of a broader revitalization effort for a part of the city that used to be largely abandoned, even scary, The New York Times now found people there during the day, splashing in the fountains in their bathing suits, hanging out. One resident, Lina Park, who brought some friends from Koreatown, was quoted as saying: “You can’t compare it to anything that we have anywhere else. It’s clean, safe and big — that’s the kind of place people are going to want to come to.”

Still, some others worry that this just marks another move towards gentrification in downtown L.A., and that the city is investing in green space for the wealthy. Perhaps programming the park — and designing events that will attract all the city’s diverse populations — will be key to its success, given its tough spot.

See lots more photos of the park at Rios Clementi Hale Studios.

In other news, read a fantastic story about how Moscow’s new mayor mobilized to restore the dirty Gorky Park, a place that was once the “symbol of Post-Soviet decay.” The Guardian writes that the change has been startling: “Seemingly overnight, the park was transformed into an urban paradise, a rare spot of verdant tranquility in the midst of Moscow’s overcrowded, traffic-clogged streets. There are neat rows of ping-pong tables and a pétanque court permanently occupied by the city’s hipsters. Each summer night, an open air cinema blasts out hits new and old. There are lounge chairs, free Wi-Fi, even a lawn filled with pillow-shaped beanbags for a mid-afternoon nap.”

Image credits: (1) Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times, (2-4) Rios Clementi Hale Studios, (5) Monica Almeida / NY Times, (6-7) Rios Clementi Hale Studios.

4 thoughts on “A Tricky Spot for Los Angeles’ New Grand Park

  1. Steven Chavez 09/11/2012 / 1:12 pm

    I visited the park on opening weekend of phase one and was delighted to see large numbers of people enjoying the park’s intimate settings, open spaces, and interactive features. The place was socially dynamic and visually appealing. However, the decision to keep the existing underground parking garage and associated ramps at Hill Street has led to a compromised park-street connection. Despite the compromised connection with Hill Street, the park has the main ingredients of being a positive catalyst for public placemaking in Los Angeles.

  2. Ruth Taylor Kilday 11/10/2012 / 4:02 am

    We attended a guided tour by the design firm last night. After a day of rain, the night sky was clear and the weather crisp. The city lights, the smells, the views, the buildings around the park…all were fascinating. We loved the scale of the park, the walk up and down the entire 4 blocks. A great idea for aerobic walking for office staff. The focus upon City Hall is wonderful and it was magic to see the Los Angeles Times building with the lighted letters, a site we’d never seen previously. Wish the letters were in the style of the Times’ masthead! The ability to make the visual and the physical connections between the Music Center, the Disney Symphony Hall, Superior Court, and City Hall is astounding.

    We’ll return during daylight to capture its essence. I’m sure the kids’ pool is wonderful. But no less was the experience on a crisp Fall evening wearing jackets and hiking boots with a cup of Starbucks at the end of our tour. Can’t wait to return during the holidays and bring out of town friends.

  3. Bryan M. 11/24/2012 / 8:17 pm

    Love it! More great parks in LA. Next, Pershing Square.

  4. judithcharlette 05/17/2013 / 5:43 pm

    In reading about the Grand Park, I think I am involved in a rewrite of the Emperor’s New Clothes. If it was called a Mall I would say, fine. It is just that. But a park?
    The upper tier (of 3) is terrific. The wonderful fountain, once hidden from most LAers in the old space, was remodeled and made for kids to play in. KIDS. Remember them? Apparently one thought of them only for the warm days as that’s it for them. Beyond that, only grass and cement. Mostly cement.
    When are we going to wake up and realize that LA NEEDS shade. Trees, shade trees, but if impossible, overhangs or tented areas or umbrellas.
    Look at a where people are in the park on any normal day. Seeking shade, and there is little to be found. Thank goodness the benches are moveable because hot pink metal will roast fannies. Grass is fine if its’ surrounded by trees but if you check out the photos (or visit, which is best), people on the grass are huddled under the trees.
    Another shame is the terrible garage situation at the loser part of the 2nd Tier. To cross the street to the lowest tier, one must cross TWO driveways!
    A first consideration should have been a walkway over the garage to connect the tiers.
    I don’t understand who is writing these articles about the park. What we needed was shade, greenery, water, a place for all sorts of folks, including kids and older folks. We didn’t get a park. We got a Mall. Let’s call it that.
    Maybe the parks will come if the buildings on either side go.

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