Remake Los Angeles’ Oldest Park

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Pershing Square Park / Snipview

Pershing Square Park is Los Angeles’ oldest park. First opened in 1867 as St. Vincent’s Park, in 1870 it was officially renamed Los Angeles Park. Over the decades, the park underwent numerous revisions. In 1886, a dedicated bandstand pavilion was created, making it a public space for concerts. In the interim years, various statues were added. In 1910, architect John Parkinson redesigned the park, adding a fountain. After World War I, the park was renamed Pershing Park in honor of General John Joseph Pershing. In the 1920s and 30s, tropical plants were added, creating zones of greenery. Then, in 1994, a $14.5-million renovation by Mexican architect and landscape architect Ricardo Legorreta and American landscape architect Laurie Olin, FASLA, was completed. The bright, boxy post-modern design, which is in place today, notably features a 10-story purple bell tower, fountain, and small enclaves of trees. And today, AEG corporation, which created the massive Staples Center and L.A. Live spaces in downtown Los Angeles, has sponsored a new design competition to remake the 5-acre space once again.

According to the competition organizers, a new park is needed for a new downtown Los Angeles booming after decades of decline. The organizers says the transformation of the area is due to the city’s “adaptive reuse ordinance,” which has allowed developers to transform great old buildings in the historic core of downtown into commercial and residential space. Nearby, cool kids of all ages congregate at the Ace Hotel. And the Grand Central Market is now drawing others beyond the Latino community who have historically made up the district. Hotels and shops have popped up to serve both tourists and new waves of locals who have moved in. In 2000, downtown Los Angeles’ population was a mere 20,000; by 2010, it had doubled to 40,000.

Other city-wide efforts create impetus for a new downtown central square. Los Angeles is building a streetcar network that will make downtown even more accessible; Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar has launched “Bringing Back Broadway,” which aims to revitalize this historic avenue; and the ongoing Los Angeles River revitalization efforts continue.

According to The Architect’s Newspaper, the effort to create a new Pershing Square grew out of a task force established by Councilmember Huizar, who led a team with local designers, developers, and policymakers such as Macarlane Partners, Gensler, NBBJ, JFM Development, LA Recreation & Parks, and the Urban Land Institute. These taskforce members have already pledged support for a redesign. “MacFarlane Partners, which is developing 99,000 square-foot site overlooking the square, pledged $1 million pledge to seed Pershing Square Renew. The Department of Recreation and Parks earmarked $1 million for ‘immediate future for infrastructure improvements and amenities.'”

The goal is to create a dog-friendly community space with “less concrete and more green space” that can be used safely both day and night. They call for “tearing down the walls, ripping up the concrete, and planting more trees.” We would add there should be more easily-accessible public restrooms. When we visited the park during a conference this spring, much of it smelled like a urinal.

One big challenge will be figuring out how to keep the parking under Pershing Square Park accessible. Ramps for cars suck up a lot of space today, creating an unfortunate pedestrian experience that needs to be navigated on the north side of the park.

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Pershing Square Park / Snipview

Councilmember Huizar is putting a great emphasis on public input at every stage of the design process. Project for Public Spaces, which have been highly critical of the existing park, led public public workshops this spring. The competition web site also enables residents to submit comments.

Letter of interest are due September 25, followed by a request for qualifications in October. Final designs will be open for public and jury review in February next year. A revamped Pershing Square park is expected to open by 2020.

For a contrary view, read a piece in the L.A. Weekly: Let’s Keep Downtown Los Angeles’ Pershing Park Weird.

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