Public Space/Public Park?

By Samantha London

What actually is the purpose of a public park in 2012? LA’s newest park – Grand Park in downtown LA – opened in the fall of 2012 and announces itself  in 3-D with its urban-chic, multilingual welcome sign.: “The Park for Everyone.” Leave no language untouched; this sign is talking to you.  It really really wants you to use it.

It was conceived as a piece of a larger vision to revitalize downtown and help LA in its perpetual quest to build a “center” for this sprawling megalopolis. Yes, this is a public park – public in the sense of inviting people to enter it, use it, like it. But the park isn’t public in its genesis nor in its aspiration; it’s the brainchild of star developer Eli Broad, who’s made heavy investments in the area.  The Grand Avenue Project—still incomplete—endeavors to make downtown livable, not just workable. Though a massive mixed-use commercial and luxury residential project at park’s edge is currently stalled, the park was originally conceived as a way to upgrade the neighborhood.

Grand Park occupies 12 acres of Downtown L.A.’s Civic Center, running between Grand and Spring Streets (West to East) and Temple and 1st Streets (North to South).
Photo credit: LA County

Due to the recent recession, much of the Grand Avenue Project’s remaining vision has yet to be realized.  The Park, however, was able to forge ahead with its planning and construction thanks to the $50 million in private funds it raised. That the funding was successful is testament to civic engagement. But it also speaks to the value developers place on potential returns on their nearby investment. And it illustrates the complicated role of public space in contemporary American cities.

Public/private partnerships, forged between governments who no longer have the funding resources to build public amenities on their own, and private investors who have their own agendas, now dominate the public arena. Areas the public consider public space often isn’t. Shopping malls, civic plazas, and parks – are under varying degrees of private control. And the rules for how the public may use those spaces are often not what we think they might be. The park that was home to Occupy Wall Street in 2011, for example, was a private park, operating under the rules of its owners.

So what does it mean to build a “public” park in 2012?

Designers from the Rios Clementi Hale Studios were brought in to realize a vision.

During nascent design stages, community members participated in the Civic Park Toolkit Workshop to give shape to their ideal park.
Photo credit: Taylor & Company PR

The designers adopted a “toolkit” process in their planning.   They looked to investors, existing neighborhood residents, and a host of other interested parties to participate in their Civic Park Workshop Toolkit experiment.  They planned to crowdsource the hopes and needs of the park’s constituents in order to design a space that would maximize utility and welcome Angelenos.

Using models and drawings, the Workshop-ers manipulated layouts and features, transforming the formerly fragmented space.  In groups of six to eight people, they created “design boards,” which were then digested and incorporated by Rios Clementi Hale Studios for their final plan.

Planning optimism aside, one must soberly acknowledge the park’s challenges when it comes to embracing Angelenos.

  • It is physically difficult to reach.  It is flanked by mammoth local monuments such as the Stanley Mosk Courthouse and largely blocked by from street view.
  • The park is built on an imposing incline.
  • Los Angeles is characterized by its horizontal spread, and the park  occupies a mere 12 acres of this sprawling city – tough to lay claim as a town square or attract residents from the city’s far-flung disparate neighborhoods?

Too Early to Tell

The park just opened; its first half opened July 28, 2012, while the remainder opened on October 6.  It’s too soon to determine just what sort of identity the park will take on, longterm.

“I appreciate it and enjoy being here,” says Satenik Adamyan, visiting the park  during her lunch break.  She works at the L.A. County Assessors Office, a department housed in the Park-adjacent Hahn Hall of Administration.  On weekdays, Ms. Adamyan values the convenience of this centrally located park.  On weekends, she has already begun a habit of driving in from Glendale with three generations of family in tow.  She even prefers Grand Park as a weekend destination to the beach; “the children can’t drown” in the Arthur J. Mill Fountain’s “Splash Pad.”  For Ms. Adamyan, the physical distance of the park does not keep her from driving in during her leisure time.

According to Grand Park programmer Julie Diamond, the Splash Pad has proven itself the park’s most popular attraction.  It was an instant hit during the long hot summer.

Tables, chairs, and benches are scattered throughout the park. They are intended to be moved around to create a customized experience for each visitor.
Photo credit: LA County

Park designers also hoped to spark interest with their movable furniture.  It is solid magenta, the same hue, as pointed out by one park user, as T-Mobile branding, and is designed to—well, to have no design.  Users are allowed to move it at will to create their perfect conversation circle or give them just the view they want.

Diamond notes, however, that most visitors do not use it or realize that it can be moved.  While this design, in theory, resonates with the premise of the park, the public still has yet to adopt it.

As for the challenging slope of the park, Diamond reports that walking groups have begun using it for exercise.  Lina Park, owner of the nearby Royal Deli Market, has already incorporated the park into her exercise routine.  Three times per week, she leaves work to trek up and down the hilly pedestrian loop.

Sean Plunkett, who works in the adjacent Courthouse, also became acquainted with the park thanks to his day job.  And although he appreciates Grand Park as a convenient place to spend his weekday lunches, he would never, he says, come in to the park on weekends.  The space, for him, is “so associated with work.” One of Grand Park’s primary challenges is winning over those with Plunkett’s Civic Center associations.

Highlands + Railroads came to Grand Park on November 4. The park was filled with families enjoying free—or almost free—art projects and taking part in group dance lessons. Does this November buzz paint the picture of Grand Park’s future?

Park management are trying to win over this with work associations by programming the space. Programmers hope that unexpected performances will draw in those for whom the adjacent Arts Pavilion holds little appeal, that they will gather a diverse and L.A.-representative group.

Management hopes the park will attract first-time visitors from far-flung suburbs who will travel in, curious about what they characterize as “avant-garde” programming.  Are visitors so affected by performances that they return home and ask for more?  Moreover, does Grand Park have the capacity to help facilitate city-wide shared experiences?

Rios Clementi Hale Studios give life to Ms. Molina’s vision: a busy Grand Park of the future, embraced by Angelenos of all walk and make.
Photo credit: Taylor & Company PR

It’s an ambitious goal.  Chicago’s Millennium Park transformed the city center and quickly becoming the public square the it had lacked. New York’s Central Park is a very different idea of what a park can be and functions as a front yard for residents who primarily reside in apartment buildings. Whether Grand Park establishes itself as an important civic gathering place remains to be seen, but at least it is attempting to define the park in a uniquely LA way, trying to appeal to residents across this city’s disparate regions.  And it is embracing the cultural transformations born of the Internet age: the do-it-yourself drive of bloggers, the crowd-sourcing power of social media. – park not just as physical space, but as idea with the power to connect and extend far beyond the physical space.

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