Was Made in America more about bringing down barriers or putting them up?
For Mayor Eric Garcetti, the two-day music festival, which wrapped up Sunday evening at downtown L.A.'s Grand Park, was a chance to advertise his interest in trimming red tape at City Hall. City officials worked to smooth the approval process for organizer Jay Z and promoter Live Nation, drawing the ire of Councilman Jose Huizar and some downtown residents and merchants, who felt excluded from discussions on crowds and noise.
The festival's effect on the downtown streetscape over the weekend was pretty much the opposite. Grand Park — a 12-acre space billed as "the park for everyone" — was fenced off, open only to ticket holders. To create a secure festival grounds with three stages and room for 50,000 concertgoers each day (though the actual attendance was closer to two-thirds that), officials also shut down streets and intersections and the Civic Center subway station.
The trade-off involved in an event like this is simple enough. City and county get rental fees, an economic-development boost and publicity for a park that, thanks to its awkward hillside location, can seem hidden in plain sight. Those who live and work downtown put up with a maze of jersey barriers and chain-link and two days' worth of bass lines heavy enough to rattle windowpanes.
Still, Los Angeles hasn't always been good at negotiating such deals with corporate interests as aggressively as it should.
Getting this balance right has real and significant implications for a city trying to reanimate its public realm after decades of giving priority to private cars and private interests. Grand Park has been one of the major symbols of this effort, which remains in a nascent stage.
The decision to close the park for a for-profit event will be redeemed only if the money Live Nation paid the county to rent it out makes it a better place to visit, over the long term, for the public.
Luckily, even as concertgoers were tramping across Grand Park's lawns and through its flower beds, they were also helping demonstrate pretty clearly where its design might be tweaked and improved. They made up a huge and unwitting landscape-architecture focus group.
As a concert venue, the park worked surprisingly well. The disjointedness and abrupt grade changes that I (and others) have criticized in its layout — especially the way the upper levels near Grand Avenue are detached from the lower ones opening onto City Hall — actually played well to the festival setup.
Two large stages were built along Spring Street, at the foot of City Hall. Another was near the top of the park, with the Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain and A.C. Martin's 1965 Department of Water and Power as backdrops. That separation kept one performer's music from bleeding into another's.
Live Nation's efforts to blend its own aesthetic — and that of Budweiser, the festival's chief sponsor — with the park's crisply modern and colorful design, by the L.A. firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios, were less successful. The park's most prominent building, an angular steel-and-glass pavilion near Spring Street, had a neon Budweiser sign attached to its façade and balloons in red, black and white — Bud colors — tucked under its sloping roof.
In front of the L.A. County Superior Court building in the middle of the park, I saw a dozen or so of the park's signature magenta chairs and benches in a haphazard pile. They'd been banished to clear space for crowds of concertgoers or Bud-colored merchandise — or both.
Throughout the park, meanwhile, planted areas were left entirely vulnerable, most not even roped off in the most rudimentary way.
Room to improve
The festival also highlighted some of the park's lingering design flaws, including a marked lack of shade. By midafternoon on Saturday, as the temperature hovered above 90 degrees, nearly every shady spot was filled with people. The same held true Sunday.
Temporary street closures are nothing new in Los Angeles, of course. Hollywood has treated downtown, in particular, as a giant back lot.
But I'm not sure the closures needed to be as extensive as they were in this case. (Some were probably the result of an abundance of caution from police, overseeing the first paid event at Grand Park.) And modest changes to the layout of the festival would have allowed the Civic Center Metro station to remain open, giving concertgoers much more direct access to the festival by public transit.
There is nothing wrong with closing a public park on a rare basis — one or two weekends every year, perhaps — for a revenue-generating event. But the park itself should be among the beneficiaries of the decision to do so.
The negotiations that created Grand Park in the first place are an example of how to win such concessions. Developer Related Cos. set aside $50 million from future revenues on the much-delayed Grand Avenue redevelopment project to pay for the park.
Live Nation did agree to pay a reported $600,000 rental fee to Los Angeles County and the Music Center, which operate Grand Park. The crucial question is how much of that money will go toward improving the design of this compelling but flawed public space — and how much will disappear into a budgetary black hole.
The list of potential improvements is long. (Some were part of Rios Clementi Hale's original design but were dropped to save money before construction began.) Along Hill and Broadway, streets that cut through the heart of the park, sidewalk and crosswalk paving could be updated to match the rest of the park's design.
A fund might be set up to add a bandstand in the middle of the park or some other spot for the L.A. Philharmonic to hold outdoor concerts downtown to complement its appearances at the Hollywood Bowl.
Another, over time, could help pay for the kind of public-art installations that have proved so popular at Millennium Park in Chicago. Or for better signage to lead visitors from Grand Avenue and other parts of downtown to the park.
Or for new structures (or more thickly planted trees) to give more shade.
Far more than buildings, parks are eternally works in progress. They require not just upkeep but fine-tuning.
And no potential revenue stream for that effort should be rejected out of hand — even if it means some Budweiser might get spilled on the succulents in the process.