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Review: Downtown's Grand Park makes exuberant use of a tough spot

Parks in Los Angeles have always been a peripheral presence, both literally and symbolically. Our major open space has been tucked away in the foothills or mountains, strung along the beaches and coastline. Truly urban parks have been rare here.

The $56-million Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles, the first phase of which will open this weekend, is an attempt to rewrite that civic story line, to create -- perhaps for the first time since the heyday of Pershing Square in the years before World War II -- a central gathering spot, in the heart of downtown, for all of dizzyingly diverse L.A. County.

The designers of the park, Mark Rios and Tony Paradowski of the L.A. 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.

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The results are all the more remarkable given the many clients Rios and Paradowski have worked with, a group that included the Grand Avenue Committee, representing the city and county, and developer Related Cos.

But the exuberance of the design hasn't been able to overcome one uncomfortable fact about the park: It may just be in the wrong place. Every successful design gesture -- and I'd put that eye-catching furniture at the top of the list -- is in part an effort to distract from or make up for major constraints posed by the park's location and topography.

The growing residential population of downtown L.A. will give the park a built-in constituency from the start. The Music Center will be handling the programming, and if its leaders are creative enough on that front -- and especially if they can raise money to hire Frank Gehry or another architect to design a band shell -- the crowds will come.

But like the designers, they will be struggling against the park's natural disadvantages.

Much of the land now occupied by the new park was filled for decades by the L.A. County Civic Center Mall, a little-known 1966 design squeezed between government buildings and navigating a 90-foot drop between Grand Avenue, at the crest of Bunker Hill, and Spring Street. The County Mall contained a large water feature, the Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain, as well as some statues, a collection of trees and a lot of concrete, with a parking garage tucked underneath.

In recent years a Starbucks was added. To the extent that the mall qualified as a public park at all, it was mostly used by county employees and jurors on their lunch breaks. Many people who live and work downtown had no idea it was there.

A more natural location for a new civic park would have been on the site of the old Caltrans building, a perfectly level piece of land at 1st and Main streets.

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In fact, a 1997 master plan for downtown envisioned a park there. But the site wound up being filled by the massive new Los Angeles Police Department headquarters. And so attention turned, in somewhat unlikely fashion, to the notion of remaking the County Mall.

As the Grand Avenue Committee negotiated with Related, which hoped to build a huge retail and housing development by Gehry on public land across Grand Avenue from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, it extracted a significant concession. Related agreed to advance $50 million of future lease payments, with the money set aside to transform the County Mall into an expanded public space called the Civic Park.

Earlier this year the name was changed to Grand Park. (Though the new name is drawn of course from Grand Avenue, it is also uncomfortably close to "The Grand," which is what Related dubbed the now-stalled Gehry project.)

Grand Park is officially the first part of the Grand Avenue redevelopment to be finished. The fate of the retail, hotel and residential portion remains uncertain.

Rios Clementi Hale, which designed the very good California Endowment headquarters near Union Station, had a budget to work with that was very high by the standards of park design in Los Angeles. But the firm also faced serious obstacles in trying to reinvent this forgotten but muscular relic of postwar planning on Bunker Hill, give it a sense of openness and connect it with the rest of downtown.

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.

The park does have the advantage of having a Metro Red Line subway stop right in the middle of its ascent, on Hill Street. But the station has been there since 1993, and its effect on the numbers of visitors to the County Mall in its original incarnation was negligible.

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And what about the concrete ramps that led from Grand Avenue and from Hill Street to the underground garage? There wasn't enough money to get rid of both sets of ramps -- and besides, the garage needed to stay open. The designers and their clients compromised in the end, removing the ramps along the top of Grand but leaving intact the ones on Hill. And even that compromise ate up a good chunk of the total budget (which grew, thanks to earned interest, to $56 million by time the park broke ground two summers ago).

The choice has paid big dividends along Grand, at least, where the sidewalk along the eastern side of the street now flows directly into the park. From there it's a few steps down to a wide paved overlook. It offers an up-close view of the restored and expanded Will Memorial Fountain, which now includes choreographed water features and a reflecting pool where kids can splash.

On the lower portion of the park's first phase to open, near Hill, is a sloping lawn with a small raised stage at the eastern edge. 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.

The silver-and-green signs that mark various entrances to the park make its design goals clear in several different languages: This is the L.A. park "for everyone," "para todos." The collection of plants and trees, in a similar spirit, isn't restricted to native species but is drawn from around the world.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the park is how dramatically it reframes views of some of downtown's best-known landmarks. From the overlook plaza you can 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.

This effect will be heightened when the lower portions of the park open later this year, providing new perspectives on Thom Mayne's Caltrans building and the skyscrapers of Bunker Hill.

But the ramps along Hill are a jarring reminder of how the site used to look. And in general the design (with the exception of its excellent Grand Avenue frontage) is most disappointing where it meets the street and by extension the city. Early versions of the Rios Clementi Hale plan included new sidewalk and crosswalk designs that would have unified the park as a whole, even when it ventured across Hill and Broadway. Those didn't make it into the final version.

It's possible those streetscape improvements can be adder later on. But as it looks now, Grand Park repeats some of the mistakes that have doomed earlier developments on Bunker Hill, focusing on internal amenity at the expense of its relationship with the street.

Still, the success of the park design as a whole is a breakthrough for a resurgent downtown and a step forward for Los Angeles.

This city has had big but partly inaccessible parks (Griffith Park) and legendary parks that we've come close to ruining with too much design (Pershing Square). Mostly what we've had is a collection of thousands upon thousands of privately owned and miniature Central Parks -- one for every suburban backyard.

Grand Park represents something else: an attempt, imperfect but encouraging, to chip away at the rigid infrastructure of the car-dominated city and make a private city a little more public.

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