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Building Type: Long road to the Arts District's first park

Sometimes a civilian moment — seeing a new building or park exactly as the public sees it, without the benefit of press releases or a guided tour — can be a good thing for an architecture critic.

This is the story of one of those moments. It’s also the story of how Los Angeles, after decades of largely ignoring its civic realm, is struggling to relearn the art of designing public space.

It begins one afternoon several weeks ago, when I had some time to kill after putting in a takeout order at the Chairman, a newish bao place in the Arts District. I wandered over to check out the progress of the small city park next door, at the corner of 5th and Hewitt streets. Its no-frills name is Arts District Park. ADP for short.

The half-acre park stands across from Urth Caffé in one direction and the Barker Block Lofts in another. On a third edge, it backs up to the La Kretz Innovation Campus, a building that holds office space for “cleantech” start-ups.

Looking in from the sidewalk along 5th, I was happy to notice that the long-delayed park, the Arts District’s first in recent memory, seemed finally to be complete. A colorful children’s playground had been installed in one corner; in another was a modest stage area topped with a shade structure.

But wait: There was a tall fence around the entire park. And a large lock, with numbered keypad (!), on each of the doors. Either the park wasn’t open yet, I thought to myself, or it was open only to neighbors who knew the code.

One door, I noticed as I looked more closely, wasn’t fully latched. I gave it a push and walked in. So this wasn’t a Gramercy Park situation after all. Still, who puts a lock like that on a public park?

Inside, some of the design cues were nearly as bad. The curving benches were divided up with bright red armrests, to make sure nobody would even think about lying down.

After I made a few comments about the park on Twitter — calling its aggressive attitude toward security reminiscent of the L.A. that Mike Davis wrote about in his 1990 book “City of Quartz” — I got an email from Alice Kimm.

Partner with her husband in the L.A. firm John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects, she was one of the park’s designers, along with the Department of Recreation and Parks. Rick Fisher, a landscape architect in the Bureau of Engineering, led the design team.

Kimm wrote to say that a colleague had shown her “your tweets on ADP (ouch!).” She invited me to make a return visit, this time accompanied by her and Fisher as well as Deborah Weintraub, chief deputy city engineer; Michael Shull from Rec and Parks; and representatives from José Huizar’s city council office. We agreed to meet at ADP one morning this month. Shull didn’t make it, but the rest of us stood inside the park and discussed its long road to completion as a light rain fell.

The park (which replaced — what else? — a surface parking lot) began as a project of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. After Gov. Jerry Brown dissolved the state’s CRAs in 2011, the plan languished. It came back to life with $2 million in Quimby funds, fees the city collects from developers.

(Construction was delayed in 2015 when work crews discovered dangerous metals in the soil. They also found some 19th century artifacts — including bottles of gonorrhea medicine — suggesting that there might once have been a brothel on the site.)

Friedman and Kimm, architects on the La Kretz project, offered to help the park’s design team in part because they realized a green space next door might produce an effective symbiosis for the area. People working at La Kretz would have a place to eat lunch or take a quick break outside; their presence in the park would in turn help activate it and draw other users.

In community meetings, the designers told me, neighborhood residents made clear that safety was a top priority for the park; they worried in particular about homeless people sleeping there. In the end, the designers added, Rec and Parks pushed for the park to be completely fenced.

(Asked to confirm that account, Shull sent me an email that could not have been more noncommittal or perfectly opaque. It read, in its entirety, “Typically a constraint that they design to based on either operational or community concerns.” My reply: “Is that a yes?”)

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The locks, it turns out, operate on a timer, so the park can be opened every morning and closed every evening without a city employee having to perform the task manually. That kind of shortcut is attractive to the city in part because Quimby funds, even after recent reforms to the program, can be used only for capital expenditures — to build parks, not keep them up or keep them safe.

By all accounts, the neighborhood is thrilled to have the park finished. It’s not hard to see why; the increasingly residential Arts District remains desperately short on green space. But in its details and big gestures alike, the park gives the strong impression that it is not a fully public space but an extension of the well-appointed buildings that overlook it — a nicely landscaped yard for the Barker Block and La Kretz.

Forgive my bluntness, but here’s why those details and big gestures matter: If you live in a neighborhood with a chronic homeless problem, which means much of L.A. these days, it’s not a park designer’s job to help you pretend you don’t. And if creating a park that’s both welcoming to everyone and safe costs more than one that is merely safe — in terms of security, programming regular events to attract a broad public or other features — that assumption needs to be built into the city’s budgeting process from the start.

Weintraub had some good news on the fencing front, however. If current plans hold, she told me, the forthcoming city park at Broadway and 1st Street and the one under the new 6th Street Viaduct will be built without fences.

“Our hope,” she added, “is that we can move beyond them.”

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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