Library Square: a Bridge Too Far? : Recommendation for Elevated Pedway Stirs Sharp Debate

Times Urban Design Critic

The proposed Library Square project submitted to the City Council last week has stirred a sharp debate among officials.

The debate could determine the future shape and texture of downtown Los Angeles for generations to come.

The debate is over whether the project--involving the refurbishment and expansion of the landmark Central Library and the construction of three distinctive office towers, a park and a monumental stairway--should be linked by a series of pedestrian bridges.

The bridges--commonly known as pedways--would be a relatively small item in the scope of the nearly $1-billion project, but if constructed, could severely damage the project's potential to generate pedestrian activity and lend needed excitement to the downtown streetscape.

In particular, the bridges would undermine the design concept of the stairway, which is planned to replace lower Hope Street and connect Library Square, centered on 5th Street between Grand Avenue and Flower Street, to Califor

Designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin in the style of Rome's Spanish Steps and featuring cascading water and sitting areas, the stairway holds the promise of becoming the pedestrian link needed to pull downtown together into some semblance of a central city.

The city Transportation and Planning departments and the Bureau of Engineering have urged that the bridges be built over 5th and Olive streets and Grand Avenue. They are opposed by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency and the the project's principal developer, Maguire Thomas Partners.

The leading advocate of the bridges is City Planning Director Calvin Hamilton, who in the past championed the structures now casting a shadow over Flower Street north of 5th Street. They are rarely used at present. Indeed, they are avoided.

Nevertheless, Hamilton continues to advocate the concept, carping at various proposals, such as Library Square, aimed at generating more pedestrian traffic at street level, or that might increase the density of downtown activity. The view indicates an anti-city bias, despite what Hamilton might say to the contrary.

In a recent memo to the Planning Commission reviewing Library Square and obtained by The Times, Hamilton criticized the stairway for reaching sidewalk level in the middle of a very busy block, directly across the street from the entrance to the Central Library .

Hamilton voiced concern that over time there would be public pressure to establish a pedestrian access directly across 5th Street--as if a mid-block crossing, such as now on Broadway in front of the Grand Central Market, was a bad idea.

The memo recommends an ambitious pedway construction program, criticizes the project's proposed parking plan involving a peripheral garage as "totally inadequate and in the wrong place," questions the intensity of the development and declares that it is in conflict with "the spirit and intent of the City Charter, the Zoning Ordinance, the Redevelopment Plan and the Central City Community Plan."

Redevelopment administrator Edward Helfeld took exception to the memo, declaring that it would weaken the Library Square project and its potential to make downtown more urbane.

Helfeld added that the project, "without pedways," was refined by his agency over the last two years with help of Maguire/Thomas Partners and such internationally respected design firms as I. M. Pei, Johnson & Burgee, and Hardy, Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, as well as Lawrence Halprin Associates, and endorsed by Councilman Gilbert Lindsay and Mayor Tom Bradley.

Quiet Campaign But despite the endorsements, Hamilton, with the support of Donald Howery of the transportation department and City Engineer Phil King, have continued to wage a quiet campaign against what they feel is the project's dilatory effect on traffic. The campaign should become a little louder when the project is reviewed by the City Council within the next month.

The debate so far has revealed a critically different vision of downtown among the involved city officials, with those advocating the pedways seemingly embracing a layered downtown, designed primarily to facilitate traffic while trying to channel pedestrians onto isolated, lifeless walkways.

It is a dated, antiseptic view that demonstrates little understanding of what brings a city to life and gives it character.

If anything, the view is more attuned to suburban communities with their sprawling malls, commercial strips and residential enclaves, almost all totally dependent on the private automobile.

The view is right out of the 1950s, when, not incidentally, many of the officials advocating the pedways obtained their professional training.

Those opposed to the pedways point to the disastrous effect the concept has had on Flower Street, between 3rd and 5th streets, where it produced an intimidating street scape of blank walls.

The bland and boring two-block stretch has become an international example of misdirected planning, a symbol of sorts for all the various cliches about Los Angeles being an autopolis.

If recent planning and marketing studies, and the experiences of other urban communities undergoing a renaissance, have anything to teach, it is that pedestrian life is vital to the economic health of a city and should take precedence over the need to move vehicular traffic.

After all, the downtowns of cities are suppose to be destinations where people come to work, shop, socialize and be entertained. That has been their role through the centuries.

Downtowns are not just a maze of streets to drive through or vast parking garages, connected by escalators and pedways to futuristic office parks above. Or at least they should not be.

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