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Pershing Square’s Future

Some of the five top plans for Pershing Square hold a good deal of promise for restoring the City of Los Angeles’ oldest park, perhaps even bringing to the city center a new vitality, but at least one of the jurors who culled the finalists from 242 entries has misgivings that we share.

“How to accommodate the different populations served by the park needed to be addressed more,” Dr. Galen Cranz has concluded. She is a sociologist on the architecture faculty at UC Berkeley and the author of “The Politics of Park Design.” Her specialty is the study of the social use of space.

In the 35 pages of specifications for the design competition, which were drawn up before Cranz was invited to be a consultant, there was reference to the creation of a place for all citizens, she recalled. But the emphasis was on other elements. That downplayed the “critical” problem created by the disparate groups whose needs should be respected in any design. There are, for example, the homeless seeking sanctuary, the office workers searching for a noon-hour sandwich, the Latino who comes over to the park for recreation while shopping on Broadway a block away.

Janet Marie Smith, president of the Pershing Square Management Assn. that is coordinating the development program, is well aware of the problems posed by the varied groups that use, or would like to use, the park. The sponsors, she said, do not want to drive anyone out--a reference to the homeless, the gangs, the drifters who dominate the present population. The object, she said, is to attract more people in--a reference to those who stay away because of unease about those now there.

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“We want the park to be open--not just physically but psychologically and socially,” Smith told us.

The problem was manifest to visitors to the circus tent, erected at the center of the park, to display the design entries. The mangy landscaping, lawns worn to the dirt beneath, and pathetic clusters of temporary tables, chairs and umbrellas at the corners where hot dogs are sold reinforced the bleak atmosphere created by the scores of people lying and lounging in what seemed a meaningless hopelessness. The revitalization of that place will not be easy. And the thought of spending $11 million on the task inevitably will have to be measured against the other enormous needs of the inner city.

But many of the entries are dazzling--and remarkably diverse, given the restraint of voluminous specifications. We have a suspicion that some of the plans were sent awry by a demand that designs reflect the history and growth of the city. We would have settled for an abiding concern about the future and how this utterly urban acreage can serve as well as inspire the people in the years ahead.

There is little doubt that the park will be a better place with new accommodations for outdoor and indoor food service, performing arts, quiet corners for rest among exotic garden plantings, proper facilities for those awaiting RTD buses at this major transit interchange, and fountains that, as Smith said, will “drown out the noise of the city.”

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The five finalists now will refine their plans before the winning design is selected. The project will take on added luster if Cranz manages to persuade them to remedy the shortcoming that she has so persuasively identified.


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