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‘It begins with benign neglect, and then turns into a hostile environment. I don’t think there’s any villain in this.’

With the world spotlight on the Olympic Games here in 1984, politicians and dignitaries applauded a $600,000 face lift for Pershing Square, the venerable greensward named after World War I hero Gen. John J. (Black Jack) Pershing.

On a sunny July day that year, thousands of bright balloons wafted skyward, and a 120-piece Olympic band played. Excited downtown workers and tourists walked among the square’s kiosks, bought hot dogs, pretzels and nachos from pushcart vendors and even dined at an outdoor restaurant.

At the time, officials of the Pershing Square Management Assn., a private, nonprofit group formed by City Hall and nearby downtown businessmen, were enthusiastic and hopeful. They saw the face lift as a kind of renaissance for the ragtag square, set aside for a park in 1866.

But it was quickly downhill again for Los Angeles’ oldest park once Olympic athletes packed their bags and left town. People once again stopped frequenting the square as all concessions but a lone hot dog stand drifted away.

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For its part, the association attempted to run the square’s security through 1986, but threw in the towel when it ran out of cash, turning management back to the city.

“It’s narcotics. It’s crime. It’s just an unsavory place to be,” is the way the LAPD’s Lt. Butch Barton currently describes the five-acre downtown park--a melange of drunks, deviates and dope dealers.

Indeed, just a few days ago, officers from Barton’s Central Station hung some 40 signs in the square, warning that anyone caught there after its 10:30 p.m. closing time would be arrested. “This may not clean it up, but it will take care of a lot of problems,” Barton said.

Vicious Cycle

“It’s a vicious cycle that happens in every major urban city where parks are ignored for a time,” said Janet Marie Smith, Pershing Square Management Assn. president. “It begins with benign neglect, and then turns into a hostile environment. I don’t think there’s any villain in this.”

Whatever the case, downtown businessmen see their property values and economic future irrevocably linked to the square’s problems.

So, in yet another effort to rejuvenate the park, a group of Los Angeles and New York artists, architects and landscape firms--selected through an international design competition--have a dream: a Pershing Square with gardens, a performance stage, a restaurant, kiosks and other amenities. The price tag: $14 million.

About $6 million, Smith said, has been pledged by the Community Redevelopment Agency. About $7 million, would be raised through a community facilities district, assuming nearby property owners vote to assess themselves to help issue bonds. The remaining $1 million would come from private contributions.

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“I think it’s a problem that has to be fixed,” said Alex Makowski, general manager of Biltmore Partners, owner of the elegantly overhauled Biltmore Hotel across from the square.

When the hotel was remodeled two years ago, its main Olive Street entrance, which faced the square, was moved to the opposite side facing Grand Avenue. (Makowski said, however, that the square was only “a minor factor” in the entrance relocation decision.)

Like many who work in the area, Makowski said he won’t eat lunch in the square until the park is overhauled. “It would be hard to relax,” he said.


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