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Can we get dazzling done?

Bob Sipchen is the editor of the Current section.

I KNOW WHAT I want for the new park that will soon blossom in the heart of our concrete city: an orange grove. I knew this the moment I saw this drawing of a fruit orchard amid the designs, dazzling and inane, taped to the walls and windows of the Norman Lear Center a couple of weeks back.

Of course, what we in Current want isn’t the least bit important to this offbeat experiment in civic journalism that we call Grand Intervention. Nor are the preferences of Marty Kaplan, who cooked up the project and wrote the essay below. Nor, theoretically, are whatever big ideas may be percolating in the mind of developer Eli Broad.

Rather, this is an exercise in trying to figure out what you want. That’s where the tension creeps in. To update:

In 2000, Broad and developer James Thomas formed the Grand Avenue Committee. With Broad as co-chairman, the group set out to spruce up a sloping swath of public space that hop-scotches roughly from Disney Hall on Grand Avenue to City Hall on Spring Street, including a disjointed stretch of plazas and open spaces at the core of it that would be turned into a park. .

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In August 2004, the Los Angeles Grand Avenue Authority, headed by Supervisor Gloria Molina, selected the Related Cos. from five bidders recommended by the Grand Avenue Committee. Construction on the project -- estimated total cost is now $1.8 billion -- is supposed to start in December of 2006, with the park and the first phase of the development opening by Nov. 30, 2009. Last July, Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, wrote a piece for Current in which he lamented what he saw as the dearth of significant public input into the park-making process. He volunteered the Lear Center as a catch basin for additional ideas, and Current offered to open our pages to some of what Kaplan and his crew turned up.

What may be most interesting about Grand Intervention is how it cracked open the park-making process for inspection. The way something happens, after all, invariably affects what happens. And Current’s unruly quasi-collaboration with Kaplan’s group reflects the vastly more complex process required for anything significant to be accomplished in a place such as Los Angeles, where so many authorities, interests and egos overlap and everyone is cocksure that their vision is the best for all humankind.

Take that truly brilliant orange grove concept. Surely everyone can see that the scent of citrus and yammer of mockingbirds would bring solace to the harried lawyers and accountants and jurors and journalists who spill from the surrounding buildings. But that’s not the only good reason for an approach that would reconnect the region to its agrarian roots. Hidden from meddling adults by orange trees, with irrigation water burbling along in rows of ankle-high furrows, generations of Southern California kids learned not just the pain and pleasure of dirt clod fights, but also how to cooperate in the construction of mini-civilizations. Don’t today’s kids also deserve the freedom to sink bare feet into warm mud as they mold it into dams, roads, tunnels, villages -- even parks? “Sim-style” planning play only goes so far, and our city would benefit from creating an open-air civics classroom that includes a free supply of vitamin C.

The problem is that some of you have already dismissed the orange grove idea as idiotic and are casting your mental votes for skate parks, Web-surfing pods or those very cool interactive fountains that creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi envisions families and strangers dancing around.

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Meanwhile, even as the Lear Center was cajoling designers, park experts, college students and typical citizens to pour out these ideas, the folks at the Grand Avenue Committee were charging ahead on a parallel track. Representatives of this official consortium say they welcome new ideas from the Lear Center’s renegade park enthusiasts. But they also note that they’ve already held a dozen or so official public meetings (and have heard from plenty of individuals at other meetings -- most of which are open to the public). They privately fret that this unorthodox attempt to end-run established avenues could further entangle the bureaucratic knot that makes achieving civic goals so difficult.

With three governments -- state, county and city -- and a slew of private interests all too eager to chime in, who can blame the Grand Avenue Committee for wanting to focus on its deadline? And what about the boring practicalities a design team spends months studying -- things like old sewer systems -- that visionaries and their acolytes might overlook.

“I know of no other public space quite like it,” urban planner Alexander Garvin of Yale University says of the site in question, as quoted on the Lear Center website. “Or with as many problems.” There are big ones -- directly underfoot, two garages house almost 2,000 cars, complicating any grandiose earth-sculpting scheme. And smaller ones (don’t forget, you multimedia advocates, that the judges in nearby buildings prefer quiet courtrooms).

Many of the Lear Center’s experts recommend calling for a formal design competition, and Kaplan pushes that idea in his essay.

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This additional input could produce a work of soaring genius. Or months-long delay followed by group-think mediocrity.

At some point, The Times may want to editorialize on the matter.

For now, why not read the section and, for further inspiration, take a walk around the park site? It is yours.


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