Where’s our Central Park?

Vaughan Davies is a principal and director of urban design at the Los Angeles office of EDAW, an urban planning and design firm. EDAW organized the Big Trench charrette.

Great cities have great urban parks. Central Park in New York, Millennium Park in Chicago, Washington’s Mall. They are magnets for the key ingredients that make a successful city center: housing and hotels, shops and cafes, museums and concert halls, public festivals and recreation from active sports to leisurely strolling. They provide breathing room amid the civic bustle; they open up the densest cityscapes; they signify the heart of the heart of their hometowns.

Unfortunately, Los Angeles -- a great city by most definitions -- has no important downtown park. Griffith Park meets many needs, but it’s not in the center of the city. The Cornfield, north of Chinatown, is also removed from the action (and mostly not off the drawing board). The public space that links downtown’s civic center buildings may get a polish as part of the Grand Avenue project, but it’s tucked away, hemmed in by government buildings. None of these alone is the great, open-air city gathering place that L.A. needs.

It is time for something bold and visionary.

More than 100 acres of potential downtown urban parkland are hiding in plain sight. The site -- which is passed by tens of thousands of people every day -- is close to all the new transit lines that converge on downtown. Building a park there would not require hundreds of Angelenos to be relocated or dozens of buildings to be demolished. And the money to pay for it is available now from a variety of sources, both public and private.


Where is this potential park? On top of the “Big Trench” -- that unsightly two-thirds of a mile of the 101 Freeway, just east of the 110 interchange between Grand Avenue and Alameda Street -- that brutally slices through the historic heart of Los Angeles. The Big Trench separates some of our most prized and appealing landmarks -- Olvera Street, Chinatown and Union Station on one side; Disney Hall, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and City Hall on the other -- creating isolated pockets of activity rather than what we need: a livable, walkable and unified downtown district.

All we have to do is put a “lid” over the Big Trench and its exit ramps and acquire nearby parking lots and underutilized land next to the freeway, turning an urban eyesore into a 100-acre urban park and knitting the core of downtown together again.

If we build it, the Grand Avenue arts corridor would end at a magnificent park, not a freeway no man’s land. Angelenos could walk from Union Station through a park to their jobs at Civic Center or to weekend events on Bunker Hill, not trudge across intimidating bridges above the roar of freeway traffic.

Students at the $200-million performing arts high school, which is nearing completion -- without playing fields -- next to the freeway at Grand Avenue would have outdoor recreation space at their doorstep. Chinatown would gain a great “front door,” and the long-proposed Latino Cultural Center could become one of the park’s great destinations. Surrounding property values would get a boost.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who frequently speaks about the need for more urban parks, gets a Central Park footsteps from City Hall.

Can it be done? Decking over the Big Trench and constructing a park on the “lid” is a relatively straightforward engineering enterprise. Other cities have built parks on top of freeways. In Manhattan, the 15-acre Carl Schultz Park and Gracie Mansion (the mayor’s official residence) have been sitting atop the East River Drive expressway for 50 years. Seattle opened its 5-acre Freeway Park atop Interstate 5 in 1976. A similar scheme is being discussed in Hollywood, also over the 101 Freeway.

Funding for such public projects is always a challenge, but money sources are available. Because the freeway could be streamlined and improved as part of the project, state infrastructure funding, provided by Propositions 1A and 1B, could be tapped. Property owners who would benefit from a new park could contribute to a fund for this open space as part of new development agreements. Fees for environmental “mitigation” programs at the Port of Los Angeles and similar initiatives could be put to use. And finally, the patchwork of funds available to Caltrans and other agencies for landscaping, sidewalks and the like could be marshaled to support a major new park.

The first major step in creating the Big Trench park is happening now. Twenty-five urban design students from across the country are in town for a two-week workshop, a design “charrette” whose aim is to analyze the Big Trench site, identify challenges to covering it and making a park, suggest ways to overcome those challenges and present a design approach. The best of their work will be unveiled at 5 p.m. at the Caltrans building’s plaza, across 1st Street from City Hall, on June 27, with the cooperation of Caltrans, the Los Angeles Planning Department, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Southern California Assn. of Governments, City Council members and the mayor’s office.

Imagine what today’s New York would be like without Central Park. Now envision what downtown L.A. could become if we convert the Big Trench dead zone into our own downtown park reflecting the city’s great and boundless aspirations. Better yet, come to the Caltrans headquarters next Friday and see how what you imagine might actually take shape.