James Corner and Santa Monica are made for each other

Architecture Critic

Santa Monica is lucky to have landed James Corner. That was my immediate reaction to the news that Corner and his New York-based landscape architecture firm, Field Operations, won a high-powered design competition for a new 7-acre park in Santa Monica’s civic center.

Corner, who collaborated with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro on the High Line, the elevated park in Manhattan that opened to great acclaim last year, is among the most creative talents in his field, with a knack for incorporating community input into his designs without blunting their ambition or effect.

His firm’s victory in Santa Monica, over a group of finalists that included Frank Gehry, Shigeru Ban and landscape architect Peter Walker, instantly raises expectations for the project, which is actually two sites in one: a 1-acre parcel along Main Street, called Town Square, and an adjacent 6-acre piece of land between Main and Ocean Avenue known as Palisades Garden Walk.

The more I think about it, though, the more it strikes me that Corner is also fortunate to have landed in Santa Monica -- or at least won the right to design this particular park.


Though the $25-million budget for the project is fairly tight -- “It’s hardly generous, but it’s not bad,” Corner told me in a phone interview Monday -- the two park sites offer few obvious logistical or infrastructural obstacles.

Empty and relatively flat, both are surrounded by low-slung buildings and offer partial views of the ocean and coastline, as well as proximity to the Santa Monica Pier and Palisades Park. Much of the land was formerly occupied by the Rand Corp., which completed a new headquarters nearby in 2004.

More to the point, the park sites are key components in an ambitious and unusually comprehensive planning effort by Santa Monica to thoroughly remake its civic center.

Spurred by the news that the Exposition light-rail line will be arriving in Santa Monica by 2015 -- its western terminus, in fact, will be at 4th Street and Colorado Avenue -- the city plan includes an effort to redesign a pedestrian walkway along Colorado to the beach, refurbish Welton Becket’s 1958 Civic Auditorium building and cover a section of nearby sunken freeway with new open space.

Broad possibility

City officials are also hoping to persuade philanthropist Eli Broad to build a museum on a site along Main Street, between the Civic Courthouse and the Civic Auditorium, to house his 2,000-piece collection of postwar and contemporary art. Broad is also considering sites in Beverly Hills and on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, a stalled plan by developer Related Cos. and architecture firms Moore Ruble Yudell and Koning Eizenberg to build Civic Center Village, a 324-unit apartment complex along the southern edge of the park site, is ready to move forward once the economy picks up.

Bringing together transit, contemporary architecture and design, open space, housing and pedestrian amenities, the Santa Monica effort is a rare example of integrated, comprehensive planning in a region struggling to wean itself from dependence on the car and create spaces for genuine public engagement. It is also a sign of how smart cities are leveraging the construction of new transit lines to pursue a broad range of improvements.

Like any civic process in America, which has developed a strong aversion to public funding for such projects, this one has more than a few potential pitfalls.

The supremely high cost of decking the freeway with new park space -- as much as $250 million for every quarter-mile of work -- may prove prohibitive.

The cooperation among city departments that has so far propelled these planning efforts may break down. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how Corner and his team respond to Santa Monica’s famously contentious political climate.

And given Broad’s long-standing efforts to revive Bunker Hill, it should surprise no one if he decides to put his museum on Grand Avenue instead of near the beach.

Still, it is a credit to a larger planning process now underway in Santa Monica that losing the Broad Museum to another city, for whatever reason, would be far from a fatal blow.

The two major anchors of the Santa Monica plan -- the light-rail station and the park -- are firmly in place. The money to build the park will come from the city’s redevelopment agency. Corner pointed out that the most popular public spaces in Santa Monica -- Palisades Park, the pier, the beaches -- are both linear and positioned along the edge of the city. The parcels he’ll be working on, by contrast, follow the more traditional model of a square or plaza embedded within the city and surrounded by public streets.

One challenge, he told me, will be to make the new park a gathering spot and an attraction in its own right without shortchanging the sense of its connection to the wider city and to the notion of linear urbanism, which is precisely the model he exploited so well at the High Line, a park that meanders for a mile and a half along the West Side of Manhattan.

What makes the planning effort in Santa Monica unusually promising is that it has made a point of treating infrastructure and contemporary design as complementary but separate efforts. In the best-case scenario, the result will be a sort of virtuous cycle in which the Expo line and its new plaza bring streams of visitors to the park while the park acts as a high-design magnet, boosting train ridership in its own right. Many of the same synergies would apply to the relationship between the Field Operations park and the art museum, should Broad decide to build it there.

The L.A. version

Compare Santa Monica’s planning strategy with the disappointing efforts to create a new Civic Park in downtown Los Angeles, stretching from the Music Center downhill to the steps of City Hall. In that process, the infrastructural challenges inherent in building a park on a sloping piece of land atop existing parking garages hamstrung the designers, Rios Clementi Hale Studios.

That responsibility not only ate up a big chunk of the $56-million budget for the park, where work will begin in June, but also weighed heavily on the firm’s larger urban vision.

In Santa Monica, Corner and his competitors were able to anticipate the arrival of the light-rail station and consider the potential capping of the freeway without, crucially, having to worry about actually designing -- or reserving money -- for those infrastructural elements. Now that Corner’s firm has won the commission, he will be able to pursue an ambitious, even freewheeling design that also happens to slot satisfyingly into a larger civic plan.

For any landscape architect working in an American city these days -- even one as talented and prolific as Corner -- that is a rare and very attractive combination.