A grand park plan? Not really

Times Architecture Critic

When Mark Rios takes the microphone Tuesday evening at a public hearing inside Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he’ll be presenting two very different designs for the new civic park downtown. The first is what his Los Angeles firm, Rios Clementi Hale Studios, calls a “base” plan, for which the projected $56-million cost is already in hand -- paid by Related Cos. as part of its deal to develop a commercial project with Frank Gehry across Grand Avenue from Walt Disney Concert Hall. The second is an “enhanced” version showing what might be possible with an infusion of new funding.

It’s beyond rare to see a project packaged this way for public consumption. It’s one thing to present a design as a series of phases, to be built one after the other. But this approach is essentially a preemptive strike against possible complaint. We realize, the designers and the developer are implicitly pleading, that what we’ve come up with isn’t particularly exciting. But budget-wise, our hands are tied. And just look at what we could do if they weren’t!

The double-design strategy would be far more effective if the plans themselves had more to offer. The base plan is uninspired, a collection of scenic overlooks and arcing gardens that with the exception of some clever updates to the 50-year-old fountain on the Civic Center mall never rises past the level of brightly hued practicality. Even the enhanced design -- which adds a large pedestrian bridge across Broadway -- is largely prosaic.

Park design

Those shortcomings raise serious questions about how the park design will be handled from here on out. When Related quietly picked Rios and architect Brenda Levin to handle the park design, they were clearly choosing to avoid the battles with superstar ego they’ve waged with Gehry on the commercial portion. Levin left the job last year.

Officially, Related has engaged Rios, who is trained as both a landscape architect and an architect, to produce a basic template for the park design and reserves the right to hand the job to another firm or firms going forward. That scenario, though, is messier than Related officials let on. The kind of landscape architect with the talent to bring real energy and vision to this project might reasonably insist on starting from scratch.

The park’s 16-acre site poses all sorts of infrastructural and topographical challenges. It is also a terrible spot for a self-consciously “central” and “civic” park -- even in a city where those terms can be defined in fluid and nontraditional ways.

It is largely hidden from the streets that surround it, tucked away behind a blocky flotilla of public buildings. It navigates a series of complicated grade changes as it moves from Grand Avenue and the Music Center at the top of the hill to Spring Street and City Hall at the bottom.

According to Rios, ramps to deal with those grade changes and connect to underground parking will eat up about $15 million of the $56-million budget. An additional $5 million to $7 million will be required to satisfy baseline technical requirements for concerts and other large gatherings at the site.

These designs are still preliminary and largely conceptual in nature. And to be fair to Rios and his team, their client hasn’t advanced the park plan in recent months with much recognizable urgency. Related has lived up to its basic agreement to fund a bare-bones project. But it has yet to leverage additional money from corporate or private donors.

Those tracking the project have assumed from the start that certain features of the park -- public art, for example -- would have to be funded privately. Related officials, who are now working with the San Francisco-based park consultant Mary McCue on programming and other issues, continue to say just that.

But we also assumed that the first unveiling of the preliminary design would include a significant announcement about public art. There was also talk of a band shell -- perhaps a smaller version of the one Gehry designed for Millennium Park in Chicago -- paid for by corporate sponsors or even by Related itself.

We’ll see Tuesday whether anything is announced along those lines. At this point, Rios has simply carved out a spot just downhill from the fountain for what he calls an “art spectacle” and left it at that.

The neglected and largely forlorn park that exists now on the site is planted mostly in symmetrical fashion -- a remnant of rigid Beaux Arts planning that Rios hopes to replace with something more responsive to region and climate. His proposal is anchored by a pair of curving pathways -- a sun garden along the northern edge, where it would receive strong southern light, and a shade garden to the south.

At the top, zigzagging planted paths would bring pedestrians down from an “overlook plaza” at Grand toward the fountain, whose huge central bowl would be preserved but also made more accessible, so visitors could walk directly beneath it. Some mature existing trees would stay in place, with additional shade provided by a series of angular white shelters topped with butterfly-shaped roofs.

The Court of Flags would be vastly opened up, with the flags themselves pushed back toward the perimeter of the space. At the bottom of the hill, a large “event lawn” would face City Hall, with terraced seating along its western edge and a cafe and marketplace to the south. In the enhanced version, the two parcels in the middle of the park would change more dramatically than the ones at the top and bottom of the hill. The Court of Flags would be flanked by two rows of those colorful butterfly shelters, framing a view of City Hall, with a narrow water feature running down the middle.

A pedestrian bridge would twist over Broadway, one of several attempts to give the park a dramatic visual presence for drivers approaching or moving through the site. And a series of six to eight “curated gardens” sprinkled across the site would give a range of other landscape architects or artists a chance to add to the park design.

Many of these elements, if less than stunning, are perfectly attractive. The key question at this stage is whether they create a total vision for the park capable of inspiring the public and motivating potential funders at the same time. Proposals such as these are as much marketing vehicles as design studies. They need to kick-start the imagination even as they untangle practical problems.

Although Rios hasn’t put a dollar figure on the enhanced version, his design suggests that the park can’t really be executed to any degree of sophistication for less than about $100 million. For comparison’s sake, Seattle’s 9-acre Olympic Sculpture Park, which opened last year on a similarly complicated parcel of waterfront land, had construction costs of about $45 million. Of its total price tag of $85 million, more than $60 million came from private sources.

‘The Bean’

Chicago’s hugely popular but budget-busting and much-delayed Millennium Park, meanwhile, which covers roughly 25 acres, cost about $475 million, $200 million of which was raised privately. Its iconic piece of public art, Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” affectionately known as “The Bean,” ultimately cost $23 million all by itself. Gehry’s snaking pedestrian bridge, which is as much sculptural public-art piece as walkway, cost $14.5 million.

You could make a pretty good case, of course, that every penny of that $475 million was worth spending in the end, since Chicago now has a stunning landmark of contemporary design that will generate tourist revenue for the city, and various kinds of goodwill, for decades to come. But that debate seems largely irrelevant here, since the prospect of raising Millennium Park-level private money for our park seems remote. Related has put in an application for up to $30 million from the state’s new bond fund for parks but has said little about other imminent sources of funding.

Landscape architecture has become the most dynamic of the design disciplines over the last five years or so. Not just in Chicago and Seattle but also in New York, Cairo, Singapore and elsewhere around the world, landscape architects are turning greenery into genuine civic momentum.

In downtown Los Angeles, that prospect seems as distant as ever.