If you live in Los Angeles, perhaps you’ve been to Exposition Park — maybe to catch a Trojans game at the Coliseum, or to see the Space Shuttle Endeavor at the California Science Center, or to let the kids run around the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum.
But odds are you didn’t actually come to Expo Park for the park. You drove in to one of its behemoth parking lots. And then you drove out.
You didn’t linger, you didn’t appreciate — maybe you didn’t even really notice — the park itself.
You’re not alone. Yes, Expo Park, established in 1872 as a 160-acre agricultural fairground, contains many destinations to visit. The Coliseum hosted the Olympic Games in 1932 and 1984, and will again in 2028. The park also is home to the new Banc of California soccer stadium, the resurgent California African American Museum (which until recently had arguably the buzziest curator in town, Naima J. Keith), the Exposition Park Rose Garden, the Expo Center (hosting youth swimming, soccer and other programs) and the Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Science Center School, a charter elementary designed by Thom Mayne.
But this remarkable compilation of attractions remains broken, chopped, blocked and diced — a slew of largely car-oriented puzzle pieces interspersed with more than half a dozen outsized parking lots, several faceless access roads and some ugly fences and patches of dirt. Past revitalization efforts, including a 1993 master plan spearheaded by the California Science Center, made dents in this fractured condition, adding green space (particularly along the park’s west edge) and removing some surface parking. But make no mistake: The car — and its In-N-Out culture — is still king here.
“It’s sort of chaos right now,” said Billie Greer, chair of the Master Plan Committee for the board of directors of Exposition Park. “We have to remember that people should be able to come to the park, not just to go to a museum or a stadium. But to exercise. To walk. To sit. To dream a little bit and enjoy the outside. We need some quiet places and some beautiful places.”
At long last, that change may finally be coming.
Officials have commissioned a new master plan timed with the most significant park additions in decades: MAD Architects’ Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which is under construction and will float above the west edge of the park; Frederick Fisher and Partners’ new wing for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which will serve as a new entrance facing the Lucas Museum; and ZGF’s Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center, a permanent home for the (soon-to-be upright) Space Shuttle. Also of note: USC’s ongoing $270-million renovation of the Coliseum.
Sparked by these changes and the 2028 Games, the state-funded Office of Exposition Park Management — with contributions from the park’s member institutions — last year hired Washington, D.C.-based master planning specialists Torti Gallas + Partners and a large team of consultants to propose ways for the park to function more like a park.
For now, Torti Gallas principal Neal Payton said, the attention is on three pedestrian-focused elements meant to undo years of car-focused planning: Link the park to the city around it, connect the park’s many pieces to one another, and encourage visitors and locals alike (South L.A. is, after all, one of the most park-poor areas in the country) to linger through more enticing and more plentiful pathways, plantings and visitor amenities.
“Of course cars will have a place,” said Payton, whose firm is developing the park master plan out of its office in downtown L.A. He acknowledged that vehicles may always be part of the equation, even as they become self-driving. “But they won’t dominate everything else.”
Expo Park, like many of L.A.’s public spaces, resembles a fortress bordered by noisy, unpleasant roads, with few links to the city outside. To remedy this, Payton’s firm has suggested sewing together the park and its community with greener, more inviting edges shaded by trees, knitted with wider, well-constructed promenades and accented with signage, benches and bike racks. They also propose adding eight new entrances for pedestrians and cars and improving at least three more, all closely tied to the park’s interior pathway system.
“We want to celebrate this as a great civic space,” Payton said. “You should know that the minute you arrive.”
Connecting the park’s pieces means patching together and enlivening the walkable spaces between its buildings, creating educational and recreational opportunities and adding pedestrian boulevards that could merge with or even replace the park’s existing roadways. The current “runways of asphalt,” as Payton called them, would be repaved and filled with new landscaping, educational kiosks and trees. New promenades could include an Olympic “Ring Walk” around the Coliseum, a “Museum Way” leading from Figueroa Street all the way to the raised Lucas Museum along the north half of the park and a “Neighborhood Promenade” highlighting the park’s southern portion.
Encouraging people to linger means creating a far better human experience — think places to sit, better lighting and a whole lot more green space, from the small community garden to the great open expanse. This is the thorniest, most expensive component of the plan, because it would mean moving parking spaces underground or replacing flat lots with parking structures. Payton couldn’t estimate what these changes would cost, but ideally three of Expo’s lots would go underground, supplanted with parkland filled with native plants, walking areas, dog parks, sports fields and spaces for events. The visitor parking structure recently built just east of the Coliseum contains one above-ground and three underground levels; Payton said its upper level would remain but the “aesthetic character” would be improved.
“I see folks today — mother, father, kid, dog — promenading through the parking lot as if they were in a Parisian park,” Payton said. “It shows there’s an aspiration to walk in a public setting. We think that’s a fundamental component of making it a great park.”
Beelining for your car, he said, would be replaced by exploring. Tailgaiting could be replaced by picnicking.
“Football only happens six to seven times a year here,” Lasso said. “This really needs to be a park, not a placeholder parking lot.”
Torti Gallas is still a year removed from completion on the plan, but even if the plan’s fundamentals stay intact, it’s unclear whether it can find the funding support and the political power to push it forward.
Ana Lasso, general manager of the Office of Exposition Park Management — formed in 1999 to give the park leadership — is confident that unity and momentum are finally moving Expo in the right direction. Energy, she said, has been steadily building with the arrival of Endeavor at the Science Center in 2012, USC’s ownership of the Coliseum starting in 2013, the establishment of the Los Angeles Football Club in 2015, the opening of the Expo Line in 2016 and George Lucas’ selection of Los Angeles as the site for his new museum in 2017.
“They’ve created a new paradigm, a new conversation about wanting to make Expo Park shine,” Lasso said of these new stakeholders. The ’28 Olympics don’t hurt either, putting a fire under the city and state to make Expo Park a place to show off to the world.
Because the project hasn’t yet been submitted for public review, there has been little criticism to date. Funding remains a looming question, and if park officials want a truly world-class destination, they will need to go even further. That might mean removing the parking structure’s above-ground level (or exploring ways to remove cars from the site altogether), pushing for landscaping that’s as ambitious as the park’s beloved rose garden, offering informal programming like food trucks and murals by local artists and investing in the surrounding neighborhood.
Lasso stressed that the new master plan, unlike previous efforts, zeroes in not just on good ideas but their implementation. Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, which led the turnaround of Bryant Park in New York, has been hired to focus on park revenue, management and programming. Consensus Inc., whose projects have included the Village at Playa Vista, the Expo Line and the Santa Monica Pier renewal, is leading communications and community relations. Lasso’s office will focus on coordinating the park’s many institutions and raising money.
“I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy. But I feel positive that things are starting to align,” said Lasso, who studied urban planning at MIT. “I remember growing up and watching the ’84 Olympics. Somehow Los Angeles felt it had an identity, and Exposition Park was the most iconic piece of that. It’s what held it all together. It’s important that we bring that back.”
Greer noted the cooperative spirit of the park’s constituents and compared the future Expo to New York’s Central Park and Chicago’s New Millennium Park. “We’re really almost there.”
Millennium Park, however, cost about $475 million to build from scratch. The Central Park Conservancy spends more than $45 million annually on maintenance.
Can Expo Park do for L.A. what Millennium and Central parks do for their cities? Will Expo ultimately prove a major step forward — away from L.A.’s reputation as the world’s poster child for car-dominated urbanism?
“I’m tired of the excuse that L.A. was built for cars,” Payton said, referring to a popular line of resistance to pedestrian-oriented and transit-oriented plans. “Most American cities have enormous amounts of traffic. That’s not an excuse. That’s a condition. But to be a great city we’ve got to go beyond that.”