Entertainment & Arts

From the Archives: Pershing Square’s 1994 redesign concept was aiming for ‘humane’ and ‘romantic’

Pershing Square
The park is conceived as a series of open-air rooms with a performance area and lawn, a statue garden, a central walkway dotted with orange trees, a tidal pool and plazas for tables on all four corners.
(J. Albert Diaz / Los Angeles Times)

A team led by French landscape architecture firm Agence Ter has won a design competition to remake the crumbling public park at Pershing Square. The last time it was redesigned was in 1994 by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and landscape architect Laurie Olin. Here’s what Legorreta told The Times about his “humane” and “romantic” plans for the park, and how they reflected a nationwide push to restore and rebuild deteriorating downtown spaces. This article was original published on Jan. 29, 1994.

A purple carillon tower rises 125 feet above Hill Street, with a big pink globe dangling from its pinnacle. Canary yellow walls embrace an open-air cafe and citrus trees poke up from a rose-colored walkway. A waterfall cascades into a fountain that simulates tidal ebbs and flows.

Coming upon those features in Downtown Los Angeles, even longtime residents may be disoriented. They will be hard-pressed to find familiar remnants of Pershing Square except for old war memorials and a statue of Ludwig van Beethoven, and those have been moved from previous spots of honor.

But that shock of the new is precisely what architects and financiers hope to evoke when Pershing Square’s $14.5-million reincarnation is dedicated Thursday. Haunted by past failures to revive the park, they believe that a radical redesign combined with social services and tighter security will erase the image of a filthy, crime-ridden place where many feared to tread.


They also hope to place Pershing Square at the forefront of a national movement to take back troubled urban parks.

“The concept is to make it humane, inviting and, I’d even go to romantic. So people feel very good there and react positively,” said Ricardo Legorreta, the Mexican architect who redesigned the five-acre square, along with the Philadelphia-based Hanna/Olin landscape architecture firm. “I think if the place becomes the pride of the neighborhood, then 80% of the problems will be solved.”

From San Diego to New York, cities are struggling to restore the common grounds that once symbolized civic pride but too often have become examples of metropolitan shame. Unlike previous campaigns, these projects try to tackle tough social problems while still planting trees.

This “quiet rebellion” is led by people who feel unwelcome in city parks because of homeless squatters or drug dealers, said Barry Tindall, an official with the National Recreation and Park Assn. Many citizens, he emphasized, want a change from parks that are “unhealthy or unsafe or aesthetically not pleasing.”


To overcome public skepticism, changes must go beyond offbeat architecture.

But such change is difficult in these days of tight municipal budgets. At Pershing Square, 18 nearby property owners have assessed themselves $8.5 million in a 30-year bond issue for the park’s overhaul; the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency is paying another $6 million.

Projects such as Pershing Square aim for a push-pull effect--having enough policing to control crime, while providing cafes and concerts to attract the public. “I think the key is if they can provide some positive reasons why people should come to the park. So people will get used to the park and it will become an essential part of their day,” said Jane Adams, executive director of the California Park and Recreation Society.

At the same time, designs are intended to discourage overnight squatting. Pershing Square has small lawns and no public restrooms; social workers will offer to help the homeless obtain shelter and job counseling. Homeless advocates welcome the plan but want to make sure everyone can use the park as long as no rules are broken.

Still, even Downtown boosters know that the national track record on urban park restoration is uneven. The square’s planners have already heard criticism that the use of walls in its design could create a security problem. So they are anxiously watching what happens in this, the fifth face lift for Los Angeles’ oldest city park.

As a model of what to look forward to, they cite the recent redesign of Bryant Park in mid-town Manhattan, which eliminated hiding spots, drove out drug dealers and attracted as many as 5,000 tourists and office workers a day. At San Diego’s downtown Horton Plaza park, the crime rate has been sharply cut, but only by taking out all benches and converting lawns to flower beds unsuitable for napping.

Other efforts have fallen short of expectations. Berkeley’s People’s Park remains a trouble spot despite new sports facilities and a combination of social and security programs. And St. James Park in downtown San Jose is sliding back to its unsavory reputation after a face lift.

For Pershing Square, planning was complicated because its location gives it an astonishing array of constituencies: shoppers from the lively Latino stores on Broadway and the multiethnic jewelry district, office workers from Downtown’s western side, motorists parking in the garage beneath the park, subway riders from the adjacent Red Line station, tourists staying in Downtown hotels, and homeless people seeking a safe place to rest.


“Apart from sporting events, parks are one of the only things that all social classes attend and care about,” said designer Laurie Olin, who collaborated with Legorreta. “A lot can go wrong with a public structure today. This can either be the DMZ or a common ground. I think it has the potential of uniting people rather than driving them apart.”

Filling the block enclosed by 5th, 6th, Hill and Olive streets, the square will have an open-air cafe run by the adjacent Biltmore Hotel and five other food stands run by the nearby CitiDeli. The firm that operates the Pasadena Playhouse plans to bring concerts and shows, both at workday lunch hours and on weekends, to a palm-lined stage area.

Officials hope to further draw visitors with quirkily colored walls, tunes played by the tower chimes and Mediterranean plants. In unusual touches, artist Barbara McCarren has paved one walkway with a design that resembles an earthquake fault line--completed well before the Jan. 17 temblor. She also conjured up telescopes through which viewers see photos of the square when it had white picket fences in 1889 and when it was a center of soapbox oratory in 1930.

The city Department of Recreation and Parks has the main responsibility for running the park. Its officials and leaders from other public and private agencies promise cooperation to keep out drug dealers and to make sure, in Olin’s words, that Pershing Square doesn’t become “the nicest homeless shelter in North America.” Officials emphasize that all visitors will be forbidden to bring in shopping carts, camp, aggressively panhandle or drink alcohol. Although the park cannot be locked up at night, it will be declared off limits from 10:30 p.m. to 5 a.m.

A police substation has been built at the square, but will not be staffed full time. Instead, plans call for patrols at least eight hours a day by city Park Rangers, frequent visits by guards from the Biltmore Hotel and the underground garage, as well as intermittent checks by LAPD officers and by transit police at the Red Line station across Hill at 5th. Counselors from the Weingart Center, an agency that aids the homeless, will be at the park much of the day.

Alice Callaghan, director at Las Familias del Pueblo, another organization that helps Skid Row residents, said Downtown families look forward to Pershing Square’s reopening because the area has so little open space. But she hopes that authorities “make the effort to separate out the criminals from the poor who need to be made welcome.”

The people behind the project are well aware of past failures to improve the park since the once grassy pastureland was set aside as public space in 1866. The last cleanup, for the 1984 Olympics, lost its glow soon after international visitors left town. A 1985 redesign competition attracted 200 entries, but was abandoned amid financing and political problems. The park, named for World War I Gen. John J. Pershing, closed for the latest renovation in August, 1992.

The current plan seeks to provide visitors with “both a physical and psychological sense of security,” said John T. McAlister, president of the Pershing Square Property Owners Assn., which helped finance and guide the reconstruction.


“We tried to strike a balance between excitement and vitality and a hardheadedness about security,” said McAlister, a vice president of Maguire Thomas Partners development firm. That company, like others in the association, sees park improvement as a public service that also may raise values of their nearby office buildings and stores.

Architect Legorreta believes that the success of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Old Town Pasadena and Universal CityWalk proves that Southern Californians will leave back yards and cars if the environment is pleasant. “The tradition of public spaces is just starting in Los Angeles,” he said.

To be accurate, it is a tradition trying to be reborn. As a reminder, a 1946 quote from California historian Carey McWilliams is chiseled onto the back of a new concrete bench at Pershing Square. In it, McWilliams recalls stumbling into the crowded park: “Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there neither was nor would there ever be another place like this City of the Angels. Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed was the place for me--a ringside seat at the circus.”

New York’s Bryant Park, on which Olin also worked, succeeded in keeping the urban circus under control--through police patrols and the silent pressure that comes from well-behaved crowds, officials say.

“There was an era of anything goes and permissiveness,” New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern said. “Now, people are waking up to the fact that a park is not the place for the lowest common denominator of human activity, whether it’s drugs, crime or sex.” Parks should be treated “like outdoor living rooms--not a bedroom, bathroom or kitchen.”

Stern contends that those rules do not discriminate against poor people or the homeless: “I’m not talking social exclusion. The key is behavior. If they don’t behave, out.”

New York’s Bryant Park, although publicly owned, is managed by a semiprivate organization that gives extra punch to enforcement. Bryant Park’s administrator, Daniel A. Biederman believes that Pershing Square could suffer because it is to be run by a resource-scarce city department instead of an agency devoted solely to that park. There also could be friction between the city and property owners association, he added.

“Urban spaces are very demanding. It takes tremendous attention to detail,” Biederman said.

Pershing Square’s designers broke up what had been faded lawns and rose beds, crisscrossed by pathways. The new park is conceived as a series of open-air rooms: to the north, a performance area with a lawn below; a statue garden on the northeast; a central walkway dotted with orange trees between the tower and cafe; the tidal pool on the south, and plazas for tables on all four corners. More like European plazas, much of the ground is covered with decomposed granite and stenciled concrete that aids wheelchair access and discourages camping.

Legorreta’s signatures at hotel and office projects around the world are thick, brightly colored walls, evoking a Mexican village central plaza. At Pershing Square, the walls are punctuated with very large openings and pink columns that dramatically frame the Downtown skyline. The purple tower, he said, is meant to contrast with the stately Biltmore and the sleek glass office buildings nearby.

Yet some critics and police worry that street-side walls could create difficulties in monitoring the park from the outside. Some people also grumble about the colors.

“Unless it’s managed well, it could become a scary place,” said Fred Kent, an urbanologist who is president of Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization with offices in New York and Hollywood. Kent, who helped with Pershing Square’s Olympics make-over, said the current design has too much flashy architecture and not enough comfort.

“I think there are some nice parts of it that are interesting and unusual and unique and I think a city needs to have that. . . . But it’s such a linear place, people are not going to be comfortable. There’s not enough grass.”

The walls, planners counter, are needed to shield Pershing Square from its most intractable problem. Since 1950, it has sat atop an underground parking garage that ruined the park’s environment, surrounded it with awkward ramps and deprived trees of deep rootings. The ramps simultaneously cut off the square from Downtown’s regular pedestrian flow and took away any sense of tranquility.

The designers contend that clear sight lines inside the park and from its exterior corners, plus intense lighting, overcome surveillance problems. And, with two of the eight auto ramps eliminated, a sidewalk finally circles the park and ends its isolation.

Robert Hauck, LAPD’s senior lead officer for the area, said a few features of the park are not “police- or security-friendly.” But Hauck said those can be worked around and that such criticism is minor compared to the positive change. The square, he added, complements other nearby revitalization projects such as the Central Library expansion and the Bunker Hill Steps.

“Whether you like the color scheme, or the architectural layout, you’ve got to love what it represents--and that is that this is a new Pershing Square and not the old square,” Hauck added. “Maybe it took a big, tall tower and somewhat odd architecture in bright colors to make people realize that.”

Such debates over security and park use continue nationwide.

As part of overhauling a troubled East Orange, N.J., park, underground sensors are being installed to alert a security guard or police if anyone enters the grounds after hours. In San Diego, taking lawns out of Horton Plaza provoked controversy but parks official Ted Medina contends that “essentially we knew that in order to purge, cleanse and reintroduce the park, it would take somewhat drastic measures.”

Yet rents are rising and vacancy rates falling around Bryant Park in Manhattan and near the reclaimed Post Office Square in Boston. “The notion,” Olin said, “that public space can be a benefit or a perk instead of a drain and a worry is a very different attitude.”


Two downtown L.A. parks and the tricky task of designing them to best serve the city

Pershing Square redesign: New renderings of the four finalists

A look inside the multimillion-dollar renovation of downtown L.A.'s Microsoft Theater