Grand Park is great, but not so grand

The renovated Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain sits in the newly opened Grand Park in downtown L.A.'s Civic Center.
(Francine Orr, Los Angeles Times)

Among the things I never envisioned myself doing was frolicking barefoot in a fountain with Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

But when she kicked her shoes off on Monday afternoon at the city’s newest playground, how could I not follow her in?

The water at Grand Park in downtown L.A. is perfect, by the way — not too cool or warm, and bubbly soft—and the finish on the pavement is skid-proof. This is a good thing, because I had to step quickly and grab an 18-month-old tyke named Augie whose nanny asked Molina for help chasing him down. It was time to go home, but Augie, an amphibious child, refused to leave.

This was not my first trip to the park; I’d taken a gander on Sunday, eager to see the end result after several years of planning and construction. Actually, only part of the park is now open, with the stretch between Hill and Broadway set to open soon and the Broadway-to-Spring section ticketed for a fall debut.

My first surprise was that Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose bold attempt to extend term limits was beaten back Tuesday, hadn’t sneaked a statue of himself into the plan. Whether as a man of stone or from the grave, Antonovich is determined to hang around, if for no other reason than to keep his weekly pet adoption circus in business at board meetings. Even if the pets have been mounted by taxidermists.

My second surprise was that the park truly exists. Given the history of petty contempt city and county officials hold for each other in Los Angeles, it’s nothing short of a miracle that members of the Grand Avenue Committee saw this thing through without any major injuries. And best of all, they built a park without tax dollars, having hardballed Related Cos. into committing $56 million for the park in exchange for the right to develop its currently stalled Grand Avenue project.

OK, so what’s not to love?

Call me an ingrate, but I have to ask if Grand Park is grand enough.

I feel the same way about the Dodgers getting Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino but not a great starting pitcher.

I feel the same way I do about building a subway-to-the-sea that’s going to stop three miles short of the ocean.

I’ll eat lunch in the park, watch concerts with my family, run through the fountain with my daughter and feel good about having this nice new gathering place in a city with too few of them. And who knows, maybe I’ll be wowed when the rest of the park opens.

But as a professional curmudgeon, I’m contractually obligated to point out that in a city short on green and long on asphalt, they’ve built a park that will be surrounded by vehicles and broken up in two places by traffic. It’s not a contiguous stretch of green from the Music Center on Grand to City Hall on Spring. It’s three separate park blocks, so you’ll have to wait at traffic signals to cross from one section to the next.

“I think it’s a great addition,” said Eli Broad, cheerleader-in-chief for the larger Grand Avenue vision. But, he added: “If I had been involved in the design, it might have ended up differently.”

How so?

“I don’t want to be critical of it,” he said, offering plenty of praise, “but I would like to have seen more lawn and green space and less hardscape.”

I don’t know about that. Some of the great public spaces in Europe have no grass, and we do, after all, have water-shortage issues in California.

When I suggested Grand Park was no Millennium Park in Chicago, Broad said that both Millennium and New York’s Bryant Park come to mind as great models. But he also said there could be improvements later on if ugly and outdated county buildings can be bulldozed and offices relocated and better integrated into the downtown landscape.

Still, Broad said he’s been lamenting since 1979 that every great metro area needs a “vibrant center where people from all communities can come together” to celebrate, say, a Dodger World Series title or the end of a millennium. And now, he said, Los Angeles has one.

Molina politely bristled at my comment about great parks in other cities.

“I’m really kind of tired of being compared to every other city,” said Molina, who argued that a perfectly dead zone in the middle of the Civic Center has now been transformed, much for the better.

And to be fair, she’s one of the people who made it happen.

Trying to be helpful, I suggested pedestrian bridges to volley park-goers up and over the traffic, but this didn’t go over particularly well.

“I think it works very nicely as is,” said Molina, arguing that each section of the park will have a different feel and can host different kinds of events simultaneously. At times, she said, the cross streets can be blocked to make for a car-free festival all the way from Grand to Spring.

My quibbles about the park notwithstanding, I do think it could become the piece that gets more young folks, empty-nesters and unemployed screenwriters throughout the city thinking about a move closer to downtown. The rent is lower, no car is necessary and services, dining, culture, sports and night life offerings are expanding, and now you can sleep it off in the park.

And for the information of those who’ve never visited, the days are warm and the nights are cool, because the marine layer often travels east of Robertson, even if you never do.

An anthology of Steve Lopez’s columns, “Dreams and Schemes,” can be found at