New park in downtown Los Angeles inspires grand hopes

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For decades,the cascading strip of land in the heart of the Los Angeles Civic Center reflected a downtown where people commuted in each morning and cleared out by sunset. It was a collection of parking lots and little-used chunks of public space, hidden by the ramps of a parking garage.

This week, after a $56-million renovation, that 12-acre rectangle from the top of Bunker Hill to the base of City Hall will be christened as L.A.’s Grand Park, providing downtown with its first sizable amount of open space.

The park opens to a transformed downtown, where over the last decade or so thousands of residents have moved in, creating a vibrant scene of restaurants, shops and galleries.

Discuss: Will Grand Park succeed?
To city leaders, Grand Park provides this new community with much-needed open space, a respite from the grind of city life as well as a hub for community events. They also hope it will play a big role in downtown’s future growth, helping spur more development in the area and create more of a residential feel.

But will Grand Park be grand enough?

Urban parks have become centerpieces in the revitalization of downtown areas across the nation — including the elevated High Line in Manhattan, a patchwork of riverfront parks in Brooklyn with postcard views of the Manhattan skyline, Chicago’s Millennium Park and Houston’s Discovery Green. Some of Grand Park’s features — movable chairs and tables, an interactive fountain and ample electronic hookups for concerts and community events — drew inspiration from those venues.

Photos: Downtown L.A.’s Grand Park


Urban planners — and downtown residents — say it remains an open question whether Grand Park will measure up to those popular urban spaces and how broadly it will be embraced by the region.

Planners have also been grappling with how to deal with the large homeless population on nearby skid row and the possibility that the park could become a regular location for protests such as those byOccupy L.A.Officials have decided to close the park at dusk, a move some worry will make it less useful to residents.

“The quality of this park needs to be high enough to lure jaded Los Angelenos to come check it out,” said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence.

Harnik and others said the most successful urban parks developed in the last few years have been especially flexible, serving as neighborhood gathering spots, tourist destinations and entertainment venues.

“It’s very hard to have a successful park in a totally work kind of environment, a 9 to 5 environment,” Harnik said. “The success of the park will depend on many factors — design and amenities and programming. But getting more of an 18-hour neighborhood is going to make a huge difference.”

Downtown’s other open space about a mile south offers a cautionary tale for Grand Park. Pershing Square was redesigned with much fanfare more than two decades ago in an effort to attract more users with a dramatic tower fountain and other amenities. But the park is generally considered a dud, and the city has been talking about another redesign.

Officials said they’ve learned their lesson from Pershing Square —Grand Park has more grass and green space, and it can host a wider variety of events.

The park begins along Grand Avenue with a dramatic view of a renovated Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain and the tall white crest of Los Angeles City Hall. Parking ramps that once hid the fountain from pedestrians have been torn down, and the fountain is now programmed to run a colorful light show. A new “splash-pool” has been added beneath it for kids to play in.

The next “block” of the park includes a performance lawn, stage, Starbucks and public restrooms. Throughout both spaces there are bright pink tables, benches and chairs, small gardens and palm trees. Winding paths run along both edges.

Two lower sections of the park — a plaza area between Hill Street and Broadway, and a much larger event lawn across from City Hall — will open in coming months, officials said. Programming at Grand Park will be coordinated by the Music Center, which is operated by a nonprofit that manages the nearby Walt Disney Concert Hall, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre.

On a tour of the space, officials emphasized the flexibility of the park, its proximity to public transportation, theaters and concert halls, and its somewhat secluded feel, likening it to a “green room” in the middle of downtown.

“This can be L.A.’s Central Park,” Howard Sherman, chief operating officer of the Music Center, said confidently. “It connects L.A. in a way that has never happened before.”

“L.A. has so many cultures, but it’s so spread out,” said Dawn McDivitt, project manager for Los Angeles County, which owns the land. “Our goal is to have this be a place where people will gather downtown, bring their families on the weekend and experience all the diversity, the arts, the food and culture.”

In an interview, philanthropist Eli Broad said the park is an important step in the larger plan to make Grand Avenue a world-class arts district, which he helped launch over a decade ago.

Originally, the park was supposed to open in concert with a $775-million Frank Gehry-designed mixed-use development at Grand and 1st Street. That complex has been stalled by the financial downturn, but Broad’s art museum is under construction across the street and is set to open in early 2014.

“A lot of things are happening on Grand Avenue, and the park is another jewel in the crown,” Broad said. “I think it’s a great asset for the city.”

One criticism of the park design is that it’s hidden from public view on its long edges by several government buildings. But Broad said he’s hopeful some of those buildings will be torn down soon, allowing the park to expand significantly and connect with the proposed Gehry development and his museum.

Still, for all the excitement, experts said L.A. faces challenges if it wants to make Grand Park into an A-list urban space.

There are lingering concerns over security, given the homelessness problems downtown and recent flare-ups between police and activist groups. Tony Paradowksi, a designer who worked on Grand Park, said it took dozens of hours to test lighting and make sure the space had a safe feel at night.

County officials have adopted what experts described as an unusual policy of officially closing the park at dusk, but still allowing people to walk through. The park will remain open at night whenever special events are planned, McDivitt said.

Sherman acknowledged that safety was a serious concern, saying that security guards from the Music Center would work around the clock.

“You have a big open space in the middle of the second-largest city in the country,” he said. “You have to be ready for anything.”

Downtown residents said they were eager for Grand Park to open, although some balked at the comparison to Central Park.

“There are a lot of people living downtown, and a lot of people wanting more green space,” said Tara Newman, who was walking her poodle at the small park outside the LAPD’s headquarters one evening last week. “I think [Grand Park] will be busy, there will be a lot of people there at night. But I lived in New York — that park is not going to be Central Park.”

Indeed, while Grand Park is in the heart of the Civic Center, experts said the area is not exactly bustling with pedestrian life when compared to the neighborhoods surrounding other successful urban parks like Union Square in San Francisco and Bryant Park in New York, let alone Central Park. The lack of street life, they said, puts more pressure on the Music Center to host the events that will draw people from a larger geographic area.

“There has to be some kind of reason that people go there…. City parks usually work best when they capture movement and activity that’s already adjacent, or traveling through,” said Galen Cranz, a UC Berkeley professor of architecture, who studies urban parks. Grand Park “is going to have to have awfully special programming to make it a destination.”

And drawing consistent crowds is likely to be the biggest factor in keeping out crime and blight. Residents typically feel safer in parks that are busy, even if there are homeless people around, Cranz said.

“The general theory is that homelessness is not a deterrent if there are enough of all kind of users,” she said.