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Why we hate Pershing Square

Why we hate Pershing Square
A 1951 photo of Pershing Square shows the clearing it underwent to construct an underground parking garage. (Los Angeles Times)

It would seem to be just in the right place for a city park: a five-acre square in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, bounded by Olive, Hill, 5th and 6th streets, with the elegant front of the Biltmore Hotel on one side, the busy office towers of Bunker Hill on another, and the lofts, restaurants and nightlife of our newly vibrant urban core on the others. It is clean enough, and well-enough patrolled, and it offers a children's playground, a dog run and benches and grass to sit on.

And yet it feels all wrong: the rows of standing pink stucco tubes the size of water heaters, the huge metal spheres placed here and there, and the strangely looming tower are inexplicable. A maze of proliferating walls chops its expanses of concrete into odd shapes and block access from the surrounding streets. In spite of ample lighting, past sundown the square feels unsafe. Outside of weekday lunch hours and weekend special events, it is mostly given to the homeless.

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In the midst of downtown's extraordinary revival, Pershing Square remains a perplexing failure.

It wasn't always like this. Set aside in 1866 as La Plaza Abaja — "the lower plaza" — it was L.A.'s indispensable civic space for more than 80 years, with grass, palm trees and lush tropical vegetation. It was a place to meet, stroll, muster troops and argue a cause, with a speaker's corner like London's Hyde Park. And, like New York's grand urban refuge, it was even called Central Park for many years.

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After the turn of the century the square was redone in the formal Beaux-Arts style by John Parkinson, the architect of City Hall a few blocks away. In 1918, it was renamed for John "Black Jack" Pershing, the victorious American general of World War I. His statue still stands in the park, next to a monument to the 7th California regiment that fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898. From the 1920s to the 1960s, the square served as the center of what was known as "the run," a gay cruising corridor along 5th Street stocked with nearby drinking establishments.

Social disapproval of the run, along with the general perception that downtown was "blighted," might have been a factor in the decision to prescribe the open-heart surgery of urban renewal for Pershing Square and Bunker Hill.

In 1951, the park was ripped out to make way for a three-level, subterranean parking garage. Access ramps and stairwells replaced the greenery, but for a thin layer of turf atop the concrete. Some of the palms that were dug up were moved to brand-new Disneyland's Jungle Cruise — a fittingly ironic fate, as, like Disneyland, the new square was part of the machine of suburbanization remaking Southern California, built around the private automobile.

Widened, one-way streets — like racetracks around the park — connected to the new regional freeway system, speeding white-collar workers from office towers that replaced bulldozed apartment buildings to their homes in suburbia. Once bustling at all hours, downtown became a ghost town after 5 p.m., and Pershing Square became the resort of drug dealers and the homeless.

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Before the 1984 Olympics, an embarrassed city spent $1 million trying to clean it up, but the mostly cosmetic changes didn't help much.

Nearly a decade later, in 1993, cash from the developer of Gas Company Tower, which rises kittycorner from the square on 5th Street, paid for a remake by the Mexican modernist architect Ricardo Legorreta, aided by landscape architect Laurie Olin and artist Barbara McCarren. They decided on the symbolism of the region's old citrus empire: oversized orange spheres and a little bosque of actual orange trees, a stylized earthquake fault, and the oversized tower, meant to symbolize the San Gabriel Mountains from whence water flows to the city. Few visitors to the square have any idea what it means.

Now another downtown developer, AEG, has put up $700,000 to study the problem of Pershing Square. According to the area's City Council member, Jose Huizar, "Everything is on the table." That's good, because even without spending a dime on a study, it should be clear that no amount of landscape-architectural creativity can turn the roof of a parking structure into an integrated part of downtown's urban fabric.

Parks work because they welcome people, not cars. The city's Original Sin at Pershing Square was sacrificing public space on the altar of the automobile, cutting it off from the pedestrian life of the street grid in favor of parking lot access and confusing, off-putting walls and changes in grade. It is useful to remember that New York's Central Park succeeds because its designers blocked most streets from the park and placed the few major crossing streets below grade, out of sight. Walkers, cyclists and even equestrians there experience a place scaled to people, mostly undisturbed by car traffic.

Any real attempt to return L.A.'s "lower plaza" to its former liveliness and relevance must first reverse the historic mistake of the parking garage. It would inconvenience some drivers, yes, but it would also begin to redeem Los Angeles from its century-long car-and-asphalt binge.

A solution short of that would require putting the square's car circulation on a radical diet, slowing streets and slimming ramps. Most important, it would mean removing the maze of walls that block the space from a passerby's eyes as well as his feet, signaling that the park is open and welcoming — its priority to support the rich pedestrian civic life of downtown, not commuters.

Give Pershing Square back to the people.

Wade Graham is a landscape designer, an adjunct professor of public policy at Pepperdine University and author of "Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World," to be published in January.

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