Agence Ter has won a bake-off to redesign Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles for the fifth or sixth time. Or is it the seventh?
By Nate Berg
On a warm May weekday morning, Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles was, as usual, a bit of a hybrid wasteland. Office workers crossed through as homeless people sprawled across concrete benches. Half the park was closed off for a row of plywood vendor booths related to an upcoming event. A father and son played alone in one of the park’s newly built playgrounds. People walking dogs veered toward the small patches of dirt that break up the park’s vast expanse of sun-baked concrete.
In the middle of the park, under a sheet of black fabric, stood the park’s potential future, a product of an eight-month international design competition. The winning design, unveiled for a crowd of about 75 people, reimagines the park as a wide-open public plaza, with large grassy areas, plentiful shade trees, and a large constructed canopy stretching the entire length of the space. It would be “a timeless design able to grow with a changing community and city,” Henri Bava, a founder of the Paris-based lead of the winning team, Agence Ter, told the crowd. “We will make sure that Pershing Square will become, once again, the dynamic heart of Los Angeles.”
History alone would seem to dictate that Pershing Square is due for a demolition. It’s a predictable cycle for the once and perhaps future central park of downtown Los Angeles, which has undergone dramatic redesigns and renovations about once a generation since its original designation as public space in 1866. At least five times the park has been significantly reconfigured, if not completely torn down and rebuilt anew. Each remodel has been a reaction to the changing face of downtown, but also yet another prescription for what downtown can become.
Its latest redesign, completed in 1994 and financed mostly through taxes on surrounding property owners, has been widely criticized for missing the mark of what the downtown of the mid-1990s could become. It is a five-acre space of hardscape highlighted by bold architectural features, designed by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta with what was then the landscape architecture firm Hanna/Olin of Philadelphia. A 10-story purple campanile rises above grassy areas segmented by concrete. Thick, perforated walls and angular structures enclose a perimeter of rooms that form a barrier between the park and the city around it. The park is hard to see into or out of, built atop an underground parking lot and bordered on all sides by automobile ramps, and it has become a gathering place for the city’s large homeless population and various social challenges. A park security guard recently told me how her morning shift required interventions with a man who’d dropped his pants to urinate in the middle of the park, and another man who was pleasuring himself underneath a blanket on one of the park’s benches. Among many insults, Pershing Square has been called “awful,” “a perplexing failure,” and “the worst public space in America.”
And so, about a quarter century since it was last torn down and redrawn, Pershing Square has once again become the focus of a high-profile redesign. This effort, like those before it, is an attempt to reform the park to keep pace with the current trajectory of downtown Los Angeles, a neighborhood undergoing a remarkable economic revitalization, a residential population boom, and a re-emergence as the dominant core of a city with many centers.
The current design competition, formally initiated in September 2015, was launched by Pershing Square Renew, then a year-old nonprofit entity set up through the office of the city council member representing downtown L.A. in conjunction with MacFarlane Partners, a major downtown developer. The city’s Department of Recreation and Parks committed $1 million toward the park’s future, and MacFarlane Partners kicked in another $1 million to seed the new nonprofit. More than 50 teams of designers from around the world responded to the request for qualifications in late September, and by late December, Pershing Square Renew had narrowed the field down to the conceptual visions of four finalists—SWA Group with Morphosis, James Corner Field Operations with Frederick Fisher and Partners, wHY with Civitas, and the eventual winning team, Agence Ter with SALT Landscape Architects.
“Ever since the first phase of the competition we were attracted by the specific condition of Pershing Square and downtown in general,” Bava of Agence Ter told the crowd during the unveiling of the winning design. “This is a space of possibilities, of many challenges, but certainly also of dreams.”
Aside from the $2 million pledged so far—plus a grant of monetary and technical support from Southwest Airlines valued at $200,000—there’s not yet any real funding for this potential redesign. Developers such as MacFarlane Partners, who are fueling downtown’s building boom, have a clear interest in the future of Pershing Square. So do the growing ranks of downtown residents. To get built, a new design will have to balance the demands of these very different interests. What such a public space will look like—and who will pay to build, maintain, and operate it—remains to be seen.
José Huizar, a Los Angeles City Council member, has been leading the effort to redesign Pershing Square since a redistricting in 2012 put much of the newly redeveloping downtown under his jurisdiction, along with Pershing Square—and all the complaints about its design and management. “Pershing Square has the potential to be a town square for the city of L.A. And that’s our hope,” Huizar says. “But with the design that exists now, it would be very difficult to get there.” Huizar’s term ends in 2020. He quickly made the park one of his office’s top priorities.
He was nudged along by Gensler, the global design firm, which moved its offices from Santa Monica to downtown L.A. in late 2011. As part of a firmwide initiative looking at the role of public spaces, a group of volunteer designers engaged in a nine-month study of Pershing Square to begin rethinking how it fits into a changing downtown. “At that time, no one was really paying attention to it,” says Brian Glodney, an associate at Gensler who led the Pershing Square effort.
Gensler’s team issued an internal report that made a case for “the prospective creation of a true public space with all the sociocultural rewards that accompany a well-used town square.” Given that the downtown residential population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013 to more than 52,000, the need for public space is growing. The report estimates that nearly 14,000 people now live within a five-minute walk of the park. More than 500,000 come to work downtown every day.
With these statistics and some ideas for ways to improve shade, pedestrian access, and the visibility of the park from the surrounding streets, Gensler passed the report on to Huizar’s office, and he used it to support an effort to begin rethinking Pershing Square. In the summer of 2013, a task force was formed to explore a new vision for the park.
“The park itself is underutilized and not fulfilling its intent, which is to be an open space that’s inviting to everyone. And a lot of that was partially due to the park’s design,” Huizar said recently. “So that coupled with the surging revitalization of downtown L.A. and people’s demand and need for more public open space. We recognized that the timing was right to move forward with an open visioning process.”
But a new park—or even a new vision—is not free. Downtown developers, keen to link a renewed park to proposed megadevelopments, quickly pledged support. In early 2013, the Anschutz Entertainment Group, then hoping to build a new stadium downtown, offered $700,000 to this visioning process. The stadium project eventually fell through, and with it the money. MacFarlane Partners, not unrelatedly developing a 600,000-square-foot multifamily residential and retail project adjacent to the park, soon jumped in with its $1 million to support Pershing Square Renew’s redesign effort.
Downtown L.A.’s resurgence is a big part of the push to redesign the park. The Downtown Center Business Improvement District estimates that nearly $14 billion was invested in new residential, mixed use, and commercial construction downtown between 1999 and 2014. More growth is on the way. There are currently 10,000 residential units under construction. The downtown skyline is a forest of construction cranes.
Eduardo Santana, a real estate consultant who works with MacFarlane Partners, has been hired to lead the nonprofit Pershing Square Renew. “The more attractive and appealing we can make the downtown area, the better these properties will perform,” Santana says. He doesn’t shy away from the connection between downtown’s development interests and the push to redesign the park. In fact, the whole redesign effort is relying on a public–private partnership model to go forward. “It’s a new vehicle for realizing the potential that’s there,” Santana says. “It’s an opportunity to bring forth resources that don’t regularly invest in public spaces.”
Some people have concerns about private interests’ leading the charge for a redesign of the public park. Huizar and Santana both say the park will remain a public space guided by the desires of Los Angeles residents. The conceptual vision boards presented in December by the competition’s 10 semifinalists suggest that Pershing Square can be a vibrant, walkable, engaging, and lively park once more. All of the finalists’ designs emphasized the need to improve pedestrian access to the park and create more space for a diversity of uses, both recreational and revenue-generating. Exactly how the park will make this potential transition is still unclear—designers were instructed to assume a roughly $50 million budget for the redesign, not including the park’s ongoing operations and maintenance. But there’s almost unanimous agreement that something has to change in Pershing Square.
On an empty table at the end of the Pershing Square farmers’ market one bright December day, three of the founding members of the Pershing Square Restoration Society roll out a large photocopy of what they call the ideal design for Pershing Square. It’s the 1910 plan for Pershing Square designed by the architect John Parkinson. He would eventually go on to design Los Angeles City Hall and a number of other significant buildings throughout the city, but Pershing Square was his first major work in Los Angeles. His plan for the park is simple: grass, trees, and other plants fill the rectangular block from edge to edge, with hardscaped semicircle entry points at each of the corners, diagonal pathways crisscrossing the length of the space, and an elaborate fountain at the center.
This was the park for nearly four decades. In 1951, the automobile era inspired the city to reuse the space beneath the park for a three-level subterranean parking garage of nearly 2,000 spaces, which could also double as a nuclear fallout shelter. The parking garage, according to the Pershing Square Restoration Society, was the downfall of the park.
“None of the basic elements of public space building exist in this park,” says a society cofounder, Richard Schave. This iteration of Pershing Square, he says, is completely unfriendly both inside and out. Its aggressive pavement and lack of shade make it an unpleasant place to visit, and there’s little seating that isn’t taken up by homeless people. The architectural elements of the park create separated and closed-off spaces, and its walls make it difficult to see both into and out of the park. And then there are the underground garage’s ramps, which surface on all four sides of the park, creating a moat of driveways that eliminates all but a few points where pedestrians can actually get into the cloistered interior. Schave is not alone in thinking the ramps make access to the park far more difficult than it should be, and that they’ve had a hugely negative effect on the space.
Along with his wife, Kim Cooper, and a biographer of John Parkinson, Stephen Gee, Schave formed the Pershing Square Restoration Society in 2013 after city council member Huizar began pushing to re-envision the park. Through a Facebook page and an online petition, they have gathered more than 2,000 signatures calling for the city to formally consider restoration of the park instead of going down the road toward a redesign. When the design competition was launched, Cooper says she asked if restoration or a no-build option could be included, but was declined. The society wrote an open letter to the competition’s 10 semifinalist teams asking that they consider restoration in their proposals. Only two teams wrote back, Cooper says, one in the form of a comment on the society’s Facebook page, with a smiley-face emoji included.
Schave says the society will continue to call for restoration of Parkinson’s 1910 plan. “We don’t say this out of nostalgia. We say this because the design works,” he says.
“Until they rip it up,” Gee says, “it’s not a dead idea.”
“The park’s not finished, in our view,” says Laurie Olin, FASLA, of the Philadelphia-based firm OLIN.
The widespread criticisms of Pershing Square are not lost on the landscape architect behind its latest design. His original proposal, designed with Legorreta, called for more programming in the park, with wide, open corners and various pavilions near the park’s openings that could serve as shops and café spaces to make the space more welcoming and lively. Those pavilions, he says, were deleted from the plans during construction. The programming never quite happened. The structures around the park’s perimeters got built too big and impassable, and the park took on the feeling of a fortress.
Olin says the entire park was a victim of neglect. “By the time the park was completed, its management was in total disarray, if there was any. It didn’t really have an advocacy group to speak of, and it began to decline. Probably from just about the second week,” he says.
Olin and his firm were brought onto the project largely because of their previous work on another troubled urban park, Manhattan’s Bryant Park. Over decades of deterioration, Bryant Park had become a magnet for drug users, sex workers, and the homeless. Hanna/Olin’s renovation in the late 1980s and early 1990s focused on cleaning up the site, improving access, and implementing varied programming. Coupled with the establishment of a nonprofit corporation to manage and maintain the park, the renovation of Bryant Park is widely considered a model for successful urban parks.
“We know today that building a park is not just about building a park,” says Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, the CEO of OLIN, who was involved with both the Bryant Park project and Pershing Square. “You have to take care of it. The investment, the dollars that you invest in the park, you’re going to spend again over the next 10 to 20 years in maintenance and programming. That information really wasn’t available 25 years ago.”
Part of the problem with Pershing Square, Olin and Sanders say, is that the programming and management haven’t been sufficient to make the park an attractive place where people feel comfortable. The city’s significant homelessness hasn’t helped. “Because parks are de facto public, they become bedrooms, toilets, and homeless shelters,” Olin says. “And so unless you actually work on both parts of the equation, managing a park and dealing with the people who will go to it if they have nowhere else to go, you’re going to have a problem with whatever you design for your new square.”
“I don’t want to say ‘mea culpa,’ but I also don’t want to say ‘non est mea culpa.’ Because we were there, we did it, we used our wits as much as we could, we worked hard, and it didn’t work,” Olin says. “And it’s heartbreaking.”
Both Olin and Sanders say it’s time for a new vision for Pershing Square. “If it doesn’t work, off with its head,” Olin says of failed designs. OLIN was invited to participate in Pershing Square Renew’s design competition—first as competitors, then as judges—but the firm has opted to stay out of the process. Olin and Sanders say they were pleased to see the high caliber of finalists selected for the last stage of the competition. But they also warn that good design can do only so much.
“The real question is not whether you’ll get a good design,” Olin says, “but who’s going to look after it and how are they going to program it?”
The next iteration of Pershing Square will most likely be run as a public–private partnership.
Donald Spivack is a former deputy chief of operations for the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles who helped shepherd a number of major downtown projects through the development process. “Public–private partnerships are more and more the way things are going to be happening, if for no other reason than that public funds are simply in very short supply,” Spivack says. The public–private partnership makes sense from a financial perspective, he says, but he argues that private interests shouldn’t outweigh those of the public.
Spivack, like members of the Pershing Square Restoration Society, thinks the current effort to redesign Pershing Square hasn’t involved enough of the public’s voice. “While they’re looking at some outreach now, it is late,” he says. “There should have been more participation in terms of whether people want the park changed.”
Huizar, the city council member behind the redesign effort, says the process was spurred by the desires of his constituency and has been transparent. Though private entities will likely be involved in the park’s future, he says it will always be a public amenity. “The governance of Pershing Square will remain with the city,” Huizar says.
Santana of Pershing Square Renew says the nonprofit’s board includes downtown residents to help ensure that the competition and the eventual redesign of the park are conducted in the public’s interest. But he also argues that there’s a lot to be learned from the experience of private companies and developments. He cites the ersatz town center mall developments, such as the Grove in Los Angeles and the Americana in nearby Glendale. They’re private projects, but with privately owned public spaces that have been incredibly successful in terms of attracting people. He wants Pershing Square to have that same cachet.
Santana says the finalists were asked to focus their designs on accessibility, visibility, pedestrian friendliness, and the parking ramps that have plagued the park’s edges since the 1950s. Indeed, all four finalist teams proposed cutting out all but two of these entry points.
Leading up to the selection of a winning design, the finalists’ ideas for the park had been limited to conceptual vision boards, which, following the competition’s guidelines, offered more of a narrative of the designers’ ideas for the park than actual designs. They called for “vibrant street life,” “porous edges,” “a sociocultural hub,” and a “world-class destination,” among other aspirations.
The finalists’ designs were revealed to the public and the competition’s jury in late April. After a few weeks of review and public comment—including feedback from roughly 1,300 people, Huizar says—the jury announced its winning selection in mid-May. It was reportedly a unanimous decision in favor of the proposal from the team led by Agence Ter, which proposes to tweak the parking garage and give the park a “radical flatness” that will improve access and sight lines across the space.
Santana says Pershing Square Renew and the city will work with the Agence Ter team to refine its design in the coming months. He’s hoping the winning design will be a “really great first draft.”
Fund-raising for the park is already under way. Santana is hoping to rely on some public funds but also heavily on corporate sponsors and the philanthropic community. A tax assessment district around the park is another likely funding source, as are various development-related fees already being generated amid the downtown boom. Huizar says the city and Pershing Square Renew will have to think creatively to generate the funding to build and maintain the park. “We know this is going to cost quite a bit of money,” Huizar says, “but we intend to find the money.”
Nate Berg is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.