My interest, passion, and involvement with Downtown LA urban redevelopment began in earnest after I graduated from college and moved back down to LA from the Bay Area. Living and studying in Berkeley and traveling to San Francisco quite often, I became fascinated by urban planning and was excited that Los Angeles was truly beginning its own urban renaissance. In 2004, after moving back to LA, I soon became aware of Downtown LA’s Grand Ave Project and realized its incredible potential for rejuvenating LA’s urban heart. However, I was very concerned about the proposed park that was planned to go along with it, so I voiced my concerns then by speaking at Grand Ave Project meetings and continue to voice my concerns to this day.
The 16-acre Grand Ave Park, which is currently under construction and will be completed this summer, is sandwiched between two monolithic 1950s county office buildings: the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration and the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse. These two elongated and hulking structures restrict both pedestrian and visual connections for the park that lies hidden between them along Temple and First Streets.
One of the cardinal rules for creating a successful urban park is to provide easy access into and out of it so that people are allowed to roam and flow freely within and through it, creating a vibrant cross-flow that activates the park from pedestrian activity. It is only then that a certain percentage of people will decide to linger longer and sit and enjoy people watching. Of course, programming also helps, but in order for the park to be activated daily, it must have high accessibility on all sides.
This is where the twin County Buildings become a damaging and impeding force against the park’s potential urban connective benefits for the Civic Center and its cultural amenities. Because of their large size abutting the park directly, they restrict the potential flow of pedestrian activity by blocking the perimeter of the park on Temple and First Streets. And their towering height within such close proximity to each other, separated by the narrow Grand Ave Park, further limits visual connections within the surrounding area for the people inside the park. For example, instead of being able to see the Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels–both designed by Pritzker Prize winning architects–a person inside the park will be left with a much less interesting view. And vice versa as anyone walking outside the park may never know it exists because of the County Buildings blocking it.
With all that being said, there is likely some hope that one day we will finally get it “right” here in Los Angeles–a city so counterintuitively backward because we never think with our feet (as pedestrians), only with our gas pedals (as drivers). It is said that the County Buildings sustained some expensive damage during the 1994 Northridge earthquake that would obviously cost millions upon millions of dollars to retrofit. It may be cheaper to dismantle than to retrofit these two beasts.
Also, there is a wonderful opportunity right now to reuse the federal courthouse at 312 N Spring Street when it is vacated after a new $400 million federal courthouse is built at First and Broadway. We could essentially relocate most if not all of the services within these two County Buildings into the old federal courthouse. That way we could dismantle the County Buildings and expand the Grand Ave Park all the way to the sidewalks, creating a truly world-class public space that would help transform LA’s reputation from car-town to a sophisticated urban city. Think of the indirect benefits we would have for our economy–attracting global creative capital and talent in an increasingly competitive world–if LA was known more for how livable it was instead of how bad our traffic is on the 405 freeway.
Watch a video I recorded in 2004 of LA Mayor Jim Hahn (sitting by Eli Broad) discussing the Grand Ave Project and the proposed park