“Friends of Pershing Square” Reimagines Downtown LA’s Faded Historic Central Park

One of the first redesign options for Pershing Square is to get rid of the walls and return it to its original form, an example seen here in 1965 (Photo: LAPL)

One of the first redesign options for Pershing Square is to get rid of the walls to increase visibility and accessibility, returning it closer to the original form seen here in 1965 (Photo: LAPL)

Pershing Square has gone through several major overhauls since its inception in 1866 when it was then called La Plaza Abaja, or “The Lower Plaza.” In its current state (another major overhaul designed by Ricardo Legorreta and completed in 1992), purple, yellow and beige walls surround most of the square with giant pink cylinders lining the wall on Hill St, blocking accessibility and visual connections. In addition, long driveways on all four sides of the park — leading cars into an underground parking garage — run parallel to the sidewalk (instead of space saving perpendicular driveways) creating uncrossable rifts between the sidewalk and square. It’s as if the park was designed deliberately to cater to the automobile with the intention of keeping people out of the park.

If we look back at the history of Pershing Square, we’ll see that keeping people out of the park was exactly the objective city leaders had as the public space became a congregation of “public preaching and outspoken oratory” according to a KCET historical account of Pershing Square.

It apparently got so bad that an LA Times writer, Timothy Turner, in 1951 complained that “all varieties of radicalism and of religion are shouted to the high heavens [that] the square’s ‘human fauna’ have so abused the right of free speech, giving offense to those who, having business, use the square as a short cut, and to those who wait for their busses and those who live in the hotels or have offices in the buildings facing the square.”

The “offensive speech” was becoming so much of a nuisance that local businessmen took action and persuaded the city to redesign it completely — with the goal of “containment” and enclosing it essentially. Unfortunately, their goal to dissuade these people from entering was done “so well” that nobody else, including the general public, wanted to use it either.

Fast forward to 2013 and the park is still seldom used by any of the nearby residents or office workers. And if it weren’t for the efforts of the park to host events, Pershing Square would virtually be vacant. Remember, a well-designed park (think Union Square in SF or Bryant Park in New York) should not have to rely solely on programming to be activated (click here for an explanation on how to activate urban parks).

The good news is Downtown LA is going through an amazing renaissance. People are getting out of their cars, moving downtown, and more companies are relocating back into the city. And while there have been a few downtown parks added over the years, such as the newly opened Grand Park and the Cornfield in Chinatown, none are as closely centered within the core of Downtown LA as Pershing Square, which straddles both the “new and old” downtown. Where there could be quality retail and restaurants surrounding Pershing Square (which really is the key to full-time activation of Pershing Square itself) akin to San Fransisco’s beautiful Union Square, the blight of Pershing Square — stemmed from its flawed design — actually prevents economic growth. Great public spaces attract people, which translates into good business.

Los Angeles is already known for being “park starved” and Downtown LA is no exception. Pershing Square can play a vital role fulfilling this unfortunate void. Being situated ideally between the Historic Core and Financial District, a park of this size (at a whopping 5 acres) should be considered an incredible opportunity to serve a broad range of the general public and to act as a crossroads and connection between the old and new downtown, forming a cohesive urban environment. Whether to people watch, have a place to eat and relax or to simply walk around, Angelenos deserve to have access to great public space.

Let’s look at some of the most obvious design flaws of Pershing Square today:

1) Walls surround the park, turning its back onto the street. Not only is this uninviting to people walking on the narrow sidewalk (62 inches at its narrowest), but it prohibits people knowing there’s anything going on in the park to begin with! The wall also takes up vital space that could be used more effectively as open space.

Walls surround Pershing Square, turning its back to the street (Photo: Michael Walzman)

Walls surround Pershing Square, turning its back to the street (Photo: Michael Walzman)

The narrow width of the sidewalks surrounding Pershing Square is considered anti-pedestrian in such a busy pedestrian district (Photo: Brigham Yen)

The narrow width of the sidewalks surrounding Pershing Square forces pedestrians to walk in the street during rush hour (Photo: Brigham Yen)

 

2) The parallel driveways into the underground parking garage block more than 50% of the perimeter of the park.

Parallel ramps take up the majority of access points into Pershing Square

Parallel ramps take up the majority of access points into Pershing Square

 

3) There are no amenities except for dirty chairs, benches and a smelly dog area.

The current Pershing Square is designed poorly when it comes to pedestrian flow and seating (Photo: Brigham Yen)

The current Pershing Square is designed poorly when it comes to pedestrian flow and seating (Photo: Brigham Yen)

 

4) There are no walkways throughout the square. An unused ticket booth, concrete structures, stairs and elevators block any flow to walk around.

The infamous "cheese wedge" among other poor design features in Pershing Square create bad flow (Photo: Brigham Yen)

The infamous “cheese wedge” building among other poor design features in Pershing Square create bad flow (Photo: Brigham Yen)

 

So how can we fix Pershing Square’s flawed design?

1) Tear down the walls and rearrange the driveways so they are perpendicular. This frees up space for park users and allows people to see inside, while giving users of the park to see the lively city atmosphere, as seen in the Union Square pictures.

Union Square in SF is only half the size of Pershing Square (2.6 acres compared to 5 acres) and is open and vibrant (Photo: Michael Walzman)

Union Square in SF is only half the size of Pershing Square (2.6 acres compared to 5 acres) and is open and vibrant (Photo: Michael Walzman)

Union Square in SF is accessible and vibrant with great connections with the surrounding blocks

Union Square in SF is accessible and vibrant with great connections with the surrounding blocks (Photo: Michael Walzman)

 

2) Add walkways around the park, dotting them with tables to play chess, ping pong and places to sit. Not only are these great simple amenities, but it is also entertaining and pleasing to watch for anyone walking through the square.

Chess players in Bryant Park, New York

Chess players in Bryant Park, New York (Photo: Jen Stewart)

Ping pong in Bryant Park, New York

Ping pong in Bryant Park, New York

 

3) Add a well designed cafe or restaurant. This will provide income for the park as well as another reason for people to come and enjoy their time here.

Emporio Rulli Cafe in Union Square, San Francisco (Photo: Lisa's Gallery)

Emporio Rulli Cafe in Union Square, San Francisco (Photo: Lisa’s Gallery)

There are many things that can be done to change the way Pershing Square stands now. With some momentum starting, including the exciting announcement last week that AEG is donating $700,000 to go towards re-envisioning Pershing Square along with Councilman Jose Huizar’s efforts, a mix between San Francisco’s Union Square and New York’s Bryant Park are great examples to look at for inspiration. The space we need is already there; half the battle is already won. Los Angeles is a world class city and our downtown should reflect this. Let’s make Pershing Square into the great public space it once was.

If you are interested in helping Friends of Pershing Square make this a reality, please visit www.friendsofpershingsquare.org for more information.

— Michael Walzman and Brigham Yen contributed to this story

48 Responses to “Friends of Pershing Square” Reimagines Downtown LA’s Faded Historic Central Park

  1. I know this is radical for LA, but Huizar did say “everything is on the table”, so here goes:

    Get rid of the parking garage entirely.

    Its not like there isn’t a hundred other lots downtown anyway. And unless the garage is removed – or at least lowered, there is no way to get the park completely down to street level where it belongs. Unless that is done, replacing walls with stairs and making the ramps perpendicular instead of parallel can only go so far to reconnect the park to the surrounding streets.

  2. Remove the parking structure entrances to an adjacent empty lot, and then restore Pershing Square to exactly as it was pre-WWII. That’s all that needs to be done.

  3. downtown resident

    yup, I agree. PLEASE remove the parking structure. At the rate downtown is going, there will be less people driving into downtown for an event, and more people that LIVE downtown that want to walk to their neighboorhood park.

    The number one thing I would like to see is GREEN GRASS :)

  4. The current iteration was to be a temporary “space-holder” until the area improved and there was a solution to the homeless. Now it is time to do it right. I agree that the garage should either be eliminated or as Alex suggested. S.F.’s Union Square is wonderful and not too elaborate. The emphasis should be on casual dining and relaxing. There currently is a food service concession but it was closed soon after opening. Pershing Square is a jewel waiting for the right touch.

  5. Pershing Square is one of the most horrid monstrosities of city planning I’ve ever seen. That thing they did the last time… was the WRONG thing.

    • Make that the 2nd monstrosity of city planning… the 1st being Bunker Hill. Whoever responsible razing that hood should be drawn and quartered whilst acid is poured on them. They should have just gentrified that area (adaptive reuse) back in the 1960s which would have helped and not taken the rest of downtown into the toilet like it did for the following 35 years. There was plenty of other space to build skyscrapers downtown. They didn’t have to put them all on Bunker Hill and make what was once cool (I’ve seen videos of the hood in the 1940s) into a desolate Omega Man zone. with no soul. Now we have to fix everything our grandparents and parents fucked up.

      • While I’m ambivalent about a lot of the urban renewal projects of the 60′s and Bunker Hill does look cool in old photos, it’s hard to argue with the Music Center, WD Concert Hall, the Redcat, the Moca, and the upcoming Broad museum. Bunker Hill is the cultural center of LA. I get wistful when I look at photos and see more San Fran than LA, but as someone who is into the arts, I love being able to walk to all these places. It won’t be undone, so we just need to move on.

        • The Music Center, etc… are fine but they didn’t have to level the entire area (which is quite big). They could have done a section (adding music center, etc..) to help boost it and then gentrification would have started and trickled all around Bunker Hill. Instead, they destroyed everything. It’s a shame because Bunker Hill was crucial to LA noir past and it’s just not the same. Watch this and tell me what’s better, then or now: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlxAAty9p7k

          • Love it….it was waaaay better then…it’s too bad so much of DTLA’s history has been destroyed. Thanks for the link!

  6. Finally someone is taking a look at the terrible use of Pershing Sq. You didnt even mention how the statues of which the park is named are bunched up next to a Beethoven statue and a cannon. Every time I go to the park I yell to anyone that will listen how Legoretta ruined the park. It looks like a bad Nagel print. A bygone cocaine era where pastels were thought to be timeless. It is the most under utilized park I have ever been. Where clueless security guards allow crack smoking while running after kids that may ride their bikes into this urban hell hole. Tear every wall out…get rid of that lousy fountain…the ridiculous pink columns…and the angled tower of sauron with the outdated ball of the 80s poised to roll out on the street of its own accord in self protest.

  7. As much as I hate parking structures/lots, there is no need to remove this one. Union Square in San Francisco has done very well and they have a structure underneath.

    I hope they blow it up and completely redesign it – but thats a long shot. Even if they redesign it completely how will you keep the current residents (of the park) out so that people feel its safe/clean enough to hang out in?

    ALSO, if Pershing sees a complete redesign its still bordered on 3 sides by; parking lots, Title Gaurantee (which will not fulfill its retail space), parking lots, a hideous abomination of a building that replaced the grand Paramount Theater, and all that filth on 6th (minus Arda’s Cafe).

  8. lol @ “please visit http://www.friendsofpershingsquare.org for more information.” there is exactly ZERO information.

    i hope they consider keeping some part of PS dog friendly. DTLA is in desperate need of spaces for our pups. and although the current state is disgusting, the only thing bringing residents to this park is the dog portion. i have been going to PS every morning for over 3 years, along with thousands of other DT residents.

  9. I disagree with Hunter. The reason the parking garage under Union Square in SF works is because its built on a slope. Post st. is 10-20′ higher elevation than Geary. So the ascending steps from the Geary side would be there regardless of whether the garage was there or not. And if you look at the Post side, the ramp has a sharp decent while there are no steps at all to enter the park from that side- the park is flush with the street.

    Pershing Square is different. There is no natural grade, and the ceiling of the garage is above street level. So the park is like flattened pyramid: you have to climb from ALL sides to enter it, and once you’re inside you’re completely cut off from the surrounding streets.

  10. @ Brigham Yen,

    Great points and nice video you made in NYC.

    Interestingly, most of the points you make have been discussed a long time ago in a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. She has a section on parks that cover many of the things you mention.

    Have you read her book?

  11. The square is truly a mess, and getting rid of the parking structure would certainly help urbanistically. But it may not be hopeless to keep the parking either. The original garage as built in the early 50′s had the current excessive access ramps, but its edges were not elevated like they are today. Look at the early pictures, and the current ceiling profile in the top parking level – they slope down toward the surrounding streets. It may be possible to reduce the number and the length of the ramps and retain a lot of the parking while transforming the square itself. And if that does not prove possible then yes, just get rid of the parking.

    And the 1952 design was in fact just a large lawn – minus the great old trees of course. With the loss of some of the top level parking spaces, huge new tree planters could be added down into the upper parking level to support large trees.

  12. Another way to activate Pershing Square is to include a playground. There is only one playground for all of DTLA, located in Grand Hope Park on the FIDM campus. The playground is crowded every single day and especially on Saturdays, which have become an informal “playdate” day for downtown families. As a result, the park has become a hub of community activity, a place that feels truly alive.

    Another example of the benefit of having kid-friendly amenities can be seen at the new Grand Park. On hot weekend days, the park is nearly deserted—except for the wading fountain. Parents hang out in the shade next to Starbucks while the kids splash in the fountain for hours. Meanwhile, aside from a few people walking their dogs, the rest of the park goes unused.

    The equation is simple: more playgrounds and amenities for kids = more people using our public spaces every day = safer and more welcoming parks and streets for everyone—even those who don’t have children.

  13. Also wanted to say I agree with doubleA about the need for a dog park. DTLA is probably the most dog-populated area in the county and there is a desperate need for a real dog run. The one at Grand Park is too small and the police park has no fences, which has already resulted in dogs running into the street and being hit by cars.

    • People are absolutely nuts to let their dogs off leash at the police park. They only have themselves to blame when their dog runs away or gets hit. I have a dog and would never let him off leash in an unconfined area. You are asking for trouble of all kinds. In general in LA people are way too crazy about letting their dogs off leash when they can’t control them.

      Personally I think parks just need to be dog friendly, not necessarily have a dog run. And there is an enclosed area at Grand Park.

  14. I agree wholeheartedly about inclusion of a playground. It would keep the park in use, especially on weekends when commuters are absent and would still leave plenty of space available for other uses. I would also argue for swings, as there is currently not a single swing in downtown LA.

  15. 2 words!!!! Shake Shack! (or In-n-out) PArking lot issue wont mean a lick of difference if there isn’t a unique draw to bring people onto the grounds in the first place and its long overdue we have something more than a farmers market. Madison Square Park/Bryant Park/Union square all have a decent if not really awesome resto destination that brings more private security and secured lunchtime seating- end of story.

    • Agree! Need additional destinations – or at least around the perimeter busineeses. Grand Park is awesome when there are events – but lonely when nothing’s going on… needs restaurants, food, activities adjacent. I don’t generally support Starbucks but it activates the north part of Grand Park.

  16. Pershing Square was destroyed as a public park sixty years ago. It was a shame then and it still is. If this change can replace some of the old greenery and park benches, it will be fulfilling its potential.

  17. what about some iconic angel statues to symbolize LA? something classic not modern. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_%C3%81ngel

  18. Make the ramps perpendicular. Keep it as simple as possible; a lot more trees and a lot less concrete. Integrate a cafe.

    One thing that gets my attention is that AEG is providing seed money to rethink the park, I hope they don’t consider any lighting/billboard schemes, fake trees (Nokia plaza Christmas tree), or concrete wastelands.

    PS should reflect the organic nature of the historic core; simple trees, benches, and public spaces should do it.

  19. Art- I hadn’t thought of that. I really hope there are no strings attached to that AEG seed money. The last thing we need is another Nokia Plaza. That place is TERRIBLE. Its fun to walk through for 30 seconds, until you realize that there’s nowhere to sit, its 100% concrete, and you’re being bombarded on all sides with commercials playing on 40′ high screens, 24/7. I bet landscape architects die a little inside every time they walk through that place.

    • So agree. LA Live is as lovely as walking on a freeway. Grey, concrete, ugh. Billboards and noise. Bland, corporate and boring.

  20. I have a great idea – return it back to the way it was in the picture presented circa ’65. It looks absolutely beautiful, ideal, and most of all, SIMPLE. Why would they choose to ‘redesign’ something that didn’t need to be ‘redesigned’ in the first place. Pershing Square is an embarrassment of a public square. It is extremely poorly designed, poorly executed, and downright ugly. Just about anything would be an improvement from the current state of this public space. I’m looking forward to seeing a new Pershing Square!

  21. Why not turn the clock back all the way to 1888? (http://jpg2.lapl.org/pics03/00011005.jpg)

    We now have space for performances and other gatherings at the new Grand Park. Let’s remake Pershing into a natural oasis at the center of the city. Grass. Trees. Maybe a simple WOODEN bench here and there. That’s it. Just leave a spot for the official Los Angeles Christmas Tree. (See: Union Square, SF.)

    And, seriously, if we’re going to continue calling it Pershing Square, let’s have one giant statue to honor it’s namesake and relocate the rest. Beethoven might be happier by the Music Center since the Philharmonic Auditorium has been gone from 5th and Olive since 1985.

    L.A. city planners and politicians have a tendency to over think these things. You would think they’ve never seen a park before.

  22. I didn’t see this mentioned in the article, but actually there is a document that states that Pershing Square is supposed to be “re-envisioned” every 15-20 years (my memory is a little shady about the exact number of years). I learned this in a Urban Development course at USC around 2001-2002. At the time, the professor teaching the course, which included a walking tour of downtown, stated at that time that the current design (which exist today) should be up for renewal in about 2-5 years. So, the city is probably in breach of an agreement for that specific space.

  23. I totally agree with this post but we need to stop perpetrating the “la is park poor myth”. See the latest Trust for Public Land report, LA has some of the most park land per capita of any major city…

  24. Jonah, It’s LA’s giant “wild” parks like Griffith, Runyon, and Elysian that are driving up per capita number for the city IN AGGREGATE. If you were to look at the per capita parks number for individual numbers, its indeed very low for many neighborhoods that don’t border the hills.

    Besides, there’s a huge difference between wild parks and neighborhood parks. Sometimes you just want a place to sit and relax or bring your dog. Going to the park shouldn’t have to mean getting in the car and doing an hour long hike in the hills…at least not every time.

    • That’s a huge point. LA does have great, huge parks, but we desperately need smaller, more local green space that doesn’t require a car trip.

      • Elysian park could be a great park if they activate it with activities…a museum, cafes…look at the golden gate park in SF..beautiful and always busy with people.

  25. *neighborhoods, not numbers. Per capita parks for individual neighborhoods.

    I shouldn’t comment before I’ve had my morning coffee.

  26. And if there going to do a fountain, it should be done in the classic way- centered in the park, with lots of seating around it. It should be the focus, a natural gathering point for people.

    Compare the fountain in Dupont Circle (DC) to that god awful postmodern fountain we currently have in Pershing Square:

    http://washington.org/sites/washington.org/master/files/styles/tag_page_wide/public/dupont-circle_circle.jpg

    No comparison. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.

  27. You wrote: “The Music Center, etc… are fine but they didn’t have to level the entire area (which is quite big). They could have done a section (adding music center, etc..) to help boost it and then gentrification would have started and trickled all around Bunker Hill. Instead, they destroyed everything.”

    ^^^^^^^^^

    My reply:

    Actually, a few of the Victorian mansions were preserved and at least one of them was moved to Heritage Square next to the Pasadena Freeway. Regrettably, one of the more prized homes, while waiting to be moved, was lost due to arson.

    For all the old properties up on pre-1960s Bunker Hill that had some intrinsic architectural value, most of the rest was forgettable or indistinguishable. In fact, a sense of the basics of that area still existed to the west, around Crown Hill, as recently as 10 years ago, if not today. However, if a similar mass razing had been done to most of the structures on Spring Street or Broadway, that would have been senseless and inexcusable.

    Nostalgia for old-time Los Angeles needs to be tempered by the fact the city, particularly downtown, never elicited the undying praises of most big-city urban folk, the snobbish ones in particular — whether from LA or other leading cities — even during the early 1900s.

  28. Lets be honest here people- It s not the parking garage that is keeping people out of pershing square. it’S THE FACT THAT THE PARK ITSELF HAS DRAWN A STIGMA AS A PLACE WHERE THE HOMELESS CONGREGATE and in and of itself there is no draw to bring people to a giant cement slab. You have to add more greenery (this much we can all agree on) but unless there is a great cafe or something truly unique the only time that space wil be used is during ice skating season and locally for farmers markets once a week. Personally we should be show casing our food truck culture there every day until we get In-n-Out or Shake Shack or something exciting to basically bend the will of the residents to adopt it. Look at Madison Square Park in NYC. Dog Park, Shake Shack, actual trees and safe places for classes and performances of all kinds. Simpole.

  29. Excited for this. I’d like to see an open cafe with seating and tables, like at Retiro in Madrid or Vondelpark in Amsterdam. http://www.travellady.com/Issues/April08/images/4878Ma14.jpg

  30. If they put a golden statue at the Americana, they can sureley do it here. I love the idea of an Angel statue in the middle.

  31. I think Angel statues would be nice. Only not just one — they would represent our City of Angels, after all. How about life-size angel statues similar to these:

    http://www.designtoscano.com/product/zoom.do?productID=103311

    Why not place four of these angels as supports for a plaza fountain along the lines of the one featured on Friends of Pershing Square’s Web site:

    http://www.friendsofpershingsquare.org/

  32. L.A.’s official flower is the bird of paradise, so we’d need these somewhere within Pershing Square.

    But what we really need are tall trees, I say we should outline the park with stands of beautiful jacaranda trees. Can’t you just picture how marvelous they would be?

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhochman/2013/05/19/best-places-to-see-jacarandas-in-bloom-in-los-angeles/

  33. Another suggestion: Perhaps the city could use a section of the park the way New York does its Pershing Square Plaza. It has seasonal street activities schedule, such as this line of Parisian-style cafes that operates from spring through fall. See this link for a photo:

    http://www.grandcentralpartnership.org/our-neighborhood/pershing-square

  34. About the parking structure under Pershing Square: There are all sorts of complications because of the deal the city made back in 2010. Check out what Ron Kaye had to say at the time the long-term lease was made:

    http://ronkayela.com/2010/08/it-took-the-board-of.html

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