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.
2) The parallel driveways into the underground parking garage block more than 50% of the perimeter of the park.
3) There are no amenities except for dirty chairs, benches and a smelly dog area.
4) There are no walkways throughout the square. An unused ticket booth, concrete structures, stairs and elevators block any flow to walk around.
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.
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.
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.
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