The parallels between San Francisco’s Union Square and Los Angeles’ Pershing Square are pretty astounding. On the surface it’s hard to believe, but they are essentially twins living two separate lives 337 miles apart but following almost identical historical paths, faced with similar challenges, and playing similar roles in their respective city centers. SF’s Union Square, however, is about two decades ahead of LA’s Pershing Square. As a result, visiting Union Square is really like looking into a crystal ball and gazing into what the future of Pershing Square could become, which is a much better and prettier version of its current ugly self. Unlocking the immense potential surrounding Pershing Square will depend heavily on the right kind of redevelopment and redesign efforts focused on the square itself. In other words, making Pershing Square into a beautiful public space where everyone wants to be will naturally raise the value of all buildings surrounding the square nearby, and as a result, transform the area into a viable and vibrant commercial district akin to Union Square.
I spent all of last week in San Fransisco exploring the urban fabric of one of the best downtowns in the country. For those unfamiliar with The City, Union Square and the surrounding areas near Powell and Market Street is the main commercial, shopping, and cultural district of SF, and quite arguably, one of the most prestigious districts in the country. Union Square is surrounded by high-end department stores and boutiques, restaurants, hotels, and office buildings creating a vibrant urban community that is both fun and exciting to experience. After spending a substantial amount of time observing Union Square and how pedestrians interacted with the public space, it became rather apparent that it would be a good model for Pershing Square to follow in terms of its design.
In an earlier post, we covered in-depth the inherent design flaws (with lots of pictures) of Pershing Square. Putting the abysmal aesthetics aside, two fundamental and relatively simple design issues that must be addressed at Pershing Square include: 1) Closing at least two out of the four gratuitous parking entrances and removing the remaining parallel ramps that lead to the underground parking entrances by reconfiguring them into normal perpendicular driveways, and 2) Removing most, if not all, perimeter walls surrounding Pershing Square allowing for transparency for both people inside the square to be able to see out and for people outside to be able to see into the square.
So why is Union Square basically Pershing Square’s long lost twin? For starters, both squares were founded in the mid-1800s, Union Square in 1850 and Pershing Square in 1866. Both sit squarely in the middle of the commercial heart of their respective downtowns. In fact, Pershing Square straddles perfectly in the middle between the Historic Core and the “new” downtown skyscrapers, which means it should be a vibrant crossroads within Downtown LA. And most relevant of all when it comes to the dismal state of Pershing Square of today, Union Square faced the same challenges with the homeless and sad decline of the square that ultimately led to a successful $25 million redesign in 2000 that took 18 months to complete. The newest iteration of Union Square was designed by April Philips of APDW and Michael Fotheringham of MD Fotheringham.
This quote from the San Fransisco Chronicle describes the background of Union Square and what led to the redesign and is an almost identical situation occurring in Pershing Square today:
“Over the years, the square was neglected, with the Recreation and Park Department assigning a single gardener to maintain things. The Union Square Association and others have tried to spruce things up by getting more events held in the square, including art shows and programs honoring just about every holiday and ethnic group.
In the mid-1990s, hedges that provided a haven for the homeless or for muggers were removed to provide a more open feeling.
The theory is that a renovated square, with lots of activities and people, will keep away petty criminals and prevent the area from becoming a homeless encampment.”
MORE FACTS AT A GLANCE
Union Square: 1850
Pershing Square: 1866
Union Square: 2.6 acres
Pershing Square: 5 acres
Union Square: 1000 spaces
Pershing Square: 1800 spaces
Number of Parking Entrances
Union Square: 2
Pershing Square: 4
One day, a completely redesigned Pershing Square of the future could be as vibrant and enjoyable as these pictures show below of Union Square today. One day…