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Santa Monica Cornered
Field Operations tapped to design major civic park
Field Operations will soon develop new plans for the Palisades, seen here at sunset, and Town Square in Santa Monica.
Courtesy City of Santa Monica

James Corner and Field Operations have beaten out formidable competitors including Gehry Partners and Peter Walker to design Santa Monica’s new Palisades Garden Walk and Town Square. The high profile project will include 7 acres of park space between Santa Monica City Hall and the Santa Monica Pier that will connect the area’s Civic Center to the rest of the city. Land for the project was made available when the RAND Corporation relocated its headquarters to the southernmost location of its 15-acre site back in 2004.

Out of the 24 teams that submitted for the RFQ, the six shortlisted teams included Field Operations, Peter Walker and Partners, Gehry Partners, Studio Works, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, and SWA Group. The selection panel for the project included Qingyun Ma, Dean of the USC School of Architecture; landscape architect Ken Smith, and Marc Fisher, Campus Architect at UCSB. They panel coordinated with staff from the city’s Community and Cultural Services, Planning, and Public Works/Architecture Services departments.

In the end Field Operations, best know for their work on New York’s High Line, won out because of their creative thinking about the site, their landscape expertise, their strong work in the public process, and their “commitment to making places for people,” said Barbara Stinchfield, Santa Monica’s Director of Community and Cultural Services. Teams did not present concept designs in their interviews.

An aerial photograph shows the new areas to be developed by Field Operations in downtown Santa Monica as well as nearby landmarks.

Stinchfield stressed that the team was selected for more than just their impressive resume. “It wasn’t just this one really high profile project,” she said, referring to the High Line. “It’s their dedication to sustainability and public art and engaging the community.”

Lisa Switkin, an associate principal at Field Operations, believes it is her firm’s commitment to community involvement that helped it win the day. “We are good listeners,” she said. “We try to understand the site, not come in with a design and retrofit it to what people like.” Switkin added that while a design is far from being developed, the firm is interested in exploring the site’s historic significance, its local plant life, its bluffs and dunes, its significant grade changes, and even its nearby freeway interchange. “We like to amplify the site’s existing characteristics,” she said.

On the heels of the High Line, Field Operations is also working on major park spaces throughout the country. These include the Atlanta Beltline, a 22-mile loop of former rail tracks and embankments around the city; the huge Shelby Farms Park in Memphis; the Race Street Pier in Philadelphia; and the massive Fresh Kills Park on Staten Island, which is transforming the former landfill of the same name.

Passing over Gehry Partners was not easy, said Miriam Mulder, from Santa Monica’s Architectural Services Department. But the selection committee decided it was best to choose a team that focused on landscape architecture. “This particular piece doesn’t really have much architecture associated with it,” she said. “It’s nice to imagine there might be more architectural pieces that come up.”

Stinchfield said the project is being funded through $25 million in redevelopment agency funds, while the city hopes to tap into additional design department money. They hope to finalize the team’s contract and make a recommendation to the City Council at its last meeting in March. But Mulder thinks that the recommendation might not be made until the council’s April 13 meeting. From there, she said, the city hopes to have the design finalized by late 2011 or early 2012 and have construction begin in 2012.

The Town Square portion of the project, adjacent to Santa Monica’s City Hall, is set to be a space for cultural and civic events, while the Palisades Garden Walk, to its south, will focus on the city’s unique “cultural” and “horticultural” offerings, including a botanical element and water features. Adjacent streetscape improvements, as well as pedestrian and bicycle paths, will connect the parks to the city, while Moore Ruble Yudell’s Santa Monica Village will sit just adjacent.

We’re pretty built up at this point, so it’s definitely one of the last open spaces that we may have to develop for a long time,” said Mulder.

Sam Lubell