Editorial>A modest public-private urbanism

When higher levels of government find themselves gridlocked, city mayors often step in. After a long era of austerity and federal- and state- level
obstructionism, now-booming urban cores have turned to experimenting with private capital when they pursue experimental urban projects. This phenomenon has resulted in projects like the High Line in New York City as well as the current expansion to SFMOMA previewed in this issue. These grand urban gestures aim to rebrand neighborhoods through the activation of shared open space, space that is funded by a variety of business interests aimed at reaching the pocketbooks of an ever more urban-minded consumer.

This also leads to projects like FaB Park in Los Angeles, a two-acre programmed public park planned at the intersections of First and Broadway across the street from LA’s historic City Hall and beside Rios Clementi Hale’s lauded Grand Park. The City of Angeles recently released finalists from the invited competition aimed at designing the park, with Mia Lehrer (in collaboration with OMA), Eric Owen Moss, AECOM, Brooks+Scarpa, and Bay Area landscape architect Walter Hood going head-to-head. The proposals are impressive in their complexity and specificity, with various approaches taken to fulfilling the city’s desire for a Millennium Park-style addition to Los Angeles’s kit of New Urbanist ephemera. As a result, the proposals suffer under the yoke of being designed through a game of Mad Libs: Urban Park Edition, such as the FaB brief:

Every (urban) park needs a large (sculptural component) containing a (restaurant), plus space to (exhibit) works of (art) and (architecture), all of which are (shaded) by giant (fake trees) because we’re in (Los Angeles).

This is a great model for a park, but can only work as part of a larger system of equivalent parks spread out across L.A.’s reaches because of its low-slung, monocultural expanse. FaB park should be the first in a new city-wide parks system that blends nature, leisure, and retail in diverse, exciting ways. I can imagine neighborhood identities coalescing around such spaces, such that taking a trip to any park would yield a unique experience. This emerald tapestry should allow already territorial neighborhoods to take control of new patches of open space and control their respective architectural manifestation. The sticky situations that result from the ensuing tensions over public and private spheres would play out over the space of the city, with local solutions, and appropriate responses, creating a vehicle for the ongoing critical debate over the nature of the city here.

The problem is that FaB Park is a one-off scheme; one park with a bad name and a misguided vision.

The competition neither fulfills its own mandate for producing “distinctive design approaches” for urban parks nor does it take the notion that economic self-determination makes good public space to a logical end. For one, a 200 seat restaurant component is simply far too big and can only result in another foothold for expensive taste and conspicuous consumption in a site defined by cultural and civic symbolism. Danny Meyer’s success with Shake Shack in Madison Square Park is an easy precedent to reach for, except Meyer’s stand, a 400 square foot shed in a 6.5-acre park, is very different from the proposed 8,500 plus square foot structures for FaB Park’s two-acre site. Call me old-fashioned, but isn’t it obscene to designate this swatch
as a pleasure palace?

Here’s a better plan: plant groves of trees in a grid across the site. Populate these groves with a mix of native and adopted trees, the requirement being that their water use be moderate and that they grow tall. That’s it. LA will then have a place for solemn reflection and politicking in the shadow of City hall, an unprogrammed public space that blends the Tuleries in Paris with Berlin’s Under-Den-Linden.

We can shop in any part of the city. What is being proposed here is just another New Urbanist knock-off. We might as well just follow a more traditional path and go full Victorian.

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