When it comes to plazas and parks, Los Angeles-area landscape architects and designers have big plans for the future. The region is slowly warming up to the possibility of a more pedestrian-oriented urbanism, and, as a result, public spaces old and new are being imagined to suit that potential future. And while the region is adding plenty of new parks—the new Los Angeles State Historic Park, the ever-expanding Grand Park by Rios Clementi Hale Studios (RCH Studios), and the now-iconic Tongva Park by James Corner Field Operations come to mind—attention is now beginning to shift toward redefining the public plaza as it is practiced in L.A. One experiment comes from RCH Studio’s renovations to the Music Center plaza, originally designed by landscape architects Cornell, Bridgers, and Troller in association with Welton Becket and Associates in 1967. The stepped concrete plaza currently contains a Jacques Lipchitz–designed sculpture at its center, the art object surrounded by a maze of sunken courtyards, large planter boxes, and interactive fountains. RCH Studios plans to revamp the plaza to make the space more ADA-compliant while also bringing pedestrian energy from bustling Grand Avenue up into the plaza. The complex is on the same street as the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Broad Museum and sits on axis with Grand Park and City Hall, relationships that the designers wanted to emphasize and perfect over the course of their renovations. Bob Hale, partner at RCH Studios, said, “Creating open space in L.A. is a very different thing than doing so in other places,” explaining that one of the goals of the renovations was to make the plaza hospitable enough to function as a “fifth venue” to complement the four existing concert halls and performance spaces on the site. The proposed 50,000-square-foot plaza—scheduled to reopen in 2019—will be completely flat, punctuated at its corners by pavilions containing a full-service restaurant, a cafe, a bar, permanent public restrooms, and a welcome kiosk. The project will also involve replacing existing—and over-pruned—ficus trees with new Agonis Flexuosa trees that will help create a more comfortable plaza as their canopies fill out. In Culver City, SWA Group Principal Gerdo Aquino and his team are working to create a new central square for the city on top of what was once a dusty parking lot. The firm’s Culver Steps project—created in partnership with EYRC architects and Hackman Capital Partners—is part of a podium-style development that will bring a new 55,000-square-foot stepped plaza with generously landscaped open spaces to the city’s core. The ascendant plaza will sit above a new underground parking garage and will share ground floor areas with a bevy of storefronts. A so-called “grand staircase” is to run up the slope, flanked by pockets of seating areas. The summit of the jaggedly stepped promenade will contain restaurants on one side and a four-story office structure on another. In all, the superblock- size project will unite a mix of squares and promenades served by the commercial and office spaces. “Many American cities are reimagining their city centers, sometimes in unconventional locations and ways,” Aquino explained. “The city and the major stakeholders have always considered the plaza as something that could be ‘out of the box’ and not tied down to any one precedent.” Landscaping for the plaza is inspired by the Sierra Nevada Mountains and will contain more conventional plantings along its lowest levels, with increasingly showy and diverse species of shade trees and evergreens up the steps and at the top of the structure. Ultimately, the steps will open in 2019 with the aim of creating a bustling and interactive plaza “filled with as many trees as possible.”
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“On face value, in Southern California, getting rid of a freeway is sacrilegious,” said Brian Ulaszewski, executive director of nonprofit urban design studio, CityFabrick. Yet that’s just what officials in Long Beach are preparing to do, joining a growing number of international cities looking at highway removal. Using funds from the California Department of Transportation’s Environmental Justice Grant Program, the city, along with CityFabrick, will convert a one-mile stretch of the Terminal Island Freeway into a local road surrounded by more than 20 acres of parkland. Terminal Island Freeway is ripe for removal for two reasons, according to groups behind the removal. First, it’s redundant. Part of the 1950s master plan for freeways in Southern California, the road was originally designed to extend from the Port of Long Beach past downtown Los Angeles. But only 3.5 miles of the freeway were actually built, and today it dead-ends in a rail yard in Long Beach’s Westside neighborhood. Second, the Terminal Island Freeway doesn’t carry very much traffic. About 14,000 vehicles per day travel on the road, less than the amount of traffic rerouted by other freeway-removal projects, including the Harbor Drive Freeway in Portland and the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Instead, Ulaszewski said, the traffic volume along the Terminal Island Freeway is comparable to what Long Beach’s “Retro Row”—4th Street—carries. Retro Row isn’t an expressway. It’s a surface street with one lane in either direction, plus a center turning lane. The Terminal Island Freeway removal project evolved from a comprehensive redevelopment proposal by CityFabrick. In addition to the freeway removal, the proposal, called The Yards (PDF), contemplates the relocation of Long Beach’s intermodal container transfer facility (ICTF); the creation of open space along Southern California Edison’s electricity right-of-way corridor; the realignment of the San Pedro Branch Railroad to bypass West Long Beach; and the conversion of existing school recreation areas to joint use. If enacted in its entirety, The Yards would add up to 350 acres of green space to the Westside. Ulaszewski explained in an email that the fate of the other elements of the proposal has yet to be determined. The Environmental Impact Report on the ICTF relocation is due within months, and the other projects may find a place in the pending update of the Land Use Element of the Long Beach General Plan. Ulaszewski emphasized that what sets the Terminal Island Freeway removal project apart from similar programs is the motivation behind it. While other expressways, such as the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, were removed to foster economic development, the Long Beach program is framed in terms of environmental justice. The city’s Westside is park-poor, with only one acre of open space per 1,000 residents (compared to the national standard of one acre per 100 residents). Researchers have documented unusually high rates of respiratory illness in the neighborhood, where children live, study, and play in clouds of truck exhaust. The removal “could be a tremendous game-changer for [the Westside]” Ulaszewski said. “We can clear out some of the bad land-use decisions made there over the years, and start healing that community.”
Always one to take our own advice, AN headed out for a stroll along Sixth Avenue at lunch today to check out a few of the PARK(ing) spaces that had been set up there by enterprising designers. The first stop was the Yahoo! Purple Bike Park, granted not designed by anyone we know, but it was the closest to the 14th Street 2/3 Station--part of the reason AN is such a fan of PARK(ing) Day is because AN never drives. Because there were no big plots of grass around (more on that later), we failed to find the Yahoo! park on first pass. On to Cook + Fox. Located on a harrowing stretch of the Avenue of the Americas--then again, what stretch isn't at midday--the renowned green architects had created an entirely reusable park. Instead of grass, the firm laid down green interface carpeting that can be used in the offices above, along with some plants from the Greenmarket. "We've already got spots picked out for each one," Sarah Caylor said. The centerpiece, though, had to be the green "roof." When Cook + Fox moved into its new space a year ago, they created one of the greenest offices in Manhattan, complete with a green roof. Because the landlord wouldn't allow them to build on the roof, they needed to create a less invasive system, which is comprised of one-square-foot soil bags planted with seedums. This allowed the firm to cannibalize a few dozen bags and "plant" them in the park. "We decided to use PARK(ing) Day as an opportunity to make people more aware of the potential for green spaces on the rooves of their buildings," Caylor said. "And the response has been great. Lots of people stop and stare, some pick up brochures, and quite a few have even sat down and hung out for a while." She said about 8-15 people stop by per hour, though none while we waited--granted it was lunch and the benches were already pretty full will employees on their lunch break. Up the block at the even busier intersection of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street, a number of people stopped by during AN's visit, even though a dozen people were already crammed onto the 8'x12' sodden "park." "I saw it from my apartment window and just had to come down," Carl Zekaria said. "I'll definitely be telling my friends about it this weekend." Ensoo Shimas Park--Japanese for "I am going to perform"--was a co-production of Yoshihara McKee Architects and Artec, a performing arts design consultancy. Building on the "expertise" of the latter, the team set up, in addition to their lawn, which was provided by Transporation Alternatives, and a Tuscan Red beach umbrella, was a stage. Geoff Zink, who coordinated Artec's work and has been doing a similar project in Park Slope for three years, admitted that none of his friends who were meant to play had shown up. A bango sat next to him untouched as ambulances and taxis screamed by. "Nonetheless, we've created a park space and it's been used all day," Zink said. "And it still achieves our goal, which is to get people to start thinking differently about how street space, how public space in general is allocated. Then they'll become advocates and all this will become mainstream."
On this brisk fall day, why not hit the park for lunch, especially since there's one closer than you think. Today is the city's second annual PARK(ing) Day, an event hosted by Transportation Alternatives and the Trust for Public Space where various civic and volunteer groups have taken over parking spaces citywide--if you look at the map, it's really mostly Manhattan, and Manhattan between Houston and 34th Street at that--and turned them into "parks." This year has twice as many parks as last year, at a total of 50. But more than just expanding the size of the project, Transportation Alternatives wanted to test the limits of what these pocket open spaces could be. This led to a partnership with the local AIA chapter and the Center for Architecture, who led an outreach effort to get designers involved. "What I like best is how each of their spaces really represents what architects and planners would do with 100 square feet of street space, if they had their way," Wiley Norvell, the communications director at Transportation Alternatives, wrote in an email. "It shows the latent potential of our streets as untapped public space." (It's an idea that has become increasingly popular with the Bloomberg administration, following the failure of Congestion Pricing.) PARK(ing) Day is now a national event thanks in large part to the efforts of REBAR, a San Francisco arts collective that began taking over spaces about the same time Transporation Alternatives did, in the fall of 2005--then it was just a single spot with some grass and bike parking on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. "The origins of this type of direct action are a little murky, but we like to think we got in pretty early," Norvell wrote. A full list of "parks" can be found through the map link above, but for the design afficionados out there, here are some points of interest. (We're headed out now to drop in on a few of them, so check back later for a full report.) Center for Architecture Park, by the Center for Architecture (AIANY), LaGuardia Pl. and Bleecker St Architecture for Humanity, by AFHNY, Madison Ave. and E. 73rd St. Buckminster Fuller Park, by the Buckminster Fuller Institute, Bedford Ave. and N. 10th St., Brooklyn City in a Box, by DEGW, Thompson St. and Spring St. Cook + Fox Park, by Cook + Fox Architects, EDAW Park, by EDAW, W. 27th St. and Broadway Ensoo Shimas Park, by Artec/YMA, 6th Ave. and W. 23rd St. High Line Park, by Friends of the High Line, 9th Ave. and W. 19th St. Noguchi Red Cube, by the Noguchi Museum, Broadway and Liberty St. Office Parking, by HR&A Advisers, Broadway and W. 58th St.