Placemaking at the Playa

Lessons for Pershing Square from LA’s Hottest Beaches

By: Chance Kawar, PSR Summer Associate

Though the identity of most Californians (myself included) is comprised of many different things—the collective sense of pride, nostalgia, and adoration we have for our beaches is core to what makes our state so special. Our beaches are often magical gathering places we’ll return to time and again, and not just in the summer months. It’s that same feeling we hope Angelenos will have about Pershing Square, the city’s oldest park, right here in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles.

Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, 1997

 

My life, in fact, is filled with vivid memories of beaches. As a kid we would regularly go on family road trips, winding our way along the PCH, staring out at the vast ocean, and stopping to explore tide pools. My weekends as a high schooler were often spent with friends getting into trouble at the beach and building bonfires in the sand. In college, I organized multiple beach camping excursions in Malibu and Catalina.

For my first blog since joining Pershing Square Renew, I wanted to write about the beach from a perspective often overlooked—placemaking. Long before anyone had coined that term, our beaches have flourished, largely due to fundamental tenets of placemaking that seem to occur spontaneously. Los Angeles’ beaches are among the rare remaining venues where a diverse array of people come together every day—locals and tourists, rich and poor, old and young—to enjoy a shared space which is simultaneously attractive, engaging, and enjoyable. In conducting a bit of qualitative research, I needed to observe firsthand how placemaking occurs at L.A.’s beaches, so I took a couple days to explore a few favorites: Santa Monica, Venice, Manhattan, and Hermosa.

DAY 1 – Santa Monica & Venice

I started in Santa Monica. It’s arguably the most iconic and recognizable of the region’s beaches: a must-see for any out-of-town or international visitor. Going to Santa Monica just to people watch is an experience in itself—even on a weekday there’s thousands of people gathered together in a relatively small area around the pier. They’re engaged in so many different activities, it’s hard to know where to begin!

Carnival rides at the Santa Monica Pier.

Rather than driving, I jumped on Metro’s Expo Line (avoiding the chronically-congested 10 freeway), which runs from DTLA’s Financial District all the way to the coast. The final station just a few blocks shy of the Santa Monica Pier. During my ride, I identified a number of tourists headed in my direction—speaking in different languages—smiling and excited to spend a warm summer day at the beach.

Walking towards the pier, I was immediately struck by Santa Monica’s ‘scramble-style’ crosswalks and protected bicycle lanes offering a pedestrian-oriented environment that is very urban, and rare along the coast. There’s been a sincere effort to make this public space easy to arrive at and enter, regardless of what mode of transportation one uses. These innovative and intuitive features are the type of “linkages” our friends at the Project for Public Spaces often refer to as being an essential element of placemaking.

Pedestrians cross in any direction, while cars stop and wait.

I spent some time at the crowded boardwalk, observing a sea of families who had come to ride the famed carousel, Ferris wheel, and roller coaster. Feeling up for an adventure, I set off walking south toward the Venice Fishing Pier, about 3 miles away. I was focusing on how people used the space, and what activities were most popular. At one point, I passed a large cluster of volleyball nets where youngsters engaged in a spirited game. Later I spotted several surfing schools, where stereotypical surfer dudes coached people of all ages on catching the small waves as they rolled in. As I neared Venice, a sizable crowd had gathered in the sand to view a dance performance, while large speakers blasted out the catchy rhythms of Reggaeton music.

One exciting moment for me was seeing the rainbow-painted Lifeguard lookout, an art installation recently preserved as historical monument. The structure has become something of a “selfie” destination for passersby, who stop to pose for photographs. As myself a member of the LGBTQ community, I appreciated how it stands out as a clear symbol of inclusivity—an implicit statement that all are welcome to be themselves and feel comfortable at this beach. And indeed, the sentiment is reflected in the diversity of people who I saw all around me.

Venice Pride Flag Lifeguard Tower

After walking along the sand on my way south, I used the boardwalk path to make my way back north to Santa Monica. I found myself astounded by all the different types of transportation people were using besides just walking. As I strolled along scribbling notes, people zoomed by me on electric scooters, bicycles, rollerblades, skateboard—one guy was even on stilts. Venice Beach, after all, is known for having quite a cast of characters! There was something wonderful about watching all these people enjoying a public space with no cars in sight. By the time I got back to Santa Monica, I had probably walked 7 miles in total, but it had been well worthwhile.

DAY 2 – Manhattan & Hermosa

Most native Angelenos will tell you—if you are looking for the “real” beach experience—you have to head to the substantially less touristy South Bay. There are quite a few to choose from: El Segundo, Manhattan, Hermosa, Redondo, Palos Verdes, and even Long Beach. I brought along my Brazilian friend, Caio, who moved to the United States several years ago from a coastal city south of São Paulo—also a devotee of the beach lifestyle.

Sunbathing at Manhattan Beach.

We started at Manhattan Beach, and parking here was a bit challenging. The available street parking was a competitive, and mostly regulated by time-sensitive meters. After a long search, I found a spot way up in the residential area. Once we got down to the pier, I witnessed a substantially different scene compared to what I observed at Venice & Santa Monica just a few days before. Not nearly as crowded, and most of the people there seemed to be locals (not tourists) there with extended families.

For example, I observed at least half a dozen families who’d brought large pop-up canopies, beneath which they had arranged an assortment of summery foods on folding tables: watermelon slices, potato chips & chicharrónes, sweet corn on the cob. The older relatives gathered around the tents—eating, drinking, and talking—while the kids played nearby in the sand and splashed in the waves. One family was so large, perhaps 30 people, they had pushed 2 pop-up tents together and ordered catering from a barbecue restaurant.

A family parties in the sand with food & music.

At Manhattan, I did observe some of the same activities I had seen on my previous excursion: young kids in surfing camps and friends playing volleyball in the hot sand. But the feeling of this beach felt much more laid back and calm. Here, there wasn’t much in the way of vendors clamoring to sell tacky souvenirs, mixed tape CDs, and greasy junk food—though I noticed one man wandering the beach selling cups of fresh mango, pineapple, and melon.

After wandering through the sand and doing a bit of sunbathing, we eventually made our way south to Hermosa Beach. We stopped for lunch at an Italian cafe, an authentic family-owned place with a limited menu of calzones & pizza by the slice. Somehow, Hermosa felt even more humble than Manhattan—Caio at one point even remarked to me he’d nearly forgotten we were still in Los Angeles! This tranquil little beach community feels so removed from the hustle & bustle of DTLA or Hollywood; one would be forgiven for not realizing it’s just 20 miles away.

Redondo Beach power plants, as seen from Hermosa Beach.

And yet, a not-so-gentle reminder of life in the urban city looms large in the background of Hermosa Beach, as I noticed Redondo’s massive power plant to the south. There’s something unnatural (even unsettling) about seeing large smoke stacks jutting into the sky above a beach. Though an ever-increasing cost of living may tell a different story, this felt like the closest thing Los Angeles has to a “working class” beach, perhaps there’s something charming about that.

My lasting impression from this day is that placemaking happens differently in the South Bay. The lack of pre-programmed activities (common in Venice & Santa Monica) encourages people to bring with them whatever is needed to create their own experience. The “no frills” character of the South Bay is embraced by locals, and likely why the tourists stay up north.

Surfing Camp at Hermosa Beach

Back to Pershing Square

Pershing Square has long been a gathering place for Angelinos. It’s intended to be—and certainly has the potential to be—everything the beach is, and much more: a hub for socialization and activism; a destination for relaxation and interaction; a center of commerce and programming; a merging of nature and humanity. In much the same way as the beaches are blank canvases for visitors to curate the perfect experience; Pershing Square should offer the same opportunity to anyone who finds themselves there.

One theme on my mind a lot for this assignment is accessibility. Part of what draws people to a space is the ease of getting there, and of moving through the place. Similar to Santa Monica’s convenient metro station, Pershing Square is situated atop a metro station with service on both the Red and Purple lines. This is a major benefit, since not everyone has access to a vehicle, and a lack of convenient or affordable parking can be an instant turn-off for would-be visitors. While Pershing Square is generally a walkable destination, I can’t help but think what scramble crosswalks like Santa Monica has championed might do to draw in more pedestrians, who are otherwise confronted by a near constant flow of traffic on Hill and Olive.

It also probably goes without saying the availability and continuity of bike lanes in Downtown L.A. leaves something to be desired. It’s uncommon to find paths such as the Venice’s iconic boardwalk where cyclists are given the sole right-of-way—perhaps the curse of a city with such an entrenched car culture. I was reminded of a quote by Fred Kent, “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”

Pershing Square’s envisioned accessibility.

Of course, comfortability is a big part of what makes people want to stay and enjoy a public space, and want to return to it at a future time. My sense is this is a big challenge for Pershing Square in its current state: the heavy use of concrete coupled with a shortage of grassy lawns means there are few places to spread out and relax. In fact, security officers in the park actively discourage visitors from lying down. Compare that to the beach, where the shore stretches for miles and visitors are welcome to spread out their towels anywhere in the sand to suntan, picnic, or build sandcastles.

How about general safety? The type of illicit activity taking place in and around Pershing Square is far from unbeknownst to L.A.’s beachgoers—indeed, a faint aroma of cannabis along the Venice Boardwalk has become part of it’s hippie charm. Yet, more often than not, Pershing Square lacks the sort of “safety in numbers” which is a norm at nearly any Los Angeles beach. The data we’ve collected shows it’s common for there to be less than two-dozen people in the entire square. I often notice people eye each other with a glimmer of suspicion or unease, a far cry from the carefree attitude accompanying typical beachgoers.

To be clear—this blog post is not meant to be a perfect analogy, but I do think there are some lessons to be learned. As efforts to redesign and renew Pershing Square continue, we truly need not look far for examples of what works in a public space. The things that make our beaches such a beloved destination are simple: they’re accessible, comfortable, safe, walkable, attractive, and fun! If we start implementing small changes to Pershing Square right now—the momentum will take Pershing Square (and the rest of Downtown Los Angeles) a long way towards our shared vision.

Lessons learned from observing life at Pershing Square

By: Eve Critton

You’ve heard us talk about successful public spaces – what they look like, what goes on inside of them, and how they are connected to the city fabric that surrounds them. We know some of the elements that contribute to making great spaces: accessibility, feelings of safety, robust programming, and a diversity of destinations for people to enjoy within the space, just to name a few. But how can we tell how well an individual space is performing?

Pershing Square on a Thursday during the lunch hour (left) compared to a Wednesday at the same time, during the weekly farmers market (right).

One tool at our disposal is public space observation, a practice explored by William Holly Whyte, mentor of Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and, arguably, the larger placemaking movement. He discovered that when you “look hard, with a clean, clear mind, and then look again – and believe what you see”, you can extract unparalleled knowledge about a space.

“Observation is a really important way for people to establish some objectivity about what’s happening there. We often look at public space with a lot of preconceptions about what is and is not happening there… What’s really helpful about behavior mapping, is it sets out a very common sense, simple, and objective method for looking at what’s happening in a place.”

Philip Winn, Vice President at PPS

Counting people who walk through the space or drawing out the route they take can shed light on where people are coming from and where they are going, enabling us to both improve their journey through the space and capture them for a longer period of time. Documenting where people sit and stand can help in determining which destinations within the space are popular and why. This, in turn, allows us to  improve upon those spaces and ensure a diversity of destinations for the future. Observing what people are doing when they are in the space – reading, socializing, eating, walking their dog, playing catch – can tell us how to program and design the space to fit the needs of the community that it serves.

One form of observation is creating a desire line diagram, showing how people move through the space during a given period of time.

Our team at Renew has done extensive observation work in Pershing Square to inform the design and programming vision for the future, and learn more about the life of the square and opportunities for improvement now. We recorded observations about people – how many there were, where they were, and what they were doing. Our observations were conducted at lunchtime on weekdays, and were done consistently over the course of a few weeks in the fall.

What did we find out and what does it mean? During that time, we learned a lot about who was using Pershing Square, at what times, and for what reasons. Our observations became a tool that allowed us to start to see some patterns emerge, as Philip Winn, Vice President at Project for Public Spaces and longtime advisor to PSRenew, told us it would.

Most notably, we were able to draw two overarching conclusions from our observations:

  1. On average, there are twice the number of people in the square on Wednesdays and Fridays than other weekdays.

  2. On average, there are three times the number of women in the square on Wednesdays and Fridays than other weekdays.

Average numbers of both people and women at Pershing Square are far higher during times of programming (Wednesdays and, less so, Fridays).

These findings then led us to question the difference between the space on Wednesday and Fridays, and the other days of the week that could account for the spike. Looking at the current schedule of programming for the square, each Wednesday there is a prosperous farmers market, offering both produce and prepared foods, that brings in the lunchtime crowd. Similarly but less so, on Fridays there are a few food trucks offering lunch to park-goers. These two days are a stark comparison to the other weekday lunch hours, which remain unprogrammed.  

We then sat down with Philip to better understand our observations.

“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people,” Philip said, quoting Whyte in his public space exploration, Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. On the days when something is happening in Pershing Square, people have reason to be there and stay there for longer periods of time. Philip explained that high volumes of people in a space create a cyclical effect: people are there so more people come, and then more people are there so more people come, etc., until the space is always populous. And the way you get people to a space is by consistently and reliably giving them something to do there.

For example: food.

“Food is a really important core programming activity… it’s about basic needs: everyone needs to eat and drink. Eating and drinking are social activities, and they’re a really good fit for public space. And so the two regular days of the week when those activities are happening in PS, you have the nearby community members, office workers, and residents know that that need can be met in the square, and they are attracted to be there.”

Seems simple enough.

Pershing Square is more active on Wednesdays, during the weekly farmers market.

What was more puzzling to us, however, was the drastic spike in the number of women on days of programming. Philip explained that great public spaces are welcoming and comfortable for everyone, but specifically, that “women are the indicator species of high quality public spaces. If you make a space where women feel comfortable, you know the space is headed in the right direction.”

With all of this analysis from the observation that we conducted, we asked Philip what it means in the larger scheme of things; what can these findings teach us about the life of Pershing Square, now and in the future?

He responded that we know that Pershing Square has unimaginable potential. The solution to unlocking it is a simple one: do more of the things that are bringing more people to the square and do them every day. By concentrating on consistent, regular, daily activation, Pershing Square can become a great public space for DTLA.

“The jump in numbers that we see in this observation is only the marker of what’s possible. Because the high number that we are seeing during the farmers market and the food trucks is still way lower than the capacity of what the square could really be… What we’re seeing happening is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential of what Pershing Square can offer downtown.”

A City Lover’s Journey

From L.A. to New York –  And Back Again

Connie Chung of HR&A Advisors on her work transforming urban spaces in big cities across America—and now at Pershing Square

 

“No matter where you put a seat, there’s someone who wants to sit in it.”

 

Urban planner Connie Chung, a principal at HR&A Advisors, is talking about her past life leading planning efforts for the Alliance for Downtown New York. “People love people-watching, to take a pause, have a moment in the rush of the city. And the type of seat you choose affects them, too. The chaises at the High Line, people stick around and stay. Same with the Adirondack chairs at Logan Airport.”

It’s a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, and we’re sitting on bright orange bistro chairs and sipping coffee at Pitchoun Bakery across the street from Pershing Square, talking about the potential for transformation.

Chung recently moved back to Los Angeles after 20 years on the East Coast and is part of the team working on the new vision for Pershing Square.

“I think maybe I saw New York City as the opposite of growing up here in a sleepy part of Pacific Palisades,” she said. “I visited my brother at NYU, and it was so exciting. I knew I had to move to New York, and when I moved there, I thought I’d stay there the rest of my life.”

Chung first headed to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where one class during her study abroad semester would permanently shift her perspective on cities.

“We met in different parts of Paris each week and studied the scars of urbanization. It was almost like an anthropological study of how the city took form,” she said. “I realized I love cities and how cities enable people connect with each other.”

When she joined HR&A in New York after grad school, Chung was tapped to work on the creation of an outdoor event space in a former parking lot next to the convention center, now called The Lawn on D. She and a team that included a creative director, venue manager, and production staff developed and then executed a programming strategy for the innovative new park.

“We came up with the craziest ideas,” she said. “We held rock concerts and an oyster festival. We brought in art by Amanda Parer, a set of giant inflatable illuminated bunnies called ‘Intrude,’ which have now traveled the world. We commissioned Swing Time, a large-scale illuminated swingset which is now probably the most Instagrammed site in Boston—there’s actually a web site of how people use the swings in their Tindr profile pictures.”

Jessica Rinaldi, The Boston Globe

On that project, public seed funding from the convention center needed to be supplemented, and then overtaken by, non-public sources of funding. As they have done with many other successful public spaces around the country, Chung’s team got entrepreneurial, helping the convention center court and secure revenue-generating programming and a season-long event sponsorship.

Meanwhile, signals of change in her hometown did not go unnoticed.

“Measure R was one of the big transformative signals to me that L.A. was changing,” she said. “The fact that people chose to tax themselves to invest in transit, and the city leaders who got behind it and pulled it together—that blew my mind.”

She began traveling to L.A. regularly for her work with the City of L.A.’s resilience strategy, titled Resilient Los Angeles —developing the strategy was a city-led process in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities that includes neighborhood and citywide resilience building on the social capital and analysis of community organizations, neighborhood councils, architects and planners. And she’s part of the HR&A team helping to advance a new vision for the Arroyo Seco, the 900 acres of open space that surround the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

That work, along with the region’s continued buildout of transit, the selection of L.A. for the 2028 Olympic Games, and the revitalization of the L.A. River have all captured her imagination and drew her and her husband to resettle back on the West Coast and devote even more of her energy to the transformation of Pershing Square.

“Pershing Square is one of the most important projects in the city,” she said. “It’s the heart of downtown L.A., it sits atop a metro station in a neighborhood where so much change is happening, and given its historic identity as the oldest public space in Los Angeles, it’s been so exciting to be involved.”

HR&A is developing the funding and implementation strategy for the park, which will define the capital funding strategy, tapping both public and private sources, and a funding strategy for operations and long-term maintenance.

“The long-term financial stability of a park is not sexy, but it’s so critical,” she said. “Parks are incredibly underfunded across the country. We value parks in our hearts and minds, but not literally with our tax dollars.”

Among Chung’s favorite public spaces are Brooklyn Bridge Park, for its variety of free programs—where she said ten people can do ten different things, a series of experiences that unravel; Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where she liked to take meet friends for pizza and picnic, and also valued the chance meetings and people-watching; and Parc de la Villette in Paris, an urban park where locals engineer elaborate picnics in groups of 20 or more, a very serious-looking man in uniform officiates kids’ tricycle races, and an outdoor concert venue was the location of her first and only Bob Dylan concert.

Connie at HR&A’s recent Park(ing) Day effort near their Tribeca office in NYC

Back at Pershing Square, Chung is most excited about the canopy of the new park design, a focal point and meeting spot that she believes will become iconic in its beauty.

“The openness of the new design, that’s the classic civic space, you can see into it and it invites you in,” she said. “I have no doubt that this design is going to completely change the feeling of this block. It’s all about how quickly we get it done. That’s why we’re so passionate about it.”

The team is equally passionate about what happens on and after Day One of the new Pershing Square, will be working on an operations and maintenance strategy to ensure it continues to be a magnetic, authentic gathering space.

“We have family here, and year-round sunshine, and my husband and I want to be in the midst of this change,” she said. “There’s nowhere else we’d rather be.”

Creating Great Spaces

Three Public Spaces Transformed

Daniel Lobo via Flikr

Placemaking is a driving force in the redesign of Pershing Square. This vision of placemaking, a collaborative process between people and the places we share to shape our public realms, is helping us ensure a renewed Pershing Square will be the kind of place that feels like home to the millions of neighbors who live, work and play in L.A.

Successful and genuine public spaces combine both design and creative programming to attract a variety of people, for a variety of purposes, at all different times of the day and throughout the year. According to our partners and national placemaking experts, The Project for Public Spaces, a successful destination needs at least 10 places within it, with 10 different things to do in each place. This can include a cafe, a children’s play area, a place to read or have coffee, a place to sit, a place to meet friends and more.

As our design team is creating both the natural landscape and the placemaking strategies for the new Pershing Square, we’re looking at a few of the most successful public space transformations across the country to see what we can learn from how they created world-class public spaces.

Millennium Park

Chicago, IL

24.5-acre park redesigned in 2004 for $625 million

Wikimedia Commons

What was once, until 1997, a blighted urban wasteland, Millennium Park is now the most visited attraction in the Midwest and a world-renowned collection of urban green spaces, sculpture and architecture, with hundreds of year-round events and programs. Redeveloped through a public-private partnership with a nearly 50/50 split of funds from both the public sector and private investment, the park includes a state-of-the-art outdoor performance pavilion designed by Frank Gehry, a five-acre urban garden, outdoor galleries and a number of sculptures and architectural features that have become global destinations, a cycle center with storage and rentals, and a collection of indoor and outdoor gathering and performance spaces. The private sector contributes a large part of the funds to operate the park’s placemaking activitIes, which has secured its place as one of the top ten most visited attractions in the United States.

Wikimedia Commons

Fountain Square

Cincinnati, OH

2-acre park designed in 2005 for $62 million

The symbolic center of Cincinnati since 1871, Fountain Square was redesigned first in 1971, and then again in 2005 with a true placemaking focus and a vision to make it a recreational hub and gathering space for the metro area of 2 million residents. The redesign helped catalyze a downtown rebirth and spark development of the Fountain Square District, a restaurant and entertainment hub around the square, which hosts the largest Oktoberfest gathering in the world outside of Germany. The Cincinatti business community, which includes the headquarters of Macy’s, the regional headquarters of Delta Airlines, funded the redesign of the park and contributes over half of the operations and programming. A packed calendar of events offers dance, music, markets and has helped establish Fountain Square as the center of the city’s social and cultural life.

Wikipedia Commons

Klyde Warren Park

Dallas, TX

5.2-acre park designed in 2012 for $117 million

An urban green space constructed over a freeway and connecting Uptown and Downtown Dallas and the Arts District, Klyde Warren Park is a creative and complex feat of landscape design and structural engineering that has become a central gathering place for the more than 7 million metro residents of Dallas. Redeveloped through an even mix of public and private funds and operated by a private foundation, the space includes a children’s park and playground, reading room, great lawn, jogging trails, games area, and a restaurant and performance pavilion. It also connects with the downtown M-line street car and is a gateway to the Dallas Museum of Art, symphony, hotels and office and residential towers.

At Pershing Square, our team of artists, designers, architects and placemakers are planning a redesigned space that will be abundant with places for playing, resting, connecting and more. And we’re exploring how we can ensure sustainable levels of both public and private investment in the space, to help make it a top destination in the world-class city we call home.

Thank You + Project Update Overview

Thank you to all who joined us on Monday night for our holiday gathering and design update! We had a great turnout of community stakeholders to hear officials and members of the design team present the latest news from the design feasibility phase of the reimagination of Pershing Square, balancing the new design concept with engineering realities. We received some great feedback that will be very helpful moving forward.  

For those who were unable to attend the festivities earlier this week, the Agence Ter / Gruen Associates-led design team briefly summarized the updates to the design:

For the past five months, Agence Ter, together with Gruen Associates, have evolved the initial conceptual scheme based on the technical realities of the site and in partnership with the city.

The essential elements of the competition scheme – great lawn, pergola, gardens and promenade – remain consistent and so has our goal: to create a new green heart in downtown Los Angeles.

Opening the site means removing barriers and walls and altering the parking garage roof deck in order to return Pershing Square to the same height as the surrounding sidewalks. This allows sight-lines and a sense of openness with flexibility for program.

With technical investigation from our consultant team, we have come to better understand the parking garage itself, its limitations for structural loading as well as planting depth.

A key change has been the replacement of the pergola from Hill Street to Olive and the migration of the gardens closer to Hill Street. This shift both retains the original spatial conception of the competition while achieving clear design improvements.

The introduction of a step closer to Hill Street helps provide planting depth and allows the relocation of the grand gardens envisioned in the competition without significant incursion into parking below. We will begin to develop these gardens and their adjacency to a planted Promenade along Hill Street forming a natural canopy for all-day shade.

Between the natural and the architectural canopies, the great lawn provides the green heart of the city.

One of the most notable features of the winning proposal was an approach that brings the park to street level, creating vistas that unifies the park with the sidewalks, streetscape and retail that border it. While the current-day park sits elevated atop a parking garage, with stairs and ramps linking it to the street around parking garage entrances, the new design lowers the top level of the garage to street level, creating views and paths from Fifth Street to Sixth Street and from Olive to Hill.

Other features include a reflecting pool on the west side of the park that mirrors the stately Biltmore Hotel; an iconic “smart canopy” designed by artist Leo Villareal lights up at night and provides shade during the day; water cycling and alternative energy systems; a welcoming balance between light and shade; programmable, flexible space; and landscaping that creates a welcoming ecology with gardens, grasses and lawns.  

The Concept and Feasibility phase will be completed in Spring of 2018, at which time we will have another comprehensive update to share with you.

Here is what leaders of our team had to say at this important milestone event:

“As the design team, Agence Ter, executes its detailed feasibility design analysis, a picture is starting to emerge about what’s possible at Pershing Square, and it is a conceptual design that honors the original, while introducing us all to ‘Radical Openness’.  In the coming months, we will continue to focus in on this essential first phase of design so we can work toward a final design concept that will allow us to begin transforming this important and historic plaza into a vibrant, open and accessible green space that serves the DTLA community and all Angelenos.” — Councilmember Jose Huizar, Council District 14, City of LA

“The Department of Recreation and Parks is excited about the radical openness design concept—it represents our vision of what a vibrant and beautiful urban corridor in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles should encompass. We look forward to working with Agence Ter and Gruen Associates as this inspiring project continues to progress.” — Mike Shull, General Manager, Dept. of Recreation and Parks

“We think this project will reinforce the revitalization of downtown and we’re glad this it is now maturing through work with stakeholders, with the city and with the public. At Agence Ter, we are always working with strong design principles but with a flexibility that allows us to integrate the different needs and wishes of constituents – This dialogue enriches the project and is the basis for true site specificity.” — Henri Bava, Lead Designer, Principal and Founder, Agence Ter

“Pershing Square occupies a pivotal role as a public gathering spot for Los Angeles. Especially in light of the upcoming Olympics, it needs this re-visioning to allow it to fulfill this role and be a plaza that serves the needs of the residents of the city.” — Debra Gerod, Gruen Associates

“Pershing Square is on track to taking back its title as one of the world’s great public spaces. As we move towards a design consensus, be on the lookout for innovative activations of the space that re-energize the square even as its physical transformation gets underway.” — Eduardo Santana, Pershing Square Renew

What’s going on with the Pershing Square redesign?

What’s going on with the Pershing Square redesign?

Over the past year, a world-class group of urbanists have been working steadily and creatively toward the groundbreaking of a reimagined Pershing Square. Led by L.A. City Councilmember Jose Huizar, the City’s Recreation and Parks and Bureau of Engineering departments, Agence Ter design lead Henri Bava and project manager Annelies Ne Nijs, and Pershing Square Renew, the partners have refined and evolved the winning proposal of the global design competition and will share an update with the public on Monday, Dec. 4.

Few are better equipped to talk about what’s been going on behind the scenes than two of the women managing this complex and historic project. Debra Gerod, partner at Gruen Associates, has built a career leading significant civic and cultural projects in California, and was brought in this year by the design team to shepherd the initiative to completion. Lauren Hamer is an accomplished landscape architect who represents Paris-based Agence Ter in L.A. We met up for coffee on the terrace at Pitchoun on Olive Street, across the street from Pershing Square, and talked about its present and future.

GIF image: Lauren Hamer and Debra Gerod talk about Pershing Square, public space, and design]

Lauren and Debra talk placemaking and public space

How did you get involved in the Pershing Square Renew project?

Lauren: I have been involved since the design competition phase and relly enjoyed the design process with Agence Ter and the L.A. partners. What I valued most is the way the team moved really carefully, quietly, gently, in a very deliberate way. The openness to ideas and a kind of lack of hierarchy—from architects, designers, local homeless activists – I found it really striking. So when Agence Ter was looking for somebody on the ground in L.A. who understood the team, who really understood their design process, I guess I seemed like a good person to take that on, and I jumped at the opportunity.

Debra: The real story? I overheard a phone message being taken for my business partner several months ago, and the struggle over this French name. It was Annelies at Agence Ter, and she was told by the City it’d be a good idea to have someone with experience managing big complex public projects in L.A., which quite frankly is me. It’s been my primary focus and my practice for 29 years. So I swooped in. My goal is to get the project done, working collaboratively so everyone feels like a partner, while also keeping the strength of the design.

And for us at Gruen, because we weren’t part of the design competition, it’s really important that we not step on anyone’s toes, especially since everyone is now under contract to us, and we’re contracting with the City. We’re focusing on how we help marshal the team forward and make this project successful.

It’s been over a year since the announcement of the winning design. Is the project going as planned?

Debra: While every project is different, this is the most critical time in the project for sure, when you either garner support or fizzle away. Projects have a certain need for inertia, and there’s been a healthy amount of post-competition project time, but when that starts to wane, it can be a problem. This is a time when we need everyone to rally around something and gather momentum. I almost never worry about budget or schedule – I mean, it’s a worry, but it’s something you can deal with in specific ways: you do more, you do less, you do things a little differently to take care of issues. But it’s really the general support for the project through this phase, once you start to lose that, it becomes really difficult to push a project forward. That’s what I’m focused on.

How do you move through this critical phase?

Debra: The hump is getting through the conceptual design phase, getting people to rally around an idea. We don’t need to figure out every question, but we do need a basic way forward, then we have a lot of design work left to go. It’s not that whatever we decide today will live forever, that’s not the case. People get more worried about that than they need to. It’s the basics. And the process right now is about vetting the concept to make sure it all works—the specifics on how can we modify the parking structure, where is the perfect balance point that allows this to actually be implemented, that won’t put the garage out of commission.

What do you care about most in designing a public space?

Lauren: I love that landscape architecture is a connection between the social and natural world, and my focus in designing spaces is on simplicity of design, one hundred percent. So I really liked that a European firm was doing something extremely simple with Pershing Square. When I was studying architectural history and theory, I stumbled onto some books by Gunther Vogt and a bunch of Swiss landscape architects, specifically this book called “Distance and Engagement: Walking, Thinking and Making Landscapes,” and I read it and thought, that’s it. This is what I want to do. I worked in Switzerland and Germany and fell in love with the European landscape style. In the U.S., you see a lot of geometry and swoops and curves and shapes and patterns. But in general, I think design should be more like good security: if you don’t see it, it’s doing its job. It’s allowing you to just live your life, as a clean stage.

What excites you the most about the new vision of Pershing Square?

Debra: I was in the library tower looking at the park recently. From above, you really see how paved it is. I’m so excited about taking it back to vegetated green space—there’s just not enough green space right now. The more people live downtown, the more that’s clearly apparent. And that’s the best thing about a park.

Where are your favorite green spaces in L.A.?

Lauren: I live by Echo Park Lake and I go there a lot and visit with everyone’s dogs, since I don’t have my own. It’s a really successful space—open at night, it’s safe, a great amount of shade, it holds a ton of events and festivals, it’s a place for families to gather and really use the green space. A lot of day-to-day community activity. It’s a really successful place in L.A.

Debra: I live in Eagle Rock, and I’m drawn to green spaces where I can walk my dog, Sammy, and take him off-leash. We go to Debs Park, where he likes to swim in that little pond, and Rosie’s Beach in Belmont Shore, absolutely the best—a big white beach.

What do you think are the most successful public spaces in the world right now?

Lauren: I lived in Berlin for years, and the Germans know how to use a park. Europeans in general—they set up shop all day and all night. Have your birthday party there, do everything there. In Berlin, I love Templehof, Hasenheide, Tiergarten, Monbijouxpark. When I’m there, everyone is gathering in the parks, drinking and eating, being together. Also, you can be totally alone, dance, whatever you want, no one will bother you. There’s not really a comparison in the U.S. I come back and I’m like, y’all don’t know what they have over there, parks and parks and parks.

Debra: I also love Tuileries in Paris and Tiergarten in Berlin. They’re both so special. And I’m a native Chicagoan, and the parks in that city really gave me an early education about how public spaces are used successfully. What Chicago does really well, with the parks along the lakefront and with Millennium Park, is make art interactive and part of the public experience, and allow for concerts, events, open and controlled in a way that doesn’t feel programmed. It’s a field of play.

[Photograph of Tiergarten Park in Berlin]

Tiergarten Park in Berlin. Photo: Pierre Adenis

What can the public do to be supportive of this phase?

As with every step of the design process so far, the public’s role in contributing ideas and feedback is welcomed and crucial! We’re excited to share the latest updates and new renderings at our next public event on Dec. 4, so we invite all who care about Pershing Square and/or are curious to join us there and tell us what you think.

To learn more and see new renderings as the design of the future Pershing Square evolves, join us at the next public event on Dec. 4. RSVP and details here.