Two months ago, following a highly-publicized competition, a team led by the French firm Agence Ter was selected to redesign Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. In a sharp rebuke of the current design, the new proposal is characterized by a “radical flatness.” The designers propose reconfiguring the underground parking garage beneath the park to bring the entire space down to street level, and introducing an expansive lawn and more trees. But since the announcement of the winning design, there have been no updates on progress or next steps, despite a promised announcement of initial funding for further design development, and in the meantime some minor updates in the park indicate that the promised redesign might not be immediately forthcoming.
The Agence Ter design was certainly the most promising of the four finalists, but it still leaves me with some questions, not least of which is how the so-called “smart canopy” pergola is supposed to generate electricity from the photovoltaic panels if it is covered in vines, as depicted in the renderings. Overall, the design seems generically trendy, reflective of our time, and full of all the latest fashions in landscape architecture, but without any meaningful connection to its place within Los Angeles. The simplicity of the “flatness” concept is compelling, but seems to ignore the reality that the site and the surrounding streets are not actually flat. And of course there is also the question of who will be footing the $50 million bill for this proposal. The city’s Recreation and Parks department is unlikely to commit any funding for the project (other than the loss of revenue from the parking garage, one of the chief funding sources for the department, during construction), so the burden will be on private sources like property owners and businesses in the surrounding area. The only problem with that approach is that some of those same potential funders are still paying off their contributions to the current iteration of Pershing Square, completed in 1994.
But the biggest question for the park’s future is L.A.’s homelessness crisis, which manifests itself every day in Pershing Square, and which downtown’s new crop of wealthy residents would rather not have to acknowledge. Some of the most common complaints about the space as it is today tend to focus on the smell of urine, or an unsafe feeling (despite the private security that constantly patrol the park), which are solely a reflection of the people in the park, and have nothing to do with design. A new design cannot solve this problem, it is either something that the city will need to make serious efforts to address on a broader level, or, as I fear is more likely, the private funders of the park will insist on an even greater security presence to ensure that unwanted elements are kept out of this supposedly public space.
As these major questions go unanswered, and another new park proposal for downtown (including dedicated funding) takes precedence, some minor upgrades have been happening in Pershing Square. The once drab beige low-walls throughout the park have been repainted in a much more vibrant rusty orange color, complementing the bold colors of the purple tower and the yellow pavilions without overpowering them. And on days with farmers’ markets or food truck events, new tables, chairs and umbrellas are available for patrons in the lawn areas. These changes may be so minor as to not even warrant notice, but these kinds of upgrades are exactly the kind of low impact, low cost actions that could make Pershing Square more inviting to the surrounding community, even in its current form.
It is unclear whether these new features are just a prelude to the future redesign, or an acknowledgement that those grand ambitions are unlikely to be realized. Either way, it would seem that Pershing Square is already a much more controlled space than I would expect from a public park. During a recent farmers market in the park, on a sunny, hot Wednesday, I was sitting on a shaded bench, having an early lunch (yes there are benches, and trees that shade them in Pershing Square, despite what you’ve heard). I watched a security guard approach a nearby table where two presumably homeless men were sitting, getting relief from the heat under the shade of the umbrella, while a second security guard looked on anxiously from a few feet away. I couldn’t hear their conversation, but as the guard walked away, the two men gathered their belongings and left. I can only assume they were informed that they were no longer welcome. No doubt, the tables and chairs in this public park were reserved for paying customers of the farmers market, or at least for patrons who looked like they could be paying customers.
In the end, I am only left with more questions. Is a park truly public if certain types of people are excluded? I’m pretty sure the answer is “no.” Does accepting private funds for public parks, or even just for amenities in those parks, also require that we accept those kinds of controls on who is and who is not welcome? Agence Ter has designed what they call a "transparent, democratic, and accessible space” for Pershing Square. But will the result really be all those things? Unless L.A. makes some serious changes, there will still be homeless people in the park. Will the businesses that pay for the park be willing to tolerate that much democracy? That much accessibility? Will the wealthy new residents of downtown want to spend time there if they have to witness the reality of inequality in our city? Or will those aspirations of transparency, democracy, and accessibility be sacrificed to the moneyed interests? Thirty years ago, the businesses who funded the current Pershing Square design were unashamed to admit that they wanted a redesign that would keep out the homeless people, and as a result gave Los Angeles a park that kept everyone else out. Can we really take the risk of catering to the interests of private funding again?
Does Los Angeles really need a fancy new $50 million lawn in Pershing Square? I can think of plenty of other places where that much money could go so much further in this park-poor city. Los Angeles is a city of big dreams and big ambitions, but sometimes it’s the smallest changes that have the greatest impact. Maybe these latest minor changes at Pershing Square, in spite of their challenges, are an indication of another alternative, with simpler and cheaper interventions that could make the space more inviting, and–without the need for private funding–even more public.