Will Grand Park remake Grand Avenue?

Back in 2005 the development company, Related Companies, negotiated a deal to build a commercial development on parcels east of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. As part of the deal, they agreed to pay $50 million for a public gathering space to be built on the site of a little used park on a hilly site connecting City Hall to Grand Avenue.

Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration

The commercial development has been on hold due to the economic downturn. But on Thursday the Grand Park will open. Designed by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, at a cost of $56 million, the park has been six years in the making. It has involved physical challenges, from scaling a gradient change of 94 feet between Grand and City Hall, to working around obstacles like helical parking ramps blocking the Grand Avenue end (leading to the parking garage below). The designers have also endeavored to make a place of repose despite the looming presence of two government buildings hemming in the park on the north and south sides (the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration to the north and the Stanley Mosk Courthouse to the South).

The project has also involved navigating the needs and desires of numerous different interest groups from the fast-changing and multi-ethnic, residential community in downtown and neighboring areas, to the representatives of the Music Center (who will manage and program the park), the County, the City and the Bunker Hill development community.

Along the way the design and the process have met with criticism — from citizen representatives who wanted more citizen participation to architecture critics who complained about what they saw as the lack of powerful design vision.

The completed first two blocks of the park will be unveiled Thursday (with two more blocks, close to City Hall, to open in October) to great fanfare, that will include a dance performance in the newly renovated, 60s-era Arthur J Will Fountain (below, right) and the adjacent “splash pad” (a shallow pool with water jets for visitors to paddle in).

To this visitor, the resulting Park seems to have successfully meshed these multiple and often competing needs. The designers have created a series of terraces, stepping down, with different textures and attractions at each level; hard surfaces and the fountain and a splash pad at the higher end, soft lawns and performance spaces at the lower end. It also boldly opens up a direct axis, bringing into dramatic view the two architectural landmarks that bookend the scheme: the DWP building (designed by AC Martin, 1961) and City Hall (A.C. Martin, John Austin, John Parkinson, 1928).

DWP Building seen from the East

Redolent of the old maxim for what to wear at weddings – “something old, something new. . .” — the park keeps some of the best aspects of the original park: the fountain, some concrete seating and steel speakers; it mixes old-growth and fresh plantings (jacarandas and eucalyptus trees, a grove of Olive trees and lavender bushes); and it adds shots of zesty color — vivid magenta chairs and tables and bright signs and garden “markers” —  that is a trademark of both Mark Rios’ firm and Sussman/Prezja, the environmental graphics designers, but comes as quite a visual jolt next to the dour governmental buildings. The resulting effect is one of datelessness, of having evolved over time, rather than springing like whole cloth off the drawing board, but still feels sharp and modern (if a bit shade-deprived on some terraces; hopefully some colorful umbrellas designed by the park’s creators will find their way to these spaces).

One of the grand goals for the park is to have it enhance the experience of Grand Avenue’s strip of arts institutions, envisioned by Eli Broad (whose own Broad museum is currently under construction), and fellow Bunker Hill boosters, as a vibrant cultural heart for Los Angeles. But Bunker Hill has struggled to succeed as a public destination, despite its prominent architectural landmarks, in part due to its isolation from the lower part of downtown. The goal is that the park will provide a connection. Furthermore, Civic Park is further evidence of LA rethinking its urban infrastructure for a society no longer predicated on the car and single-family home. How it will be received is yet to be seen.

On tonight’s Which Way, LA? Warren is joined by Gloria Molina, Los Angeles County Board Supervisor; Mark Rios, Professor of Landscape Architecture at USC, Thor Steingraber, vice President of Programming at The Music Center; and Christopher Hawthorne, Architecture Critic, Los Angeles Times. Listen, and check out some more photos, below: