Pershing Square, the 130-year-old public park across the street from the famed Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, has been in need of a revamp since its last, lackluster overhaul in the early 1990s. The square is situated in the heart of downtown, which is experiencing its third re-boot as a viable area in which to live, work and play.
Those three factors – live, work and play, or ‘re-imagining the heart of LA’ – were front-and-centre last week as four design finalists were unveiled for what is being dubbed the Pershing Square Renew.
The public forum – which included a paper ballot where attendees could vote on their favourite design before leaving – was organized by 14th District LA councilman José Huizar, and included speeches by Fred Kent, the president of Project for Public Spaces, and Alex Lightman, a futurist, author and investment guru, as well as several entrepreneurial downtown residents, pioneers of traditional urban-living. LA was – to quote the comedian Mort Sahl – ‘a hundred suburbs looking for a city’. Downtown was where people went to work, but the place turned back into a ghost town around 5pm – or, at least, that is how the story went until recently.
The most recent resuscitation of downtown LA seems to be taking, after earlier attempts in the 1990s and early 2000s produced pockets of progress, but without enough real change to re-ignite the area as a whole. It should be noted that there are still enclaves of vice and squalor. Along the much-talked-about corridor off Broadway and 9th, near the United Artists Theatre – which was rechristened as the Theatre at the Ace Hotel two years back – there are New York-centric luxury retail shops like OAK, Tanner Goods and Acne Studios. But just two or three blocks south of this intersection, you’ll also find LA’s skid row, one of the last shantytowns left in any major American city. Tech companies and real estate investors (as opposed to traditional retail and nightlife) are the driving force for the current reigniting of downtown LA’s progress toward re-urbanisation.
Geographically, Pershing Square – a public space – is a clean palette from which to re-invent a public park that could galvanise all of the city’s residents, not just the privileged, as with Trafalgar Square in London, Millennium Park in Chicago or Bryant Park in New York.
The four design finalists – Agence Ter and Team, James Corner Field Operations with Frederick Fisher & Partners, SWA/Morphosis and wHY + Civitas – presented their visions of the future to an enthusiastic and welcoming crowd. One key takeaway was that downtown Los Angeles is potentially the one hub in LA County where one day, you won’t need to drive, but instead be able to commute on foot, bike or public transportation.
In a county where 77 per cent of ‘urban spaces’ are roads and parking lots, the Pershing Square Renew initiative is a breath of fresh air. Los Angeles is a city once again on the rise, as the quality of life here, these days, is better than it has ever been. Regardless of who wins the design competition, the future of downtown LA is much brighter with a re-envisioned Pershing Square.