"Radical Flatness" Overhaul of Pershing Square to Take a Decade

The long-planned redevelopment of Downtown’s Pershing Square is moving forward, but in incremental stages over a longer period than anticipated. Last week 14th District City Councilman Jose Huizar, alongside representatives from the City’s Bureau of Engineering and the Department of Recreation and Parks announced that the $110 million project will be built over 10 years in at least four phases.

The Monday, Feb. 3 presentation marked the first update since the summer, when the Bureau of Engineering said that the plan for implementing Agence Ter and Gruen Associates’ redesign was only funded for initial work on a phase that would affect only one side of the park. That itself followed no updates since 2017, when new renderings were revealed. This week the development team confirmed that funding has been secured for the first two phases, and laid out an updated timeline for the rest of the redevelopment.

“As we thought about this and worked through the numbers, we thought that the more realistic approach would be this phasing approach that would get us to an ultimate goal, which is to implement the award-winning Agence Ter design,” Huizar said at the start of the presentation.

The project will get under way by the end of 2020, starting with a transformation of the park along Olive Street. An existing structure will be removed and the often-broken escalators in the roughly five-acre park will be replaced by new elevators and stairs, plus at least 20 trees. In 2022 the second phase will see similar work along Hill Street, adding at least 25 trees to the eastern portion of the parking and additional escalator replacements. The area around the park’s fountain will also be replaced with green space. With both of those transformations, existing hardscaped surfaces will be replaced by grassy strips, and the plan is to increase visibility to either end of the park. The second phase is set to wrap in mid-2024.

Part of the reason for the phased approach is to not disrupt the operating parking garage underneath Pershing Square, and make sure the construction is safe, according to City Engineer Michael Shull.

The work will also not heavily disrupt the programming that happens at the park, according to Pershing Square director Louise Capone. Capone told Los Angeles Downtown News that Pershing Square is planning to continue with its summer programming of concerts and films until construction makes it untenable. Capone said that exactly when that will be is not yet fully clear. When work makes the programming untenable, the staff will continue to do activities at the pocket parks and other spaces in the Downtown area it oversees.

“Our programs at San Julian and Gladys Park will also continue. With Pershing Square taking a pause staff will likely explore more programs at Spring Street and the Arts District Park,” Capone said.

The 10-year plan is longer than anyone intended, according to Esther Margulies, interim director of USC’s Master of Landscape Architecture + Urbanism program and an expert on recreational space and landscape architecture. She said the funding uncertainty has been the main reason for the delay, and why the redevelopment will be done in stages.

“The length of time it takes to realize this is an indication of where we put our investments,” she said. “I am curious though, when you compare other significant civic projects, like new library or police headquarters, what is the acceptable time frame and timeline?”

The third phase will bring about the “radical flatness” of the chosen design, leveling out the park to street level with Hill and Olive streets. Renderings show the center of the park mostly covered with grass surfaces, with a shade canopy along the Olive Street side. Per the development team, the final development phase could be split into two parts of its own. The final development phase will likely finish in 2030.

Currently the first two phases are funded, with $25 million coming from Quimby fees (fees paid by developers to fund public parks and green spaces) and transfer of floor area fees. Huizar said that the money for the remaining phases has been identified via $10 million in annual Quimby and TFAR fees (fees paid for density adjustments).

Margulies said that there is a danger that the remaining funds could not materialize and only the first two phases are completed, but said that’s only a possibility, not a likelihood. However, she questioned why the Pershing Square redevelopment has taken so long to move ahead.

“We have so many other enormous projects in the city with 2028 deadlines for the Olympics, so why not this one?” she asked.

The five acres that make up Pershing Square has served as a public space since 1866, but in 1910, the park was redesigned into a more traditional public space. In 1918, one week after the end of World War I, the park dropped the Los Angeles Park name in favor of Pershing Square, named after American General John J. Pershing.

The redevelopment plan is the first major update to the park since a $14.5 million project wrapped in 1994, with an emphasis on hard surfaces. Agence Ter’s design for the new park was selected in 2016 after a competition was put forth. The most recent renderings, which the latest presentation still used, were put forth in 2017.