Downtowners Push for Accessible Open Space in Civic Center Overhaul

The Civic Center Master Plan calls for tearing down some old buildings in the area around City Hall to build new office and residential elements for the neighborhood. 

It will be more than a decade until the Civic Center is reimagined with a spate of new projects. Despite that timeframe, Downtown Los Angeles stakeholders are already seeking to make sure that any shifts will include an ample amount of public space and strong connections to neighboring districts.

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That was made clear on Wednesday, Feb. 13, when more than three dozen people showed up for the third and final community meeting on the Civic Center Design Guidelines. The emphasis at the program was on public space and connections, with several new open spaces proposed. Attendees spoke about the need to make sure those areas and other new walkways include art and elements that would lure people to the neighborhood.

The event was put together by the architecture firm Perkins + Will, which is taking input for the public components of the project, the office 14th District City Councilman José Huizar and the City Bureau of Engineering.

The work is part of the Civic Center Master Plan, a vision to transform the neighborhood, traditionally a hub of government offices with little activity after dark and on weekends, in six phases over 15 years. The design guidelines meetings have centered around the blocks housing the Los Angeles Mall, City Hall East, and where the former police headquarters Parker Center is being demolished.

Organizers at the meeting presented a number of open space options, including a “Civic Square” that would stand opposite City Hall on Main Street. Martin Leitner, an urban design leader for Perkins + Will, said it would serve as a kind of “living room” for the area.

Plans also call for adding a paseo between Los Angeles Street and Judge John Aiso Street in Little Tokyo, which would connect to new green space. Leitner said the focus of the meetings is to determine how the public will interact with civic buildings in the future.

“We’re not designing the buildings, but we’re giving guidance, taking stakeholder feedback about what is important in a future Civic Center, and putting that in the guideline document that will then be used to help shape development as it comes,” Leitner said during the presentation.

The first phase of the Civic Center Master Plan is underway, with the demolition of Parker Center. That will be replaced by the 29-story Los Angeles Street Civic Building, which will bring 750,000 square feet of new office space for city workers. It is expected to cost $708 million and be completed in 2024.

Future phases would include replacing City Hall South with a mixed-use building, and erecting a commercial and office structure on the site of the aged Los Angeles Mall.

Attendees of the meeting raised a number of concerns. Some asked about adding public art to create more engagement in the Civic Center. One brought up the possibility of having basketball courts.

Van Ogami, a Downtown resident, asked if there would be any underground or elevated pathways, citing the current thick traffic in the Civic Center during rush hour.

“Just getting here was tough, having to deal with the heavy pedestrian traffic and everyone going home,” he said.

The meeting drew a strong turnout from people who live or work in Little Tokyo. Andy Lowe, who works with the neighborhood’s East West Players theater company, asked about the possibility of new pathways north to Union Station, as the plan has a number of east-west connections, but few new ones going north-south.

Lowe also stated that Little Tokyo has a long history of being displaced and encroached upon — much of the community was caught up in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and Parker Center was built on land taken from the community. Given that past, he suggested that the redesigned Civic Center connect with surrounding neighborhoods, and not block them off.

The final design guidelines, based in part on the community’s input, are expected to be adopted by the middle of the year, according to organizers. The full Civic Center Master Plan can be found at civiccenterprojects.lacity.org.

nicholas@downtownnews.com