DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Grand Park, the 12-acre expanse that re-envisioned public space in the Civic Center, is one of the most important projects to open in Downtown Los Angeles in the last five years. The $56 million endeavor that stretches between the Music Center and City Hall made the Central City more attractive and friendly. It opened last summer and instantly became a destination for office workers on their lunch breaks and residents (many of them with dogs) taking a stroll in the mornings and evenings. On warm weekends the restored Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain beckons families. The legions of kids splashing through the spouting water is a great advertisement for an evolving Downtown.

Now, extensive public use of the public space is in danger. If county officials who oversee the facility fail to take proper precautions, then Angelenos and visitors could become second-class citizens at the park, with their needs placed behind one of the region’s most powerful industries — film companies.

The producers of commercials, movies and TV shows want to use the park, and we think they deserve the opportunity, albeit in strictly limited and clearly prescribed doses. The production industry’s desires must take a back seat to the needs of the public, and the best thing possible would be to make rates at the facility affordable, but also to have firm rules about usage beyond its stated purpose.

Although everything at the park looks calm and easy from street level, the attraction is currently a battleground. Entertainment companies and location managers, always eager for sites that have not been filmed to death (how many times have you seen the L.A. River or the Second Street tunnel in a car commercial, though a car commercial probably would not be shot in the park), want access to the prime space. They point out, rightly, that the entertainment industry is a huge jobs provider. Every production can mean a paycheck for a hundred or more families.

As Los Angeles Downtown News recently reported, when the park opened there were no official restrictions on shooting there. Any company willing to pay the asking price was welcome to do so.

The problem, according to film industry officials, is that the rents of $20,000 a block and $80,000 for the full park for a day functioned as a de facto restriction. The cost was too high.

That prompted a long set of discussions between county and film industry officials. The latter want the rates consistent with properties such as the verdant Descanso Gardens, where use of the entire facility is $6,400 a day, according to a county report. County officials wanted to keep the rates higher so that the park would not be overrun by film shoots.

Eventually, a sort-of compromise was hammered out. The county set new rates of $15,000 a day for the entire park in the prime period between April and October (the price drops by $3,000 a day in off-peak months). Individual blocks go for up to $5,120 a day. The new fees are slated to be taken up by the County Board of Supervisors this week.

The supervisors will also look at another option, a pilot program in which production houses could rent space at the park for free for six months. Film industry brass have complained that even the new proposed rates are too high, and free use of the space would echo a state of California move in which no fee is charged for shooting on state-owned property. The state step was taken as a response to the threat of productions fleeing to other states or countries that offer tax breaks or lower rental costs. A Grand Park advisory group recommended the pilot program.

We think there’s a middle ground, something that brings in revenue for the new attraction and continues the already impressive slate of public programming. There is no need to give away the park. On the other hand, as we say, we want to encourage the jobs. Find a fair rate, then implement a set of rules that is tolerable to the general public.

The first of these rules is that the entire park should never be rented out. Individual blocks can be utilized by individual productions, but the public should never lose the use of the whole thing.  The attraction has been billed as “the park for everyone,” and despite the spin, “everyone” was always intended to be the general public, not the film industry.

Furthermore, if a certain block is to be rented, ample advance notice must be given to the public, much as it is to residents Downtown when it affects their building or street. Among other steps, clearly visible signs regarding an upcoming production must be placed several days before a shoot at all affected entrances. This will inform people who make the park part of a daily walk.

Also, passage through the park should never be shut off. The park is designed so that people walking through can do so on one side or the other, similar to the way it works in the Biltmore’s old lobby facing Olive Street. When filming is going on in the hotel, one of the passages is available except for brief moments. It’s the same thing with filming in the Second Street tunnel. Pedestrians are required to wait no more than a couple minutes before being allowed to proceed. 

A notable amount of the foot traffic in Grand Park comes from transit riders. There are bus stops on Spring Street and Broadway, and there is a Red Line subway station on Hill Street, all of them mid-block of the park. Without a path through, riders would have an annoying and unnecessarily long hike around the various blocks. 

Another key worry is that the ecosystem in most of the park is fragile, unlike the tunnel or the concrete walls of the riverbed. There is a sophisticated and carefully planned and orchestrated garden of plants from around the world. How to protect that extraordinary extended garden needs to be given very careful consideration before film crews carrying lights and other heavy equipment tromp through. It is possible that Descanso is a model for the agreement, but the gardens do not resemble each other in form or function. This issue needs to be solidified before the crews arrive.

Once these matters are settled, a cap needs to be set on how often films crews can rent out certain blocks of the park. Without a firm limit, we run the risk of a huge special effects blockbuster filling up prime parcels, such as the fountain, for a week or more. Film industry officials say that is unlikely, but “unlikely” is not a guarantee. The preventive step has to be taken.

A couple additional filming restrictions: No use of the fountain on peak period weekend days when the families come out. No renting of any single block more than one day or evening a week.

Downtown needs the green space and the public gathering point. With the community growing, we can’t create an air of uncertainty in which people wonder if their park will be open. As we say, the county created a park, not a film set. Let the Hollywood crews in, but their needs come after those of the community.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013

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