During our recent run of 95-degree autumn days — can we be done with those? — the last place one would think to seek relief is in the landlocked asphalt wonderland of downtown Los Angeles. But downtown is now home to the city's most accessible, life-affirming aquatic refreshment, in a vibrant public space nestled unassumingly, almost secretly, in L.A.'s newest park.
The plaza below a restored 46-year-old Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain, once obscured by the ramps of a parking garage, has been transformed into a vast “membrane pool.” An inch of water creates a rippling canvas for a field of choreographed geysers where kids, dozens of kids, in swimsuits and Crocs and sunblock, squeal as they weave between the columns of water. Nearby, fluorescent pink chairs are occupied by smiling, towel-holding parents and buttoned-up city employees, more than a few of whom kick off their shoes and wade into the pool themselves. The whole scene looks even prettier at night.
“It's huge,” my friend Kalee Thompson, a writer and Highland Park mom, gushed about the fountain. “It's a great place for kids to play a game of tag on a hot day and a fun place to meet up for a play date or picnic since there is also a big expanse of lawn, public bathrooms and even a Starbucks.”
The fountain plaza — which I've dubbed Toddler Beach — is the very best part of Grand Park (formerly Civic Park), a new 12-acre strip of public space that cascades down Bunker Hill from the Music Center to the steps of City Hall. Although sections have been functional since July, the fully-operational park officially opens this Saturday, creating a nice outdoor area in the center of the city and bringing some much-needed amenities like a dog run to the neighborhood. It's definitely not “our Central Park,” as some have hyped (maybe Bryant Park?), but Grand Park accomplishes a lot, and with very little to work with in this small, park-starved sliver of downtown.
The site itself is awkward. The park is actually what I would call three small parks, running four blocks from Grand Avenue to Spring Street, subdivided by busy street crossings for Hill and Broadway. Much of the space is occupied by the staircases, ramps and elevators necessary to get people up or down the 90-foot grade change — walking the park from Spring to Grand is less like a leisurely stroll and more like 30 minutes on a Stairmaster. And the suits marching through the canyon of office buildings can sometimes make it feel more like a corporate courtyard. But I'll take some public space where I can get it, especially if the price is right: the park was essentially a $50 million gift to the city from Related Companies in exchange for being able to build their as-of-now-on-hold development on Grand.
At the “top” near Grand are spectacular views, the fountain plaza and a grassy lawn with a stage. In the middle is a series of terraces with tables and chairs. At the bottom, opposite City Hall, is the section that opens this weekend: the massive Event Lawn, which officials hope will become the new address for L.A.-specific celebrations (and not, I'm guessing, the new home of Occupy LA). But the plan is that this park will be used as a social and cultural hub. Although there was some confusion about its closing time, the park is open until a night-owl (for L.A.) time of 10:00 p.m.
If you've reported for jury duty, you've likely visited the site already. Much of the four-block corridor has been public space since 1966, a concrete-covered plaza flanked by various county buildings. While the new design, by Rios Clementi Hale Studios (with Fluidity Design Consultants on the fountain), was able to excise some of the less-desirable parts, like those parking garage ramps, it also was able to incorporate the existing features in a more attractive way. So original 1966 granite monoliths rise like excavated mid-century artifacts throughout part of the park, statues of Christopher Columbus and George Washington are easier to greet, and a plaza of historic American flags that I had never noticed before proudly flap in a new location.
Among the 150 existing trees (50 of which were removed and replanted), 29 new gardens serve as a metaphor for L.A.-as-a-cultural melting pot, illustrating our diversity through iconic plants like pepper trees and eucalyptus which were brought here from various corners of the planet. Featured flora is highlighted in signage by Sussman/Prejza to explain its provenance and significance to the city, like how a type of Himalayan cedar found its way to Altadena, creating its famous Christmas Tree Lane. Although it's sometimes difficult to match the tree with its sign, the system creates a fun scavenger hunt throughout the park, and I learned a few names of familiar L.A. street trees (those spiny trunks you see everywhere are nicknamed “monkey no-climb,” appropriately). To add even more international flavor, Sussman/Prejza also designed pillars which welcome visitors in 25 languages spoken in L.A.
The other defining feature of the park is that magenta furniture, custom-designed by Rios Clementi Hale (who also designed the eye-popping Sunset Triangle Plaza; they like color). The great triumph here is that many of the powder-coated chairs and tables are not bolted down, allowing you the ultimate freedom in curating your own seating arrangements or building a hot pink fort. The chairs are extremely comfortable and if you're sitting close enough to the Starbucks, you even get free wi-fi. (Yes, I wish it was a local chain, too, but there's word of a farmers' market and food trucks are supposed to be parking nearby on the weekends.)
Next: That Starbucks will always be packed, but…
As I sat there soaking up the wi-fi on a sweltering day, I noticed most of the people in the park were seated in the chairs at the fountain plaza. It made sense, of course. It was hot. The fountain is a destination, essentially a free public pool, and great for people-watching. The Starbucks — the only place to get food or drinks within a block radius — will always be packed with people sucking down Frappucinos. But on the weekends, when the park is fully open and the lunching government employees have vanished and it's not 100 degrees, what will the rest of Grand Park be?
As a programmed gathering space, the park will get a chance to prove its viability this weekend with a “grand” opening party on Saturday, followed by a full day of activities during Sunday's CicLAvia. The Music Center will bring additional performing arts events to the park and Zocalo hosts some of their programs here as well. But that's only part of the equation.
The key to Grand Park's success will be in that delicate balance between how people want to use this space and how the city thinks they should use it. Downtown-dwelling Angelenos have to learn to live publicly, making that massive Event Lawn into their own backyard. I'm talking about exuberant picnics on the pink tables and frisbee games on the lawn and a packed dog run and free yoga and street vendors and local food carts and anything that puts more people on that grass. And — and this a big “and” — the city, which is obviously hyper-sensitive about how parks should function (just look across the street at the replanted City Hall lawn) will have to learn how to work with and encourage those spontaneous activities to make this public space as diverse, eclectic and inclusive as those pillars in 25 languages make L.A. out to be.
If all this doesn't happen, then Grand Park will become just like the other downtown park with an awesome fountain. I'm talking, of course, about Pershing Square.