THE RUMOR IS THAT UPON seeing proposed designs for downtown’s long-awaited Civic Park, Eli Broad — the developer who made billions of dollars smothering miles of open space with Kaufman and Broad tract homes — said, “Can’t it just be grass?”

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$30 million in housing money for the poor is being diverted to jam the new park with cement and bizarre, man-made shade.

Can’t it be grass, indeed.

When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, County Supervisor Gloria Molina and other powerful local leaders faced the delicate task of convincing Angelenos that the private Grand Avenue luxury hotel and shopping complex deserved $95 million in public subsidies, the biggest selling point was this: The project included the very first open, green public park in L.A.’s cluttered, crammed and uninviting Civic Center.

Today, any public gathering must take place on the cramped South Lawn of City Hall. There’s no fine stretch of greenery like New York’s Bryant Park. Instead, the Civic Center is several blocks of courthouses, government office buildings, police headquarters, the L.A. Times and City Hall.

As a result, L.A. has emerged as a much-criticized, asphalted example of a major world city without a “central park.”

But the mayor, the board of supervisors and Broad himself were promising to change all that. To the delight of many, land was found for just such a central park smack in the middle of downtown: 16 acres of badly utilized property beginning nearly at the foot of the western staircase to City Hall on Spring Street, rolling westward four blocks to Grand Avenue, and ending a stone’s throw from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The often-bickering city and county governments managed to work together, agreeing to wipe away the hodgepodge that occupied the 16 acres, removing an ugly parking lot, moving three of seven huge cement ramps that funnel cars to vast underground parking near the County Hall of Administration, and, to the dismay of some, wiping out the venerable El Paseo de los Pobladores de Los Angeles, a plaza with extensive tropical gardens next to the Superior Court, which is a popular spot for lunching workers.

The Times gushed over the notion that open space would be laid like a beautiful green carpet along four blocks paralleling First Street — directly across from the Times.

The strategy of using the park as the selling point to taxpayers worked like a charm. The Los Angeles City Council and the Board of Supervisors touted the park as its excuse to funnel huge public subsidies to the luxury project on Grand controlled by Related Companies and the fabulously rich royal family of Dubai.

But now, the promise of a central park is turning into simply more concrete development. In April, private developers and the Grand Avenue Committee released “renderings” that depict few trees, little grass — and vast amounts of cement and obvious areas for commercialization. And the plans show a series of big, arching metal arms that hold up a ceiling of colored panels — “sunscreens” — rather than a canopy of trees and open sky that the millions of dollars could buy instead.

“It just doesn’t seem like a park,” notes Planaria Price. Price and her husband, Murray Burns, spent decades carefully renovating more than 35 homes in historic Angeleno Heights near downtown.

Reacting to the Civic Park plan, Burns says, “We don’t need another mall-like entertainment [venue]. It looks like something you might find at the Grove.”

Marcia Hanscom, an environmentalist who helped save much of the Ballona Wetlands from the Playa Vista development, reviewed the color drawings and concluded, “We desperately need more connections with nature in the city, but these renderings do not show that the developers or the decision makers understand this concept.”

Artist Joey Terrill, who lives downtown and attended the glitzy rollout for the park design, says he appreciates the challenges faced by the landscape architects, Rios Clementi Hale, but he envisioned unfettered expanses. Instead, the design is filled with “little sections, little projects.

“I believe that if you put a grove of trees and lawn, people will make their own activities — they don’t have to be directed,” he says. “They don’t need to be told, ‘This is where you sit and eat, this is where you listen to music.’”

“I believe that [Grand Avenue Committee Director] Martha Welborne and her team do ‘get it’ about the community’s desire for greenery,” says Marc Porter Zasada, who, as a former editor of the Downtown News, covered the Pershing Square design debacle, in which Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta created one of the most unpopular and unusable spaces in the city.

But, Zasada says, “At the April presentation … the renderings were still ambiguous. I was personally concerned by the idea of these large metal or fiberglass ‘sunshades,’ which might work against everyone’s desire for green space. Like everyone, I am nervous. Again and again, we keep getting overbuilt public spaces like Pershing Square, Nokia Plaza, California Plaza’s ‘water court’ and Caltrans Plaza.”

THE GLITZY UNVEILING OF the new Civic Park at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion didn’t have much to do with the public. It was hosted by the Grand Avenue Committee — an exceedingly obscure taxpayer-funded entity that controls the development process on Grand Avenue. But, oddly, the committee is calling the shots on this major downtown park — not the county, which is providing the land, or the city, whose parks department controls all city parks. Even worse, the committee has zilch track record in park development, and its decisions cannot be overturned by taxpayers who own the land.

The design involved two schemes: a “base” park that would cost an already high $56 million, or a far pricier, “enhanced” plan, in which a playground, stage and “architectural components” — including a 200-foot-long multileveled pedestrian bridge over Broadway — could be added.

But nobody mentioned that the extra money to add those bells and whistles — including areas for commercialization and man-made shade — would be raided from “affordable housing” bonds that California voters believed were to be spent on housing for the poor.

The Housing and Emergency Shelter Trust Fund Act, approved by voters in 2006, promised to provide, among other things, “shelters for battered women and their children; clean and safe housing for low-income senior citizens; and homeownership assistance for the disabled,” but the fine print left big loopholes. The wealthy Related Companies applied for the money — $30 million from the cash-strapped state of California — and promptly got hammered in the Los Angeles Daily News. But the affordable-housing money was awarded anyway.

Though the private designer of the park, Mark Rios, envisions revolving “garden rooms” that follow the natural lifespan of plants, and meandering paths of trees, a current fad in Southern California is to host “urban activities” rather than allow for quiet open space. The result is a busy mix of what proponents call “programmable sections” — movies, activities, farmers markets, music. (Calls to Rios were referred to Welborne, the bureaucrat.)

Russell Brown, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, instead of sounding an alarm, praises the “programmable” park as a way to feed the budget, saying, “There’s opportunities for naming rights [and to] brand the park for corporate sponsorship,” such as letting Disney show movies.

Brown suggests that Angelenos who want a classic park can instead use one that’s well outside of the Civic Center — 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park. There, volunteers and artist Lauren Bon have involved the community in helping to define the park, nicknamed the Cornfields. Without designers or tens of millions of dollars, they chose grass and open spaces.

Some experts believe that no amount of taxpayer money will make Civic Park work because it sits on a very difficult land site, and its true beneficiaries were never intended to be Angelenos but egotistical politicians and rich developers who needed it as a fig leaf for the massive Grand Avenue project.

Other park experts are showing, by example, how such riches could be vastly better spent. Tsilah Burman heads the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, which furnishes small “pocket parks” at the cost of $1 million or less. The group has opened seven in the past four years, and another six are in the planning stages.

Asked how many parks she could supply for $56 million — the budget for Civic Park’s base scheme without the concrete arms and sunscreen overhangs — Burman hesitates for a moment, the $56 million amount unfathomable in her universe. Then, she offers an equally unfathomable number. “Fifty-six,” she answers.

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