June 9, 2010

In theory, you can build a fine urban park atop an underground parking garage. Stroll through the gardens of Chicago’s Millennium Park, and you forget you’re walking above a cavern for 2,200 cars. But too often, such parks are treated as an afterthought and end up as a fancy roof for a garage. Once car access takes precedence over pedestrian access, you know a park is doomed to failure.


Such is the sad story of Pershing Square, across from downtown L.A.’s historic Biltmore Hotel. The block-size park, which first appeared in the 1860s, was once a palm-fringed oasis. But as the downtown declined, so did the square. An underground garage was dug in the 1950s, in a vain effort to retain downtown shoppers, but the square soon fell under the sway of drug dealers and derelicts.

In 1990, the city hired Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta to transform Pershing into an Angeleno version of a zócalo, the lively center of every Mexican town. But what zócalo is surrounded by a moat of car ramps? With garage entrances on three sides, it’s a challenge even to enter Pershing Square, and once you’re there, you may wonder why you took the trouble.

The park surface contains few trees and little grass. Fearing wear and tear from use, the park was designed defensively, and concrete became the decorative material of choice. The designers, who included noted landscape architect Laurie Olin, tried to make the best of things by tinting the concrete bright colors, presumably to evoke sunny Mexico, but the effect feels more like the set of The Prisoner. Sixteen years after Pershing Square underwent a $14.5 million makeover, the city is already talking about clearing the ground for a new design.

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