Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Public Park For The Public Good


Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora
Made in America Festival
Hello Everyone:

Outdoor music festivals are a summer time staple like fireworks on the Fourth of July.  Festival like the recent Made in America Festival held in downtown Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend are about bringing people from all over the spectrum of humanity for two days of music and dancing.  Our good friend Christopher Hawthorne at the Los Angeles Times wonders in his article "Grand Park benefits Made in America but is the reverse true?" wonders if the festival was as about putting up barriers between people or breaking them down.  The Made in America Festival was a golden opportunity for Mayor Eric Garcetti to advertise his interest in streamlining City Hall, an act worthy of divine intervention.  Civic officials worked to ease the approval process for concert organizer Jay Z (yes that Jay Z) and promoter Live Nation, while incurring the wrath of Council member Jose Huizar and some downtown merchants an residents who felt left out of the discussions on the crowds and noise.

Evening crowd at Made in America
Christopher Hawthorne reports, "The festival's effect on the downtown streetscape was pretty much the opposite.  Grand Park-a 12-acre space billed as 'the park for everyone'-was fenced off, open to only ticket holders."  To secure the festival space with its three stages and room for 50,000 ticket holders, streets, intersections and the Civic Center subway station were shut down.  I can understand shutting streets and intersections near Grand Park but shutting down the Civic Center subway station?  That does not sound too logical; forcing concertgoers coming by train to take a more circuitous route to get to the Park.

The quid pro quo involved in this event was quite simple.  City and county officials get rental fees, an economic development boost, and free publicity for the park, due to its strange hillside location that makes it appear to be hidden in plain sight.  The residents and workers in downtown tolerated with two days worth of jersey barriers, chain-link, and windowpane rattling bass lines all in the name civic boosterism.  Yet, as Mr. Hawthorne points out, "...Los Angeles hasn't always been good at negotiating such deals with corporate interests as aggressively as it should."

Grand Park
Los Angeles, California
Striking the right balance between corporate and civic interests has very real and significant implications for a city that is trying to reactivate its public realm after decades of favoring private cars and private interests. Grand Park is one of the signifiers of this effort, which is still in the early stage.  The only way the decision to close the park would make sense is if the fees paid by Live Nation make the park, in the short term, a nicer place to visit for the public.  It is not a bad place to walk through or sit and have lunch on a sunny afternoon.  It could maybe use a few more places to sit and some more plantings but this is my suggestion.  Fortunately, as the concertgoers were trampling their way through Grand Park, they made an unknowing landscape architecture focus group for how the park design could be adjusted and improved.

Jay-Z performing at Made in America
The openness of Grand Park make it a suitable concert venue.  This suitability is possible despite the panned disjointedness and abrupt grade changes, especially the way the upper levels closet to Grand Avenue appear detached from the lower levels which open onto City Hall.  Two large stages were set up along Spring Street, in front of City Hall and another stage with the Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain and the Department of Water and Power Building serving as the backdrop.  This was a good idea because the distance between the stages kept the performers' music from overlapping into each other.

Budweiser Made in America
Los Angeles design firm Rios Clementi Hale Studio was engaged to combine Live Nation's aesthetic and the festival's chief sponsor Budweiser with the park's crisp modern design but fell short of the mark.  The most prominent-an angular glass and steel pavilion near Spring Street, featured a neon Budweiser sign tied to the fa├žade and red, white, and black "Bud" balloon underneath the sloping roof.  Mr. Hawthorne observes a random haphazardly piled park signature magenta chairs and benches in front of the Los Angeles County Superior Court building.  He notes, "They'd been banished to a clear space for crowds of concertgoers or Bud-colored merchandise-or both."  In the meantime, the plantings throughout the park were left completely at the mercy of concertgoers and their overpriced running shoes.

Mayor Eric Garcetti and Jay-Z
Fortunately, there room for improvement.  The Made in America Festival highlight lingering design flaws including an obvious lack of shade.  I most definitely agree with that, considering my mid-afternoon on day one, the temperature soared to over 90 degrees and every available shady spot was taken.  This was also the situation on day two.  Temporary street closures anywhere in Los Angeles are not anything out of the ordinary.  After all, Los Angeles is still the film epicenter of the universe and to wit, Hollywood has look at downtown as one giant sound stage. However, Mr. Hawthorne questions whether or not the street closures had to be so extensive.  He does make an allowance for the Los Angeles Police Department's zealous cautiousness and suggests, "...modest changes to the layout of the festival would have allowed the Civic Center Metro station to remain open, giving concertgoers much more direct access to the festival by public transit."  While Mr. Hawthorne sees nothing wrong with closing a public park once in a very odd while for a revenue-generating event, the park should also be a beneficiary of said event.

Mayor Garcetti touring the concert venue
Christopher Hawthorne cites the negotiations that established Grand Park as a case study of how to win concessions beneficial to everyone.  Developer Related Cos. reserved $50 million from future revenues on oft-postponed Grand Avenue redevelopment project to pay for the park.  Live Nation did agree to pay $600,000 in rental fee to Los Angeles County and the Music Center, which manage the park.  The real question is how much money has been set aside to improving this flawed public and how will vanish into a budgetary nebula.

The list of possible improvements is lengthy.  Part of the original design by Rios Clementi Hale were dropped to save a few dollars before construction began.  The paving along Hill and Broadway, which cut through the very core of the park, could redone to match the rest of the park's design.  A fund could be established to add a bandstand somewhere in the park for the Los Angeles Philharmonic to hold concert, complementing its shows at the Hollywood Bowl.  This sounds (no pun intended) like a great idea.  Another idea is a fund that could help pay for public-art installations. There is a space for it, such installations have been popular in Millennium Park in Chicago.  An even better suggestion is more clear signage that could direct visitors from Grand Avenue and other parts of downtown to the park.  More necessary, new structures or thickly planted trees that could provide much needed shade.

Parks are never actually done, they are works in progress that require maintenance and upkeep.  It is not just watering the grass and pruning the trees, upkeep and maintenance means making the park more open and user-friendly to the public.  As a public space, it should also be able to pay for itself and thus, any and all logical potential revenue schemes should not be rejected, even if it means the neighbors have to put up with windowpane rattling bass lines for two solid days.

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