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Striking and Extraordinary in Santa Monica?  

By Frank Gruber

Sept. 27, 2010 --I attended the Sept. 19 workshop the City held about plans for the new parks at the Civic Center -- the Palisades Garden Walk and the Town Square in front of City Hall. What struck me, as I listened to the public comments, was that there was a remarkable consensus to build parks that were, in the words of Recreation and Parks Commissioner Richard McKinnon, “striking and extraordinary.”

I say “remarkable” because striking and extraordinary are two words one rarely hears at workshops like this in Santa Monica, where residents typically express themselves in terms that are the lowest common denominator versions of “less is more,” as when people complain that three-story buildings will “Manhattanize” Santa Monica.

I mean I didn’t hear anyone say what I expected to hear -- that the whole thing should be a flat green lawn, the sacred concept of “open space” at its most elemental.

Instead, when the City’s lead designer, the landscape architect James Corner, presented for discussion three different but all ambitious concepts for the parks, the crowd, which broke up into small groups to discuss the ideas, greeted them with excitement.

This is a good thing. As I wrote back in August What_I_Say_Build_a_Tower_in_the_Park,August 2, 2010, there are reasons to doubt that many people will be drawn to the location of these new public spaces unless the park themselves are draws.

As a solution I suggested reviving from the original Civic Center plan the idea of building a viewing tower. While a standalone tower does not appear in any of Mr. Corner’s three concepts (but a future tower is not precluded by them either), the three proposals all contain dramatic elements to attract people to the park, such as elevated features designed to create good views, dramatic terrain to walk through or relax on, and artistic lighting.

Workshop participants ponder the three concepts. Photos by Frank Gruber

The three concepts all feed off the concept of an arroyo. (To view the concepts, go to the City’s website for the projects and click on the presentation for the Sept. 19 workshop.)

One, the “Arroyo Wash,” emphasizes a strong and open connection between City Hall and the Pier, paralleling the natural arroyo that is now the bed of the freeway, and locates fountains on the Town Square. The second concept, “Arroyo Ravine,” uses more dramatic heights, as well as more open public spaces for events, including at the Town Square. (The “ravine” plan also includes a viewing platform, if not a tower, to improve views of the ocean.) The third concept, the “Arroyo Dune,” breaks up the landscape into smaller pieces, so that the walkways almost appear to resemble those of a maze, and includes gardens at the Town Square. All three plans include an outdoor café at Chez Jay.


Mr. Corner emphasized that the three concepts were not meant to be evaluated or compared to each other as wholes, but that the next step would be to create a plan that mixed and matched the best parts of all three plans. He said he wanted to hear from the workshop what parts resonated, and what the designers had missed.

The comments, including those from the Planning and Recreation and Parks Commissioners who spoke at the end of the workshop (the workshop was formally a joint meeting of the two commissions), were good.

Many of the comments related to connections; the three plans tended to emphasize the City Hall to Pier axis, which is important because people walking from Ocean Avenue need to be able to see City Hall as a destination. Several participants, however, pointed out that with the Expo rail terminus coming to Fourth and Colorado, the connection to the Main Street bridge over the freeway to Colorado also needed to be strong.

Other comments emphasized the need for connections to the park from the new extension of Olympic Drive that will separate the park from the new housing (the “Village”) that will be built between RAND and Ocean.

These points speak to the importance of creating some kind of central location where park users can see landmarks to walk to, so-called “terminated vistas.” These might include the Morton Bay fig tree overlooking the freeway, the Pier, Chez Jay, the entrance to the Village, City Hall and the Main Street Bridge.

Other than that, and the hope that there is a plaza somewhere in the park or room on the Town Square where the City could in the future locate a spectacular tower, I don’t have any comments. I hope the designers stay ambitious.

The next step for the park design process will be a presentation to the City Council on Oct. 12. The council members will be asked for their input on the plans. Staff and the designers will then present their preferred design direction in November.

In the “department of encouraging the striking and extraordinary,” here’s a picture from the Parc Güell in Barcelona.

Parc Guell, Barcelona

Meeting notice:
Wednesday evening the M.T.A. will hold a public meeting at the Santa Monica Main Public Library to discuss the draft environmental impact report for the Westside Subway Extension that was released on September 3, 2010. The meeting will take place from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. For more information, go to:

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on

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