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Plaza or Park?

By Frank Gruber

September 26, 2011 -- As Jason Islas reported in The Lookout: Landmark Commission_Approves_Santa_Monicas New Town Square Design Mostly, September 22, 2011), last week the Landmarks Commission approved landscape architect James Corner’s new design for the “Town Square” that Santa Monica is planning for the area front of City Hall, but attached four conditions.

Last spring when the role of the Landmarks Commission in the design of the new Civic Center parks came to a head, I argued that it makes no sense to elevate nondescript landscape features to landmark status by calling them “character defining” elements for a landmark building they happen to surround.

(click for larger image)
Image of brickwork and planter in front of Santa Monica's City Hall
Brickwork and a planter in front of City Hall: character defining?

But just because the landmarks commissioners didn’t have any business trying to take control over the design of the Town Square doesn’t mean that all of their responses to the new design were wrong. The commissioners were right when they requested that the designers scale back the shrubs and native grasses that would flank the paved area around the new fountain and pool.

Here’s a picture of the new design:

City of Santa Monica future Town Square
Plan. Photo courtesy of the City of Santa Monica

As you can see, the design replaces the rose garden with a pool, but is symmetrical like the current design. The existing flat lawns are varied, however, with tall grasses and shrubbery, berms that vary the topography, and seating areas created by meandering benches.

There are elements to like about the new plan, but the design is inappropriate for the location in front of Santa Monica’s most important civic building.

The City Council in June told James Corner and his design team to ignore the Landmarks Commission’s demands and create something bolder, but the council members also told Mr. Corner they wanted a city square where people would gather and interact. (See story: City_Council_Sends_Town_Square_Back_for_Redesign, June 20, 2011.) But instead of a plaza or “square” suitable for gatherings, this design is for a park.

The plan seems specifically designed to prevent gatherings and demonstrations, as there is no place for a crowd to spread out. The motivation for bringing the high grasses to the center, splitting the open spaces, is hard to understand. Nor is there much level ground to stand on; the design features undulating berms that incongruously mimic a natural environment in an artificial place. I can understand the desire for three-dimensionality, but flat terracing, rising gradually from the center, would work better.

The issue is not hardscape vs. grass. Where there is so much foot traffic that turf would not stand up to the wear, a plaza needs hard surfaces, but otherwise -- think of the Mall in Washington, the scene of some of the most important gatherings in American history -- grass works so long as crowds can get to it. The issue is functionality.

I’m sympathetic, however, to Mr. Corner and his team because other decisions made long before they were hired have made it more difficult to create a gathering space on this site.

When people think about open space, they generally think in two-dimensional terms; the words “open space” themselves imply horizontal expansiveness.

When it comes to defining public spaces in cities it’s not the two-dimensional “floors” that are most important, but the surrounding three-dimensional “walls,” the volumes that enclose the space. In cities, public places need to be three-dimensional or they won’t serve their function; they won’t be “rooms.” The reason that the front yard of Santa Monica City Hall never became a lively municipal space is that City Hall itself was plunked down in the middle of emptiness.

Back in 1993 when the original Civic Center Specific Plan (CCSP) was developed in a public process overseen by ROMA Design Group, the plaza in front of City Hall was intended to be defined on three sides by buildings. Here is a conceptual plan for the revised CCSP that ROMA prepared in October 2001, when the CCSP was being reopened to take into account that the City had acquired most of RAND’s property, and that RAND was going to build its headquarters south of Olympic Drive. (Keep in mind that what’s shown in the plan for the space was a concept only, as the space itself was never designed.)

Santa Monica future City Hall Plaza
Oct 2001 illustrative plan

As you can see, the idea was to build a city services building to the north of the plaza, which would both shield the whole area from the impact of the freeway as well as reinforce the connection over the Main Street bridge, which would become a pedestrian bridge, and build a mixed-use project of housing and retail to define the western edge of the plaza along a realigned Main Street. The south side of the site would be defined by a double row of trees running along the new Olympic Drive.

What happened was that in the public process, at the last minute, the mixed-use project was dropped in favor of more “open space,” and then the City dropped the city services building from the plan.

Now the designers have been asked to create a public gathering place in the equivalent of an open field. In this context, their use of “bosques” of trees on the north and south side of the site is a good idea. There are now two rows of trees in each bosque, down from three to five rows in earlier iterations; the larger bosques in earlier plans tended to make the square more intimate and more conducive to human interactions, but the Landmarks Commission objected that these trees would obstruct the view of City Hall.

Regardless how many rows there are, these trees should be tall, to create a sense of enclosure, although that would not preclude view corridors that would allow visual connections to downtown to the north and to Olympic Drive and the rest of the Civic Center to the south.

The designers should also be credited for the sinuous concrete benches that, circulating through the site, will create congenial places for individuals or small groups. But being backless, they will not create barriers that would prevent people from participating in larger gatherings.

I wish I could say the same thing about the shrubbery.

* * *

Advertisement for myself. Next Monday, Oct. 3, I will be giving a talk at the Annenberg Community Beach House about the Belmar Triangle, an African-American neighborhood that the City of Santa Monica destroyed in the 1950s to build the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. This will be a reprise of a talk I gave last spring at the Santa Monica History Museum, and want to thank the staff in the City’s Cultural Affairs Department for giving me the opportunity to give the talk again.

The talk begins at 6:30 p.m. For more details and to make a reservation (not required but helpful to the Annenberg's staff), go to this link.

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at .

If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.


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