|Town Square Off
By Ann K. Williams
October 14, 2011 -- A dispute between the City of Santa Monica and its Landmarks Commission over designs for a park in front of City Hall entered a new phase this week.
The city is appealing conditions to the commission's recent approval of Landscape Architect James Corner's Town Square Park, conditions which forbid the designer to alter decorative brickwork and require him to retain planters near the entryway of the municipal building.
In response to the city's action, the Landmark Commission decided Monday to send a delegation to the October 25 City Council meeting, where the appeal will be heard, to tell the council “how we went through our thinking,” in the words of Commissioner Ruthann Lehrer.
“We talked about the lawn as the public space, the forum for the community, the place where people gather for jazz on the lawn or political rallies,” said Lehrer. “We were really concerned about the [park's] functionality and...the way in which the classic beaux arts design provides a setting for the building.”
The brickwork was “an important character-defining element that made a link between the past and the present,” she said, and the planters are an integral element in the building's design.
But city staff say they want the landscape architect to have more latitude with regard to the features singled out by the commission. The design most recently presented to the Landmarks Commission called for altering the brickwork and the planters so that ramps in front of City Hall could be sloped gently enough that they won't need handrails.
“The design team would like to be able to be responsive to the Landmark Commission's conditions of approval, while still maintaining the spirit of the design,” Karen Ginsberg, the city's assistant director of Community & Cultural Services, told The Lookout Thursday.
An addendum to the appeal addresses the two features, as well as two other conditions imposed by the commission which the city is not appealing.
The designer suggests using bricks as “scoring lines” in concrete paving to mark off the areas in which the brickwork has been removed.
“Simplifying the overall material palette at the stairs and entry area achieves a balance between the building's streamline moderne history...and the desire for a simple and unified hardscape material palette,” the addendum reads.
Then, the design team proposes converting seat walls in front of the ramps into planters that will match the height of the existing planters.
The Landmarks Commission has been at odds with the City Council, the Planning Commission and a number of residents since it sent Corner back to the drawing board to revise the park's design in May.
The commission had marked a number of features to be set aside for preservation, including City Hall’s lawn, rose garden, the cement pathway leading to its front steps, its rectangular planting beds and the site’s overall symmetrical layout.
Corner's revised drawings were met with dismay by many.
“It’s lost trees. It’s lost elements that would take it out of the ordinary into the extraordinary,” said then-Parks Commissioner Richard McKinnon said at a City Council meeting in June. “And it’s lost the power of the imagination that brought us all to the point of support.”
The council sent the drawings back to Corner again, with a mandate to be bold.
“We didn’t go through this to get a competent design,” Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis said at the June meeting. “We went through this to get a spectacular design.”
In September, the Landmarks Commission approved new drawings that reflected the June council directions, replacing the rose bushes with a water feature and adding low rolling hills and a variety of plantings, while trying to make the park more user-friendly by placing low seating walls around the lawn.
But the commissioners added four conditions to their approval: that planned sycamore groves be thinned out; that the brickwork at the front of entrance of city hall be untouched; that proposed shrubs and native grasses on the lawn areas be scaled back to provide more standing room; and that the planters that would be lost by extending the access ramps be retained.
The addendum to the city's appeal includes statements to the effect that the plantings and sycamores will be scaled back.
Lehrer, Bach and Commissioner Nina Fresco will represent the Landmarks Commission at the October 25 City Council meeting.
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