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Is this the Pershing Square news we’ve been waiting for?

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Long ignored amid Downtown LA’s big building boom, the concrete “fortress” is “officially” headed for a makeover

The plan to remake Pershing Square is moving forward, but the full design is still up in the air.
Courtesy of Jose Huizar

It’s almost impossible to believe at this point, but after five years of discussion and planning, city officials say work will finally get underway to remake the concrete “fortress” that is Pershing Square.

“It is officially happening,” Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar told reporters and city staffers at an event this morning.

Downtown is growing taller with glitzy new buildings, but the largely concrete Pershing Square has been scrutinized for, among other things, its lack of trees and shade and access issues. The only area with grass is currently cordoned off with yellow “caution” tape, and the plaza’s stair-filled design is difficult to navigate, especially for people with mobility issues.

City officials are confident that construction will start this year, but did not provide a specific date.

The work, as previously reported, will be broken up into phases. The first and second phases will bring greater lines of sight through the park via the demolition of walls and existing structures that block views between Olive and Hills streets on the borders of the park. Trees, elevators, and stairs up from the parking garage will be added, and the water fountain will be turned into green space. Construction on new elements will ramp up in 2021, according to staffers with Gruen Associates, which is on the design team.

If all goes as planned, both phases are scheduled to be complete in 2024.

Huizar said today that the first two phases would cost $25 million and were fully funded, in large part by fees that are generated by development projects.

The entire project’s total price tag is estimated to be $110 million. Huizar said that the full build-out will be dependent on money becoming available via those same developer fees used for the first two phases, but added that he expects them to generate about $10 million per year.

The parking looking toward Olive and Fifth streets now, and after the first two phases of work are complete.

Working in phases will allow for the parking garage under the park, which brings in millions of dollars in revenue annually, to remain operational during construction.

Though funding is not yet secured to build out the total design as imagined by Agence Ter—the French firm that was crowned the winner of a design competition for the park in 2016—the first two stages of work will bring noticeable changes and big strides toward realizing the full vision for the public space, says Michael Shull, general manager of the city’s recreation and parks department.

“The park will be more green, more open, and more safe” after just the first two phases, Schull said, calling those changes “impactful.”

But one juror from the design competition, Donna Bojarsky, says transforming the park in phases leaves the project in a vulnerable position.

“We picked the whole design, not parts of it,” says Bojarsky, founder of the civic initiative Future of Cities: Leading in LA.

She says that it’s great that getting the first two phases of the park built theoretically paves the way for the full original design, but says that Pershing Square “being left at phase two would not be a success.”

Important momentum has been and could continue to be lost as the timeline stretches, she says. And without a firm timeline for a groundbreaking, she says it’s difficult to believe that progross was not slowed or pause altogether following a public raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on two of Huizar’s offices and his home in Boyle Heights.

A number of participants in the Pershing Square redesign process have said that a large-scale project like this, which needs funding to be shored up and broad neighborhood support, needs a sustained, significant push from a civic leader to be successful.

The view from Hill Street now and after the changes phase one and two would bring.

Speaking at Pershing Square Monday, Henri Bava, a partner at Agence Ter, acknowledged fears that the full build-out would never come, and emphasized that the city and his firm are still focused on the “radical openness” that the original design promised and realizing the complete competition-winning design.

Bava called the first two phases “beginning steps” to realizing the full design, and that moving forward with them would reestablish connections between the park as it is—a “fortress,” Bava called it—and the rest of Los Angeles.

“We are ready to start,” Bava said.