Then There Were Four. What’s Next For Pershing Square Design Competition?

Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles is a step closer to getting a makeover – with four semi-finalists now selected.

But what happens next? Will the winning idea become a reality? And will any design scheme be able to combat the biggest obstacle to Pershing Square's success: the parking structure below?

Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles is a step closer to getting a makeover  with four semi-finalists now selected from a shortlist of ten. The four teams are: SWA and Morphosis; James Corner Field Operations with Frederick Fisher; wHY Architecture with Civitas; Agence Ter and SALT

With seed funding provided by the City and local business MacFarlane Partners, those teams will prepare designs for the square that will be reviewed by the public and a private jury in the spring.

Then the question arises: what happens next? Will the winning idea become a reality? And will any design scheme be able to combat the biggest obstacle to Pershing Square’s success: the parking structure below?

The choice of teams — all strong designers — also begs another question: can they make over the square without over-designing it, which is a big problem with the Ricardo Legorreta design of 1994?

As Cal Poly Pomona Professor of Landscape Architecture James Becerra told DnA: “I’m all for heavily programmed, themed, or metaphorical spaces, but this space bounded by 5th and 6th, Hill and Olive should not be one of them. We shouldn’t overthink Pershing Square. Remember that sometimes an urban space should just be that, an open, breathing, accessible urban ‘space.’ Let it gain its soul and spirit by how it is truly used by the people.”   

Read on for answers in this interview with Edwardo Santana, Executive Director of Pershing Square Renew.

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Concept board presented by Agence Ter with SALT Landscape Architects.

DnA:  You have winnowed down 10 teams to four.  Who did you choose and why did you choose them?  

ES: We chose four really strong  teams. One team is SWA and Morphosis.

People in L.A. know more Morphosis very well, just a few blocks away you can see their work at the Caltrans building and SWA is just located a few minutes walk from Pershing Square.

James Corner Field Operations is another finalist, and their work is quite legendary. The High Line is probably the most important public park of the new millennium, and they were responsible for that as well as the new Tongva Park in Santa Monica.

We’re also excited to have the Parisian firm Agence Ter. They’ve traveled the world and Los Angeles is the most international American city so we’re very excited to have them as one of our four finalists.

And lastly we have wHY Architecture out of Culver City, which we keep calling our wild card. They didn’t have as deep a resume as some of the other teams, but everything we saw from them made us want to see more.

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Concept board presented by SWA landscape design firm and Morphosis architects.

DnA: One of the goals of the park is that this would be a very open park where people would feel welcome, where they wouldn’t feel trapped by a concrete hardscape as Pershing Square currently appears.  Morphosis is definitely a very strong firm and has its fans, but they are definitely not associated with warm and fuzzy.

ES:  I guess that’s a fair comment. Their team presented several different options based on what ultimately we’re going to be asking for in the next round.  I that their approach is very flexible and SWA is a fantastic landscape architect and has taken the lead, and Morphosis would to bring great design to any structures that would be part of their plan.

DnA:  And how much were you looking architects and how much at landscape architects?

ES:  You know most of the teams lead with the landscape architect, which we think is probably the right solution. What we keep hearing from the public is we want more green, we want more openness. But at the same time we do want more activation. So, for any commercial activation there may be a public market space or there may be a cafe or restaurant space. And so I think we do need both disciplines. But the landscape architects do seem to be the lead for the most part.

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Concept board presented by wHY Architecture and Civitas.

DnA:  Did any of the teams, as part of this midway stage, propose anything really dramatic, like getting rid of that parking structure underneath?

ES:  You know the parking structure is actually very important to the overall facility. And so we asked them to assume that the parking structure would stay, per our agreement with the city.  So that’s not even a consideration.

But several of them did think about how could we make the parking structure more inviting, how can we bring the light into it, how can we open it up and not make it a detriment but actually make it an asset for the overall experience at Pershing Square.

DnA:  I met you at the public presentation of some early sketch boards. Many seemed to suggest that the park would be lower than it currently is, because the current raised height of the park creates a lot of its urban problems.  But how can they really bring those down lower if they can’t change the parking structure? Was that something that was discussed as part of your jury process?

ES:  Every team was given a model of Pershing Square in its current form and found that the top of the parking structure is actually below the street level. And so there is the opportunity to lower the park to create more physical and visual accessibility into the park from the streets around it. So that’s a theme that we saw come from pretty much every team — that idea of taking it off of its perch and bringing it down to the ground plane.

After looking at it ourselves,  there are definitely ways that you can do that by removing some of the soil that was brought in to elevate it in its current design.  So I think that you can expect that that will be a central theme for the four finalists.

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Concept board presented by James Corner Field Operations with Frederick Fisher and Partners.

DnA:  The process has been a combination of public outreach and then a private jury forming this selection. How much did the public outreach influence the choices that you made?

ES:  For this last round, the public outreach and public comments really validated what the jury had already done. I think it was difficult for the public to really engage with all of the boards that were presented because many of them were very conceptual.

For the next round, there will be video presentations, there’ll be actual fly-throughs of the proposed design. So I think it will be much easier for the public to engage in the next round of the competition, and I think they will serve a very important role in determining the winner.

DnA:  What is the process now?  

ES:  In March or possibly April, the teams will submit and present their final, fully developed, design concept and we will have the teams come back to interview with the jury one final time. After the jury interviews we will have several days of of public outreach where we will invite the public to view the different design concepts and provide us input.

The jury will not make their final decision until after they have reviewed the public’s comments, and had an opportunity to really understand what’s most important to the public.

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Concept board by Agence Ter with SALT Landscape Architects, the only team to offer up a design at the concept stage.

DnA:  Currently the teams are getting a stipend.  You have a contribution from the local businesses that’s making this all possible.  Is that correct?

ES:  That is correct. It was very important to us to be as fair as possible to the teams and to compensate them for some of their work, and some of the expenses they were going to be taking on. So each of the teams will receive $50,000.

DnA:  Then the big question is, what next after a team is selected? Christopher Hawthorne asked recently in the LA Times, is the Pershing Square competition real? As in, is there really money for it? What would you say?

ES:  A renewed Pershing Square will create tremendous value for the city and for the surrounding property owners and surrounding businesses. It will create value for any type of corporate or philanthropic association with it. So given that, we know that there’s going to be many sources of public and private funds that we can access. And as we put forth the potential designs for the square, we know more and more people are going to get very excited about this.  We already have tremendous commitment from the city to participate in funding the renovation.  So we’re extremely confident that we’ll bring together the funds necessary to be successful in our mission.

DnA:  So the process will itself be the generator of the funds?

ES:  Absolutely, we’ve already started to see it at this early stage where we’ve gotten more and more people very excited about the future of Pershing Square. And what the teams have been great at doing is illustrating how important this square can be, not only to Downtown Los Angeles, but to the entire city. And so as city leaders and philanthropists and foundations in our community really see that vision for what Pershing Square can be, we know that they’re going to come forth and we will have the funding needed to complete this very exciting project.