Pershing Square

Designers: Lawrence Halprin, Ricardo Legorretta | City: Los Angeles, CA | Project Type: plaza
Date Visited: 11.26.12

Locations: W 9th Street and Hope Los Angeles, CA 90017
Size: 1 square block
Cost: $14 million
Official Opening Date: 1886; renovated in 1994

In an interview with Laurie Olin:

“When Ricardo Legorretta and I did Pershing Square, which everybody hates now, we gambled on the fact that Anglos would come down from the towers and Hispanics would come over, and of course they haven’t. The citizens group that was the client collapsed and went away. One of the biggest disappointments of my life was our thinking that we knew what we were doing in that situation and we didn’t.”

Pershing Square is one of the oldest public squares in downtown LA. Opened in 1886 and named in honor of WWI general John J. Pershing, Pershing Square was redesigned multiple times throughout the years but had, until the mid-20th century, been covered in lush plantings and classic walkways. From 1950 to 1951, however, much of the park was bulldozed and turned into a roof of grass for the construction of an 1800-car underground parking garage. Nearly fifty years later, in 1994, landscape architects Ricardo Legorretta and Laurie Olin were hired to reshape the square into a vibrant, gathering place.

But despite the $14 million price tag, Pershing Square is not considered a success by locals, nor even by Olin himself, who criticizes himself for not adding more green space. The trees and planted green surrounds the barren void in the center, turning the square into an uninviting urban heat island. The long ramps to the underground garage create barriers around the park, exacerbating the problem. And despite Pershing Square’s ability to perform as a gathering space, the crowds are often dominated by the unintended demographic: Occupy LA protestors and the homeless.

Unfortunately, my brief experience with Pershing Square echoes the sentiments of Olin. There is far too much concrete, hard angles, and based on the predominant crowd, Pershing Square wouldn’t be my go-to place to relax.

Pershing Square is like the less successful version of Union Square in San Francisco. I first made the comparison when I saw the ice skating rink set up on a corner of Pershing Square, but both are also historical gathering spaces that double as transit hubs. Unlike Union Square, however, Pershing Square lacks the density, greenery, sense of cleanliness and bustling, urban character that would attract people to the space. And, if it’s any indication of the city’s view of Pershing Park, instead of a large, decorated Christmas tree that typically anchors most public city squares this time of year, downtown L.A. opted to only pin up the shape of a decorated Christmas tree instead.

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