Agence TER and SALT Win Competition to Redesign Pershing Square

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The team of Agence TER, a Paris-based firm of landscape architects, architects and engineers, together with LA firm SALT Landscape Architects, has been announced winner of the Pershing Square Renew competition to remake downtown’s Pershing Square.

But some big practical questions surround the proposed overhaul, starting with: will the estimated $50 million makeover happen?

The Agence TER/SALT team proposed a “radically flat” scheme, reconfiguring entrances into the parking structure below the square and lowering its roof, so the ground plane of the park can flow smoothly into the surrounding sidewalks, reducing the obstructions to access into the park that curse the current design.

They were picked from four shortlisted, high-profile teams; the others were: whY with CivitasSWA with MorphosisJames Corner Field Operations, with architect Frederick Fisher & Partners.

According to the organizers, Pershing Square Renew, the proposal “drew the highest scores from the 1,355 members of the public who weighed in on the four finalists and was the unanimous first choice of the Pershing Square Renew jury”. . . “Agence Ter and Team won the hearts and minds of the public and our jury with their brilliant yet accessible and thoughtful design,” said Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar.

“From the very launch of Pershing Square Renew, our goal was to create an open, warm and inviting design that was focused on serving people and not form – one that would allow Pershing Square, the City’s oldest park, to reclaim its place as the true heart of Downtown Los Angeles. Today, we are one important step closer to making that happen.”

PSQ_Agence Ter and Team_plan
Plan of the proposed Pershing Square makeover by Agence TER/SALT, featuring plentiful greenery and a block-long shade canopy along Hill Street, to shelter farmers’ markets, cafés, kiosks and other activities. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The question of “form” versus public needs was central to the conception of the project.

At the start of the process Pershing Square Renew enlisted Fred Kent, founder of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces. He is a vocal advocate of public engagement in public space design, and an equally vocal critic of “over-design” by professionals that, in his view, are more concerned with iconic imagery than serving the needs of the public. Exhibit A for him: the existing Ricardo Legorreta design for Pershing Square.

The multi-stage process of the competition involved outreach to local residents, users of the park and adjacent businesses at every juncture. In response to popular requests for more greenery, shade and easier access, all the schemes exhibited plentiful grass and trees (though it is unclear where the deep roots of trees will go). All proposed ways in which to get rid of or alleviate the invasive parking structure and access ramps.

Their schemes also addressed a philosophical question facing public space designers today, namely: what makes the public come to a public space?

“Placemakers” like Fred Kent argue that a park’s success depends on round-the-clock activation or “programming;” this is especially important, he says, for rounding out a mix of users of a public space that deters people if it is largely occupied by homeless people and undesirables like drug dealers. Others say that an attractive, flexible space will attract people without the need to over-program.

All the designs suggested ample programming, with visions of farmers markets, day and nighttime performance, pop-up art, cafes and restaurants, children’s play parks as well as spaces for relaxation.

But the Agence Ter/SALT was the most understated, both in implied programming and form. In the view of Wade Graham, a landscape designer and writer who diagnosed the ills of Pershing Square on this DnA broadcast, the “radically flat” scheme by the winning team was the most appropriate for the site.

It looks, he says “most like a city park, not a post-post-modernist amusement park. It is all on one level, connecting directly to slimmed-down streets (Olive is reduced from five lanes to three), with a single, small ramp to the garage. Most of the space is left open, either studded with trees or as an un-programmed Great Lawn. A block-long shade canopy extends along Hill Street, like a 19th-century open market topped with solar panels, ready to shelter whatever farmers’ markets, cafés, or kiosks might pop up. It comes closest to realizing the holy grail of good public squares, which is providing people a place to stage their own programs, spontaneously and unpredictably, without micromanagement by designers. The best such spaces, such as the typical Italian piazza, may have nothing in them at all, just four streets facing a shared commons, where life may play out according to its own plans.”

Deborah Murphy and Henri Bava hold their proof of first place, accompanied Rachel Allen and other design team members, Councilman Jose Huizar, Pershing Square Renew’s Eduardo Santana and jury members. Image courtesy CARSLA.(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Given the complex demands of the site, the landscape architecture team has multiple partners: Deborah Murphy Urban Design + Planning and Fehr and Peers, Community Art Resources (CARS, Kelly Shannon, Leo Villareal, Pentagram, still room, Rachel Allen Architecture, KPFF, M-E Engineers, and Lighting Design Alliance.

Agence Ter, helmed by Henri Bava, is based in the city whose civic spaces are universally beloved — Paris — and there Bava’s firm of 30 years has created several new parks: Parc de Cormailles, Parc de Boulogne, Parc des Docks de Saint-Ouen and the Carrières-sous-Poissy ecological park, as well as spaces in Spain (Plaça de les Gloriés in Barcelona), Germany (Aqua Magica park in Bad Oeynhausen, the Duisburg central square) and Ireland (Royal Canal project). “Using the landscape as a basis for designing the city represents the guiding principle driving Agence Ter,” says the firm.

SALT, a younger firm, includes among its clients Skid Row Housing Trust, the Trust for Public Land, Aspire Public Schools and California Institute of the Arts.

Now a team has been selected, however, what are the chances the project becomes a reality?

The competition was initiated not by the city’s planning department or the Department of Recreation and Parks but by a group of downtown players concerned at the lifelessness of Pershing Square: the architecture firm Gensler, a group of local business interests and the office of Councilman Jose Huizar whose district includes downtown LA.

The finances to pay for the renewed park are not yet in place, and the process of public outreach, dating back to the launch of the competition last year, has been intended to stimulate interest — and money — for the project.

The goal is to achieve a public-private partnership, with local businesses contributing, on the understanding that an enhanced park is better for business. Macfarlane Partners, a company that, reports the LA Times, is planning a 660-unit apartment complex overlooking the square, gave seed money for the competition as did the Department of Recreation and Parks; Southwest Airlines gave a grant to support the community outreach.

Now that a winner has been selected, fundraising will start, for an estimated $50 million.