Turning corners at Corner’s park

As I watched the festivities Saturday for the opening of Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square I couldn’t help but reflect on the history of the past 25 years of planning for the Civic Center and the various characters (and I mean that in at least two senses of the word) who had been involved, but there was one name that particularly came to mind: that of John Jalili, the former City Manager of Santa Monica.

I don’t recall hearing Jalili mentioned in anyone’s remarks Saturday, but he was a key player. After the 1994 earthquake Jalili established the City’s earthquake recovery redevelopment district, a district that covered most of the city and included downtown and the office/industrial corridor along Olympic. This took some chutzpah, since even with all of its earthquake damage Santa Monica did not fall obviously into the “blighted” category that was the justification for redevelopment.

The City used tax-increment money generated in the redevelopment zone from new development and re-sales of appreciated old development to fund the $53 million the City used to buy 11 acres from RAND, of which the new park covers about half.

Children's play area in Tongva Park

Children’s play area in Tongva Park

Ironically, or tragically, depending on how you look at these things, with the end of redevelopment the State of California now wants this money back, along with redevelopment money the City used to build parking structures and other infrastructure projects. If the City doesn’t pay up (or prevail in litigation) at least in theory the State could “repossess” the park.

One can make moral arguments against how redevelopment money that would have otherwise gone to fund schools and other public purposes was at times used in California to subsidize private developers in certain areas at the expense of other areas not getting the subsidies, but at least after Saturday’s glorious grand opening of the park, Santa Monica can hold its head high — we spent this redevelopment money to build a beautiful park in a location where it can and will serve the entire region.

Santa Monica City Hall from Tongva Park

Santa Monica City Hall from Tongva Park

The park design is a triumph, and to comprehend how triumphant it is, one must consider how difficult the site is for a park. On the northern edge, between the park and downtown, that’s not a river flowing languidly, under “Morty” the big fig tree, to the sea, that’s a freeway. And think about it, how much cause do people usually have to walk between City Hall and the Pier? For about 20 years I’ve ridden my bike nearly everyday over the Main Street Bridge, I can assure you few pedestrians find reason to walk on that stretch of Main Street.

To create a park that would stitch connections between downtown, Ocean Avenue, City Hall, and the rest of the Civic Center, as well as attract people to a location hard by a freeway, designer James Corner and his team had many challenges. While the site will be helped when the Olympic Drive extension opens along the southern edge, with the new apartments and ground-floor retail facing the park, and it will be great when Chez Jay opens its patio, the designers had to create a park that would be an attraction in and of itself, without becoming something other than a park.

James Corner speaking Saturday at the Grand Opening of Tongva Park

James Corner speaking Saturday at the Grand Opening of Tongva Park

While it’s too early to know for sure — we’ll know in a few years, after the novelty wears off if the park attracts enough users to keep it active — I suspect Corner succeeded. One reason — no pun intended — is that the park has a lot of … corners. There always seems to be another angle to turn at and see something new. The park is not a maze, but it is a bit amazing how in a tight space, about six acres, the park presents so many different “habitats” for the human species to enjoy itself and get lost in.

Picnickers in Tongva Park

Picnickers in Tongva Park

I suspect in a metropolis where most parks are either wilderness or dedicated to recreational uses, people will be attracted to and want to use a park that is a living, interactive sculpture.

Thanks for reading.

The group "String Theory" performing Saturday.

The group “String Theory” performing Saturday.

In this case, no need to compromise

I’m still consumed with (and writing about) the idea of turning the Santa Monica Airport into a big park, and this post contains more follow up to the Oct. 3 Airport2Park workshop — first to let readers know that videos of the workshop (in two parts) are available to watch on the Airport2Park website.

Honestly, the raw footage hasn’t been edited yet (and in certain places sound needs to be added from other cameras that were recording the meeting) and you may not want to spend two hours watching the whole event (although I guarantee you will be entertained!), but in the you-owe-it-to-yourself department, be sure to watch Mark Rios’ presentation on how airports and industrial sites all around the world are being turned into parks (which begins at the 20:42 mark of Part 1), and the presentation of the ideas from the breakout sessions (which begins around 11:30 in Part 2).

You will be edified.

In the meantime, we at A2P are tabulating the responses we received not only in the breakout sessions, but also from the many individual surveys that we have received from the public. (It’s also easy to add your ideas for a park to the mix by sending a message to Airport2Park from the website.)

Over the past decade or so, a number of landscape architects have made the case for a movement they call “landscape urbanism” which seeks to understand how cities develop by looking more at terrain and ecosystems than at a city’s buildings. It’s not coincidence that this way of looking at the city has arisen in an era when many cities are dealing with the remains of the industrial revolution in a postindustrial economy. (Perhaps the most famous example of landscape urbanism is the redevelopment of the High Line In New York City.)

Intrinsic to the landscape urbanism movement is the notion that in the urban context landscape is not simply landscape, it is what shapes the city. More specifically, a park is not simply a park. Parks and other open spaces not only serve important functions on their own, but also affect the performance of other urban functions.

There are many debates floating around about the role of landscape and the impact of landscape urbanism on the design of cities, but one thing that was clear from the A2P workshop is that ordinary residents instinctively understand the principles involved. While there were many calls for the restoration of terrain, unprogrammed spaces, and “quiet places,” there were as many calls, typically if not always from the same people, for connections to be made with the surrounding city, for active recreation, arts, and cultural uses, and for restaurants and cafés. People get it.

When asked at the end of the workshop to list five “takeaways” from the meeting, Mark Rios mentioned these — quiet spaces, connections to the city, environmental fixes (swales and the like), the arts, and cafés. But he also raised and responded to an important question that people might have: would trying to accommodate all these different uses lead to a compromise design, a “weird camel,” as Rios put it?

No, he said, a great park can accommodate many uses, programmed and unprogrammed alike, without being a compromise. Think about the great parks you have experienced in your life; a great park design is not compromised because the park accommodates conflicting purposes – doing that is what makes it a great design.

This is an important concept for any kind of urbanism, not only of the landscape variety. We spend a lot of energy trying to prevent things from getting worse. But it is possible to make things better.

Thanks for reading.

A2P Oct 3 Rios

Mark Rios speaking at the Oct. 3 workshop. (Photo courtesy Mike Salazar)