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Where's Our Central Park?

Putting a 'lid' over the 101 Freeway could give L.A. the gathering place it needs.

By Vaughan Davies
June 20, 2008

Great cities have great urban parks. Central Park in New York, Millennium Park in Chicago, Washington's Mall. They are magnets for the key ingredients that make a successful city center: housing and hotels, shops and cafes, museums and concert halls, public festivals and recreation from active sports to leisurely strolling. They provide breathing room amid the civic bustle; they open up the densest cityscapes; they signify the heart of the heart of their hometowns.

Unfortunately, Los Angeles -- a great city by most definitions -- has no important downtown park. Griffith Park meets many needs, but it's not in the center of the city. The Cornfield, north of Chinatown, is also removed from the action (and mostly not off the drawing board). The public space that links downtown's civic center buildings may get a polish as part of the Grand Avenue project, but it's tucked away, hemmed in by government buildings. None of these alone is the great, open-air city gathering place that L.A. needs.

It is time for something bold and visionary.

More than 100 acres of potential downtown urban parkland are hiding in plain sight. The site -- which is passed by tens of thousands of people every day -- is close to all the new transit lines that converge on downtown. Building a park there would not require hundreds of Angelenos to be relocated or dozens of buildings to be demolished. And the money to pay for it is available now from a variety of sources, both public and private.

Where is this potential park? On top of the "Big Trench" -- that unsightly two-thirds of a mile of the 101 Freeway, just east of the 110 interchange between Grand Avenue and Alameda Street -- that brutally slices through the historic heart of Los Angeles. The Big Trench separates some of our most prized and appealing landmarks -- Olvera Street, Chinatown and Union Station on one side; Disney Hall, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and City Hall on the other -- creating isolated pockets of activity rather than what we need: a livable, walkable and unified downtown district.

All we have to do is put a "lid" over the Big Trench and its exit ramps and acquire nearby parking lots and underutilized land next to the freeway, turning an urban eyesore into a 100-acre urban park and knitting the core of downtown together again.

If we build it, the Grand Avenue arts corridor would end at a magnificent park, not a freeway no man's land. Angelenos could walk from Union Station through a park to their jobs at Civic Center or to weekend events on Bunker Hill, not trudge across intimidating bridges above the roar of freeway traffic.

Students at the $200-million performing arts high school, which is nearing completion -- without playing fields -- next to the freeway at Grand Avenue would have outdoor recreation space at their doorstep. Chinatown would gain a great "front door," and the long-proposed Latino Cultural Center could become one of the park's great destinations. Surrounding property values would get a boost.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who frequently speaks about the need for more urban parks, gets a Central Park footsteps from City Hall.

Can it be done? Decking over the Big Trench and constructing a park on the "lid" is a relatively straightforward engineering enterprise. Other cities have built parks on top of freeways. In Manhattan, the 15-acre Carl Schultz Park and Gracie Mansion (the mayor's official residence) have been sitting atop the East River Drive expressway for 50 years. Seattle opened its 5-acre Freeway Park atop Interstate 5 in 1976. A similar scheme is being discussed in Hollywood, also over the 101 Freeway.

Funding for such public projects is always a challenge, but money sources are available. Because the freeway could be streamlined and improved as part of the project, state infrastructure funding, provided by Propositions 1A and 1B, could be tapped. Property owners who would benefit from a new park could contribute to a fund for this open space as part of new development agreements. Fees for environmental "mitigation" programs at the Port of Los Angeles and similar initiatives could be put to use. And finally, the patchwork of funds available to Caltrans and other agencies for landscaping, sidewalks and the like could be marshaled to support a major new park.

The first major step in creating the Big Trench park is happening now. Twenty-five urban design students from across the country are in town for a two-week workshop, a design "charrette" whose aim is to analyze the Big Trench site, identify challenges to covering it and making a park, suggest ways to overcome those challenges and present a design approach. The best of their work will be unveiled at 5 p.m. at the Caltrans building's plaza, across 1st Street from City Hall, on June 27, with the cooperation of Caltrans, the Los Angeles Planning Department, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Southern California Assn. of Governments, City Council members and the mayor's office.

Imagine what today's New York would be like without Central Park. Now envision what downtown L.A. could become if we convert the Big Trench dead zone into our own downtown park reflecting the city's great and boundless aspirations. Better yet, come to the Caltrans headquarters next Friday and see how what you imagine might actually take shape.
 

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L O S A N G E L E S
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Carl Schultz and 'Gracie' Mansion ain't sittin' on top of an active fault system. Still, that might be a somewhat progressive use of fundage, though no one will green it. If it's to contain all the crap that Grand Avenue's civic plaza design will, then I say 'Nay'! :)
 

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L O S A N G E L E S
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..AND Griffith IS centrally located, it's just too expensive to develop properly and hiking nimbies want it left alone and unterraced and 'pristine'... so they can hike through the dried out underbrush with their 'hikin' sticks and watch the ritualistic cleansing of the untamed and inevitable firestorms... as nature intended. Griffith left it to the PEOPLE of the CITY to use for recreation, not a few Euell Gibbons, Grapenut crunchin' trailblazers! :)
 

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Angeleeeeeeeno
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I like this idea. Does anyone have a picture of the hollywood freeway facing east from grand? i'd like to do a rendering to see what it would look like with a park.
 

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we could use it, but it's still way too narrow and small (even compared to grand avenue) to be a "central park" for angelenos. i remind you though i still would like to see this park connecting our civic center with chinatown/union station
 

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Bleed Dodger Blue
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If they're doing this, then I hope that:
1. They'll take some of those parking lots and vacant land from north of the 101 in order to give the park some width.
2. They draw up plans to cap the 110 through downtown (it wouldn't be bad to have it near USC either).
 

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Caleuphoria
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The public space that links downtown's civic center buildings may get a polish as part of the Grand Avenue project, but it's tucked away, hemmed in by government buildings.
I can see where they were going with this... I like the vision of The Grand, but as long as those county buildings are there you can expect that project to not reach it's full potential.

Anyway, this sounds like a good idea. Let's see how it turns out.
 

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LAL | LAD | LAK
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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
If they're doing this, then I hope that:
1. They'll take some of those parking lots and vacant land from north of the 101 in order to give the park some width.
Did you miss this part?

Where's Our Central Park?

...

All we have to do is put a "lid" over the Big Trench and its exit ramps and acquire nearby parking lots and underutilized land next to the freeway, turning an urban eyesore into a 100-acre urban park and knitting the core of downtown together again.

...
 

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Boston as an example

I think this is a very credible idea, very much like burying the freeway that cut through downtown Boston. Having spent a lot of time in that great city, I have seen first hand how "the big dig" connected the Wharf and North End districts with the city core, improving the pedestrian experience and revitalizing blighted areas. Obviously I'm not an expert on engineering here but I think that since the 101 freeway is already below grade as it runs through our DTLA it would be less of an undertaking and not as prone to some of the mistakes made during the big dig, and there were many! I've attached some before and after shots of the Boston Big Dig

The Big Dig Project


Before & After


The Completed Project




 

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Strategist, Thinker, Doer
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I can see where they were going with this... I like the vision of The Grand, but as long as those county buildings are there you can expect that project to not reach it's full potential.

Anyway, this sounds like a good idea. Let's see how it turns out.
I like the vision too, the execution is going to be a nightmare because of the topography between Alameda and Grand.
 

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Chairman of the Bored
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ah now the drug dealers, gang bangers and homeless guys in Echo park and Macarthur park have a new place to do their thing at
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
^ :|

we could use it, but it's still way too narrow and small (even compared to grand avenue) to be a "central park" for angelenos. i remind you though i still would like to see this park connecting our civic center with chinatown/union station
I agree. Despite its rather large acreage, it won't be our Central Park. I view it more as a sort of courtyard entranceway into Downtown and all of Los Angeles, especially with Union Station and Olvera Street being adjacent to it.
 

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We have to stop trying to be New York, so what if we don't get a park that serves exactly as a west coast replica of Central Park? We still get a "band aid"
over an "open sore", and the benefits of hopefully another vibrant and pedestrian friendly area. I would not mind this park not being a replica of Central Park or anything like that, this is LA, we do things our way! We aints no posers.
 

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L O S A N G E L E S
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We can surpass Central Park easily,....well, not easily, but we have our own centrally located park- and we all know it's Griffith.
New York's Central used to be nothing, then proposed for an airstrip, then developed rather successfully as urban parkland.​
Griffith is 5 times the size, though and needs to be terraced into seperate levels that would probably require the Army Corps of Engineers and a multi billion investment!​
The potential is there to surpass anything else in America by far. It just ain't gonna happen.
It would be interesting to see the CBD spread into "City North?" because of this urban bridge downtown. I never even thought that would be so.​
 
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