By Caroline Chamberlain 

Designers, architects, politicians, artists, local business owners and other creative leaders descended on the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens on November 7 for the Making LA conference, an engaging day centered around a series of discussions about some of L.A.’s challenges. Organized by de LaB, a non-profit that regularly hosts smaller events of a similar nature, the day offered a fairly comprehensive and adamantly local take on how the city can creatively address many of its problems that have festered over generations.

Following a lunch catered by Heirloom LA of scrumptious and light sandwiches and salads, attendants gathered in the cheerily decorated conference room to discuss Community in Los Angeles in the context of Pershing Square, mobile communities and Skid Row.

Pershing Square is viewed by many in L.A. concerned with civic design and public space to be the apotheosis of L.A.’s shortsightedness. The five-acre park’s current iteration was erected in 1992 by Mexican landscape architect Ricardo Legorreta who won a design competition the previous year. Its current design has been criticized for shielding the park from its surroundings (including the Biltmore Hotel) with its concrete edifices and its nauseatingly bright colors.

But many perceive the main culprit of the park’s failure as a public space as originating in 1952, when, at the height of automobile enthusiasm in Los Angeles, the city installed a three-story parking garage below the park’s surface which elevated the park above street level.

Leading the discussion around Pershing Square at Making LA was urban designer Brian Glodney of international design firm Gensler and Sara Hernandez of city councilman Jose Huizar’s office who are both leaders in a private-public partnership known as Pershing Square Renew, a group that is working to make Pershing Square a thriving public space that reflects the changes occurring in downtown.

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Photo by Monica Nouwens

Glodney began the discussion about the future of Pershing Square from a Gensler’s broader view of the firm’s project of studying and improving on existing public open spaces around the world. After outlining the broad conclusions that Gensler has drawn about the role of public space as a whole, Glodney gave a brief overview of Pershing Square’s history and how the park has shapeshifted over the years to reflect changing demands. And today’s demand of Pershing Square, as Gensler sees it, is for a thriving, open public space to serve downtown’s surging population.

But what is the city’s role in redesigning Pershing Square? And why did they suddenly take interest? “Gensler’s work really shone a light on the need,” Hernandez said. “Downtown Los Angeles is one of the most park-poor urban centers in the country.” And after emphasizing the enthusiasm she and councilman Huizar have for Gensler’s work on Pershing Square, she emphasized the challenges Huizar’s offices will face in implementing a future design. They face budget constraints and harsh political realities, including the fact that the parking structure will have to stay, because all of the revenue from the parking structure goes to the Department of Rec and Parks.

But despite the many iterations that Pershing Square has undergone, Hernandez emphasized that she is optimistic, because what’s new is that Pershing Square Renew is a public-private partnership that is involved in extensive public outreach and will hold a design competition to decide what comes next.

The conversation then shifted to mobile communities in LA. Jeremy Levine of Side Street Projects, David Russell of Mobile Mural Lab, and Tara Maxey of Heirloom LA outlined the joys and surprising road bumps they met in instituting their respective mobile communities in a panel moderated by Bettina Korek of For Your Art. Much of the focus was on navigating issues like getting insurance and engaging children creatively.

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Photo by Monica Nouwens

Then the panel shifted once more to the topic of Skid Row, which immediately became an emotional and raucous discussion moderated by Gale Holland of the Los Angeles Times. The panelists included the formerly homeless SRHT resident Lawrence Horn, Becky Dennison of LA Community Action Network and Mike Alvidrez of the Skid Row Housing Trust, and the emotional tone of the panel began with Lawrence’s Horn introductory comments on how he ended up on Skid Row, how he brought himself back up and why he still maintains an intense connection with the space today. During Becky Dennison’s introduction, she expressed anger about how the previous Pershing Square discussion was framed in its exclusion of the homeless and said that Los Angeles as a whole has been guilty of divesting in the public realm over the course of decades. Dennison contended that there needs to be sustained funding at the federal level over a long period of time in order to seriously combat homelessness in Los Angeles.

For those who care merely about cost in terms of mitigating homelessness, Alvidrez pointed it’s actually much more cost-effective to simply provide housing for the homeless instead of leaving them on the streets. A chronic homeless population is oftentimes coupled with extensive use of police, emergency room visits and costly street cleanup.

As the conversation proceeded, Holland asked the panelists about whether they thought it would be a good idea to disperse Skid Row’s homeless population throughout the community as opposed to having entire buildings dedicated to housing the homeless exclusively. This suggestion inflamed Dennison who asked in response: “there’s a huge concentration of wealthy people in downtown LA now, is anybody talking about dispersing them?”

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Photo by Monica Nouwens

Overall, the Skid Row panel highlighted that Los Angeles has long struggled to properly help its large homeless population, and this continues today. There are many feasible solutions available in terms of cost, but it would require a shift in public opinion.

The topic of “community” in Los Angeles could have consumed the entire day. While Making LA provided three great themes to explore the concept of community in Los Angeles, it would have been useful to explore how Angelenos will forge communities as they retire. Are segregated retirement communities the future? Will retirees be able to age in their own homes? Will design shift to accommodate the coming wave of aging baby boomers? These are questions that will be of crucial importance in coming decades for not only Angelenos, but residents of any city.

Making LA is working to transform Los Angeles by bringing together designers, architects, artists, and city leaders are making a difference in their neighborhoods across four critical areas. Read more recaps from the November 7 conference on the themes of TransportationWater, and Density.

Caroline Chamberlain is the Digital Producer of DnA: Design and Architecture and Good Food, two excellent shows produced by the Santa Monica-based public radio station KCRW.

Photos by Monica Nouwens and Tara Wujcik