September 30, 1996 - From the September, 1996 issue

Los Angeles’ Civic Center Revival: Is It A Diamond in the Making?

By Dan Rosenfeld, City of Los Angeles Assets Manager and Doug Suisman, Principal of Public Works Design


Dan Rosenfeld: “The Diamond divides naturally into four ‘quarters’, each related to the historic topography of the area: the Old Pueblo Quarter, the Hillside Quarter, the New Town Quarter, and the Riverbed Quarter.”

In 1924, an "all-star" team of local planners and designers, working as "The Allied Architects Association of Los Angeles," created a visionary City Beautiful master plan for the Los Angeles Civic Center. As with the numerous subsequent planning efforts for the Civic Center, most recently in 1967, the Allied Architects' vision was only partially achieved. 

Early this year, the intergovernmental Civic Center Authority, under the leadership of City Council member Rita Walters and County Supervisor Gloria Molina, commissioned a group of "New Allied Architects:" Melendrez Associates; Johnson, Fain Pereira Associates; Public Works Design; RAW Architecture and Landmark Panners; to prepare the first new Civic Center Master Plan in almost thirty years. 

In keeping with contemporary politics, the planners were instructed to focus on shared facilities which would reduce the size and cost of government. But, in keeping with contemporary planning theory, the team was also tasked to humanize and "activate" a district that, by all accounts, suffers from an overdose of misplaced post-war monumentalism. 

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The Civic Center Shared Facilities and Enhancement Plan, as the product will be called, should be released to the Civic Center Authority in October. The following "key findings" will form the foundation of the final Civic Center Master Plan.

  • Government buildings were initially part of the urban fabric. In the Spanish and Mexican era, the house of the alcalde, or mayor, was situated directly on the plaza, with its shops and market. The first City Hall under American rule was built in 1888 right on Broadway, tucked in tightly with commercial buildings and storefronts.
  • In 1919, under the influence of the Progressive movement in politics and the City Beautiful movement in urban planning, city leaders agreed that Los Angeles required a new civic center. Significantly, the center was intended to combine both government and cultural functions.
  • The earliest plans by Cook and Hall (1923) for the Civic Center were aligned along a north-south axis, centered on Spring Street. This reinforced Downtown's long and narrow commercial spine (now known as the Historic Core) which developed because of topographic barriers: the river bed on the east, and the steep hills to the west. The new City Hall of 1928 was sited and designed with this north-south axis in mind.
  • Emboldened by the grand schemes of the City Beautiful movement, the Allied Architects Association plan (1924) was a far more elaborate and ambitious composition. It combined a series of major and minor axes running in both the north-south and east-west directions, with neither dominating. The latter, clambering up thedifficult clay hills, created acropolis settings for Major public buildings and spaces. 
  • A controversy ensued between the two plans. In 1927, the city adopted a lackluster compromise, with a weak north-south axis, and no east-west axis at all. The dream of grandly climbing the hill was lost. Significantly, the title of the plan had changed from a Civic Center to "An Administrative Center", the earlier goal of mixing in cultural facilities having disappeared in the intervening years.
  • In the 1950's, the construction of the Hollywood/Santa Ana Freeway dramatically altered the topography. Itseast-west axis imposed a major environmental barrier between the old pueblo to the north and the heart of commercial downtown to the south. In response, Civic Center and Music Center planners in the 1960's and 70's abandoned the longstanding north-south link to the old pueblo, and instead gave primacy to an east-west open green space to be called the Civic Center Mall. No doubt influenced by the much grander and much flatter Mall in Washington D.C., the Civic Center Mall required major regrading in order to climb the hill and connect its two terminating structures, the Department of Water and Power on the west and City Hall on the east.
  • Most of the Civic Center planning in this period was dominated by concerns related to the automobile, including freeway access, wide surface streets, and ample parking. Design solutions related to district-wide pedestrian activity and mass transit were generally not proposed or implemented. Those that were tended to employ the technique of separating pedestrians from the street, as in the City Hall East / Los Angeles Mall complex.
  • New government buildings in late 1970s and early 1980s shifted the Civic Center's geographic center eastward. City Hall, instead of marking one end of the east-west axis, now stood at the approximate center of all government buildings. The linkages between these buildings, like those of the 1924 Allied Architects Association plan, began once again to run in both directions: north/south from Union Station to the Reagan Building, and east/west from the DWP to the museums on Central Avenue.
  • New environmental and transit initiatives in the 1980s and 1990s, notably the construction of the subway, have given new importance to the pedestrian environment. The geographic and symbolic centrality of City Hall suggests defining the Civic Center district boundaries based on a ten-minute walk from the Rotunda of City Hall. Along a radial street pattern, such ten minute walks would create a circle; along Downtown's grid street pattern, the walks create a diamond. The "Ten-Minute Diamond" therefore becomes the designation of the Civic Center district, its center, and its boundaries.
  • Activating the pedestrian environment, not only during business hours but nights and weekends as well, requires a mix of uses beyond government or administrative functions. The Ten-Minute Diamond "captures" important cultural facilities such as the Music Center, MOCA, Olvera Street, The Children’s Museum, The Japanese American National Museum, the Bradbury Building, and the Grand Central Market. In addition, design guidelines should encourage ground floor retail and other uses which encourage walking while adding hours and amenity to the pedestrian environment.
  • The Diamond divides naturally into four "quarters", each related to the historic topography of the area: the Old Pueblo Quarter, the Hillside Quarter, the New Town Quarter, and the Riverbed Quarter. The Plan will propose land uses, extend pedestrian linkages, and prescribe street-level improvements such as landscaping, paving, illumination and furniture appropriate to each of the Quarters. 

Rooted in the city's 220 year civic history, the new Civic Center plan will balance governmental buildings with cultural facilities, vibrant commercial streets with dignified open spaces, and vehicular movement with an enhanced pedestrian experience. It will reconfirm the symbolic and geographic centrality of City Hall, strengthen the identity of the Civic Center district as a whole and of each of its Quarters, and evoke the topographic and historic features which gave birth, and rebirth, to the metropolis. 

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