September 28, 2021 - From the September, 2021 issue

South LA’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park Renovation—Lai & Murdoch on Design, Sustainability & Community Enhancement

In April of 2020, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved funding to complete the first phase of renovation of Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park (EMJ Park) in the unincorporated South LA neighborhood of Willowbrook. With the recent completion of Phase 1, TPR spoke with two of the key engineering and design professionals leading the park’s renovation: Gary Lai,Director of Regenerative Design with AHBE/MIG, and Paul Murdoch, president and founder of Paul Murdoch Architects. In this interview, the two discuss their “charge” from LA County and how the improvements would respond to the long-neglected recreation, health, and civic needs of South LA residents.

Gary Lai

“We need to have open spaces that reflect what nature can do and how it can help the environment.” -Gary Lai

“It is very important for us to think about diversity, equity, and environmental justice in everything that we do, including kids from these underserved neighborhoods getting into our profession.” -Gary Lai

What was the charge LA County gave you when they retained you to do this public project in South Los Angeles?

Gary Lai: The original charge was from the L.A. County Community Development Agency. This project is supposed to be a 21st-century park that provides a viable and quality open space for the community. County Public Works then joined and said that Proposition O funding would cover a lot of the amenities, because of their charge to keep heavy metals and bacteria away from Compton Creek. Again, the latter’s involvement created a nice synergy. All of the sudden, we had several different objectives we could solve at the same time and the needed funding to make those things happen.

The first phase of a major renovation of Magic Johnson Park has just been completed. Share, Gary, what the County’s ultimate goals were for this South LA park. And what the design and sustainability challenges were, most especially the water infrastructure fixes, that you took on by being point for this long-awaited public investment in EMJ Park?

Gary Lai: The original lake in EMJ Park was built in the mid-1980s. They dug a hole, installed a liner, and it didn't have a recirculation system. Both the water quality and amount of water being used was astronomical. Millions of gallons were used and evaporated each year.

In looking at the sustainability features, what we also had to realize is that this was an old oil processing plant. We couldn't infiltrate water due to the fear of infiltrating pollution into the groundwater. Fortunately, we had a very talented water engineering firm, PACE Advanced Water Technologies, that looked at what we could do with this lake. The County had also been doing measurements on the water that was going into Compton Creek, so we were able to get actual data to understand how much water we would be getting from the 347 acres of watershed. Everything seemed to come together in terms of getting enough water to make it a recycled water lake. There was also the funding and participation of LA County Public Works because this lake also acts as a check for flooding. It captures the 85th percentile storm and stores the water in the lake. I'm not going to say it was easy, but it seemed to all come together at one time to be able to have a substantial and sustainable water feature in this park. 

Pivoting to you, Paul, speak to the building and public spaces that you designed to complement the water filtration park improvements.

Paul Murdoch: Our charge from LA County was to create a community activity center in the park. There is very little in the way of meeting spaces like this in the community. We saw a civic purpose as well as a park purpose for the building. Similar to how the water system expands beyond the park for the urban watershed, we saw the building as reaching beyond the park to provide educational and social venues for the community.

And the design challenges?

Paul Murdoch: It was always clear to us that the lakes in this park were beautiful amenities. We set about complimenting that in the building by stretching it across the lake edge so that many of the spaces inside would be able to take advantage of the views and access to the lake. We created spaces with Gary between the building and the lake, so there would also be a lot of options for outdoor programming. On one side of the building are three different classrooms for flexible uses that open to outdoor classrooms and a play area. Then, we have an entrance lobby, which can be accessed from both sides of the building. You can just walk right through the building to the lake. It is meant to be this porous building that way. At the other end of the building is the event hall. It can seat 300 to 350 people with table settings and 600 to 700 people for lecture-style events. The event hall can be subdivided into three spaces, all served by a single kitchen. At the other end of the building is a wedding lawn. The building’s space is very accessible for a wedding ceremony or other social events at the park.

Given both the site and scope challenges of EMJ Park, elaborate on the project’s biggest challenge that you encountered?

Gary Lai: I would say funding was always the biggest challenge. We were charged with creating a world-class, 21st-century park, and we started to design what we would consider to be a world-class 21st-century park that was roughly $100-and-some-odd million dollars, which started to get scaled back unpredictably. For example, they would cut the budget in half, and then they would find more money, and that would go back and forth.

The original scheme was that we were going to drain the lake. Once we decided to keep the lake and make it a recycled water lake, that opened up over half the funding for it. Public Works was able to use Proposition O funds, but that was about three years between when we first started and when we decided to keep the lake.

Paul, what were the greatest challenges for the architect (redrafting, redrawing, re-fashioning)?

Paul Murdoch: As Gary said, there was this challenge of budget, which has so much to do with the appropriate vision for the project. It's not just a matter of cutting things if the funds aren't there; it's of re-visioning the project. For example, our initial building was a much more organically shaped building integrated into the park with undulating paths. Once it was clear that was not on the table in terms of budget, we took an approach for a more streamlined, clean, and simple building. 

Address the community engagement strategy that ultimately helped shape the renovation’s first phase.

Gary Lai: We were involved in the master planning process back in 2014, and we did a lot of the community engagement at that point. The number one thing the community needed was an open space to exercise. If you go to the park today, the predominant activity is walking, and we needed to preserve that. This community had not seen any improvement in any of their facilities for so long that they were happy we were coming in to do something. They were really skeptical about whether this project was going to die or not, but from the programming phase on, all of the features that we are talking about were programmed by the community.


Paul, designing the largest public event space in South LA must have had its challenges also?

Paul Murdoch: The mandate was to have a flexible social activity center in this park, and there was talk about how big it should be. At the time, I didn't know it would be the biggest meeting room in South LA. In talking to people, it became clear that there just weren't these sorts of public venues. Somebody said the closest they had was in Carson at CSU Dominguez Hills, which drove home the need to allow this space to be able to be used lots of different ways. Also, that it had this unique setting next to this newly restored lake meant that we really wanted to open it up to the park.

Like most land uses in Southern California, we need to get more out of the land and there's more of an intensification of uses. This park is an interesting example of that in the sense that we're not giving up open space, rather, we're emphasizing how valuable it is. It is still predominantly an open space, but it now has a lot more outdoor options in terms of activities. The complementary relationship of the architecture to the landscape architecture is critical in any one of these parks.

Share with our readers who compose the team you pulled together? Gary, let’s start with you and the sustainable water professionals on the team?

Gary Lai: We have 26 subs on this team. Besides the subs that take care of the buildings, we have subs that are taking care of the landscape and open space. Offhand, CWE was our civil engineer, PACE Advanced Water technology was our water engineer, and KPFF was structural. What was interesting during construction was how complex it was. Normally you’re just building a building or you're just building a park; this was a building in a park that was doing something different in terms of utilities. I want to shout out our project manager, Wendy Chan, who was able to herd all those cats. There were times when I had engineers come up to me and say, “I don't know how you're juggling this.”

Paul Murdoch: I’d also say Horton Lees Brogdon as a lighting designer was a key consultant. The park is used 24/7, so the lighting in the park is very important not just for safety and security, but also in how it features the building next to the lake and highlights the trails.

 One thing Gary hasn't mentioned is the ongoing maintenance of the park. I remember during design, when the idea of this bio habitat and wetlands edge to the lake was being discussed, the big challenge were the unknowns. Not only the technical challenges but how the county would maintain that going forward. This park has been a grass lawn since its inception. It uses a lot of water, and at this point, the maintenance regime is established. The default has to change, and there was a lot of discussion about how that would happen. 

Paul, given the number of challenges in designing EMJ Park, a 21st century public park, how should architectural and landscape schools prepare the next generation of professionals to be innovative and more aggressive re sustainability?

Paul Murdoch: It's a really big question, but I will say first and foremost, that I absolutely encourage every young aspiring architect and landscape designer to travel. I traveled a year after my undergraduate program, all over the world with a backpack and what little money I had. That was 40 years ago, but so many of the lessons that I learned profoundly affected me about how people live and how fragile the planet is. It is essential for young aspiring architects and designers to travel and see these things.

In work that I've done in sustainability, I am always surprised at how little crossover there is among disciplines. I encourage students to try to take other courses besides architecture and landscape design, especially chemistry, biology, science, if not sociology and anthropology. It's very important to be able to broaden their perspective and to see where architecture and design can improve the condition of people and the planet.

Gary, what are you looking for in the people you hire to work on future projects like EMJ Park?

Gary Lai: The design professions, including engineering, have lacked diversity for a long time. The next generation should be a more diverse generation. What this project is doing is bringing nature to this community. A lot of the kids in this community do not get out of South LA. If you want to talk about sustainability, we are really talking about how to ask a diverse community like this one to care about nature if they don't understand it or don't get out of South LA. We need to have open spaces that reflect what nature can do and how it can help the environment. It is very important for us to think about diversity, equity, and environmental justice in everything that we do, including, getting kids from these underserved neighborhoods into our profession.

Lastly, there already is discussion of a Phase 2 for EMJ park. What likely will be included in Phase 2, and how would it build on what has already been done?

Gary Lai: Phase 2 is under discussion. Upgrading the sports facilities is going to be a focus. While there is no confirmation from the County that that's the case, on the master plan there is an aquatic center, basketball courts, and indoor gyms. When or how we are going to be able to get that done is the next phase.

Paul Murdoch: I agree. There is a strong emphasis for sports facilities in the master plan. And from talking to the County, there is a strong need for these, so I would expect that is the next phase of development.


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