Taking a critical look at public space in Los Angeles

And This is How it All Started…

I’d like to make this first entry as a somewhat imaginary/fantasy thought process of the heart of Downtown Los Angeles when it comes to public space. I imagine, unfortunately, that when we try to define the heart of Los Angeles in terms of public space we are left with only one choice – Pershing Square. Geographically speaking, Pershing Square accomplishes this with great success – straddling the line between the historic regions and more recent developed areas of DTLA. The actual design and function however, can be argued to be a great failure. I think I’ll wait to attack that on a later entry however. However, just for fun, let’s take a quick look at Pershing Square before heading onto our main topic.

Pershing Square should be, and at one point was, your typical urban square. It has much history and can be argued to be the most important piece of public space in the future of DTLA as well.


Old Pershing Square postcard. Pershing Square circa late 1920s (I think)

Old Pershing Square postcard. Pershing Square circa late 1920s (I think)


Los Angeles however, was founded under the Spanish flag with city planning largely influenced by the Spanish prototypical city layout at that time. The most important public space in this design is the plaza. Yes, DTLA has one. Los Angeles Plaza Historic District – commonly known as La Placita Olvera – was the original heart of the city.

The charm of Spanish Plazas can be seen in minute details and planning here. A large area that is not meant necessarily meant to be a park (kind of what Pershing Square unsuccessfully tries to create), the plaza creates a break from the roads and buildings yet it is integrated in within this same network of roads and buildings, this change in environment is meant to captivate you and then send you back on your way.

This area has some wonderful architecture, places to sit and people watch, places to eat, places to shop, but it lacks in two critical areas. While plazas normally receive the funneled traffic from the streets, holds them, and then distributes them through other streets, La Placita Olvera on the other hand is largely isolated. The plaza is treated and approached as an island – largely reached by car. Secondly, anything and everything that you could possible do in order to make La Placita Olvera as unwalkable as possible has been all ready been done to her. Since plazas are only effective on a pedestrian level, this creates some serious disconnect.

All is not doom and gloom though – let’s hope that the new proposed development on the Union Station property will help link this island to the walking mass (although this is probably years and years away). Additionally, this part of Los Angeles was obviously built as a walkable city. The foundation of the La Placita Olvera clearly shows this. The bare bones of a successful plaza design are here, let’s use our imagination in this fantasy build out.

So let’s see what we’re actually dealing with here. Let’s first start out with a clear physical description:

The Good:

1) Architecture – while not surrounded with world class pieces, the array of buildings is impressive and a vital part of Los Angeles history none the less. Union Station and the Terminal Annex Post Office Building although not considered part of the Plaza are two stellar pieces that are to be highlighted since they are in close proximity and should play a role in integrating the Plaza to its surroundings. In the more immediate area, we have some nicely lined brick buildings and many historic building along Olvera Street.

Union Station

Union Station


Terminal Annex Post Office Building

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Home to some of the oldest buildings in Los Angeles

Home to some of the oldest buildings in Los Angeles


Pico House Built in 1870

2)Closed off to the street – a cobbled stoned plaza and walkway just adds an indescribable level of charm.

Click to enlarge panoramic shot. As you can see, this whole area is very pedestrian friendly.

Click to enlarge panoramic shot. As you can see, this whole area is very pedestrian friendly.


The Gazebo is the centerpiece of the plaza with plenty of seating and some statues depicting key historic figures

As you can see in the above two panoramic shots, this area is pretty ample in area, nicely presented, and offers a relatively relaxing place to sit around and people watch. This is particularly important as a plaza. A plaza should allow people to congregate, interact, and come together in a symbolic fashion through festivals and other events. It creates a cohesion and identity.

3)High level of activation – although mostly known as a tourist trap, the foot traffic seen in this area is high. There will always be vendors selling tourists sombreros and churros, this can’t be stopped and I don’t think it should. But, this area has the capacity and ability to hold some nice patio seating restaurants, theaters, museums and other cultural institutions.


Entrance to Olvera St. from the Plaza. Always packed with people.

Immediate public transportation – sitting across the hub of public transportation in Los Angeles – Union Station – is a definite plus and something that must be used to funnel traffic through La Placita Olvera.

The Obstacles:

It is isolated! Hey, let do a test. Go outside to your nearest urban area. We’ll be using what I call the “4 corner test.” In a normal grid layout in a city, each intersection will have four corners. Makes sense so far? Now look at every corner and rate it on a) aesthetics, b) how it interacts with pedestrians, c) and how good of a job that corner does to connect it to the rest of the street/sidewalk. Of course, things that are absolutely deadly to a corner would be parking lots, large fortress like walls, or any structure that would deter people from walking along the sidewalk. Well, how are your 4 corners doing? The city of Los Angeles has made sure that everything that can be done in order to make it isolated as possible has been done. Take a look at these 4 pictures representing a view from the northern section of the plaza:

We can see two corners here - In the foreground is a parking lot, the opposite corner is a gas station

We can see two corners here – In the foreground is a parking lot, the opposite corner is a gas station. Entrance to Olvera Street is on the other side of that yellow building near the large tree

Here are the other two corners. The right hand side is home to an uninspired apartment building with no consideration to the pedestrian. The left hand corner is a parking lot

Here are the other two corners. The right hand side is home to an uninspired apartment building with no consideration to the pedestrian. The left hand corner is a parking lot


The picture above (click to enlarge) is the backside of the plaza as seen from Spring St. As you can it is very uninviting. Only one opening. The rest of the streetscape is guarded by black iron fence surrounding a parking lot that serves as a buffer between you and the Plaza. In fact, with the fence and the parking lot, you can’t visibly locate the Plaza.

The Fantasy Solution:

So let’s look at this map.

1) Main St. and N. Los Angeles St. need to be closed off to cars.

2) The green shaded spaces should be turned into green spaces. Ideally they would be activated with something like an outdoor theater or something I’ve always wanted in Los Angeles – a train museum!

3) The red arrows represent areas that need to be opened up and easy to access entrances/exits into and out of the Plaza.

4) Finally, the Plaza needs to have better connectivity to Union Station and to the retail found in neighboring Chinatown across E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave. This includes building a mixed use building where the current Chevron Gas station is.

Well that is it. Let me know what you think.


5) p.s. – Oh yeah the yellow outline – perhaps with these changes, this area can support a higher end hotel? The area across the 101 is filled with civic buildings, so the whole area is dead on the weekends and after 5pm. We need something to liven it up well into the night.


3 comments on “And This is How it All Started…

  1. Mónica María Peña
    June 27, 2013

    Excelente post Oscar! Es más que oportuno reflexionar acerca de la importancia de nuestros espacios públicos y sobretodo las relaciones que se dan en ellos: con el entorno, las personas, la historia, el desarrollo, entre otras. Invita a pensar y actuar frente a la necesidad de recuperar las áreas verdes y comunes que permiten contar con lugares de descanso, ejercicio e incluso para el desarrollo de actividades culturales.

  2. Reed
    February 21, 2017

    Isn’t the primary reason for the Placita’s state the encroachment of Union Station on the land, compounded by moving the Original Chinatown north and east, plus the accommodations made for the MTA Yellow Line? I agree, it’s a mess, but it is a mess that is nearly 80 years old.

    • oscarnmihernandez
      February 22, 2017

      It definitely is an old mess. Additionally, the issues that a car culture brings to this area just creates apathy. I see a lot of people drive to this area – park in those large hideous parking lots, walk to the plaza and then back to their cars. I should revisit this with the new development occurring across the street. Also, with the addition of the new Italian American museum and the Tropical mural restoration – this area is picking up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: