Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

The Need for Civic Center Open Space


September 22, 2014

As California enters deeper into drought and global warming, grass lawns and playing fields, with their high watering demand, are becoming the next obvious victim. In Santa Monica’s case, the grass playing fields have already been disappearing for the last 20 years. Because of our relative shortage of playing fields, the grass fields simply could not take the destruction caused by the hundreds of cleats everyday, so schools and parks have slowly shifted over to plastic playing fields. In Santa Monica, the plastic playing field is now the norm and fewer of our children will ever have the experience of playing sports on real grass. Looking years ahead, after grass has disappeared from private lawns and the schools, the last lawns might be found in a few public parks and possibly the cemetery. This is not a bad outcome: public park lawns could be enjoyed by the largest number of users, and the consumed water “burden” spread out over the greatest number of beneficiaries.

Eventually when the City’s landscaping looks like Phoenix, those remaining park lawns will play an outsized role in providing visual relief from the heat the way golf courses do in Phoenix or Las Vegas. Consequently, for maximum relief those park lawns should be placed adjacent to major boulevards so the largest number of commuters can visually enjoy them in addition obviously to the visitors that actually use them. Clover Park, Douglas Park and Virginia Park are already perfectly positioned this way. The urban value of these boulevard adjacent real grass open spaces increases dramatically when you consider they will also be visual relief from the inevitable canyonization of our boulevards from cheek to jowl high rises that may eventually be marching down both sides of our boulevards.

This brings us to south east corner of the Civic Center currently occupied by a huge parking lot. That lot could easily accommodate a real grass area equivalent to two small football or soccer fields (100ydsX 50yds) and still have room along the north edge for a City employees’ preschool and other City facilities (currently spread all over town). The cars currently parked there, could be placed in the underused parking structure at 4th and Olympic or if that was not sufficient placed below grade under the grass field (additional parking of course could be avoided if the nearby light rail is successful in reducing the parking demand). The important thing is that the grass be lowered about 9’ below 4th Street and Pico so drivers and their passengers could enjoy the view of what’s happening in this new “commons” whether it be sporting events, shows, political rallies, car shows marching band practices, Frisbee games or fairs. Because the high school field is currently higher than the adjacent streets, no one passing by can enjoy the great athletics happening every day on that field. By lowering this new field, everyone from adjacent sidewalks, streets and buildings can enjoy the show. It also shows off to the best advantage the elegant lines of the side of the existing landmarked civic center auditorium. Additionally the sloping sides of the lowered lawn could have benched in seats for spectators. The large grass area could be gravity fed water from screened street run off or from recycled water from the High School gym with the overflow dropping into the large regional storm already slicing diagonally under the existing parking lot.

This field would also solve the impacted High School’s space problem of over used field space. Currently football, soccer, lacrosse, marching band, PE and various clubs all juggle desperately for the tiny available field space. This creates constant needless all day (and night) friction between all those worthy programs. This conflict will only increase as the City’s population increases and the high school becomes even more impacted. There have been pie in the sky proposals to bridge the freeway for added high school space, or roof top playing fields, but needless to say those would be budget busting structural feats. Much easier to simply place a pedestrian bridge over 4th Street which could also link Barnum Hall to the existing parking structure for additional cultural utility of that other City entertainment landmark. Finally the necessity of a two soccer field area is because the two fields could be periodically rotated 90 degrees so as to distribute the grass wear patterns evenly during the playing seasons. Finally the seating on the sloping sides of the field could create an amphitheater like condition good for certain types of performances.

The Civic Working Group is currently formulating strategies to try to save the auditorium which has been in suspended animation because of seismic, of changing auditorium requirements and of financial reasons. Probably their feasibility discussions will require some new structures be added and possibly even more subterranean parking. The exact function and location of those new structures is a work in progress, but to preserve open space, one of the target sites should be the large underutilized corner of Pico and Main Streets. Here a large multi story dramatic “tower” could be placed housing some of these new functions. The top of that tower could have a restaurant with an ocean view down Pico and Ocean Avenue. The verticality of the tower would offset nicely the generally horizontal main mass of the civic auditorium.

The Working Group will be under a lot of economic pressure to fill this entire site with profit making buildings. This proposal does not address the economics of how to resurrect the Civic Center auditorium, rather it speaks to the necessity of retaining large urban open spaces in the densest part of our City, particularly since parcels the size of Tongva Park are not likely to ever again appear in the downtown area. According to the 2002 Civic Center Specific Plan, there was to be a high intensity multiple use park (Tongva Park) with the understanding that there would also be real open space at the corner of 4th and Pico. It is now time to deliver on that promise.

Mario Fonda-­‐Bonardi AIA for SMart

Ron Goldman FAIA, Samuel Tolkin, Thane Roberts, Dan Jansenson, Armen Melkonians, Bob Taylor

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