Third Street Promenade performer Jake Ballentine walks by the empty lot across from City Hall on Thursday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — The City Council on Tuesday voted to accept the recommendation made by a panel of design experts to hire landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations to design the Palisades Garden Walk & Town Square — a planned park City Hall officials say will be the centerpiece of a revitalized Civic Center.

By a 4-2 vote, the council authorized City Manager Rod Gould to negotiate a contract with the New York-based design firm that could cost City Hall as much as $3.2 million. Gould said he plans to finalize the contract within the next several weeks. The park is planned for a seven-acre area in the Civic Center between City Hall and Ocean Avenue.

Council members Bob Holbrook and Bobby Shriver opposed the contract decision, citing concerns that elected leaders and other members of the community hadn’t been involved in winnowing down a field of 24 applicants.

“It’s our process that troubled me,” Holbrook said.

Before making a decision, he said the council should have been able to review examples of work by other finalists for the job. A subcommittee of council members should play a larger role in reviewing applicants for significant design contracts, he said.

“We’re the client. The client ought to be involved in some way in the process so they have a comfortable feeling that the person being awarded a $3.2 million contract is absolutely the right person,” Holbrook said.

City Hall staff defended the process used to select James Corner, saying it was fair and followed well-established guidelines for awarding contracts.

Applications to design the park were reviewed by City Hall staff members and by a panel comprising Qingyun Ma, dean of the USC School of Architecture; Ken Smith, the designer of the Orange County Great Park; and Marc Fisher, vice chancellor and campus architect at UC Santa Barbara.

The panel interviewed a field of six finalists that also included the firms Gehry Partners, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, Peter Walker Partners, Studioworks/Turenscape and Shigeru Ban before selecting James Corner.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said the process is in part designed to shelter elected leaders from the perception that contracts are being handed out for political reasons.

Councilman Kevin McKeown, who supported awarding the contract to James Corner, said members of the public will have numerous opportunities to shape the park’s design by participating in meetings the firm will hold as it develops a concept for the space. The council, the Architectural Review Board and the Planning Commission also will weigh in on the design before construction can begin.

“These are not meant to be political decisions, they are meant to be professional decisions,” McKeown said of the process used to select James Corner. “The community benefits from having a peer-reviewed choice based on excellence, not politics.”

Holbrook, though, said having a panel of designers and City Hall staff members make the choice doesn’t take politics out of the selection process, but simply means non-elected, less accountable people are making the decision.

“How do I know the process is protected? I don’t know if the people who applied for this politicked the people on the jury,” he said.

Gould said City Hall’s selection process was praised by landscape architects, including some of the firms that applied for the job but were not selected. The perception in the architecture world was that the selection method was fair and open, Gould said, and that helped attract a strong field of designers.

“If we had come up with a process that said, ‘This was going to be a community-based selection,’ I don’t think we would have gotten participation from as wide a range of landscape architecture firms,” he said.

James Corner was the recommended firm in part because of its strong track record of incorporating community input into designs, he said.

The Garden Walk is part of a multiphase plan for the Civic Center that includes capping a portion of the I-10 Freeway, constructing a light rail station at Fourth Street and Colorado Avenue and renovating Santa Monica High School.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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