CITY HALL — “Fantastic.” “We’re really lucky to have it.” “There’s nothing bad I can say.”
Rarely does the Planning Commission come out with such universally glowing commentary about any project, but such was the vein of discussion at Wednesday’s meeting during the presentation of the Palisades Garden Walk public park planned for the Civic Center.
The 6-acre park, being built at a cost of $46.1 million in redevelopment funds, is broken down into four main hills, which will be terraformed out of soil from the nearby Village housing development and divided by two main paths that cross diagonally through the park.
Each hill will have a theme. Garden Hill will feature specimen plants with interweaving paths, a grove of mature ficus trees called “The Three Amigos” and the Moreton Bay fig tree, affectionately called “Morty.”
West of Garden Hill lies Gathering Hill, a large lawn and stepped seating area that planners hope will accommodate large social and cultural events.
To the northeast is a child play area in Discovery Hill with universally accessible play features and shaded tree grove with picnic tables and seating. A gateway on the south edge of the hill connects the park to the nearby Village development.
Finally, Grand Hill will offer dramatic views overlooking Ocean Avenue, the Santa Monica Pier and the ocean beyond. It rises 18 feet above the natural grade, making it the highest point in the park.
Three overlook structures, which look like cages of spun metal, will be positioned on two of the highest hills in the design, and one at grade near Garden Hill overlooking Interstate 10 and down Second Street.
Two water features linked by a continuous water runnel will be placed near Main Street and at Ocean Avenue.
The design of the park also incorporates drought-tolerant native plant species to reduce its ecological footprint and large groups of trees scattered throughout for shade and aesthetic.
Commissioners had few complaints about the look and execution of the project, expressing concern only over the safety of the overlook cages, which seemed like prime targets for adventurous children.
“Is there some kind of safety feature?” asked Commissioner Ted Winterer.
Miriam Mulder, City Hall’s architecture services manager, assured him there would be rails, not visible in the artist renderings in the presentation, as well as something to prevent kids from climbing up the sides of the cages.
“The design for the park is fantastic,” said Chair Jim Ries. “I hope it’s built soon enough that my son is still young enough that I can use the slide and not look crazy.”
Town Square design dissed
The Garden Walk might have stolen the show Wednesday if not for the commissioners’ abject disapproval of the proposal for an adjacent parcel, called Town Square, which would re-imagine the space immediately in front of City Hall.
That design is on its fourth iteration with the firm James Corner Field Operations, and, in Chair Pro Tem Gerda Newbold’s words, it’s become “less beautiful over time.”
“It doesn’t seem like a Town Square,” Newbold said. “It’s dead space, cold and harsh.”
At present, the design pares back trees from the front of City Hall in order to frame the entire building. A rectangular water feature would run around the existing rose garden, planted by the Gold Star Mothers in 1951, and benches and planters will go around the outside.
Commissioners worried about a lack of shade and inaccessibility if unbroken planters ring the site.
The design of the benches, placement of commemorative plaques, species and color palette of plant life and a safety rail all have to come back before the Landmarks Commission for approval.
Planning commissioners seemed to lay much of the blame for the lacking design at the feet of the Landmarks Commission, which in January intervened to designate certain features of the City Hall grounds as historically essential to the design.
Although the physical City Hall building, constructed in 1939 by the Public Works Administration, was landmarked in 1979, the landmark status didn’t point out specific features on the grounds around the structure that ought to be preserved.
The Landmarks Commission identified 16 features, including everything from the scoring pattern on the concrete sidewalks to remnants of a retaining wall near the freeway as historically significant.
The commission chose to supplement what was previously designated in the landmark determination by including specific defining features, said Chair Pro Tem Ruth Shari.
That decision came six months after the process had begun and the city had solicited opinions from community members over the course of three open meetings, which had produced the other three designs discussed at the Planning Commission meeting.
“I’m very disappointed that community process has been taken away,” Ries said. “One community meeting had more members present than the Landmark Commission.”
Planning commissioners also took issue with the large expanses of lawn and dearth of trees in the Town Square, calling the design inconsistent with the eco-friendly and sustainable talk put forward by City Hall.
“We need to walk the walk a little bit as a city,” Ries said.
The commissioners couldn’t take formal action, but their comments will be sent on to the City Council, which will hear the matter at its June 14 meeting.