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Building a Consensus, Then a Civic Park
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Aerial view rendering of the park which occupies a high-profile site between Santa Monica City Hall and the Santa Monica pier
The park occupies a high-profile site between Santa Monica City Hall and the historical Santa Monica pier. © James Corner Field Operations

A new park nearing completion in Santa Monica will provide a connection between the famous pier and nearby City Hall.

April 30, 2013—Contractors are putting the finishing touches on a high-profile, 7-acre park in the heart of Santa Monica, California, that links City Hall and the Civic Auditorium to the venerable Santa Monica Pier. The park features undulating topography inspired by desert arroyos, and its two dramatic overlook platforms offer views of the Pacific Ocean.

The $25-million park project was designed by the landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), of New York City, and the engineering was the work of Buro Happold’s Los Angeles office. The two firms previously collaborated to design the High Line Park on former elevated railroad tracks in New York City. (See “New York’s ‘High Line’ Railroad to Become an Elevated Park,” Civil Engineering, July 2006.)

The team was selected in 2010 after a design competition that included a number of notable design architects and landscape architects. In the request for qualifications, the city wrote, “Projects like this do not come along every day.”

The site is divided into the 6-acre Palisades Garden Walk and the 1-acre Town Square. The larger segment is designed for those wishing to picnic, stroll, jog, or simply view the ocean, while the Town Square, located directly in front of City Hall and connected to the Palisades Garden Walk by a crossing above Main Street, will provide space for community gatherings and civic events. Improvements to the surrounding streets also are being made to give pedestrians and bicyclists access to the site and to help reconnect portions of the city traversed by Interstate 10, the site’s northern boundary. 

Aerial view rendering of the project which includes a 1 acre site for public gatherings on the grounds of City Hall

The project includes a 1 acre site for public gatherings on the
grounds of City Hall. © James Corner Field Operations

“The ambition of the city was they wanted a great urban space,” says Greg Otto, A.M.ASCE, a principal in Buro Happold’s Los Angeles office. “They didn’t really have clarity about exactly what that meant. They certainly wanted it to satisfy the constituents.”

The project began with a series of public workshops, surveys, and a website to gather public input. During the process, the team obtained information about what citizens wanted at the site, developed several concepts, and winnowed those concepts down to one.

“Santa Monica is an interesting place,” Otto notes. “People are very active. [We obtained] a good cross section of the community, unlike a lot of places where you tend to get one more vocal component. I think that’s a good thing.”

Such amenities as children’s play areas and overlook structures for viewing the ocean were part of the public discussion. “The park is just not big enough for a Central Park scenario, where you can do every possible form of entertainment that you can expect out of a park,” Otto explains. “You had to make decisions about it. And so you had to build consensus.

“Interestingly enough, that’s how James [Corner, RLA, the principal of JCFO] pitched it,” Otto recalls. “He didn’t come in with a concept. He pitched it as a process. I thought that was genius.”

Aerial view rendering of the playgrounds and observation points

The community participated in decisions about such amenities as
playgrounds and observation points. © James Corner Field
Operations

The site, once occupied by the RAND Corporation, was being used by the city when the project began for storing park items, including unplanted trees. Soil, concrete, and debris had to be removed before construction could begin, and the foundations of a large industrial building that once stood on the site had to be removed to eliminate the possibility of differential settlement within the park. Fuscoe Engineering, Inc., of Irvine, California, provided the civil engineering on the project. Its team moved 16,000 cu yd of soil to create the topography.

The park is surrounded by an extensive retaining wall that varies in thickness from 6 to 12 in. and ranges in height from a mere 2 ft at the ends of the park to 15 ft along the center. The wall is made of shotcrete with an aggregate finish to impart a natural appearance.

The pronounced elevation changes in the park afford dramatic views of the pier and ocean from two observations decks—key elements of the facility. Field trips to the site enabled the designers to determine the best locations for the decks.

The steel shell observation decks are evocative of seashells and waves. One is approximately 24 ft long and 12 ft high, and the other is roughly 17 ft long and 12 ft high. Steel ribs 5 ½ in. wide and 1 in. thick are placed 2 ft apart and cantilevered from the retaining wall, and concrete veneer panels cover the structural elements that couldn’t be embedded in the wall. Horizontal plates provide lateral support.

“It looks like all the steel is going into the wall, but actually a lot of structure is happening in back of the veneer,” says Michelle Lam, P.E., LEED AP, a senior engineer at Buro Happold.

Rendering of retaining wall to create an undulating landscape with high points for obervation decks

The team built a retaining wall as tall as 15 ft to create an
undulating landscape with pronounced high points for observation
decks. © James Corner Field Operations

The project originally called for a third observation deck, which was to have been near “Morty,” a large Moreton Bay fig tree. To minimize the effect on the tree, that deck was to be founded on micropiles. But the added expense of creating those foundations proved too much, and the third overlook was eliminated.

As the engineers worked out how to anchor the decks into the walls, the architects focused on the shapes of the structures. The architects would send three-dimensional computer-aided design drawings to the engineers, who would input them into their structural analysis program to perfect the structural design. “We would tell them, ‘Maybe this area can have a little more curvature,’” Lam says. “And we went back and forth to develop the optimal shape.” Buro Happold then sent digital fabrication models to the fabricator, which used them to precisely cut the steel for the structures by laser.

Another engineering challenge was the public restroom structure, an arch-shaped building that was to have a minimal profile, Lam says. The Los Angeles–based architecture firm Frederick Fisher and Partners designed this structure, a concrete shell that was to give the impression of emerging from the topography. The shell is covered with 18 in. of soil that is planted with grass. Styrofoam was used in some locations to ensure that the grade atop the structures would be level. Lam says the computer-aided design drawings for the restroom went through “a lot of rounds” with the architects to produce a truly minimal appearance.

Rendering of restroom, which was designed to appear as if it emerges from the hillside

The restroom was designed to appear as if emerges from the
hillside. The structure is domed and covered with soil and plantings.
© James Corner Field Operations

Storm-water runoff throughout the park infiltrates into the ground via dry-well systems, Lam says. The overflow from the dry wells is connected to the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility, which can treat as much as 500,000 gpd, or about 4 percent of the water used by the city each day.

W.E. O’Neil Construction, of Los Angeles, is putting the finishing touches on the park, which is slated to be complete in approximately 10 weeks, although the official opening won’t be until October. Otto believes the consensus process used to shape the park could serve as a case study for future projects on the West Coast.

“To get consensus to get something going forward is certainly a challenge,” Otto says. “But when you do, you can achieve great things.”

“I was at the site yesterday,” Lam adds. “It was awesome overseeing the ocean at sunset.”


 

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