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Who Will Redesign Pershing Square?

WESTWATER DOWNTOWN--Nearly three years after Councilman Jose Huizar announced his plan to re-imagine Pershing Square, the project’s leadership met to discuss the proposals, review all the public’s comments – and decide who will re-design the new Pershing Square; a decision which will be publicly announced on May 12. And, so, here is one brief story and two questions which they may wish to consider in their deliberations.

The brief story is how one of the teams arrived in DTLA via the world famous New York City High Line. Two community activists, Josh & Robert (as they refer to themselves in their book on the project) decided to save the High Line and soon unexpected found themselves running a non-profit and then, after Bloomberg was elected Mayor and the money started to come, they began to interview the perfect team to hire to realize their vision.

And among them was James Corner (proposal above photo) with his new firm and they were soon to discovered Corner had a unique way of seeing how all the parts of the project could both fit together and work together and they began to wonder if he might be the one to execute a design that would get the project built. And the projected starting heating up and soon even Zaha Zadid – right after she won the Pritzker Architecture Prize – entered the competition to design the High Line

But everyone they were to meet – including Zadid - convinced them more and more that Corner and his team had what it would take to make this project work. Their problem was - they were uncertain how city would react to someone who wasn’t a big name.   So, Josh wrote in their book – he went to ask the director of Planning for Manhattan - what they should do. And his answer was to ask Josh one question. “Do you want something that you know will be good, or do you want to take a risk for something great?” And as Josh writes, “When he put it that way, it was an easy question to answer.

That left just one more hurdle. The Mayor’s office. And here is Robert’s description of what happened at the big meeting. “It took says a lot about the Bloomberg administration that they were willing to take a risk and pick a team that would bring us such innovative and untested design to a public space in New York.”

And that’s how two neighborhood activists and James Corner and his team turned a decaying rail line that was scheduled to be torn down into one of the biggest tourist attractions in New York with over 7 billion dollars with of new construction surrounding it.

And now for our two really big questions which the Perishing Square decision should be asking themselves ask themselves, if they haven’t already; a question that has not been publicly asked – or debated.

With none of the construction money yet raised – and with no one knowing when current boom times will end (other than every day, we are a day closer to that day) – which of the four teams will be more likely to help the committee generate donations to help build the park – and which team would best be able to help solicit donations themselves for the project -even if the economy slows down?

And ever since the first Phase of the High Line – they have had one of the best track records in helping getting projects funded.

And, the second question is – which team has the best track record over the years in bringing in their projects – both on time – and on budget? Two statistics any major donor is going to research.

And, again, starting with all three phases of the High Line, the projects designed and built by - have consistently been on time and on budget – with one major exception; the project in Santa Monica came in under budget.

Now these two factors cannot - and should not – be a major factor in selecting the winner in a competition such as this.   But if two projects are very close in every other way and it becomes hard to choose between them, these are two questions which will need to be asked.

(Brady Westwater is a writer and a longtime contributor to CityWatch. He is president of Westwater Films and Media.)

-cw