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Los Angeles Puts a New Park at Its Heart

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LOS ANGELES >> Grand Park, one of the largest new parcels of open space in this sprawling city, is the focus of all sorts of grand visions. Designed for a major concert, a farmers’ market or a participatory dance recital, it opened recently with much fanfare, meant to attract office workers, suburbanites from across the region, tourists and the urban dwellers who call downtown home.

Sandwiched between City Hall and Disney Hall, the park is the latest attempt to revitalize a neighborhood where sidewalks once rolled up by nightfall but now bustles with a new restaurant or bar opening seemingly every week.

Depending on whom you ask, it elicits comparisons to New York’s Central Park or San Francisco’s Union Square — and a couple of the most enthusiastic supporters even liken it to the Champs-Elysees.

‘’Everyone has some characterization of it to compare it to the city they know, but we’re not trying to mimic anyone,” said Gloria Molina, the Los Angeles County supervisor who led the effort to build the park. “We’re just very proud that we now have pedestrian walkways and green space in the heart of this neighborhood, and we’re busy trying to make it our own.”

Even as the heat neared the triple digits downtown last week, there were signs of life that might never have been seen in this stretch of land.

There was 3-year-old Carri-Anne Park, splashing in the water jets near a fountain that a few months ago was almost hidden from public view. The girl’s bright pink bikini top matched the picnic table and chairs scattered through the area. (The nearly fluorescent pink lawn furniture, one of the park’s most distinctive features, is the sort of thing you might find only in Los Angeles.)

‘’You can’t compare it to anything that we have anywhere else,” said Lina Park, who brought her daughter with a group of friends from her church in Koreatown. “It’s clean, safe and big — that’s the kind of place people are going to want to come to.”

For years, officials have been trying to persuade more families to move to downtown, arguing that parents can live and work in the same neighborhood or simply have the more urban experience that they might be accustomed to on the East Coast.

So parents are encouraged to bring their children in swimsuits. By virtue of the mostly sunny weather here, the park will also feature programs year-round — “we’re not just talking summer concerts,” said Thor Steingraber, the vice president of programming at the Music Center, which will operate the county-owned park for the next year.

‘’We’re going to make jury duty fun again,” Steingraber said, referring to the park’s location near the county courthouse.

‘’But we’re also catering to people coming from all over the county on the weekend and families who live here coming during the week after work,” he added. “The village square experience has really been replaced by the virtual square experience, and we want to bring that village square back.”

For now, it is too early to tell whether the park will fill that role. On a recent afternoon, a Starbucks in the middle of the park seemed to be a bigger draw than the rows of palm trees and picnic tables that surround it. Molina, the county supervisor, said officials considered removing the coffee shop but were met with protests from workers in nearby buildings.

The idea for the park came up nearly eight years ago, when a real estate developer made a bid to create a large building filled with retail outlets and penthouse lofts. The county, which owned the property, agreed to the permits only if it received $50 million up front to create a new park.

There were multiple delays, and the real estate development has been stymied by a weak economy. If the developer does not begin construction by February, the land will revert to the county.

For some, that would not be a bad thing.

Activists have argued for years that the redevelopment of downtown has come at the expense of the most needy, particularly the homeless population in the eastern section of downtown known as Skid Row. This summer, Occupy Los Angeles protesters have shown up regularly at downtown events to argue that the gentrifying neighborhood is pushing out those who are desperate for affordable housing.

‘’We’ve seen some victories over the years with increased access to green space and hiring local employees, but unfortunately we’ve had many more defeats,” said Becky Dennison, the co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which has worked on the downtown issue for the last decade. “Unfortunately, what we really have now is a demarcation line about what policing strategies are, where businesses go and who is welcome and who is not.”

Peggy Richie, 81, and Katherine Nelson, 84, have lived in the city their entire lives and have seen the downtown morph from a place people want to be to a place people avoid. And in recent years, they have seen it morph back again.

‘’It used to be that people were afraid to come down here, and that didn’t do nobody any good,” Richie said as she walked through the park on the way from buying opera tickets at the Music Center to a late lunch at Philippe, the downtown fixture famous for its French dip sandwiches. “You have something like this, and it restores people’s excitement a little bit.”

Nelson then recalled, a little wistfully, the times when the pair would stop at a thrift shop downtown looking for bargains. It was sold a few years ago. In its place, or just nearby, is a pet boutique.

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