In 2007, the city of West Hollywood began to prepare plans for the renovation and redesign of Plummer Park, one of the final steps in a design process that started in the mid-1990s. Last year these plans became a point of major conflict between the city and a group of residents. With complaints focusing on the planned removal of buildings and trees, new additions to the park that are out of context and a design process that they see as having had a minimum of community input.
The contentious design for Plummer Park, prepared by the architecture firm Brooks + Scarpa and landscape architects OLIN, is part of the series of projects intended to celebrate the city of West Hollywood’s 25th anniversary—these also include the West Hollywood Library and City Hall parking structure. Plummer Park, funded through bonds that are now in limbo after the recent dissolution of redevelopment agencies throughout California, is currently stalled (as well as tabled by the city council) until the state can figure out how it will handle projects for which bonds have already been issued and ground ready to be broken.
Despite the current standstill, the project will inevitably pick back up. For this reason, a serious look at the realities of the current state of the park and its new design is in order.
The current animosity is a result of two drastically different conceptions of what Plummer Park is. For city hall, Plummer Park is a city resource, the largest park in West Hollywood and a public space for the entire city to utilize. In contrast, some park neighbors see it as a personal backyard, an everyday meeting spot and a place specifically for the population on the East side of the city.
These two views must find a medium, because both are, to some extent, true.
Today, Plummer Park is shaded by numerous trees, populated by a variety of buildings and is filled, most importantly, with people—lots of them. The park provides diverse uses for a diverse cross section of West Hollywood residents. It is loved and integral to the surrounding community, but also has its share of problems.
Security is a serious issue, and park users have called for safety improvements. Transients lounge in blind spots near the preschool, giving parents a reason to be concerned, and in the evening dark corners between buildings and unclear pathways remain poorly lit. A shooting in July also raised questions of park security.
The beautiful trees of Plummer Park provide excellent shade, but some are unhealthy, according to an arborist’s study that preceded the design work. The community center aside, the park’s buildings are old and not in particularly good condition. The preschool is housed in a temporary building made permanent, the performance space at Fiesta Hall is woefully inadequate and Great Hall/Long Hall have been subjected to numerous ad-hoc additions and changes over the years. Little of the modest beauty they had remains amongst a tangle of wires, ducts, window bars and poorly constructed add-ons.
In short, Plummer Park is charming, but is in need of repair and upgrades on nearly all fronts if it is to retain its charm, beauty and utility for generations to come.
Enter the design for the new Plummer Park, which consists of a number of large components, some fantastic solutions to real problems and others in need of a second look.
Without a doubt, the underground parking structure has drawn the most pushback.
Some area residents are concerned over removal of the large trees and Great Hall/Long Hall, while other question whether additional parking is even necessary.
It comes down to the highly divergent views of the park. In the city’s opinion, an improved Fiesta Hall needs additional parking. Some residents don’t see Fiesta Hall as being that busy.
In the current design, the underground lot that cuts across most of the park is a compromise and balance between a number of difficult issues. For example, it allows users of the preschool, Fiesta Hall and community center, in particular seniors and disabled members of the community, to easily access any point in the park—something not possible if the parking is concentrated at one end. At the same time, it is certainly not ideal due to the loss of some older trees and the amount of park closure.
Ultimately, the city and the users of Plummer Park are between a rock and a hard place. Each option will please one group, while causing problems for another.
The balance the city decided upon takes a long-term view of the park’s needs, but is unfortunately highly invasive.
Large areas of planting and paths make up a large portion of the new design and are one of its best features. The design successfully provides variety in terms of intimacy, shade and use between park areas—an explicit desire of many area residents—while reusing a large number of the existing trees.
Calls that the park will be reduced to a sterile wasteland are unfounded, however, concerns are understandable considering the poor quality of images and materials used to present the designs. In computer renderings, trees almost always look sterile, depictions of use are unconvincing and areas of planting that create intricate variations of scale are unintelligible.
The vertical fin screens designed to block the view of the elevators also suffer from the severity of the presented images, as does the fountain, which will be a fantastic addition. Children will love the fountain in the summer (don’t forget a towel) and the cool air down wind on summer days will be much appreciated by those sitting nearby.
Much has been said about the decision to remove the Great Hall/Long Hall structure. Opponents to the idea say they are charming buildings, that it doesn’t make sense to tear down a building that could be repaired and that WPA buildings are a historic resource.
Unfortunately, Great Hall/Long Hall is in the worst possible location, from the standpoint of increasing safety, circulation and the usable area in the park. Smack in the middle, these buildings block views and walkways through the park’s center, create blind corners and take up prime area for additional trees and shady seating. Safety in a park is a matter of vision, clarity of paths and lighting. The removal of Great Hall/Long Hall would make the park a safer place almost immediately.
From a preservation perspective, there is a dose of irony in the argument that Great Hall/Long Hall should be granted historic status and preserved considering the park lost its original historic status.
The California Historic Landmark No. 160 designation for Plummer Park was revoked because the original historic structures and features of the park have long since been removed (such as Captain Eugenio Plummer’s home) and other structures, such as Great Hall/Long Hall, put in. Additionally, the Great Hall/Long Hall structures have been changed significantly from their original state, arguably to an extent that makes them no longer representative of their original era and thus not eligible for historic designation; though that is for the California Office of Historic Preservation to decide.
This is an important sequence of events to acknowledge. History is a highly fluid thing and historic importance highly subjective. The balancing act between what constitutes a cultural resource or an aged burden is often decided by what a structure would uniquely provide for future generations. At the cost of the park’s safety and vitality, Great Hall/Long Hall provides little more than local nostalgia.
The preschool is another of the current buildings in dire need of replacement, though it is by far the least contentious. The current building was intended to be temporary and is far past its intended lifespan. The concerns about the new design should be noted, but it is a generally sound, if elaborate structure. Though it would be well served by a reevaluation of its exterior color palette.
Fiesta Hall is certainly the most precious of the buildings in Plummer Park and I whole-heartedly agree with the decision to renovate and add to it.
But again, the outrage surrounding the new design stems from divergent views of how the park should be used. For the city, Fiesta Hall should be a high-quality performance space for all and thus calls for a “flashy” design. Some neighbors don’t want it to be nearly that busy, or they have called instead for the new addition to match the current Spanish architecture. Unfortunately, were the Spanish style to be used, the original architecture of Fiesta Hall would loose its identity—one would not be able to tell it and the addition apart—making a contemporary style addition clearly preferable. A contrast between old and new would allow both to shine.
With the current design, even if one agrees with the city’s logic, the community’s issues are not entirely unfounded. The new Fiesta Hall is a building that wishes it fronted a main street like Santa Monica, yet it does not. Nestled in a small-scale, tree-lined neighborhood, the addition is, at the very least, over-scaled. Smartly, however, the design turns the main entry to face the park, as opposed to Vista, attempting to maintain the scale along that side.
The design for Plummer Park suffers from poor presentation materials and a tricky issue in its underground parking, but it will provide a vast improvement for nearly all points on which the park currently suffers.
The underground parking should probably be revisited, but there is unlikely to be a solution that pleases everyone. Something will have to give to find some balance, and it will likely be either a few large shade trees or the ease of access to the park’s buildings.
Check out the plan for Plummer Park here.
Check out the Protect Plummer Park efforts here.