Go Play On The Freeway! Cap Park Proposals And A Look Back At The Highway Relationship To Park Planning In Los Angeles

Over the past few years, large cities have sought to increase the availability recreational space in crowded urban environments. The success of Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York’s High Line show imaginative planning and construction of new places to meet and play which have been embraced by the public.

But what to do when a city has been built out and there’s not much available land for a sizeable new recreational area? Some cities are looking at using existing roads and highways as the foundation for new public spaces. Some involve placing a “lid” on top of a roadway, thereby making it a tunnel under a park. Cap parks” are already under consideration in Cincinnati, Seattle, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., Boston, Hartford and Charlotte.

We wanted to bring together information and resources on four current freeway cap park proposals in Los Angeles and take a look back at the genesis of park planning here.

In the L.A. region, imagination knows no bounds, and our iconic freeways could set the stage for community improvements that will literally alter the landscape of the city:

Hollywood Central Park” is a proposed 44-acre site atop the 101 Freeway between Santa Monica Boulevard and Bronson Avenue in Hollywood

Park 101” would be built above the “Big Trench” section of the 101 Freeway downtown

In Santa Monica, a 7-acre park is proposed for the 10 Freeway between 14th and 17th Streets

Also in Santa Monica, a cap park is being studied for the 10 Freeway between Ocean Avenue and 4th Street

The freeway cap park proposals are new urban spaces that integrate neighborhoods that were previously separated by roadways or other infrastructure. While the construction costs are immense, proponents are hopeful that economic development could help pay the way.

The Hollywood Central Park Feasibility Report’s executive summary notes that Hollywood provides less than 0.5 acres of open space for every 1,000 residents. The proposed cap park would include a plaza and viewing platform, sculpture garden or art exhibition space, multi-purpose fields and sport/recreational areas, street parking, amphitheatre, large open meadow, police sub-station, playgrounds, picnic areas, and a dog park.

In this overview of downtown’s Park 101 Project, the director of urban design at AECOM’s LA Office notes that “the proposed site separates some of our most prized and appealing landmarks: Olvera Street, Chinatown, and Union Station on one side; Disney Hall, the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angeles, and City Hall on the other – creating isolated pockets of activity rather than what we need: a livable, walkable, and unified downtown district.” The proposal for a “Central Park” for Los Angeles as a long-overdue feature of downtown’s renaissance focuses on six design principles: maximize regional connectivity, develop a pedestrian focus, provide flexibility of open space, reconnect communities, be a regenerative tool, and create a “wow” factor.

In Santa Monica, officials are exploring the idea of creating a 7-acre cap park on top of the 10 Freeway between 17th and 14th Street.

Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown notes that the Expo Line’s anticipated arrival in Santa Monica in 2015 has led to a resurgence of interest around another project on the 10 Freeway between 4th Street and Ocean Avenue and that “the land we gain is more valuable than the cost of capping the freeway.”

This resurgence in grand park ideas reminds us of Los Angeles’ landmark 1930 parks study prepared by the Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew and Associates. Parks, Playgrounds And Beaches For The Los Angeles Region was a comprehensive 178-page proposal for regional recreational planning in our burgeoning metropolis.

In 1930, when the city’s population stood at just over 1,200,000 (well over double what it had been in 1920), they wrote that

The prime use of highways is economic, but in addition to the economic use there is an enormous use for recreation, especially for the pleasure of simply riding through more or less pleasant surroundings. Probably nowhere else in the world does highway recreation form so large an element in the lives of people as in Southern California.

Now, in proportion as the highways and their surroundings are adapted to recreational uses, and remain so, the need for other recreational areas will be reduced. On the other hand, in proportion as the highway system is ill adapted to recreation, or tends to become so, the demand of specifically recreational areas is increased. Long stretches of congested streets, through mile after mile of monotonous urban surroundings must be offset somehow. The functions of the highway department are thus seen to overlap somewhat the functions of other agencies not chiefly interested in highways.

80 years later, we are considering placing public recreational space on top of the highway system that was planned in response to a surging population without nearly as much regard for open space. The entire report is a wonderful read, with intriguing maps, plans and detailed notes. The primary conclusion in the report’s introduction states that

Continued prosperity will depend on providing needed parks, because, with the growth of a great metropolis here, the absence of parks will make living conditions less and less attractive, less and less wholesome, though parks have been easily dispensed with under the conditions of the past. In so far, therefore, as the people fail to show the understanding, courage, and organizing ability necessary at this crisis, the growth of the Region will tend to strangle itself.