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L.A. hopes its park will be as grand as Chicago's

March 14, 2009|Cara Mia DiMassa

CHICAGO — As Los Angeles officials ponder what downtown's Civic Center park might look like, they often cite Millennium Park in Chicago as a model for what they hope their park can become.

But if Millennium Park teaches Los Angeles anything, it's that building a great park takes more than just the government and developers.

With daring public art, a world-famous performance space, fountains, gardens and more, Millennium has been wildly successful since it opened in 2004, drawing about 3 million people a year and serving as a model for urban planners everywhere.

But wander around the Chicago park for a few minutes, and you realize that Chicago has something that L.A. officials are still struggling to marshal: a vibrant and sizable philanthropic base of corporations, foundations and families committed to giving back to the city.

At one corner of the Chicago park sits an ornate, semicircle peristyle. This is the Millennium Monument, and at the base of its many columns, carved in stone, is a list of 115 names that reads like a veritable who's who of Chicago elite. There's Oprah Winfrey and Sam Zell, the Sara Lee Corp. and the Sears-Roebuck Foundation. Each person, foundation or company on the list is considered one of the park's "founders" -- and gave at least $1 million to help make the park the grand success that it has become.

A few hundred yards away, there's the Pritzker Pavilion, named after the family that owned the Hyatt hotel chain and gave $15 million to the park. There's the Lurie Garden, the Crown Fountain and McCormick Tribune Plaza -- each representing gifts in the millions of dollars.

"These are families who have made their fortunes in Chicago and felt compelled to give something back to the citizens," said Ed Uhlir, Millennium Park's director of planning, architecture and landscape. "Normally, they give their money to the symphony, the art museums. They rarely give it to a park. This was a little unusual."

Los Angeles has its share of wealthy benefactors. But over the last three decades, it has lost many of the big corporate headquarters whose titans had for generations helped pay for various civic projects. Experts said corporate donors could make the difference in Los Angeles between a modest park or something more grand.

Millennium Park, which began with a $150-million budget and eventually cost $475 million, was built at a time when the economy was booming and in a city where civic pride could be financially quantified. About $270 million eventually came from the city, most raised by construction and tax increment financing bonds; the rest -- as well as a park endowment -- was privately funded.

Los Angeles, circa 2009, is a very different place. The government agencies that are building the 16-acre park have about $56 million, most from a lease payment by the developer of the downtown revitalization Grand Avenue project, of which the park is considered a part. About $27 million has been promised by California, to be paid out once construction of the project's affordable housing is underway -- but in the current budget crisis, those funds could be held up.

And while officials promise to begin fundraising soon for more money, it may be hard to come up with the kind of cash that Chicago secured.

Some of Los Angeles' remaining corporations "are not just focused on their backyard," said James M. Ferris, director of USC's Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy. "They are sort of global companies with global missions. The world is different."

With the nation in a deep recession, many foundations and big givers have curtailed their spending, Ferris said. "The truth is," he said, "in philanthropy today, because of the economy, and because of other priorities, large capital projects aren't at the top of the list."

Park backers remain optimistic, even in these tough times. The money in the bank is enough to construct the basic park, which would extend from Bunker Hill, abut various government buildings, and end at the steps of City Hall. They said that "add ons" to the park -- including more acreage and amenities -- can come later as more money, both public and private, becomes available.

Nelson Rising, chair of the Grand Avenue Committee, the citizen group overseeing both the Civic Park and the Grand Avenue development on behalf of the city and county, said that the success of Los Angeles' park "is not just a question of private donations. It's a question of having a park evolve over time. This is like the journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step. It's important to get this thing started. All of us want it to get started sooner rather than later."

Mark Rios, whose firm, Rios Clementi Hale Studios, just completed a schematic design for L.A.'s Civic Park, said that Los Angeles is starting with a base plan that in many ways is ahead of where Chicago began.

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