Though situated near office buildings, new residential condominiums and apartments, and popular tourist destinations Lincoln Park in downtown Long Beach is justifiably a forgotten public space that sees little use as a gathering place by the community. Thanks in part to a series of walls, stairs, and barriers that limit pedestrian access and block visibility Lincoln Park is a wasted public space that is a relic of past planning mistakes.
Pacific Park, as Lincoln Park was originally known, was designated as a park on the original town site of Long Beach in 1880, and subsequently became the city’s first park. The first Municipal Market Day, sponsored by the Women’s Club of Long Beach, was held at the park in 1913 during the hey-day of the municipal market movement in America. The current configuration of Lincoln Park was born out of two urban renewal projects in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In 1962 an underground parking garage was constructed on the northern half of the five-acre park. The park was rebuilt on the garage, along with a new Japanese Garden and shuffleboard and roque courts. In 1977 a new city library was built on the southern half of Lincoln Park as part of an urban renewal project that eliminated city streets and created a new civic center complex on six city blocks. The new library was built with one story below-grade level and one story at-grade level, with the roof of the library landscaped as a passive park.
Over the next three decades Lincoln Park became more of a liability for the city than an amenity. Due to poor access and visibility the passive park on the library roof was perceived as unsafe and not surprisingly closed due to lack of use. Later the shuffleboard courts and roque courts were removed for security reasons and replaced by a lawn area.
Today Lincoln Park looks much as it did in 1977. Walls used to separate the parking garage ramps from the park form much of the western and northern boundaries. At the southwest corner of the site a spiral pedestrian ramp leading to the closed library rooftop park interrupts direct pedestrian access from the park to the library and City Hall entrances. The park is at-grade level on only one side, adjacent to Pacific Avenue. One recent positive development was the opening of a dog park in 2009.
Where does the city go from here? Recently the Long Beach City Council was briefed regarding the structural deficiencies of City Hall and began initial discussions on ways to potentially address the problem. The discussion included the possibility of establishing a public-private partnership to build a new Civic Center. In a commentary appearing in the Long Beach Post, architect Brian Ulaszewski endorsed the idea writing,
The six blocks made up by the Civic Center complex have been comparatively devoid of activity since its construction; it constitutes a weak center in what is intended to be vibrant downtown core. It would be nearly impossible to cost-effectively retrofit the current Civic enter in a way that would substantially redress these problems.
But do we have to wait at a decade or longer to improve the Civic Center and more specifically Lincoln Park. I don’t think we do. We should begin to look at what can be done now to remake Lincoln Park while allowing for the possibility that at some point in the future the Civic Center complex will be redeveloped. Here are five points to consider:
Its Hip to be Square
Great cities have great public spaces that function as a place where everyone in the community can gather. Long Beach deserves to have such a place. Why not turn Lincoln Park into an urban square that can change its function as needed. A properly designed and managed square has the potential to give a new identity to the Civic Center and become recognized as “the” central gathering place in the city.
To be successful, a square needs to be designed for people. The best squares are always easily accessible by foot and transit. Lincoln Square, as I’ll call it from here on, is within walking distance of thousands of office workers and residents, and is across the street from the Long Beach Transit Center. Surrounding streets should be kept narrow to slow traffic and crosswalks should be well marked with lights timed for pedestrians. A square surrounded by streets with fast-moving traffic will be cut off from the very people that are necessary to make a square thrive.
Tear Down Those Walls
All walls, barriers, stairs and changing elevations should be eliminated, where possible, and one level surface for the entire square should be created to make Lincoln Square accessible and welcoming. Removing the pedestrian ramp leading up to the library roof would permit a direct physical and visual link from the square to the library and City Hall entrances giving pedestrians a convenient connection through the park. Safety walls separating the park from vehicular ramps that lead to the parking garage below should be replaced with clear fencing that permits views into the park from adjacent streets. With the elimination of changing elevations and hidden spaces Lincoln Square would be arguably more safe and inviting than it is today.
If You Build It They Will Come
The new square should entice people with a variety of things to do. An outdoor cafe, water fountain, art sculpture, or concert bandshell are just a few of the attractions that have the potential to draw people throughout the day. However the square should be flexible in its design to allow for change of use and function.
Its All About the Details
Properly placed amenities such as seating areas, public art, and lighting are integral to making a square comfortable for people to use. Creating opportunities for “people watching” should be considered when placing benches. Lighting can be used to highlight entrances to the square while also strengthening its place in the Civic Center. Public art should not be considered an afterthought when designing the square. Art could be integrated with signage that tells the history of Lincoln Park and informs visitors about the city’s many destinations that are accessible on foot or by transit. Quality amenities help contribute to the intrinsic feeling a person gets when visiting great places.
Keep the Momentum
In todays economic landscape this may be the most difficult of the objectives I’ve listed, but it also may be the most important: A new square must be managed by a well-funded entity that can maintain improvements and program a broad range of activities. The best public spaces are ones we want to return to time and time again. The best way to achieve this is through a management plan that understands and promotes ways of keeping the square safe and lively.
The managing organization must understand the potential users of the square and create events that will attract them, such as a farmers market or a theatre production. They also must be familiar with the patterns of how people use the square to ensure that waste receptacles get emptied when full and food stands are open when people want them to be. The managing organization must also maintain the square to create a feeling of comfort and safety for users.
Maintaining a square in this fashion would most likely be beyond the scope and abilities of the city. However some of the best public spaces in America are operated through a partnership to supplement what a city cannot provide. Potential partners in Long Beach are the Downtown Long Beach Associates (DLBA), a business improvement district, and We Love Long Beach, a non-profit that organizes free events throughout the city. Funding sources could include rent from cafes, markets or other small commercial uses on the site, film shoots, benefit fundraisers, and DLBA contributions.
With a little ingenuity and community support Lincoln Park could once again become a wonderful civic space in the heart of the city.