USC Price School of Public Policy

Planning students assist with downtown LA’s Pershing Square sustainability project

July 17, 2017
Pershing Square Park

Pershing Square Park in downtown Los Angeles

By Matthew Kredell

One of the most exciting projects in Los Angeles is the redesign of Pershing Square. In one of three planning studios conducted during the spring semester, Master of Planning students from the USC Price School of Public Policy contributed to the effort by considering what will make Pershing Square a sustainable space for the 21st century.

Last year, a team led by French landscape architecture firm Agence Ter was chosen to overhaul the downtown concrete park that was once a symbol of poor planning in the city.

Price adjunct instructor Melani Smith spent 12 years working as a partner at a consulting firm located inside a downtown L.A. high-rise, which offered an uninspiring view of Pershing Square from her office window.

“I know some of the folks on Agence Ter and have been enthusiastic about their plan,” Smith said. “I was excited about the idea of bringing them on board as a client, and they were eager to participate. The goal was to connect the big issues of sustainable public open space to something tangible that students could easily access from the university.”

Agence Ter partnered with Los Angeles-based firms, including SALT Landscape Architects. After getting a thorough presentation on the overall project, the MPL students researched and later delivered their analysis of a green project rating system. They also suggested components that could be added to the design, programming or operations of the space to make it more holistically sustainable in the long run.

The final student presentations made the client think about sustainable aspects — such as having all vendors in the park be required to use recyclable or compostable materials, food sourced from local farms, the city arrange a composting strategy for all green and other waste for the park, and park employees given Metro passes or bike-share allowances.

“Perhaps one of the most interesting strategies that emerged from multiple teams was the focus on sustainability through operations,” said Allen Compton, principal for SALT Landscape Architects. “If the management of the park could integrate and embody a commitment to sustainable practices across the spectrum of operations efforts, this could be a tremendous example for other parks throughout the city.”

“After the class, I felt like we had a lot of great and new angles to pursue in the schematic phase for Pershing Square as we begin to formulate how the park will be structured and how it will operate,” Compton added.

MPL student Rui Zhang expressed how the studio made her think differently about the job of a planner.

“What I learned from this studio is that sometimes a planner’s role is to create indicators and principles for designers,” Rui said. “One way we can improve L.A.’s sustainability and resilience plans is to apply some ratings systems and adjust to sites in L.A.”

Aiding displaced refugees

City Heights, San Diego

City Heights, San Diego

For the third consecutive year, adjunct faculty Stephen Russell, executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation, taught a planning studio on urban development in City Heights, the diverse San Diego neighborhood for which the Price School’s namesake, Sol Price, spurred redevelopment in the 1990s.

City Heights

This year’s studio focused on the issue of refugee displacement in City Heights, a community which has been a popular point of entry for refugees since the 1970s due to the existing support infrastructure and the availability of affordable housing.

“There was an interesting arc to the whole project, as the first day of class was Inauguration Day,” Russell said. “The issue around refugees was more poignant with the new administration coming in, and by the time students interviewed people in the community, there was a sense of desperation the people were feeling. To look at it through a new lens was interesting for the students, and an unanticipated impact of external events on the project.”

Three student teams developed proposals for how a vacant former elementary school space could be used by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in support of refugees. A fourth team looked at ways Price Philanthropies could provide new space and minimize service interruptions for nonprofits assisting refugee populations that would be displaced by new multi-family residential housing.

Student groups came up with development ideas to meet the fundamental requirements of refugee-support organizations with items such as housing and meeting spaces, while also going beyond basic needs with elements such as a commercial prep kitchen for small entrepreneurs. Each plan was solidified with detailed financing.

“IRC was so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the USC team to think creatively about how a parcel of land in City Heights could be turned into a dynamic, inclusive and thriving part of our region — a place that welcomes refugees and recognizes that their presence in our neighborhood makes our families, businesses, schools and community stronger,” said Erica Bouris, technical advisor for economic empowerment at IRC.

Environmental analysis

Long Beach harbor

Professor Geraldine Knatz with students visited an old island in the Long Beach harbor. Students examined the impact that removing the breakwater would have on island operations. (Photo courtesy of Geraldine Knatz)

USC Price Professor Geraldine Knatz focused her studio on understanding the planning process to undertake a federal civil works project known as the East San Pedro Bay Restoration.

Last year, the City of Long Beach and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the initiation of a federal study on removing the Long Beach breakwater that limits the size of waves to the area.

The studio provided students with an understanding of the tools and techniques to carry out impact analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), as well as practical experience in using these tools.

“My goal as instructor was to teach the students environmental assessment methodologies and a way of thinking about assessments — how to get the data and what are the questions to ask,” Knatz said.

In addition to analyzing the consequences of bringing surfers back to Long Beach through factors such as traffic, property values and air quality, the students surveyed people on the beach and found that more waves wouldn’t have much of an impact on their water usage.

Although there was no official client for the studio, the survey results were submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers and much appreciated by the team working on the project.

Regine Osorio took both the City Heights and the East San Pedro Bay studios during her final semester of MPL studies, and she’s already finding the knowledge she acquired to be useful in her new job as project analyst for Kosmont Companies, a real estate and economic development firm founded by a USC Price alumnus.

“The City Heights studio gave me real-life technical knowledge of how to fund development,” Osorio said. “Part of my task was to come up with the project cost and how much we would need to finance it based on the loans for which we could get approved. For the other studio, my focus was the socioeconomic impacts of the project, and the tools we got to use will help me when doing feasibility analysis, land-use and market reports at my new job.”