By Vince Echavaria
Complete with its expansive tree and plant canopy, meandering walkways, various water features, children’s play areas and lookout onto the ocean, Santa Monica’s newest park welcomed visitors for the first time Tuesday, Sept. 10.
The 6.2-acre Tongva Park opened across from City Hall at the site of the former RAND Corporation building and parking lot, as a significant green space for the Civic Center area. With the addition of the newly opened 1-acre Ken Genser Square in front of City Hall, the parks are designed to provide a connection between the Civic Center, Santa Monica Pier and Palisades Park.
“The Civic Center Specific Plan envisioned a series of open spaces in the plan area… and this is one of a series of parks and open spaces to create sort of a central area and knit the Civic Center into downtown, the beach and Palisades Park,” said Karen Ginsberg, director of Santa Monica’s Community and Cultural Services Department.
A community celebration to officially mark the opening of Tongva Park is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 19, while a separate celebration for Ken Genser Square, named after the late mayor and longtime councilman, is planned in November with his family. The fountain portion of the square is undergoing final touch-ups and is yet to open.
Named after the indigenous Tongva people who resided in the local area for thousands of years, Tongva Park is designed to recollect an arroyo with its landscape, incorporating rising and falling topography.
The $42.3 million park was roughly $7 million under budget and completed after 16 months of construction.
Designer James Corner believes the green space creates a “new heart for Santa Monica” that provides a new destination and gathering place of great social, ecological and symbolic value.
“We have sculpted a dramatic topography of hills and hollows and incorporated a very large number of native plant species to create a spectacular horticultural garden, replete with generous furnishing, water fountains, play elements and activity areas,” Corner said. “It has been an absolute pleasure to work with the people of Santa Monica to create a place together that feels so fresh and dynamic.”
Ginsberg credited Corner and his firm with following through on the community’s vision for offering a linkage between the Civic Center and downtown.
“I think James Corner really hit the mark by taking what the Specific Plan said about this park being a linkage, a connector very successfully; he really took those words to heart as he and the community came up with the vision for this park,” she said.
“The design that was approved by the City Council is really what you see out there.”
The park is divided into four hilltop areas: Garden Hill, which includes a series of seating alcoves and display gardens; Discovery Hill, a play area on spongy surface including a rock climbing wall, slides and a water feature; Gathering Hill, providing open space for congregation and relaxation with a multi-purpose lawn; and Observation Hill, reaching a height of 18 feet to offer panoramic views of the ocean and pier.
Noting that the park planning involved an extensive community input process, Ginsberg said providing views was an important aspect for the public. The observation area is noticeable with its distinctive shell-like overlooks.
Touring the various sections of the site along with the media, Robin Gee of Santa Monica CityTV, said the space seems to break the stereotype of a typical park. “It all just feels very different than a typical city park so that’s what makes it kind of interesting,” Gee said.
More than 300 trees are spread throughout the park, including dozens that were relocated there from other parts of the city. The Garden Hill area is distinguished by three large ficus trees dubbed the “Three Amigos,” which were relocated to the property, and an original inhabitant, a 100-year-old Moreton Bay fig tree nicknamed “Morty.”
Also incorporated into the park is an art element, the Weather Field No. 1 sculpture by Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, identified by its grid of tall stainless poles with weather vanes and anemometers. The poles, which alternate in height, are finely tuned instruments designed to accurately respond to prevailing wind conditions.
Ginsberg, who described Tongva as the signature park for the Civic Center, said she was pleased to finally have the park open and to see children having fun in the playground on its first day.
“Having it open and used by people is really near and dear to me because that’s why we create these spaces; we want them for community use,” she said.
City Cultural Affairs Manager Jessica Cusick said the final result seemed to exceed expectations from what was envisioned during the planning of the new open space.
“I’ve been involved in many design projects over the years where you’re excited when you see the drawings and the potential, but I have been involved in very few projects that exceed that potential, which I think this park really does. It’s instantly an entire new landscape for Santa Monica,” Cusick said.
The park has seven entrances. Park hours are 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.