From L.A. to New York –  And Back Again

Connie Chung of HR&A Advisors on her work transforming urban spaces in big cities across America—and now at Pershing Square

 

“No matter where you put a seat, there’s someone who wants to sit in it.”

 

Urban planner Connie Chung, a principal at HR&A Advisors, is talking about her past life leading planning efforts for the Alliance for Downtown New York. “People love people-watching, to take a pause, have a moment in the rush of the city. And the type of seat you choose affects them, too. The chaises at the High Line, people stick around and stay. Same with the Adirondack chairs at Logan Airport.”

It’s a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, and we’re sitting on bright orange bistro chairs and sipping coffee at Pitchoun Bakery across the street from Pershing Square, talking about the potential for transformation.

Chung recently moved back to Los Angeles after 20 years on the East Coast and is part of the team working on the new vision for Pershing Square.

“I think maybe I saw New York City as the opposite of growing up here in a sleepy part of Pacific Palisades,” she said. “I visited my brother at NYU, and it was so exciting. I knew I had to move to New York, and when I moved there, I thought I’d stay there the rest of my life.”

Chung first headed to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where one class during her study abroad semester would permanently shift her perspective on cities.

“We met in different parts of Paris each week and studied the scars of urbanization. It was almost like an anthropological study of how the city took form,” she said. “I realized I love cities and how cities enable people connect with each other.”

When she joined HR&A in New York after grad school, Chung was tapped to work on the creation of an outdoor event space in a former parking lot next to the convention center, now called The Lawn on D. She and a team that included a creative director, venue manager, and production staff developed and then executed a programming strategy for the innovative new park.

“We came up with the craziest ideas,” she said. “We held rock concerts and an oyster festival. We brought in art by Amanda Parer, a set of giant inflatable illuminated bunnies called ‘Intrude,’ which have now traveled the world. We commissioned Swing Time, a large-scale illuminated swingset which is now probably the most Instagrammed site in Boston—there’s actually a web site of how people use the swings in their Tindr profile pictures.”

Jessica Rinaldi, The Boston Globe

On that project, public seed funding from the convention center needed to be supplemented, and then overtaken by, non-public sources of funding. As they have done with many other successful public spaces around the country, Chung’s team got entrepreneurial, helping the convention center court and secure revenue-generating programming and a season-long event sponsorship.

Meanwhile, signals of change in her hometown did not go unnoticed.

“Measure R was one of the big transformative signals to me that L.A. was changing,” she said. “The fact that people chose to tax themselves to invest in transit, and the city leaders who got behind it and pulled it together—that blew my mind.”

She began traveling to L.A. regularly for her work with the City of L.A.’s resilience strategy, titled Resilient Los Angeles —developing the strategy was a city-led process in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities that includes neighborhood and citywide resilience building on the social capital and analysis of community organizations, neighborhood councils, architects and planners. And she’s part of the HR&A team helping to advance a new vision for the Arroyo Seco, the 900 acres of open space that surround the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

That work, along with the region’s continued buildout of transit, the selection of L.A. for the 2028 Olympic Games, and the revitalization of the L.A. River have all captured her imagination and drew her and her husband to resettle back on the West Coast and devote even more of her energy to the transformation of Pershing Square.

“Pershing Square is one of the most important projects in the city,” she said. “It’s the heart of downtown L.A., it sits atop a metro station in a neighborhood where so much change is happening, and given its historic identity as the oldest public space in Los Angeles, it’s been so exciting to be involved.”

HR&A is developing the funding and implementation strategy for the park, which will define the capital funding strategy, tapping both public and private sources, and a funding strategy for operations and long-term maintenance.

“The long-term financial stability of a park is not sexy, but it’s so critical,” she said. “Parks are incredibly underfunded across the country. We value parks in our hearts and minds, but not literally with our tax dollars.”

Among Chung’s favorite public spaces are Brooklyn Bridge Park, for its variety of free programs—where she said ten people can do ten different things, a series of experiences that unravel; Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where she liked to take meet friends for pizza and picnic, and also valued the chance meetings and people-watching; and Parc de la Villette in Paris, an urban park where locals engineer elaborate picnics in groups of 20 or more, a very serious-looking man in uniform officiates kids’ tricycle races, and an outdoor concert venue was the location of her first and only Bob Dylan concert.

Connie at HR&A’s recent Park(ing) Day effort near their Tribeca office in NYC

Back at Pershing Square, Chung is most excited about the canopy of the new park design, a focal point and meeting spot that she believes will become iconic in its beauty.

“The openness of the new design, that’s the classic civic space, you can see into it and it invites you in,” she said. “I have no doubt that this design is going to completely change the feeling of this block. It’s all about how quickly we get it done. That’s why we’re so passionate about it.”

The team is equally passionate about what happens on and after Day One of the new Pershing Square, will be working on an operations and maintenance strategy to ensure it continues to be a magnetic, authentic gathering space.

“We have family here, and year-round sunshine, and my husband and I want to be in the midst of this change,” she said. “There’s nowhere else we’d rather be.”