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60 Years Ago: Pershing Square Garage Idea Almost Killed When No Bids Came In

By Eric Richardson
Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2010, at 10:42AM
Pershing Square Proposal Los Angeles Times

This 1931 proposal for a garage underneath Pershing Square would have tunneled without disturbing the square above.

The idea of building a parking garage underneath Pershing Square already had a long and complicated history when it was almost killed on January 26, 1950. First proposed in 1931, the public garage's 30-year-long journey seemed over when the City Park and Recreation Commission announced that there had been no bids to build the proposed structure. Unless builders immediately expressed an interest, the Commission said, the project would be considered abandoned.

Modern-day Downtowners would probably cheer that bit of news, but the city did eventually get a handful of bids. A deal with City Park Garages, Inc., was approved on August 18, 1950.

The first plans for the space underneath the square actually date to 1923, when the City Planning Commission proposed that the Pacific Electric build a subway terminal below the park. The streetcar company had been readying plans for the terminal it would eventually build one block north at 4th and Hill, but it was receptive to the park plan. Tunnels would connect the Pershing Square terminal with the P.E.'s main headquarters at 6th and Main.

That idea was scuttled when the city held that the roof of the terminal would need to be at least ten feet below the surface of the park to allow enough dirt for large trees.

When the plan for a parking garage emerged in 1931, it was nothing if not ambitious. Workers would tunnel under the park to build the 3,000-auto structure without disturbing the square above. "This is declared to be a comparatively simple engineering task," said the Times.

The scheme also involved a series of tunnels that would connect to "various sections in the downtown area."

While generally well-received, the idea took nearly two decades to gain significant traction. Further proposals were made in 1941, 1944 and 1947. That last plan, pushed by the Downtown Business Men's Association (the organization that would later become the Central City Association), called for sidewalks that would be elevated over the parking ramps entering and exiting the garage.

The project was finally approved in 1949, with bids going out. After they initially didn't come back in, a bidder was finally approved and put to the task.

Work began on February 1, 1951. Final plans called for an 2,000 car structure, which the L.A. Times called "the world's biggest structure of its kind." It could also serve as a bomb shelter for up to 30,000 people, though it wasn't built to withstand a direct hit.

The bulk of the excavation took place overnight, with a loaded truck leaving the site every minute. An average of 4,000 cubic yards of dirt was removed each night, with much of it going to the building of the Harbor Freeway or to Elysian Park.

The first cars parked inside the structure on May 1, 1952. They paid a special rate of 25 cents per hour for the privilege. An official opening took place on October 9, 1952.


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