New park unveiled in downtown Los Angeles

The heart of downtown used to stop beating at sundown.

Office workers would clear out of Civic Center to begin long commutes to the suburbs, leaving an empty concrete landscape surrounded by courthouses and government buildings and inhabited mainly by homeless residents of Skid Row.

Hoping to bring new life to those streets, city officials on Thursday unveiled Grand Park — a great green hope for the future of the nation's second-largest city.

The $56 million renovation aims to create a 12-acre strip of lawns, winding paths and gardens that will become a vibrant center of city life.

It continues the renaissance of downtown, which in recent years has seen the $2.5 billion entertainment complex called L.A. Live sprout just 10 blocks away. L.A. Live includes Staples Center, home to basketball's Lakers and Clippers and hockey's Kings, as well as a pair of world-class hotels and numerous upscale restaurants, nightclubs and theaters.

Closer to the park, the economy has slowed but not stalled the coming of thousands of residents who are moving into upscale apartments and condos in the once drab neighborhood.

Eventually, Grand Park is expected to stretch from Grand Avenue at the Music Center to Spring Street at City Hall. The first segment, officially opened on Wednesday, includes a renovated fountain, children's splash pool area, stage, plantings of drought-resistant plants from around the world, and lots of pink benches.

Walter Lutz, 40, sprawled on one of those benches to enjoy the sunshine while his 6-year-old daughter, Scarlette, made friends with another young visitor on Thursday.

Lutz, a high school teacher who lives about seven miles away in the Highland Park area, has been visiting Civic Center for decades to take advantage of its museums and theater complex. He and his daughter would stop in the old park in the area for some shade, but it wasn't a destination.

"It was pretty much a pass we would pass through," he said. "There wasn't anything really here to do.

"It's definitely a lot more welcoming and attractive," he said of the renovations.

Some officials hope Grand Park will become a miniature version of New York's Central Park and a focal point for the city's far-flung communities.

Unlike dense, compact cities in the East, Los Angeles' spacious plan of scattered neighborhoods linked by freeways has until now worked to undermine downtown as a focus of the city. The city's world-class museum, the Getty, is miles away on the west side of town, while sprawling Griffith Park, with its zoo, observatory and miles of hiking trails, is tucked away in the Hollywood Hills.

The Civic Center, by contrast, was known for many years chiefly for its government buildings, the garment and jewelry districts and nearby Skid Row.

Previous efforts to upgrade the area have had mixed success. The city spent millions to renovate dilapidated Pershing Square, which reopened in 1994 with amenities that included a stage, artwork and a 125-foot-tall purple bell tower. It has a well-attended dog-walking area and weekend events that draw healthy crowds, but locals say it also can be dirty and draws panhandlers.

A giant music-and-light display sculpture called the Triforium was dedicated in 1975 and envisioned as an artistic centerpiece of the Los Angeles Mall. However, it drew more ridicule than applause and never became a beloved landmark.

Things began to change in 2003 when the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the world's most recognizable and iconic buildings, opened on South Grand Avenue.

The new park is viewed as an adjunct to a multibillion-dollar massive redevelopment project along Grand that the Disney Concert Hall helped launch.

It can't come too soon for Le Chen, a 27-year-old associate environmental planner for the California Department of Transportation who moved into a new loft a year ago. Several blocks of downtown, he said, are still a gritty no-man's land.

"The shops close and they bring down those giant metal shutters and the homeless come in," he said.