May 1, 2003 - From the May, 2003 issue

Urban Park Fundamentals: TPR Interview Of Joe Edmiston

The city of Los Angeles presently is the most park poor urban area in the country. Environmental organizations now are looking inward to urban Los Angeles to create more open space and parks to assist in the revitalization of neighborhoods. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Joe Edmiston, Executive Director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, in which he discusses both SMMC's efforts to reclaim land in Los Angeles' urban areas for parks as well as the challenges of funding maintenance of these dedicated park lands under current formulas of public funding for park organizations.


Joe Edmiston

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is increasingly moving from an agenda of preserving open space to reclaiming open space in the urban environment of metropolitan Los Angeles. Address, on behalf of SMMC, what is motivating your taking on this new urban agenda.

I'm not so sure it's actually a new agenda as much as realizing what's necessary to accomplish the agenda that's been there all along. In the mid-70's when the whole concept of preserving the Santa Monica Mountains first emerged in the public policy arena, it was thought to be sufficient just to get the Westside politicos on board. There's been a recognition that the real open space needs truly lie with those who can't provide it for themselves. That has become an important demand.

There was a misconception that a lot of Westside liberals had that what the people in the impacted areas really needed was more jobs-they didn't care about recreation, they didn't care about open space, they didn't care about quality of life aside from more jobs. And, if they cry out for some open space, we'll pave a couple of courts and they can have basketball. That idea was so poisonous to good open space planning. Only recently-within the last ten years or so-has there been a realization that the open space needs, the need to contact with nature and to interface with nature, is a need that everybody has. We're probably hard wired with that need.

Many of the immigrant communities, particularly the Hispanic immigrants, come to this urban area from a very rural past in which daily contact with nature and open space was a valued part of their lives. If you go to Griffith Park on a weekend, you can hardly see the blades of grass because of the number of blankets lying on the ground.

As we recognize that Los Angeles is going to become more and more a Latino dominated culture, if we aren't already, then this relation to open space should resemble what I would call the "plaza culture." There is a need for open space, but open space that is not so unbounded. Plaza culture really does talk about certain bounds, interfacing the open space within the built environment. That is an achievable goal in our urban areas because you are not dealing with wilderness areas and you are not going to be able to recreate hundreds of acres of forest. What you can do is start to reclaim ten acres here, fifteen acres here, five acres there and begin a patchwork of open space. By connecting the various parks with regional facilities, like the Cornfield's downtown 32 acres and Taylor Yard, a different urban fabric will begin to take shape. The new fabric will be both more amenable to Hispanic culture and also just darn good planning sense, which we should have had thirty years ago.

As the region's premier urban parks organization, please address the degree of difficulty in moving from preservation of open space to the reclaiming of it in densely developed Los Angeles.

Well, it's really hard and probably impossible to play God, and only God put ecosystems in their pristine state. We have paradigms for reclaiming urban lots and creating sprinkler parks, where the park is a lollipop tree and a lawn sprinkled three times a week. However, if we want to try to reclaim nature in the urban area and recreate a real and genuine natural environment and interaction with nature, it is extremely difficult. It's physically very difficult to do and we don't have a lot of paradigms for it. That is the most challenging aspect.

We obviously have needs for open space as we add another two Chicagos to Los Angeles over the next two decades. We also need more schools, we need more health care, we need more housing-how do we begin to think about holistically planning the accomplishment of all of these objectives?

We truly have to think regionally and we have to think that even the protected areas that we have today could become severed from their biological linkages over the course of the next twenty to thirty years. So truly thinking regionally means that we have to hard wire those connections all the way down to the Mexican border-basically every mountain ecosystem, every river ecosystem and connection has got to be provided with enough habitat, open space and nature to sustain the movement of animals and to sustain habitat linkages. That has to be done throughout all of Southern California. Fortunately there is a realization of this-everything from the new proposal for a Santa Ana River Conservancy, to the re-envisioning of what's going to happen behind the Prado Dam, to the work that the Forest Service is doing in recognizing the uniqueness of the Cleveland Forest. These are the regional challenges that we face ahead.

How easy or difficult is it to organizationally interface with the public schools, housing developers and other interests that compete for scarce land in the Los Angeles Basin?

Interestingly enough, the housing developers are, in many senses, our best friends. It's comparatively easy to deal with people who have a bottom line and understand their industry well. And, there have been a number of instances where we have been able to work with housing developers. A good example is Vista Pacifica in the Baldwin Hills.

It's more difficult to look at a single purpose entity such as the school district and have them incorporate our demands into their agenda. So it's incumbent upon us to talk about the advantages parks and open space present to schools to meet the district's agenda. Of course, those of us in this business feel that need very urgently, so it's an easy sell for us. And, it's an increasingly easy sell to, at least, the elected officials on school boards. It's a harder sell to the school professionals, but we're making progress.

The voters of California and of this metropolitan region have been relatively generous over the last decade, and especially over the last half decade, with respect to funding for open space. How do we best invest those funds to improve liveability in the region?

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The current buzzword is public-private partnerships, but it really does mean something. About 40% of the open space we've acquired has been in conjunction with development. So, it's putting a little bit of money into a project, leveraging that for the maximum open space, and then leveraging OPM-other peoples money. We've been appropriated and spent roughly about $340 million over the last 23 years, but the value of the land that we have acquired is over $700 million. That is largely due to the fact that we have worked cooperatively with developers.

Elaborate on the creation of the Santa Monica Mountains benefit assessment district that was approved in the last year.

Proposition A in Los Angeles County, both in '92 and '96, was a benefit assessment. After Prop. 218, which was sponsored by the Jarvis Taxpayers Association, it was widely viewed that you could not use benefit assessment for open space purposes because the benefits of open space were too diffuse. A number of practitioners, primarily the Shilts firm from Fairview, took a look at that and said it's not really true. We can quantify specific property-related benefits due to open space and parks in the same way you can quantify the benefits from a street or any other type of public improvement-this is particularly true in California. They have done 30 or 40 of these measures statewide and we had a little trepidation trying to apply that to the Santa Monica Mountains. So we did a poll and the poll was amazing-it showed support in the 70% levels. I personally was very surprised and we were advised that the polls typically reflect very well, in fact, even below the actual voter turnout.

So we proceeded with an incredible grass roots campaign. Everybody who had a parcel in their community was interested and they got behind it. Over the two districts, both east and west of the 405 freeway, we received over 73-percent support. The judge in the Superior Court case threw out the challenge. Interestingly enough the challenge was from an extreme environmental group that didn't want to see the money spent in the residential areas to enhance those areas. Their claim was that we should be devoting our attention more to the great wilderness areas. We're going to be levying the benefit assessment soon and that will yield about $26 million for new acquisitions as well as annual amounts to maintain and clear the brush from the area.

Let's segue from acquisition of open space to the maintenance. Clearly, with the passage of so many bond issues, money for capital investment is not the problem. But, where's the funding for maintenance? Isn't that the challenge that the cities and counties deal with everyday. Where do the funds come from for operations and maintenance?

Well, Proposition A, because it is also a benefit assessment, has money for maintenance. The new benefit assessment district in the mountains also has money for operations and maintenance. The real challenge is where you have bond funded projects, how do you operate and maintain those? We operate pretty much on an enterprise basis. We get over $620,000 from Sacramento, and none of that goes for maintenance. So when you're operating on an enterprise basis, as most of the readers of this publication know, you have to make your bottom line. We own a lot of mountaintops and we have a lot of repeaters on mountaintops. We are an enterprise– it costs a lot to rent Barbara Streisand's former ranch in Ramirez Canyon and there's a good reason for that. We have extremely popular venues, such as the Los Angeles River Center. The River Center actually turns a "profit," which then gets applied to, in that case, the maintenance of the parks along the Los Angeles River. We have an enormous demand for filming. Fortunately, we have some very interesting venues that are within the radius where the film companies don't have to pay extra. When you put everything together, we have an operating budget of about $5.5 million, with only $620,000 coming from Sacramento.

In our particular case, we have enough resources that provide money for maintenance. That is not true in your typical urban park system, however, because any income received by virtually every city and municipality, and even most state agencies, goes into the general fund and is then redistributed by the finance department or the city council according to whim. However, we can capture and retain all the income we have and then put that back into the maintenance of the facility.

Efforts to create neighborhood parks have been proposed recently, but most rely on the city for maintenance. What is your take on the opportunity value of community-based parks?

A lot of attention has been given to possibility of using community-based assets to do that. I would like to explore the concept of every park having a person to coordinate the volunteer or semi-volunteer activities of the community. That's one way to address maintenance, particularly for your smaller facilities of less then an acre or so. But, it's going to be a real challenge. The benefit of the benefit assessment approach, which really should be expanded, is that it does provide current income and not bond dollars.

Last question. In some circles, Joe Edmiston is the best-kept secret in California. And, in other circles, you're the ‘Robert Moses' power broker of the region's park system. Whatever the truth of the matter is, very few people really understand the full scope and breadth of activities that the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and it's related entities are involved with. Give us a thumbnail sketch of SMMC.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is a state agency. We have very few employees and a number of partnerships with local governments and local recreation and parks districts. We have seven of these partnerships-they're called joint powers authorities-and they have been very successful. We get local buy-in and they operate as local authorities not subject to a number of the cumbersome rules the state government has accrued over the generations. We cooperate as far as southeast Los Angeles County, the Wildlife Corridor Conservation Authority in the Puente/Chino Hills area, to Santa Clarita-we're a very active organization in Santa Clarita, where we're talking about almost 5,000 acres of open space in the Newhall Ranch that will be administered-and also into Ventura County. So that's an interesting geographical range.

As I said, the most challenging thing is moving not outward, but inward toward the inner-city. In doing that, the organization we've worked with primarily is the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which is our principal joint powers authority. The MRCA has a charter which enables it to work not just within the Santa Monica Mountains, but pretty much anywhere in Southern California.

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