October 10, 2000 - From the October, 2000 issue

Rec. & Parks GM Agrees, But . . .

L.A. Recreation and Parks head Ellen Oppenheim found that frankly, many of the critiques made by the Trust for Public Land and the Urban Land Institute were true. However, she points out that it's much easier to talk about what a city should do than what it's actually equipped for. TPR is proud to present her response.


Ellie Oppenheim

The Trust for Public Land and Urban Land Institute recently released a report: Inside City Parks, the first in-depth study of America's urban park system. The chapter on L.A. points out that we do not have sufficient park space for the City's population. Ellie, what is the demand and supply equation in Los Angeles vis-à-vis open space and parks?

The demand for parks in the City of L.A. is huge. We're an intensely dense city, and the myriad of recreational needs that our youth and adults share demands far more park acres and available amenities than we now provide.

This isn't a new challenge. In 1930, the Olmstead Brothers and Bartholomew & Associates report titled "Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region" identified the importance of looking ahead and securing park acres to meet the region's needs. At that time, they identified a need for 70,000 acres of parkland. And today, public lands-owned by both the City and other agencies-total only 30,121 acres.

The TPL/ULI report goes on to criticize the City of L.A. for not having a strategic plan with respect to its parks and open space. Your response?

There is certainly a need for a long-range plan-to guide park acquisition, facility development, program delivery, and provide an overall vision.

However, it's extraordinarily difficult to acquire park acres in this market. In the last seven years, the Department has acquired only 308 acres in 38 different properties. Rec & Parks faces the same difficulties as the School District in terms of siting, and we're just going to have to look at new, creative approaches.

The passage of Prop. A, A2 and K clearly reflect that the community recognizes the importance of parks. And we've been working aggressively within the Department to maximize the benefits of those bond acts by renovating and expanding existing facilities, and making sure all our facilities are used to their maximum potential. We've completed 100 Prop. A projects with over $57 million. And we've completed over 30 Prop. K projects, with another couple hundred in design or construction.

The report further suggests that "the task of filling in a park system for such a large, underserved metropolis is too big a responsibility for any single department, and it would be preferable for the open-space needs assessment to be coordinated by a multiagency task force, or even directly out of the mayor's office." What are your thoughts?

There are a lot of agencies in L.A. with the ability to impact public parks and recreation. And I'm pleased to say that we have discussions underway to foster collaboration among those agencies-something that hasn't occurred in many years.

But instead of focusing on a new multi-jurisdictional agency, what we need to do is maximize our potential as individual agencies and find ways to work together. A new organization would have to invest time developing a system and approach, and frankly, experience a learning curve that would take years before having an impact.

When we interviewed you in May of 1999, you emphasized the importance of community involvement. The Department spent much of ‘99 conducting an extensive Community Needs Assessment to determine what each neighborhood wants in terms of park space. How have you responded to the Community Needs Assessment?

We've created about 150 park advisory boards composed of community residents. Those groups work very closely with our local Parks staff, both in reviewing and planning the facility programs and in providing input to the capital improvement plans.

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Our aim is to tailor each park capital project to the needs and wants of the local residents. We do that not only through the advisory boards, but also through the voluntary neighborhood oversight committees involved in our capital planning process. We start with a list of what staff has surveyed as the priorities for a particular park, and then sit down with the residents and get their feedback. No two parks should be cookie-cutter-each has to be shaped to the specific interests of its present and future users.

What are the possibilities of leveraging the school bonds (local and State) with the library bonds (City, County and State)? You're now an advisor to the Facilities Committee of the School District-is there potential for a joint relationship here?

The short answer is that in the last two years, we've created about three dozen joint-use agreements between LAUSD and the Dept. of Recreation & Parks to provide facility improvements and increased public access. Most are Prop. K capital projects to make existing LAUSD facilities available for community use during non-school hours. It's the first step in what I hope will be a long line of joint-use opportunities between schools and parks. We need to work together to ensure that school yards aren't sitting idle during non-school hours, and alternatively, that schools without adequate recreational space can use nearby parks.

The long-term answer is that I'd be delighted to see schools, community centers and parks all on one site. I can't think of a better way to create a community hub that draws children and their families together.

But there are some serious challenges to that. Under Prop. BB, LAUSD is facing an incredible time crunch to build schools, which makes it difficult to do the kind of collaboration and community planning that supports this model today. We would very much like to participate in the planning and development of a joint-use model, but we don't have the capital resources. Plus, by definition, when we talk about a joint campus, we're talking about a fairly large site, and LAUSD is struggling just to find small sites.

Let's close with your quote in The Planning Report in May of 1999. You said, "My goal is facilitating the effort that's going to make the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department the best recognized, most award-winning department in the U.S." Give us the status report on how far along we are in achieving this laudable goal.

We're definitely making progress.

One of the programs we've implemented in the last year is the CLASS (Clean and Safe Spaces) Parks Initiative, part of Mayor Riordan's Healthy Neighborhoods. CLASS Parks will focus on 37 of our most-in-need parks, improving park safety and access and increasing ongoing use.

In addition, in 20 of the 37 parks, we'll be creating new teen programs for youth-at-risk in the 11 to 15 age group. Rec. & Parks departments have traditionally focused on the 5 to 12 year old range. But the middle school kids we're reaching out to are at a critical age in their personal development and often have a lot of idle time.

Lastly, we're increasing the maintenance staff to ensure that parks stay fixed-up and supported for the long-term. We'll also be working closely with the Council offices, the Mayor's office, the LAPD, and community organizations in coordinating and implementing this program. Most importantly, we will work to expand and support the park advisory boards-because we know that without neighborhood involvement, it's impossible to generate the feelings of ownership that will make these solutions stick for the long-term.

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