October 10, 2000 - From the October, 2000 issue

A Serious Critique of L.A.'s Park System: TPL/ULI Report 'Inside City Parks'

As Los Angeles faces massive challenges with housing and education, some may forget that an adequate supply of open space is equally important to our quality of life. The Trust for Public Land & the Urban Land Institute's recent publication, Inside City Parks, codifies the importance of park systems in metropolitan life. TPR is pleased to present this excerpt from the L.A. Chapter, which recounts our lack of vision, yet heralds our community's great potential.

If the American Dream is a singlefamily house on a quarter-acre lot with a two-car garage and a couple of television sets, does that dream include any room for parks? Nowhere does this question have more relevance than in Los Angeles.

With only 10% of its total city land devoted to parks and open space, L.A.'s park system trails all the other big cities of the West Coast and even scores below New York and Philadelphia. Moreover, the open space in this farflung city is distributed very unevenly, with the bulk contained in the city's difficult-to-reach, mountainous midsection: Topanga State Park (9,470 acres), Santa Susana Mountains Park (1,026 acres), Franklin Canyon and its surrounding lands (2,753 acres), and Griffith Park (4,171 acres). (Of all this land, only Griffith Park is designed for heavy public use.)

Griffith Park is justifiably held out as one of America's great city parks. But a grand park alone does not constitute a system, and there are not many medium-sized and regional parks to provide backup for Griffith Park. The millions of residents of center-city and south central Los Angeles and of the San Fernando Valley must travel miles to reach even small park parcels.

With hindsight, it is clear that L.A.'s spectacular location and innovative lifestyle undermined the political will to create a quality park system, despite the efforts of George Hjelte, the internationally known playground and park advocate and innovator who first ran the city's Playground Department and later the Recreation and Parks Department . For one thing, the city had the magnificent Pacific Ocean beach in addition to a seemingly endless stretch of mountain wilderness to the west, north, and east. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was hard to imagine that those natural resources would ever become overused or depleted and would need to be supplemented with artificial parks. In addition, there were all those backyards; Los Angeles seemed well on its way to becoming the first city with so much private lawn space that public parks would be unnecessary. Finally, there was Griffith Park, a glorious retreat so huge and varied that it seemed able to meet Angelenos' park needs forever.

In 1896, when Colonel Griffith J. Griffith donated his 3,500-acre Rancho Los Feliz to the city, it was an isolated mountainous property several miles outside the city limits . [T]oday Griffith Park lies in the center of the vast urban expanse and is visited annually by more than 12 million people, who delight in its [many uses] .

[Yet] Griffith Park is not perfect. For one thing, California state transportation planners used it as a convenient location for two freeways, paving over 260 acres (one-fifth of the park's level area) and permanently reducing the quality of hundreds more adjoining acres because of noise and air and visual pollution. Moreover, the freeways irreparably separate the park from the Los Angeles River. In addition [to hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance], the park is the site of a 90-acre landfill crammed with 16 million tons of trash. (Sealed and seeded in 1985, the dump is gradually settling and should be available for public use in 2015.) The situation would have been even worse had it not been for the extraordinary defense of the park by Colonel Griffith's son, Van, and later descendants. Without the family's dedication, the park could have suffered the fate of nearby Elysian Park, which lost hundreds of acres to a police academy, Dodger Stadium, [etc.]

A shortage of funds is not unique to Griffith Park. The entire recreation and park system in L.A. has, until recently, been starved of capital appropriations. Even with so-called Quimby Funds paid by developers to mitigate the loss of open space resulting from new housing construction, the Department of Recreation and Parks purchased less than 1,000 acres between 1972 and 1998 . Recognizing that elected officials were not taking responsibility for the loss of open space, the conservation and environmental community sought to place matters directly in voters' hands. The first effort to pass a large, countywide park bond measure in 1990 failed. After the civil unrest following the Rodney King trial, however, the revamped campaign picked up many new proponents who felt that inadequate recreation outlets in south Los Angeles might have contributed to the riot. Supporters included Richard Riordan who was chair of the Recreation and Parks Commission at the time. In 1992, L.A. County passed Proposition A, a $550 million assessment measure for parks (the largest ever county park authorization in the U. S.), of which $126 million was earmarked for the city.

In 1996, with the support of [Supervisor Yaroslavsky and Mayor] Riordan, the coffers were opened even wider as recreation bond issues were passed in both L.A. County ($319 million) and city ($25 million a year for 30 years). This time the leader was the new president of the Recreation and Parks Commission, Steven Soboroff, an enthusiastic real estate professional, committed to pushing the department out of its old way of doing things. It took several years to get the money flowing but by early 1999, 100 construction and reconstruction projects were underway.

Capital expenditures are only half the picture, however. The city's yearly operating budget is equally important . Unlike most city agencies, the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks has a guaranteed source of income under the city charter (a direct payment of $0.13 for every $100 of city property valuation, for a total of $51.7 million in 1999) plus the authority to keep all fees that it receives. Nevertheless, even adding a $22 million appropriation by the city council, the department is still underfunded .

Not only is L.A. short of parkland, but also it seems to be short on a vision for parkland, at least in the area south of the Hollywood Hills. The compelling dream and driving force for open space in the region is focused north and west of the city in the Santa Monica Mountains, and that effort, led by the state-chartered Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, seems to have grabbed and channeled most of the conservationist energy and commitment of the residents of greater Los Angeles. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a laudable project, but it will do relatively little for the more than million lower-income people of color who live south of Hollywood.


One area that holds promise for new parkland lies along the L.A. River, the nation's most maligned waterway. The area is now largely a concrete channel that was publicly suggested for highway use in the dry season, but the 51-mile river was once the centerpiece of a diverse riparian community. Breaking up some of the concrete, planting vegetation, reintroducing a community of animals, installing riverside trails, and creating a string of small and medium-sized parks along the waterway is a vision that, despite the average Angeleno's incredulity, is gaining momentum. More than half the river's length is within the city of L.A. (it also runs through 12 other jurisdictions), and the river has attractive, soft-bottom sections that support vegetation and over 200 species of birds. A potpourri of private organizations-including North East Trees and the Trust for Public Land-is taking the lead on saving the river and working under the umbrella leadership of the Friends of the Los Angeles River. So far, the only government agency that has successfully produced results is the city's Department of Transportation, which coordinated three miles of bikeway construction along the river and plans four more.

Thus far, virtually all projects along the L.A. River involve small parcels of land and incremental improvements, but one large tract holds promise: the Taylor Yard, an unused, 174-acre Union Pacific rail yard. The city is studying the site for a mixed-use development with housing, industry, retail, and 66 acres of parkland-the first significant new parkland to be created downtown in generations. If designed sensitively, the project could do for L.A. what the new Commons (also a former rail yard) promises to do for Denver, but the city must first find the political will to spend the $25-$30 million the land will cost.

With big parcels so expensive, some park advocates are setting their sights on microsites. In low-income communities, these frequently isolated abandoned properties could be used for basketball courts, baseball diamonds, or simply neighborhood picnicking and gathering places. (The department is also seeking to work with the school district to cooperate on the use, management, and maintenance of school properties, but the two bureaucracies have not yet succeeded in making the program work.) Another possible source of recreation fragments is the city's DWP, which has several abandoned reservoir sites and also owns about 3,000 acres underneath its 100-plus miles of power lines in the city.

In downtown L.A., a few developers are beginning to fashion public/private deals similar to those pioneered in New York City. Most dramatic was the 1993 renovation of the L.A. Public Library, which included a complete redesign of its adjoining parks, plus the creation of the striking, five-story Bunker Hill Steps, a parklike pedestrian space inspired by the Spanish Steps in Rome. Maguire Thomas Partners privately financed the entire open-space scheme in return for the right to gain additional height for a new office tower and to construct a parking garage under the library's park.

As a result of that successful effort, [some leaders are] now turning [their] sights to Pershing Square, the city's second oldest park, which has fallen on protracted hard times. Once a lovely, forested square surrounded by exclusive hotels and shops, the square has been gradually de-nuded, de-benched, and paved over with concrete in a failing effort to control vagrants and panhandlers. Through a public/private partnership, the park was again redesigned in 1994, but thus far the effort has been unsuccessful.

Another lovely downtown space teetering between failure and rejuvenation is 32-acre MacArthur Park . The MacArthur Park neighborhood is the beneficiary of a station location on the city's new subway, offering the opportunity for park and economic development advocates to work together to create a vibrant, attractive urban village with jobs, opportunities, and hope. This will not happen without a strategic plan, however, and the department at present does not have one.

The consequences of operating without a plan have been twofold. First, the uncoordinated political requests of the city council have repeatedly buffeted the department. Instead of big, bold agency initiatives, park programs are reduced to small, "divided-by-15" miniprojects aimed at preserving parity among the council districts. Second, other public agencies have begun stepping into the void. The city's first rail-to-trail effort, the Exposition Boulevard Greenway, was undertaken not by the Recreation and Parks Department but by the Department of Environmental Affairs, which got the MTA, DOT, and USC to join in. Moreover, the lead agency on the Los Angeles River Bikeway, one of the mayor's pet projects, is the Department of Transportation.

After years of weak leadership, things may be changing in L.A. For one thing, the Recreation and Parks Department spent much of the year 1999 undertaking an extensive Community Needs Assessment program, holding outreach meetings with each neighborhood to determine what people want as a precursor to producing a plan of action. Recreation and Parks Commissioner Soboroff, who wants to move the agency forward expeditiously, asked that the much-delayed 1996 bond money be spent in 24 months instead of the 25 years the agency was planning on. Also, in June 1999, Mayor Riordan appointed a new General Manager, Ellen Oppenheim, who has experience with both parks and event marketing.

The task of filling in a park system in 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. Despite the challenge, if any American city has a "can-do" spirit, it is L.A. Given the right leadership and tools, Los Angeles parks could thrive in the 21st century.


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