May 1, 2001 - From the May, 2001 issue

Audubon & City Of L.A. Join Forces To Revitalize Deb's Park: A Joint Venture/Plan With Regional Significance

For Angelenos, "parkland" connotes a space for picnicking and playing sports. While this definition is accurate, the greater good of open space comes when those items are linked with conservation and restoration in an attempt to increase quality of life. TPR was pleased to sit down with Councilman Mike Hernandez and L.A. Audubon Director Melanie Ingalls who detail their plan to link these features into a holistic revitalization plan for Ernest E. Debs Park, address why this project is so important and why it may represent an opportunity to educate future generations re: conservation.

Ernest E. Debs Regional Park: Land Use Areas

Melanie, why don't we begin this interview with you giving us a sense of what your vision is for Ernest E. Debs Regional park? What are the pieces that had to come together in order to make it whole?

Melanie Ingalls
Director, L.A. Audubon

The crux of our vision for Debs Park is really the ability for children in the urban core to have the same access to the outdoor experience as those on the Westside.

As for the specific siting of our Nature Center, my first inclination was Elysian Park-obviously I'm 20 years too late for that. But in going up to Elysian Park and surveying the area, I was able to see a grassy knoll off in the distance, an urban wilderness in the center of urbanized Los Angeles-Ernest E. Debs park.

After choosing the site, our next step was the long process of taking our vision to the community. They were really receptive and those positive meetings led to the creation of a community advisory committee focused on creating a framework plan which concretely identified the specific kinds of uses that the community and Audubon wants in this open space.

Mike, can you give us some background on what led to the Council voting early this month to lease 16 of the 282 acres of the park for a nature center. What moved you and led the Council to adopt this new inner-city nature center?

Mike Hernandez
Councilman, Council Distict 1

The nature center is the last step in an evolution that began with the City resuming its maintenance responsibility for Debs Park from L.A. County. But it was not an easy road by any means. There was a substantial conflict of vision as to what the Rec. and Parks Department wanted to do with the park versus what the local community wanted to create. At one point the previous General Manager had even suggested that Debs Park should be turned into a water park-the complete opposite of what the community wanted.

So to give the community a voice, we created a community group called "Friends of Debs Park." After that we were able to allocate some funding and as Melanie said craft the framework plan. And when they finished drafting the framework plan they not only had community consensus, but were able to parlay that into complete bureaucratic buy-in.

Mike, you pushed hard and led the effort for a large park bond for the city. Coinciding with the passage of that bond was a report from The Trust for Public Land stating that the City of Los Angeles was a park poor city. Is the implementation of Prop. K and the park bonds (Prop. 12 and Prop. 13) what you envisioned? How do you see it playing itself out as other groups, like the Urban Land Institute, Trust for Public Land and now Audubon begin discussion of an urban park agenda? Is this a model of what you hoped to see with the use of these city park funds?

Mike Hernandez

Money is finally being leveraged to create passive and active open space and the natural model is evolving. Right now the City's Prop. K funding is being used in tandem with both Prop. 12 and Prop. 13 to revitalize the urbanized areas of our dense metropolis not merely for ball fields and picnic areas but for meaningful habitat conservation and open space. And having organizations like the Audubon Society step up to the plate, make a commitment to the urban core and actively raise funds for the creation of these urban oases, is extremely hopeful.

Projects like this with both passive and active recreation raise the ageless debate about whether the City of Los Angeles and its park agencies are structured to create open space habitats or simply continue to add ball fields and swing sets. Mike, how does this debate play itself out within the City?

Mike Hernandez

Our Department of Recreation and Parks is limited in its capacity to expand park space. Money is simply not coming in through the historic funding mechanisms predicated on large-scale development and in lieu fees. That's why initiatives like Prop. K, Prop. 12 and Prop. 13 have made such a tremendous difference.

Additionally, we are finding that we have strong environmental groups that are trying to shape the debate, preserve the ecosystem and add open space to society's list of priorities. And they are no longer simply making speeches, they are joining the dialogue and working with the public sector. That's what's exciting. They've added "constructive stress" to the land use process.


We have very limited choices in the urban core and Los Angeles needs to stop being the butt of environmental and open space jokes and start being an example. We have to make difficult choices, not just about open space but with the concepts of housing, gridlock, density and population. Blending those into a comprehensive plan for open space and activity is very positive for a community and is where the future of Los Angeles lies.

Melanie what about when you try to propose nature centers like this in the midst of urban parks? What are the tensions you run into? And what "constructive stress" do you put on the Rec. and Parks Department?

Melanie Ingalls

There's a lot of competition for space. And I think Mike makes a great observation. There's really not a lot of true park space particularly for the growing urban populace. And the Debs Park Framework Plan takes that into account and plans holistically for all the uses needed by an urban community-ball fields, picnic areas and pristine open space. So the Community Advisory Committee actually took a more regional approach to open space planning, looking at the range of facility needs available and necessary and planned accordingly.

Parks are not just about ball fields and playground equipment. These lands can actually provide significant habitat for plants and animals. We must realize that land needs to be looked at through different lenses. Different sites provide differing assets to a community. We're hoping that Debs Park helps to forward that type of thinking and understanding.

Mike, in a relatively short time the majority of L.A. City Council will be new. Despite your District replacement Ed Reyes' familiarity with your leadership and projects, what lessons have you learned here with the nature center and Debs Park that ought to be passed on to the next set of leaders for Los Angeles?

Mike Hernandez

One of the things I'm trying to put an emphasis on is that the local community clearly understands what they want and need. I'm going through a number of projects right now that are dealing with open space versus job creation, like at the Cornfields and Taylor Yard. And what I'm finding is, a lot of people that are arguing on behalf of the community tend to be outsiders. They tend to be people who have this regional perspective. But while that's critically important, we cannot forget about the local community in this dialogue. They must be allowed and encouraged to participate in the process.

We need to empower the local communities and give them the tools to understand that they have a role in shaping this policy. It really boils down to a simple paradigm-when you have the support of your local constituents, you can overcome a lot of things.

Well, let me add to that. L.A. Unified has a huge challenge in trying to provide facilities for its burgeoning student body. But they have no regulatory requirements to collaborate with cities, planning agencies, or local communities. How do we take the experience of this enterprise and integrate the idea of parks, schools and community centers in a more constructive way throughout our urban neighborhoods?

Melanie Ingalls

Busing kids out of their neighborhoods isn't the answer. The kinds of behavioral changes and life-long lessons learned in conjunction with Audubon are things that need to be encouraged in the context of the family. So our entire vision about this Nature Center is providing opportunities for kids and their families to get outdoors within their own neighborhood. That's really what will ultimately help schools, returning to the community level.

Mike Hernandez

We all know it's difficult to build anything in the urban core. It's a lengthy process made even more cumbersome when you operate individually. First, the City needs to develop its general and specific plans taking all infrastructure, including schools, into account. And second, the school district needs to understand that the development process would be a lot simpler if they cooperated with the City.

I believe the School District wants desperately to comply with its student population, they just haven't figured out how to do it. I hope that new leadership-on the Council and the School Board-will make answering that question a priority. The current Mayor has established it as a priority, we were just never able to implement it. Hopefully these new leaders will come in with a clear understanding of the school problem and have the kind of cooperative spirit to actually begin to work hand in hand with the District to solve the system-wide problems of schools and open space.


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