August 1, 2001 - From the August, 2001 issue

Baldwin Hills Park Is Moving Closer To Reality: The Model Regional Park Plan Is Grand In Concept

21st Century Los Angeles is plagued with a lack of open space and compounded by widespread economic and social stratification. To some, those elements may be polar opposites. However, upon further investigation they're the constituent elements of an environmental justice movement which may hold the answer to reconnecting our city's divergent neighborhood clusters. TPR was pleased to talk with Esther Feldman, president of Community Conservancy International, who clarifies how she imbedded these factors into the outreach and planning process for the Baldwin Hills Park and what it means for the future of L.A.


Esther Feldman

Esther, as the President of Community Conservancy International, the entity charged with creating a vision for the Baldwin Hills Park, please give our readers a brief description of the proposed plan and its status.

The Baldwin Hills Park is the first large-scale urban park to be planned in the U.S. in well over a century. And because of the community-based nature of the planning process that Community Conservancy International (CCI) implemented, it's truly becoming a model for how urban parks should be looked at and addressed in the 21st Century.

It's also particularly important in L.A. because we have such a record of failure when it comes to setting out long-term visions and implementing them. The Baldwin Hills Park Plan accomplishes both by setting out a vision that conserves natural lands and protects local communities by building bridges between African-American, Latino and White communities.

What's the area affected by this effort? And who are the critical players involved in this vision?

Over 1 million people work or reside within a 5-mile radius of the Baldwin Hills and close to 3 million are within 10 miles. So we're dealing with a dense area that rivals the populations of a number of states.

CCI's outreach incorporates over 150 stakeholder organizations, including 30 homeowner organizations, 55 churches and 60 schools. It's a comprehensive and inclusive outreach effort-very time-consuming and absolutely essential to the future of the Baldwin Hills Park.

What issues have emerged out of this planning process as tough and challenging? And how did you overcome them to reach consensus on the elements of this vision?

From the beginning, we've heard a broad range of desires from the community, as well as from public agencies and special interests. In the numerous public workshops we were told that the number one priority was to keep the Baldwin Hills a natural, tranquil place, where people could escape the pressures of the city. People were very concerned that the natural habitats and the wildlife who depend on them be protected.

However, we also heard some members insist that the new park include a number of active uses, including ball fields, tournament quality tennis facilities and a golf course. Community facilities were also a very high priority, as were the need to integrate education and cultural amenities into the Baldwin Hills Park Plan and to protect surrounding neighborhoods from park impacts. What we realized is that we needed to redefine the term "park" in a much more contemporary way. The Baldwin Hills Park needs to become a place where people can come together for a wide variety of purposes.

With all these factors, our greatest challenge was to meld the different uses together into a cohesive plan that not only addressed community concerns but could be implemented over a number of years so that a comprehensive park would emerge over time. We also had to take into account the steep slopes of the Baldwin Hills, the wildlife habitat needs and other restrictions of the landscape itself. Working closely with our landscape architectural team, the "One Big Park" concept emerged as a response to these various design issues and concerns.

The "One Big Park" design includes the creation of a land bridge above La Cienega Blvd. that reconnects the east and west ridgelines and unifies the area into a cohesive 2 square mile park. This creates a continuous, natural open space area that encircles the entire park, providing important natural land connections and buffering the more visitor-intense active recreation and educational uses from the surrounding neighborhoods. So the existing topography really was an asset in not only differentiating uses, but creating a universally accepted framework.

Esther, you've seen planning exercises both from the private and non-profit sectors, as well as from the vantage of an L.A. County Planning Commission Chair. How do you compare the responsibility you had with the County Planning Commission to this job where you're working outside of government? Who has more power?

The most important thing in carrying out a planning effort on the scale of the Baldwin Hills is realizing that one needs to not only see the big picture, but also to understand how each component works individually and how all the elements fit into a long-term timeline. That is probably the same whether you are a public or private sector planner.

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However, you also need to be able to bring together what many see as ‘strange bedfellows' and have them sit down at the same table. I've found that the benefit to working in the context of a non-profit organization such as CCI, is that it provides the flexibility to bring together very different individuals and organizations from both the public and private sectors. It's much harder to do that when you work for a public entity.

That's actually one of the things that makes this project so exciting. We live in a time and place where the word ‘diversity' is thrown around a lot. We're really addressing it by bringing together a diverse socio-economic group, getting them involved and keeping them excited about the possibility of what the Baldwin Hills Park will bring to the community.

Money, whether it's bond funding or private donations, plays an incredibly important role in the realization of that vision. Talk about the funding that you had to piece together to make this a realizable act.

The funding component has actually been coming together since the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area was originally formed in the early 70s. However, our most recent funding sources are from County Prop. A funds-both from the 1992 and 1996 measures-and Prop. 12 funds. The Prop. 12 funds have already been used on the purchase of the Vista Pacifica Scenic site and we intend to continue working with leaders in both Sacramento and D.C. to make sure that additional funds get earmarked as we progress.

In the middle of this effort, plans were almost stymied by the announcement that a power plant had applied for permits to build in the middle of the Baldwin Hills. Talk about how that arose, your reaction and the lessons learned from that episode.

The power plant proposal came as a response to the state's so-called "energy crisis." This power plant was moving forward under the Governor's emergency orders, which allowed only a 21-day fast-tracking process for all review of these kinds of "peaker" plants. That, coupled with the need of an oil company currently inhabiting part of the site to have a dedicated power source, spurred the entire effort.

With barely two weeks notice, a coalition of over 65 religious, civil rights, community and conservation groups opposed the plant and over 1,000 people attended the public hearing on this plant, not just to protest the power plant, but to speak in favor of the park. The level of opposition wasn't merely about defeating the plant; it was about protecting the long-term vision of the park. More than anything, that battle showed us the strong support the Baldwin Hills Park Plan has within surrounding communities. They understand the long-term vision and they're willing to fight to make sure that vision stays intact.

Clearly there will be disagreements as implementation progresses, but what will be the overarching milestones we should look to in judging your success?

The initial benchmark will be restoration of existing publicly-owned parklands. We have a number of areas in the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area that are severely impacted by non-native exotic plants that really harm the environment. So one of the things you should look for is some community efforts to rehabilitate a number of areas of the park with native plants.

Another benchmark will be acquiring additional lands to continue expanding the park. CCI is working to purchase a mile of property to create the Stocker Street Trail-the first trail in the Baldwin Hills communities.

And lastly, CCI is dedicated to creating public access, restoring degraded lands and involving the community in designing the state-of-the-art visitor facilities for the recently-acquired Pacifica Vista Scenic site. If we are to continue to have success, we need to make this site easily available to everyone, so that people can truly experience all that the Baldwin Hills has to offer.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.