May 1, 2003 - From the May, 2003 issue

Garcia Honored With PCL's Environmental Justice Award

Leading the charge for attaining equal access to Southern California beaches, the creation of parks and open space in Los Angeles' urban core, and the construction of school facilities that serve neighborhood needs, Robert Garcia is a champion of community building and environmental justice. It is then fitting that the Planning and Conservation League recently announced the creation of the Robert Garcia Award for Environmental Justice, to be awarded annually. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Robert Garcia, Director of the City Project, in which he discusses the award as well as his latest efforts with schools, parks and beaches.

Robert, the Planning and Conser- vation League recently an- nounced the creation of the Robert Garcia Award. How did this come about? What do you hope this award will honor?

PCL has started the Robert Garcia Award for Environmental Justice and named me the first recipient. This is quite an honor, and at the same time very humbling. PCL cited the work that I have done to improve the environment for all of the people of California and, in particular, Los Angeles. The award is really for the work that PCL and I have done together on equal access to parks and recreation, and for school construction and repair. I serve on the PCL board of directors. PCL and I worked closely to help create the state parks in the Cornfield, in Taylor Yard, along the Los Angeles River, and in the Baldwin Hills. We helped pass California's Prop 40, the largest park, air and water bond in U.S. history, with an unprecedented level of support among communities of color and low income communities. I serve as PCL's representative on the Citizens' School Bond Oversight Committee, overseeing the investment of over $8 billion for school construction and repair by the Los Angeles Unified School District. We view school construction and design as educational reform, public health and sustainable regional planning issues. PCL also works with us to ensure that the California coast remains open for all the people of California. PCL is the most progressive environmental organization, the only one that treats parks, schools, beaches and equal access to public resources as environmental quality and environmental justice issues.

In your last interview for TPR, we delved into the issues surrounding public beach access. Can you bring us up to speed on the status of the "Malibu/Geffen case" and what, if anything, has transpired with CLIPI's lawsuit over the last six months?

Cases have a way of making their way through the court system very slowly. The City of Malibu and media mogul David Geffen have filed a lawsuit to cut off the public's right to reach the beach. That case is still pending in the Los Angeles Superior Court, and we are hopeful that Malibu will drop the suit as just plain wrong. Last September we persuaded the California Coastal Commission to adopt a land use requiring Malibu to maximize public access to the beach while ensuring the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures and incomes. This is the first time that a government agency has explicitly implemented the statutory definition of environmental justice under state law. This is an important precedent not only for access to and along the beach along the 1,100 mile coast, but for other agencies as well. Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court in an unrelated case has agreed to hear a challenge to the composition of that Commission. We anticipate CLIPI will file a brief in that case too.

Why did CLIPI take this case?

The California coast belongs to all the people. That's been the case since California joined the Union. However, wealthy enclaves such as Malibu have been engaged in a long-term effort to cut off public access to the beach. People who are fortunate enough to own homes on the beach simply don't want other people people to walk by their homes on the way to the beach. And, they don't want other people to walk up and down the beach in front of their homes. One easy answer is if you don't like living on a public beach, then move someplace else. The beach is a public good. Everybody has the right to use the beach.

How is the Malibu case different from the litigation in Santa Barbara with the McCaw suit?

The claims are similar and rest on the proposition that providing access to a public beach is an illegal taking. The United States Supreme Court refused to hear the Santa Barbara case. That put a real crimp in the Malibu litigation and some of the claims of action have been dismissed as a result. I understand there may be settlement discussions going on as well.

Turning to another issue, the Center for Law in the Public Interest (CLIPI) published a report recently on the need for playing fields for sports at the Cornfield and Taylor Yard. What's the central thesis of this report?

The Cornfield is a 32-acre site, the last vast open space in downtown L.A. We helped organize the community to stop warehouses from being built there and pursuaded the State of California to buy the site for a park. Similarly, Taylor Yard is a 40-acre site that the state has purchased on the L.A. River near the Cornfield. We helped the community stop a commercial complex in favor of a park. Throughout the people's struggles for the parks, the state made implicit, and some people believe explicit, promises to have playing fields for soccer and other organized sports on both sites. The legislation setting up the Cornfield Advisory Committee calls for a recreational complex there. The state's conceptual plans for both site included playing fields. Governor Davis even stood on the Cornfield with the children of the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association to celebrate the purchase of the parks in December 2001, telling the children that Christmas had arrived early. It's more like the Grinch who stole Christmas. The day after the governor's re-election, state park officials announced for the first time it is against their policy to have playing fields for active sports. We disagree. State parks provide soccer, baseball, softball, field hockey, and other team sports for disproportionately wealthy white people in Malibu Bluffs, Will Rogers, Pfeiffer Big Sur, and other state parks.

The thesis of our report, Dreams of Fields (available on the web at www.clipi.org), is that simple justice requires balanced urban parks with playing fields for team sports in the Cornfield and Taylor Yard, which serve disproportionately poor people of color. Playing fields in balanced urban parks squarely fall within the state parks mission, to provide for the health, inspiration, and education of the people of California by providing recreation and preserving cultural and historical resources. Soccer, for example, is one of the most valued cultural resources for the Latino and other immigrant communities. The Native American Tongvas played a football-like sport on the banks of the L.A. River.

State parks is afraid of a slippery slope-if people play soccer in the Cornfield, what about a wild, pristine area like the Redwoods forest in Humboldt County? Well, obviously, an urban park in the heart of Los Angeles is different. And state parks is already providing playing fields for team sports for other communities. It is ironic that the California Coastal Commission is requiring Malibu to provide public access to the beach to achieve equal justice, while state parks is denying equal justice by providing Malibu with sports fields and not providing them in the inner city. Elaborate on your concerns with the planning for these two regional parks by State Parks.

The state is having two separate general plan processes for the Cornfield and Taylor Yard, which reflects the lack of sustainable regional planning in Los Angeles. In Taylor Yards, the city and the state are negotiating a land swap for the city to take 15 acres to provide playing fields there, while the state seeks more land in West L.A. Although the Cornfield Advisory Committee has issued its own report calling for playing fields for teams sports, there are no land swap discussions for the Cornfield.

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We support a creative, fair solution for a balanced park with playing fields at the Cornfield and Taylor Yard.

More importantly, instead of fighting over a slice of the pie we support a broader approach that makes the pie bigger for everyone. We advocate one big heritage parkway that will serve as a "family album" for the generations of diverse people who have entered the region through the heart of Los Angeles. The cultural and historic richness of the Cornfield lies in the fact that it was part of the original Pueblo that became the City of Los Angeles. There should be a heritage parkway linking El Pueblo Historic Park, the Cornfield, Taylor Yard, the Los Angeles River, the Arroyo Seco, Elysian Park, Debs Parks, the school district's urban learning village, and over 100 cultural, historical, and recreational resources in the vicinity. The heritage parkway would commemorate the Tongvas, the Spanish settlers, the Mexicans and Californios, the Chinese in Chinatown, the Japanese in Little Tokyo, the early African-American residents. The Little Tokyo Historic District is a good example of how to create one linked historic district, or the freedom trail in Boston. MTA can provide buses to take children and their families and friends from the herigate parkway downtown to the Santa Monica Mountains, to the beach, to the Angeles National Forest, and to other wilderness and recreational areas. This frees up the Cornfield for desperately needed open space, and allows the use of the empty historical buildings in El Pueblo for museums.

Creating this heritage parkway will be a challenge for state and local officials. They need to learn how to work together for the greater common good. The 1982 general plan for El Pueblo called for the state, county and city to develop a historic park there jointly, but after years of squabbling, the plan broke down. Today most of the buildings in El Pueblo lie empty, with fake windows painted on some to disguise the eyesores. If government agencies worked together, Los Angeles would have a world class park with enough resources for everyone-riparian sites, hiking trails, playing fields, museums, and so on. It will require courage, vision and leadership.

So far that's lacking. Sooner or later government officials will start doing what's best for the people of the Los Angeles region.

Consistent with your park concerns, New Schools -Better Neighborhoods and CLIPI and you have been interested in the siting and design of new schools to enhance community and neighborhood vitality. Recently, the City of L.A., its redevelopment agency and the school district agreed to create an MOU process modeled after New Schools-Better Neighborhoods' work in Pico Union/Westlake. All future developments and redevelopment areas in the city now will be linked to a memorandum of understanding binding the parties to a collaboratively planning process. Is this the beginning a significant policy change or but one small step towards a meaningful commitment to neighborhood planning?

It's both. The memorandum of understanding between the city, LAUSD and the CRA is an important step showing that different government agencies can work together to make the optimal use of scarce land and public resources. Keep in mind that a few weeks ago the CRA was on the verge of suing the school district over a site in Valley Plaza. The School Bond Oversight Committee, which I chair, publicly denounced the stupidity of one agency suing over another. Now the city and the school district have agreed to work together, borrowing their approach from NSBN. That's progress, but a lot more remains to be done.

There is a tremendous need for the school district and the city to work together on schools and parks. The school district is investing over $8 billion for school construction and modernization to begin to make up for the lack of schools in the wake of Prop 13, which cut property taxes in 1978. Voters state-wide passed about $20 billion in school construction bonds last November. Los Angeles is also park poor, with fewer acres of parks per thousand residents compared to any major city in the country. Schools should serve as centers of community with playgrounds open after school and on weekends, and parks available for school use. After years of advocacy by the School Board Oversight Committee, I think members of the LAUSD board get it. I think Superintendent Romer gets it. There's now a proposal for Belmont that includes both a school and a park there. But the school district cannot do it alone. The real weakness now lies in the city of Los Angeles. Mayor Hahn needs to exercise vision, courage, and leadership by requiring city agencies, specially Recreation & Parks, to work with LAUSD on the joint use of schools, playgrounds and parks. There's some rhetoric but little action from the city.

That might be changing. A new taskforce has been created to work on schools, playgrounds and parks. I have asked an Oversight Committee member to serve as co-chair. Two other Oversight Committee members and I also serve on the task force. There is a lot of potential for success here, but we are just getting started.

New Schools-Better Neighborhoods and others have long advocated that incentives be built both into state and local funding and regulatory approval processes for new schools. What still needs to be done to realize this goal?

As I said before, state and local taxpayers dollars are being used to build both parks and schools. The incentive is that if you don't do joint use, you don't get the money to build the park or the school. There are some joint use incentives in Prop. 47, last year's school construction bond, and some in Measure K, the local $3.35 billion school construction and repair bond. That's good. There will be another statewide school construction bond in 2004. CLIPI is working with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and the Southwest Voter Registration Project now on joint use bills. We hope to build more support statewide and locally, drawing on the lessons that resulted in diverse support for Prop 40, the park, air and water bond in 2002 among communities of color and low income communities.

And lastly, elaborate on CLIPI's agenda going forward?

CLIPI is celebrating its 31st anniversary at our fundraising dinner on July 16 at the Biltmore. We have helped build and lead the alliances that created the state parks in the Cornfield, Taylor Yard and Baldwin Hills. We serve on the governor's Environmental Growth and Planning Report. We recently won a major settlement with the county of Los Angeles on foster care. The county has agreed to provide necessary mental health services to 50,000 foster care children in private homes or home-like settings rather than in institutions. This agreement will also benefit all future children throughout the county system. In a suit under the clean water act, the city has admitted liability for 3,600 sewer spills that disproportionately impact the African-American community in Baldwin Hills. We ask for the support of your readers to help us keep doing the great work we've been doing for over thirty years to make Los Angeles and California a better, more just, place for all.

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