May 1, 2003 - From the May, 2003 issue

Manuel Mollinedo Assumes Leadership Of L.A.'s Recreation & Parks Department

One of the great challenges faced by the city of Los Angeles is the dearth of parks and open space. Recent legislation providing funding for the acquisition of land for public use is a positive step. However, the need remains to support the maintenance and programming of new parks, an underfunded line item in the city's general fund. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Los Angeles' general manager of Recreation & Parks, Manuel Mollinedo, in which he addresses the challenges he inherits.

TPR interviewed your predecessor, Ellie Oppenheim, both as she was leaving L.A. and then almost a year into her new work in San Diego. One of the themes that emerged from those two interviews was how complicated managing a L.A. Department was-- with the mayor occassionally pulling in one direction, 15 council members in another, and a commission to report to as well. This contrasts with the city manager form of government in San Diego. As someone very knowledgeable about how the city Los Angeles works, how easy it is to ascertain a policy and managerial direction for your department?

I have experience working in a city manager form of government and I have to agree with Ellie that it is much easier. Although, the cities that employ city manager forms of government tend to be much smaller than the city of Los Angeles.

With Mayor Jim Hahn and the new city charter, it's going to make it a little bit easier for him to manage the city and work more closely with the City Council. But, it's still going to be a challenge. I work for the Mayor of Los Angeles and oftentimes councilmembers have to be reminded of that. Each one of the 15 councilmembers often thinks that this department only works for their council district. Periodically, as diplomatically as possible, I have to remind them that my department is responsible to the entire city when it comes to open space and recreation services. That does make it a little bit more challenging.

Ellie also noted approvingly that San Diego had just developed a park master plan to help guide the future development of their system for the next 10 to 25 years. Is there an equivalent document in L.A.? Should there be?

There definitely should be a similar document for this department and for the city. I discussed this with the mayor. Because I was extremely concerned about this, I've now brought on a new director of planning for our department. He's actually established an advanced planning unit with the idea that we're going to work with the mayor's office to try to identify funds. This year is tight because of the budget crisis. But, I am looking to see if we can identify future funds so that we can begin a comprehensive process that master plans the park needs of the entire city.

Clearly, there are demands for more parks in all of California and especially in L.A. A number of Council and independent initiatives are being prepared to fund acquisition of more parkland and pocket parks for the City. How do you intelligently grapple with pressure for more capital investment given that fewer operating dollars are available to support what the City already manages?

We cannot continue to add open space and parks to our system without providing the appropriate funding for maintaining them. I realize that police and fire are very important, but there's a cost for having open space in your community. And, it's just as important as police services. Whether you develop an urbanized park or you develop an open space area, it does cost you money to maintain it.

Currently, there are a number of entities advocating for open space throughout the city-the City Council, Councilmen Eric Garcetti and Ed Reyes recently put together a foundation to develop pocket parks, other agencies concerned about trying to open and develop more park land in the city of Los Angeles. This movement is an outgrowth of the fact that there's been a vacuum in this department for many years. Previous general managers of this department haven't stepped into a leadership role in being advocates for parklands and how they're going to be developed in this city.

The public has been rather generous in voting to support state and local park funds in the last decade. Has the city been able to take advantage of these bonds, especially Prop 40 and others, to your liking?

You're absolutely right; the residents of this state have been very supportive in voting for these bonds. When I first came on board, this department was struggling with how effectively they were going to take those monies and turn them into additional recreation facilities and green space in our communities. Since that time, we've partnered with the Bureau of Engineering, with the General Services Department, and I now have a new Director of Planning, so that we can move aggressively to make sure that these monies are being converted into projects that are being completed on time and on budget.

But Manuel, doesn't this hearken back to the core problem of having more parkland than the Department can afford to maintain? Is this not already a recipe for a management disaster?

You're absolutely right, it is a recipe for disaster. If we are going to be adding more land and more facilities, we have to have the staffing. When discussing the current budget crisis with the mayor, I even recommended not opening or just slowing down the development of some facilities. But, he felt it was important enough to continue with the momentum that we've started here and funds have been identified for the new facilities.

Any lessons to be learned from watching the state park folks grapple with Baldwin Hills and the Cornfield?

The Taylor Yards actually has been more instructive. We have a situation where you're actually talking about cultural conflicts. When the state comes in and starts talking about building wild areas and open space that fit in with the type of parks that they manage and isn't sensitive to what the community wants in a park, that is a formula for disaster. You've got to sit down with the community and educate them, and it's going to be a process that takes time. You have to explain to them the benefits of the wild open spaces. You just can't deal with open spaces and neglect the more intense use areas because of the young population we have. There is a popular perception of what community parks should be.

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Manuel, this newsletter has often noted that we have LAUSD, library, parks, and housing interests all competing for scarce land in the inner-city and inner-suburban neighborhoods of Los Angeles; and, there's too little collaboration among these interests. Again, Ellie notes that in San Diego there are 75 joint agreements with their school district. What progress have we made in L.A. in working across bureaucratic lines to collaborative site and designed mixed use public facilities and open space?

Right now, we are working very closely with the school district. Sometimes the process is slow because the school district does have a number of rules and regulations that they have to abide by. But, progress is being made in a very significant fashion. We're now actually planning and in the process of building parks adjacent to elementary schools, designed jointly so that the school benefits from the park and the park will benefit from the school.

In addition to that, we have situations, like at Irving Junior High School, where we were able to give the school district Proposition K funds to build an artificial surface soccer field and their playground. School children benefit during the school day, but then we have access for groups in the evening. Obviously, the relationship can improve and I'm hoping that it does improve in the years ahead.

Let's take a half step back. Can you enumerate some of the challenges the Recreation and Parks Department faces in the year to come?

Well right now, the biggest challenge is dealing with this budget. Not only is the state having some difficult problems, but those problems are trickling down to the city of Los Angeles. We're going to have to do some belt tightening and retool and rethink how we provide services.

In the long term, we have to start looking at building more sustainable parks and buildings, which in the long run will reduce the amount of maintenance that these types of areas will require. one of the biggest challenges I have is changing the culture here in this department. The types of the plants we use in our parks are almost exclusively non-indigenous. We live in a high desert region. We have to be better managers for our parks. We've got to be looking at consuming less water and the introduction of native vegetation in our parks. Installing native vegetation would help educate the public on the types of plants they can use in their own gardens that would use less water and benefit the community. As we discussed earlier, reducing our operating costs will allow us to expand our services to the community.

The Department has been managing two very high-profile projects: the Greek Theatre and Barnsdall Park. Do you want to bring our readers up to speed on what's going on with both?

We finally worked out a plan for the improvements to the Greek Theatre. When I came on board, that whole project had pretty much been set aside and I was able to get a handle on it. We had a number of community meetings to explain to the community the improvements that are going to take place and we've done some minor modifications the community felt very comfortable with. At this time, we look to have the construction of improvements beginning as soon as the Greek Theatre's performance season is over, which is probably going to be around the first part of October.

Barnsdall Park was another project that was delayed for longer than it should have been. I anticipate right now that the park is going to be completed and opened in June, so the arts community can then have access to all of the buildings. Unfortunately, the Frank Lloyd Wright Hollyhock house is not going to be open to the public. We've buttoned it up and it's sealed up from the elements so it doesn't deteriorate any more. We worked very closely with our Bureau of Engineering in the hopes of bringing on an architect that can really give us some definitive ideas as to exactly what the restoration is going to cost. We then can work with the community to establish a support foundation that can assist the city in raising the funds necessary to do a major restoration of that historic structure. At present, we anticipate it's probably going to be somewhere in the $18 million range to restore.

There are many critics out there on how the situation with the Greek Theatre has been handled by the City and the Department. It appears that even the minimal investment requirements placed on the Nederlanders lease renewal have now been eased by the Commission. Do you want to respond to those critics who ask if the City is receiving what was promised after a very contested political contract- award process?

Right now, the Nederlanders are required to fulfill their agreement and I've found them to be very cooperative. I had concerns with some of the commitments that were made. The dollar amount that they're going to be contributing to the department remains the same, but I questioned the impact of some of their proposed changes on the character of the building. When this department was negotiating that agreement, in some cases commitments were made without sufficient thought. I know, for example, the sound wall that was being proposed was just going to be a large commitment of funds that wasn't going to solve anything-it was going to be extremely unsightly, not only from the participants' standpoint, but also just by people driving by the Greek Theatre. The community felt the same way, and the Nederlanders felt the same way.

I've only been here nine months, but, to date, I've found the Nederlanders to be supportive and good to work with. Time will tell. They're tough negotiators, they're a for-profit operation, but every time I've held them to the agreement, they've always been very responsive. I can't speak for what occurred before I got involved, but so far my relationship with them has been very positive.

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