July 1, 2003 - From the July, 2003 issue

State Parks' Director Coleman Responds To Critics Of Cornfield Plan

In the May 2003 TPR, City Project Director and member of the Cornfield Advisory Committee, Robert Garcia, accused the California State Parks Department of backing out of a proposal to build soccer fields and other recreational facilities in the Cornfield. The Planning Report is pleased to present this interview with Ruth Coleman, Acting Director of California State Parks, in which she responds to Garcia's assertions regarding the state's commitment to the equitable provision of recreation facilities and discusses State Parks' future plans for urban parks in Los Angeles.


Ruth Coleman

>In a May 2003 Planning Report interview of Robert Garcia, he suggested that the state had backed off a promise to provide recreational facilities and soccer fields in the Cornfield, one of the densest urban neighborhoods in Metro Los Angeles. Put in context exactly what State Park's agenda is for its urban parks.

You should think of State Parks as two spheres. One sphere is the entity that provides, owns, and operates 277 individual units, which we call the state park system. These are the big state parks that people know like Hearst Castle, the Redwood parks, PioPico, Topanga Canyon, Malibu Creek, and the beaches of Southern California.

The second sphere is our local assistance program. In the park bonds, money is given to State Parks for both the state parks system and also to administer to the needs of local park districts, cities and counties. State Parks is the grant administrator for local parks and, between Prop. 12 and Prop. 40, State Parks will administer about $1.6 billion. Through that, we provide a leadership role to the locals for providing recreation needs.

We spend a lot of time and energy working with various communities to provide them with extra technical assistance. As a result, small non-profits that have never been able to obtain grant funds before can effectively compete to create small pocket parks in under-served areas. Several of the pots of money in those park bonds were targeted directly at the most disenfranchised areas, the most park-poor areas. So we're playing a role both in providing new state parks and also providing funds for local recreation.

Specifically for the Cornfield, we are in the general plan process right now and an advisory committee has been established. The advisory committee put out a report that clearly lays out the notion that this will be a space for multiple uses, including recreation. We envision a large grassy space that could be used for all kinds of purposes -- community events, special celebrations, kids playing soccer, kids playing frisbee, kids playing football -- any amount of different kinds of recreation. We would expect to see the Cornfield having soccer games on it. What we wouldn't expect to see is an artificial turf, designated single-purpose field.

In that interview with Robert Garcia, he said, "The state's conceptual plans for both sites -- Taylor Yards and the Cornfield -- included playing fields. Governor Davis even stood on the Cornfield with the children of Anahauk 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 that it is against policy to have playing fields for active sports. (Garcia) disagrees." Could you respond to Robert assertions?

In the governor's comments, he was speaking to the creation of new parks downtown and didn't get into any specific detail of uses. Believe me, I understand the need for more parkland in Los Angeles, and empathize with Mr. Garcia about the need for playing fields and the like. But you have to understand some of the statutory restraints under which State Parks operates on state land. This is why we announced our partnership with the city to ensure we achieve the goals that the locals clearly wanted and that we are quite open to helping provide. But, when a park is a state park, it needs to be of multiple uses. The difficulty we have is exclusive uses for an exclusive population. The notion is that these parks should be available to and benefit all citizens of the state.

Robert goes on to argue that: "State parks provide soccer, baseball, softball, field hockey, and other team sports to disproportionately wealthy white people at Malibu Bluffs, Will Rogers, Pfeiffer-Big Sur, and other state parks." Is he correct?

That's a misleading assertion. As I described it, the Cornfield will have open space for multiple uses, which can include soccer, which is what happens at Will Rogers, for example. Will Rogers has a polo field, and it is used for polo as well as art shows and, once a week, for soccer games. So that kind of use is not a problem. In Malibu, we are working with the city of Malibu to move those ball fields. It was a temporary use and we're moving them over because we now have a proposal we hope to advance to create a visitor's center at that site. It is not a use that the state has wanted there. So, a single, exclusive use baseball field is inconsistent.

We have found our Department of Finance takes a very strict interpretation of the statutes. When we were talking about using state park bonds for a state park itself, they came back with a statute that says you are not supposed to be using it for local needs. However, that's what the local assistance program is for. So, given that at the Cornfield we're looking at multiple use open space for multiple purposes, there is still a very strong need and desire for concentrated use of a very focused nature. That is why we're working with the city, so that that goal can be achieved.

It is misleading to suggest that State Parks is trying to avoid being in the urban areas or trying to avoid being in the recreation business. We're not. Given the kind of constructs that we have to deal with in this statute and the funding, we're just looking to meet the different goals in as many ways as we can.

Garcia likewise complains about the balkanization of the State's planning process, asserting: "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 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 team sports, there are no land swap discussions for the Cornfield. We support a creative and fair solution for a balanced park with playing fields at the Cornfield and Taylor Yards." He goes on to argue for, "a better planning process that integrates local and state efforts within the region." Your response?

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We've approached the city to look at all of these parks in context. I don't disagree with the notion of looking at the bigger picture for developing a master plan for L.A. However, we wouldn't want to slow down the process of bringing some open space availability to fruition and hold up one for the other. There are so many other sites that are not state park owned that we would like to help develop with the local communities.

The Cornfield and Taylor Yards are very different sites with very different histories. Their uses are going to be quite different and the purpose for purchasing them was different. The Cornfield is an historic siteā€¹one of the richest sites we have found in a long time. Almost every major ethnic group that has lived in California used this site in one way or another and we want to tell the story. In doing so, we expect to provide places for lots of active recreation, as well as many other multiple needs. That is consistent with what the Cornfield Advisory Panel put out, of which Robert is a member.

Taylor Yards has been envisioned as a river park. The original appropriations put into the budget was based on the notion of purchasing the parcel alongside the river in order to be engaged in some form of river restoration. Then, the first parcel that became available was in fact this rectangular shaped parcel across the street from what our target was, and it really lends itself very well to very active local recreation, which is why we're working with the city. Whether we do a land swap or some kind of lease is still being negotiated, but I am very confident that we will be developing with the city an exciting park with lots and lots of soccer fields on it.

Can you elaborate on State Park's discussions with the city about a swap of property downtown for land on the westside?

We're still working with the city on it. It's safe to say that I'm not so sure we'll end up with a swap. We may look at other land tenure arrangements so the city has secure tenure and control over the site. It's been very difficult to find lands that are acceptable to everyone to swap with.

I'm not sure exactly how we will end up directing the land tenure issue.

The state's population has doubled in 35 years and is expected to grow to about 50-55 million by 2025. This arguably puts tremendous pressure on your department to provide and operate more urban park space. Has the department's agenda been changing as fast as the State's demographics and the politics of the state Legislature?

The governor has made a very clear and strong commitment to having more parks near people. As a result, the governor has allocated a tremendous amount of the park bonds in the state park sphere toward urban areas and State Parks has spent close to $200 million acquiring new lands for urban parks. In addition, $1.6 billion is going to local parks across the state, but many of the components of those park bonds included programs targeted and defined towards the urban areas. State Parks' commitment to the urban areas is extremely strong, and can be broken down in two ways. One, we are creating new state parks in urban areas, and two, we're allocating and providing grants to parks in urban areas. There aren't a lot of large open spaces in Los Angeles, but in purchasing a 40-acre site and a 32-acre site, we're hoping to create some new special places for people to go and have an escape.

Lastly, there is a material difference in degree of difficulty between finding bond money for the purchase of properties and finding the operating money to sustain acquired open space. Where might the money come from for long-term maintenance and operation of new urban parks, especially with the budget crisis the state now faces? Is that your bigger challenge?

Absolutely. Finding the funds to develop and operate are by far the largest challenge we're facing right now. We can only hope that the power of parks will enable us to get through this pending crisis and see light on the other end of the tunnel so that, in a few years, we'll be able to make these places shine in a way people had envisioned. It's also one of the reasons that we are looking actively for partnerships. We're doing that with the federal government in several places and we hope to do more of it with non-profits and local communities.

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