September 24, 2004 - From the September, 2004 issue

California Performance Review's Recommendation Puts Baldwin Hills Conservancy In Jeopardy

In their final report to the Governor, the California Performance Review Commission (CPR) proposed devolving the Baldwin Hills Conservancy into a local joint powers authority. In this interview David McNeill, Executive Director of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, discusses the impact of CPR's recommendation, and why the Baldwin Hills are of statewide significance.


David McNeill

Mr. McNeill, you've been charged with creating one of the largest metropolitan park open spaces in this country. Please articulate the central mission of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, and share what the greatest challenges are that must be overcome?

The Baldwin Hills Conservancy is charged with acquiring and developing open space in the Baldwin Hills to create a 2 square mile park located in the heart of urban Los Angeles. Our mission reflects the opportunity to provide recreation and restoration as well as protection of the remaining natural habitat in the last, large open space in the Ballona Creek Watershed. The entire 127 mile watershed is filled with urban sprawl, and is getting denser by the day. The Baldwin Hills Park Master Plan, developed with input from communities located in Los Angeles, Culver City, Inglewood and unincorporated Los Angeles County, presents an opportunity to do the right thing with open space coveted by developers. The Conservancy's challenge is to insure the master plan becomes a reality as opposed to just another great concept.

From the beginning, I think this dates back to the mid 1970s, the County of Los Angeles and the state of California have made the Baldwin Hills area a priority for establishment of a 1400 acre park, which at that time was called the Baldwin Hills State Recreation Area. Supervisor Kenneth Hahn worked with form Senator Nate Holden to put together the required funding to begin making the park. Two bonds were placed on the ballot in the early eighties that provided enough funding to acquire the first 200 acres for the park, now known as Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. The momentum did not get rejuvenated until about 1995 when state and local elected officials answered the constituency's call for leadership and support in recapturing the blighted lands and turning them into an asset that could become a destination point for the region.

And the challenges that must be met by the Conservancy are?

The challenges on the table today certainly continue. We have an area that is vulnerable to development in terms of constant encroachment with proposals, for anything from a waste transfer station to water storage facilities to maintenance yards. The Baldwin Hills area is a magnet for these types of developments because of the hundreds of acres that have been degraded as a result of oil drilling operations over the past 75 years. Part of our challenge in warding off undesirable developments is to redefine the hills as significant ecological area that host wide variety of native plants and animals generally seen only in the Santa Monica Mountains and other outlying areas. Because of its proximity to millions of people, the park creates the first opportunity for people to have exposure to coastal sage scrub, as well as foxes and other types of hard to find and/or diminishing populations of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.

The other challenge includes getting stakeholders on the same page whether it be improving public access while protecting adjacent property owners or creating standard signage that brands the open space as a unified park experience. As a Conservancy, we are looked at as a leader in the area for a cross-section of municipalities, including Inglewood, Culver City, the City of Los Angeles, the County of Los Angeles, California State Parks, as well as a host of community groups and other affected agencies that deal with water quality, oil and gas. All of us are at the table pursuing varied interests yet we must work in unison towards the common goal of building a park that rivals Golden Gate or Central Park. In the past three years we've seen a significant maturity amongst all the stakeholders and an understanding that together we can achieve more than we can separately, and I think that can be accredited to the guidance and focus of the state and the Conservancy in continuing the park's steady evolution.

The Governor is now reviewing recommendations of his appointed California Performance Review Commission (CPR). Their preliminary restructuring proposal with respect to the state's Resources Agency would remove state representation from five of the eight separate conservancies in the state, and one of those five would be the Baldwin Hills Conservancy. How significant/ threatening is that recommendation? What has been the response to such a recommendation from your board and from your constituencies.

When the CPR came out in early August, there was certainly concern with regards to its ramifications, particularly for our conservancy, as we were among many other departments that were slated for elimination. Without being reactionary, I think many of the members of the board and staff are very taken aback at the proposed notion that the land assets in the Baldwin Hills don't have statewide significance – that what was a priority in 1976 and continued to be a priority through 2003 has all of a sudden taken a demotion in terms of its significance to the state of California. At this point we are looking at the recommendations of the CPR, particularly RES12, which is the one that addresses the conservancies. And, basically stating our case that the reason the conservancy was created, was to insure the state had a direct role with local government in resource management and decision making for implementation of the park master plan. If you remove that role, the state and the public stands to lose a critical environmental policy delivery mechanism that impacts one of the most populous areas in the state.

Please expand on your answer, given the CPR asserts that "five of the eight separate conservancies for which the Resources Agency is responsible do not represent land assets of statewide interest that benefit all Californians. State funding and governance for these conservancies should be restructured to provide more direct control and accountability to the local agencies." What is the significance of this assertion? Of a proposed withdrawal of state representation on the Baldwin Hills Conservancy board?

As I understand it they're saying that local agencies need to take on the responsibilities that the conservancy currently holds. This is to be accomplished without a budget as local agencies are making severe cuts in department staff currently. So with no staff or legitimate means of operation, the local agencies would inherit the states' accountability to implement the master plan and promote the states' environmental policies. I'm not certain the local agencies were queried by the authors of CPR, but the fact is, from the park's inception through today, it has required the combined support of local and state bond funds, the State Parks Commission and now Proposition 40, which appropriated $40 million to the conservancy for development and delivery of the program to implement the master plan and get the park built. Over the last 25 years no other agency, local, state or federal has taken on that mission as a whole except the Conservancy.

CPR's recommendation goes on to assert that: "the conservancies," meaning the five that they wish to withdraw from, "and other departments and programs lack a comprehensive and cohesive statewide land conservation plan. Without such a statewide plan, individual organizations have developed their own land conservation strategies that frequently do not work coherently to achieve statewide objectives." CPR differentiates the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and two others from this conclusion. Is their reasoning/characterization justified?

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That is not a fair characterization, nor does it accurately reflect history. In terms of the strategic tie in to statewide conservation priorities, the Baldwin Hills Park master plan was actually initiated by the state legislature, and developed by the California Department of Parks of Recreation for the State Resources Agency. The plan coherently lays out strategies that speak directly to the statewide objective of providing much needed open space to the state's densely populated urban areas. More importantly, the Baldwin Hills are the last open space within the watershed, and are inextricably linked to the state's environmental policy. State policy supports land conservation for protection and restoration of native habitat. Rebuilding fragmented ecosystems in the heart of Los Angeles will demonstrate how urban residents can impact water quality, deal with the health of our environment, lower TMDLs in the Santa Monica Bay and engage in stewardship activities. Efforts in the Baldwin Hills have provided new tree canopy, reduced urban run-off, and remediated existing brownfield sites. These are only some of the ongoing activities that, with continued state leadership, will contribute to California's environmental health as a whole.

Prior to the state's budget crisis the state's voters passed Prop.40, a large park acquisition bond with $40 million specifically authorized for Baldwin Hills. Is that allocation now in jeopardy; has any of it flowed to the conservancy?

An allocation of $40 million was guaranteed to the Conservancy when voters passed Prop. 40. To date, the conservancy has been authorized to spend up to $29 million of those bond funds for acquisition development – capital outlay programs. About $5 million of that has been spent, and we're working to ensure the balance of the money goes a long way towards acquisition projects, which take a little bit longer to consumate. But the flow of the money to date has not been interrupted. The concern with eliminating the conservancy is the CPR document doesn't address what happens to the bond funds. There's only some reference that local agencies would compete for bond funds in a different, restructured situation. But it doesn't talk about whether it's Conservancy's bond funds or other existing competitive bond funds. The point being, if the voters say $40 million goes to the Baldwin Hills Conservancy and the Baldwin Hills Conservancy disappears, we don't know what kind of legislative fix would carry out the original mandate of the voters in a meaningful way.

The Conservancy has now spent more than two years on developing a master plan for the Baldwin Hills regional park. Elaborate on this planning, as well as on the challenges you face re enlisting support for it from Culver City.

The Baldwin Hills Park master plan was a very serious undertaking, but it was not the Conservancy's. The master plan was sponsored by the Department of Parks and Recreation in 2000 and 2001 and developed by consultants. It was a two-year process of community outreach, working with a landscape architect team as well as engineers and designers to engage the community in a planning process. That really doesn't take place that often, where you sit down with community members, particularly in urban areas, and with a demographic that usually doesn't get that kind of attention. Working with a Latino and African American demographic representing upwards of 50% within a three-mile radius was a huge milestone in planning in terms of engaging the public in the process.

The basic premise was to preempt the possibility the park would become a patchwork of amenities and facilities that happened randomly, but to have a comprehensive plan and a strategic method of implementation for a park that made sense in terms of transportation, visitor flow, arrangement of park facilities and programming. All these aspect had to be conducive to maximum public access, while considering existing land uses and infrastructure. The process dealt with the character and constraints of the site, as well as addressing public needs that hadn't been addressed for a number of years. What came out of a series of 12 workshops with nearly 800 participants was a plan that had about a third of the components focused on natural habitat, native habitat restoration, and outdoor passive walking/hiking areas; another third that dealt with cultural components, including an amphitheater as well as education and outdoor facilities for classes to learn about habitat restoration and interpretation; and a final third for active recreation and playing fields.

The challenge was to try and get a multitude of needs met in what seemed like a large area at the time. There was always pressure to add more components in and deal with serving a population of 5 million people that would be using this park. The planning team was successful at keeping the vision cohesive and building consensus among the participants so the state ended up with a master plan that had all the critical amenities and addressed issues in a very forward thinking package.

Last question, Mr. McNeil. Obviously you hope for the support of all of your neighbors, including the city of Culver City. Culver City's appears to have serious concerns about the conservancy's plans, however. How are you responding to these concerns?

Culver City retained a lobbyist at the end of May or June to proceed with the city council's recommendation to withdraw from the boundaries of the conservancy. Working with legislators in Sacramento they came up with some language that would withdraw about 40 acres of land from the conservancy, which includes the entire Culver City park and any land long along the Ballona Creek that runs through Culver City. In terms of how that plays out, I think it's certainly a loss for the citizens of Culver City. The opportunity for the Conservancy to invest in improving security and landscaping along the Creek and/or facilities at Culver City Park has been lost. There was some definite misinformation circulating with regard to the conservancy's intent or ability as an agency to impact Culver City's jurisdictional authority. People were told the conservancy was a regulatory agency, and in no way shape or form is this conservancy a regulatory entity. We constantly reminded the city council of that fact, but the misinformation kept haunting resident - somehow the conservancy was going to condemn and/or knockdown homes and create a park in people's back yards and as long as Culver City was inside the Conservancy territory there was no local control. That fear was fed so much that the city council felt comfortable making the withdrawal request to the Legislature. I simply don't know how that gives them more local control. It is clear to everyone who cared to read our statute and or Culver City's charter that the only entity that can take property away from residents in Culver City is the Culver City Council. So there was never anything to fear from us. As our agency is intent on trying to bring people together, there is no grudge being held nor are there repercussions other than the loss of the investment opportunity that will take place.

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