May 21, 2007 - From the May, 2007 issue

After the Fire, How Will Griffith Park Be Restored?

Griffith Park, home to many of Los Angeles' most recognizable architectural landmarks and the crown jewel of the city's park system, recently suffered a fire that, while horrible, could have been much worse. To discuss the city's response to the emergency as well as its plans to restore the park to its natural beauty, TPR was pleased to speak with Jon Mukri, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

Jon Murki

The jewel of Los Angeles' Parks, Griffith Park, recently weathered its most significant fire in decades. What is the role of Rec and Parks in protecting and restoring this great urban park?

We lost about 1,000 acres to the fire. The fire line had a six-mile radius that encompassed the highest peak in the park, Mt. Hollywood.

The role of Rec and Parks is to coordinate the initial assessment and then the restoration, which we estimate will go on for about three years. But we are not doing it alone. We have already contacted the federal, state, and local governments, and institutions of higher education to help us come up with a plan that balances the ecosystem against the threat of erosion. Rec and Parks is the leader, and we will be coordinating activities in this effort.

Fires and earthquakes are no surprise in Southern California. How does Rec and Parks prepare for fires such as the one this month in Griffith Park?

It wasn't a surprise, and it could have been worse. Seventy-five percent of the park remains untouched by this fire.

It is fortunate that we as a city-not just Rec and Parks-have trained for events like this. It's unfortunate that we had to exercise our training. Three years ago, along with the Department of Water and Power, we replaced all the water mains and fire hydrants in Griffith Park. We put heliports up there, where helicopters can land and replenish themselves with about 400 gallons of water.

We have a large urban park, and if we keep it as an urban wilderness, it will be susceptible to fires. Rainfall and the moisture content of plants are at historically low levels this year, only three years after we had historically high levels.

Obviously the firefighters were heroic-no one was injured and no structures were damaged. But who were the other unsung public servant-heroes that deserve credit for the city's response to the fire?

The Fire Department is the most visible. But the first people on the scene at this fire and others were the park rangers. Recreation and Parks has rangers that are trained in public safety, including fire fighting. They're augmented by the Department of General Services' office of Public Safety. The Department of Transportation is critical. LAPD, obviously, was up there. The Bureau of Animal Services had their wild life experts up there. The Bureau of Street Services had their arborist and tree-trimming crews on-site. We wouldn't have been able to fly helicopters without the Department of General Services' mechanics and fueling people on-site for the duration of the emergency. Probably just about every city department played a role.

How did the effort come together while the fire was threatening the park and surrounding neighborhoods?

You're right; I am very proud, because the efforts started with our department. A local incident commander, which would have been a park ranger, was setting up and identifying the threat right away. When the Fire Department comes on, we transfer to them proactively. They take over the incident, and we coordinate behind it. Within the first two hours of the fire, we had a fully functional command center at the Greek Theater. We were coordinating not only the city and the county, but with municipalities around Southern California, as far away as Oxnard. It becomes a logistical effort, and it becomes a coordination effort as well as a fire fighting effort. We did not have one significant injury during the three days that we were actively fighting that fire.

What are the pressures and contending interests that you have to manage to get the park back to the beautiful place it was before the fire?

We have to balance public safety against allowing people into the burn area. Mother Nature is probably going to do 90 percent of the work. You can go to prior burn areas and see that they came back naturally. However, we have areas in that park that are surrounded by multi-million-dollar homes and park structures, and we need to nudge Mother Nature along and protect the areas of erosion. That includes homes in and around Los Feliz and the golf courses on the south side. Putting a plan together now has a whole new set of dynamics, because now we have many, groups, everyone from the Sierra Club to CDF, that need to help us to develop a plan that will keep that ecosystem balanced. It's probably going to take three to five years to get that 6-mile radius cleaned up, selectively planted, and protected from erosion.

What role does a new master plan play, and how can it address restoration of and re-investment in the park?

The master plan that we are currently working on in partnership with many community groups should be the guiding principle park going forward, as it was before the fire. It's going to be our blueprint for what the park should look like now and going forward. I think that that plan will be the corner stone for any future planning. I see the planning we've done so far as paramount in keeping the park as natural as we can.

You must be writing the case study from this fire in Griffith Park to prepare your folks for the next event. What have you learned from three days of fire?


The plan that we had for evacuation of the public and our own employees went like clockwork. In fact, we only lost one vehicle in this entire fire. One of the things that we are going to have to address is cellular coverage in and around the parks. The LAFD uses line-of-sight radio. Their own cell phones were useless in the canyons. We need to look at a better way to provide cellular coverage in all of our urban parks.

There were many heroes who did a tremendous job without being asked. We have looked at the investment and the training, and I have to say that it worked. Because of our master planning, the community groups have been very positive about our efforts and our very positive about how they want to help.

The mayor and the City Council have been talking about more parks, the Million Trees program, and elegant density. What challenges does Parks and Rec face as the city continues to grow and become more dense?

I look at Rec and Parks differently than my predecessors. I think Rec and Parks is uniquely positioned to build communities. We are in the middle of the mayor's Green L.A. plan. He has a plan for 35 parks new parks in the next five years.

We helped develop that plan. We used statistical data in figuring out where the areas of greatest need were based on population demographics. Thirty percent of our population is under the age of 18. It is phenomenal: we are a young, community. At the same time, we know that one size does not fit all.

As we look throughout the city for where to site parks, we need to look at who would be using the park, i.e., the age group, etc. We are doing unprecedented needs-assessment throughout the city: going out to the city, finding what services people need and mapping that against what services are available so that our parks become the community and cultural hub of their neighborhood. We're playing a key role in that effort, and I give Mayor Villaraigosa credit for making this one of his top priorities.

We have unprecedented growth in the city of L.A. Yet, if you look at what is happening with the budget flow, the money coming in to maintain parks, to hire people, and to train people has stayed pretty constant. And this year was a bad year for all of us in the budget. There is always going to be friction between the need for new spaces and facilities and the ability to maintain them and staff them. But that has been going on since the first studies were done way back in the 1890s.

Environmental groups, such as the Trust for Public Land, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and others, have backed bond funds for acquisition of new park lands. But bonds don't fund the stewardship of the parks. Does L.A. Rec and Parks have sufficient funding for operations?

We're lucky that Rec and Parks gets a guaranteed percentage of revenues from property taxes. We also generate revenue through the golf course operations and other facilities under our jurisdiction. That generates up to another $30 million in revenue. We always have some core level of funding even in the worst of times. We also go out to private groups and foundations, and we ask for money to build. That frees up money that can then go to maintenance and programming. But it is a constant balancing act between program dollars and maintenance dollars.

The largest public works project in the nation is currently LAUSD's building program, with $20 billion for new schools and modernization, and the need for new schools and recreation space has put pressure on your department. How successful has the collaboration between Rec and Parks and the school district been?

I have only been with Rec and Parks for just over three years. Historically, coordination probably was not very good-either from the city perspective or from L.A. Unified. We've begun to meet with construction and acquisitions people and talked about needs. LAUSD has begun to locate new schools closer to parks. We have a project called Green Meadows. We have an existing park there; it is a light industrial site separated by a street. We are working with LAUSD to study a brand new high school there, reconfigure the park in and around the school, vacating the street. Now we are in the planning process to put a new pool in, tennis courts, a gymnasium, and site the school in such a way that the school can be locked down without locking the park down. The joint-use issues that we have with LAUSD revolve around security. How do you close off the gym when it is in the center of the school? Now we are working with them to design around those issues.

Right now the relationship is very positive. Obviously there is never enough money to do everything you want to do, but I think that coordination, led by the mayor and Superintendant Brewer, has been improving.

Millennium Park in Chicago exemplifies how a well-designed and walkable park can transform an urban center. Can L.A. learn from Millennium Park, for Grand Avenue Park, and other similiar projects?

I meet with Tim Mitchell, who is the director of Chicago's Rec and Parks, periodically. When you have a well-planned park in the middle of any development, there is a multiplication of value. You make a huge investment on the front end, but in 20 years the value of everything goes up. Once you develop a Millennium Park or a bigger park and you program it, design it, and encourage people to come in, it takes on a life of its own. We are working with designers to help us design that friendly kind of a friction between development and the need for open space. W all agree that if you do it well, in ten years your return in increased revenue and property taxes will multiply your investment.


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