Beyond Griffith Park

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Next month, the city's Cultural Heritage Commission will consider a request unlike any other in its 46-year history: whether to make all of Griffith Park a historic-cultural monument.

Other Los Angeles parks and park-like places bear the city monument designation, including Echo Park, MacArthur Park and the Venice canals. But never before has protection been sought for such a massive swath of urban space, one that encompasses both the iconic (the Griffith Observatory, the Greek Theater and views of the Hollywood sign) and the mundane (drainage canals, water fountains and stoppage drains).

The request was underwritten by Griffith Van Griffith, great-grandson of the park's namesake and benefactor, who fears that, without it, little stands in the way of increased development of the city's primary urban respite. If approved by the commission at its scheduled Oct. 30 meeting, the monument designation would be voted on by the Los Angeles City Council, which has the final say.

Monument status would bar alteration of buildings, grounds and just about anything else that might affect the visual or historic nature of the park without some degree of commission review. It could mean protection for the tiny train rides, the ruins of the old zoo and a bird sanctuary built by Boy Scouts in 1922. The designation won't necessarily mean no new parking or roads to remote trail heads, but it will subject such changes to commission oversight.

The proposal is now in the hands of the city's office of Historic Resources, which is compiling a list of the park's "character defining" features. Besides structures, such features could include trees, railroad cars, golf courses, the merry-go-round, tennis courts, nature trails and anything else that may be subject to special protection. So-called nondefining features (probably including an old garbage dump, two freeways and a stretch of the L.A. River) would fall under far less stringent control, requiring only that the commission be alerted to any changes that might affect the rest of the park.

Does this proposal go too far? Quite the contrary. It does not go far enough.

When Griffith J. Griffith first bequeathed 3,000-plus acres of the former Rancho Los Feliz to the city in 1896 (later supplemented with 1,000 additional acres along the L.A. River), Angelenos numbered less than 150,000. At that size, Griffith's vision of "a place for rest and relaxation of the masses" was eminently achievable. Today, 3.8 million residents call Los Angeles home, and we can no more demand that Griffith Park directly serve us all than we can expect Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to show up on our doorstep for dinner.

Nor do L.A. residents want it to. Witness the crash and burn a few years back of the ill-conceived Melendrez plan, which called for aerial trams, widened roads, a hotel, sports complex and multilevel parking structures, all in the name of attracting more people to Griffith Park.

Griffith Park is among the nation's largest municipal parks, but the concept of a centripetal urban magnet along the lines of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Chicago's Grant Park or New York's Central Park never fit this piece of geography. Situated on the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains with seven peaks exceeding 1,000 feet, Griffith Park is made up largely of hills, canyons, gullies and rarely trod-on open space. The developed eastern side provides ample space for recreation, at the zoo, Autry Museum, picnic sites, golf courses and train rides. And there are many miles of trails throughout. Still, much of the parkland is steep, rocky and inaccessible to the majority of weekend pleasure seekers, or even those seeking simple respite from the daily urban grind.

And that's fine. L.A. needs untrammeled open space to protect the biodiversity of animal and plant species, to help reduce lethal carbon emissions and to provide a modicum of spatial relief in an ever-more pressurized urban environment. As it is, the accessible parts of Griffith Park see more than 10 million visitors each year.

It is imperative that L.A. preserve the rich history that Griffith Park represents. But an equally beneficial outcome of a cultural-historic designation might be that we stop fighting over Griffith Park long enough to focus on the paucity of other green space citywide.

The goal of nature lovers, city officials -- and nature-loving city officials -- should not be to bring more people to the park but to bring more parks to the people. Los Angeles is part of a far-flung, park-starved tri-county region where less than 15% of residents live within easy walking distance of a sliver of public green, according to a Green Visions study by the Center for Sustainable Cities at USC. L.A. County's top public health official has linked the lack of neighborhood parks to an obesity rate among children approaching 25%, creating what he calls our “biggest epidemic.”

City Council District 13 illustrates the problem. The most densely populated district in the city, it stretches from Hollywood through Westlake to Glassell Park. Though parts of the district are less than a mile from Griffith Park, steep hills and heavy traffic make getting there on foot a daunting task. Within the neighborhoods of District 13, residents have access to the least amount of green space in the city, and the obesity rate among children is close to 30%.

Sure, everyone loves Griffith Park. But it doesn't suffice as a nearby place to breathe, to sit on a bench to listen to the birds sing, to stroll down a path, a place for the kids to play. And that's what residents want -- and they want it close by. According to a RAND report on park use in the city, most residents opt for a park they can walk to, even if a bigger "nicer" park is just a short drive away. If they can't walk to a park, they're far less likely to go at all.

A circumstance in car-crazy Los Angeles in which people would rather walk than drive? Seems like a preference that every environmentally conscious public official should be tapping into.

Griffith Park works fine as it is. Making it a cultural-historical monument would enable the city to focus its park-developing energy on aggressively transforming vacant lots, brown fields and transit corridors into usable green space. Better yet, let's place a moratorium on any improvements at all to Griffith Park until green space is within a few blocks of every L.A. resident The spirit of Griffith Park should emanate from every neighborhood, not just because it's nice to have something pretty to look at, but because our health -- and the health of our children -- depend on it.

Sara Catania teaches journalism at USC and blogs at laobserved.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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