Setting self-doubt aside for a face-lift

A 2-acre eyesore across from City Hall and next to the newly created Grand Park is owned by the state. The city and L.A. County are trying to work out a plan of action.

As public eyesores go, the 2-acre disaster across the street from L.A. City Hall is a marvel.

About 20 dust-crusted feral cats keep watch over a dilapidated bunker that appears to have been the target of an aerial bombing. From street level, tourists and locals alike are treated to a putrid stench and a doomed, graffiti-scarred landscape of neglected plants begging to die, a bounty of trash their only crop.

Perhaps most amazing, though, is how long the property has been this way, a mere mayor's toss away from the city's symbolic seat of power and civic virtue, not to mention the Los Angeles Times' mother ship.

Would you believe 40 years?

It once was the site of a state building that took a beating in the 1971 Sylmar quake and was later demolished, leaving only a tomb-like foundation and underground parking lot that remain to this day. A couple of development plans have fallen through since then, with one developer backing out after holding an option on the land for several years. Writing for this paper in 1994, my colleague Jim Rainey had this to say about the land, which is still owned by the state:

"The empty parcel, surrounded by a sagging cyclone fence, rubs like a burr in a city already chafing with self-doubt."

It's a remarkable achievement, when you think about it. Going clear back to when Nixon occupied the White House, was a single city or county official able to overcome the self-doubt long enough to call someone in Sacramento and say: "Hey, would you send someone down here to clean up this mess?"

What a fool I've been to smack City Hall lately for not dealing with ruptured sidewalks in the Valley or on the Westside. The heaving sidewalks around the 1st and Spring parcel are among the worst I've seen, and if City Hall can't send a crew across the street, what hope do any of us have?

The reason I bring all this up is that the spectacle of neglect has become a lot more obvious since the completion of the adjacent Grand Park. It's like having a rose garden next to a landfill. So I wondered if there might be any consideration of cleaning up the mess and incorporating the land into the new park.

And the answer — don't fall over backward — was yes.

It turns out that L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina recently asked county Chief Executive Bill Fujioka to look into buying the land from the state, and Fujioka has discovered that the city is also interested in the property.

"Actually, we're talking to the city of L.A. about a joint purchase," Fujioka said.

Deputy L.A. Mayor Chris Espinosa told me the asking price for the land was $9.7 million, and with urging from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the city has already set aside money to make the purchase. The financing would come from a pool of fees developers must pay when they build — fees that have to be used for open space projects.

There could be a few hang-ups, though. It's not clear what it would cost to clean up and develop the site, how that cost would be equitably split by city and county officials who don't enjoy being in the same room together, and what exactly to do with the land. Among the suggestions are a children's playground, a skate park, a cafe, or simply more greenery and open space.

Another problem is that the underground parking lot is, by some accounts, a hall of horrors.

"The state won't even allow us down there. They want to clean it up first," said Espinosa, who added that years of debris and human waste have turned the place into a hazardous materials site.

Human waste?

"Recently," said state spokesman Eric Lamoureux, "when we were preparing the property for sale we found approximately 10 occupants, as well as standing water, garbage, human waste, hypodermic needles and structural debris."

The California Highway Patrol was called in to evict the occupants. And now, around the clock, there's a crew of security guards making sure the parking lot is not colonized again. But how'd they get in there in the first place?

"We believe that the occupants had gained access when participants of Occupy L.A. used pieces of granite found at the site as a battering ram to break into the former subterranean parking structure," Lamoureux said.

I don't know if that's true or not, but Fujioka said he'd heard that people have been living underground there for years. And Friday morning, a homeless gent reading the newspaper on a bench at 1st and Spring said Fujioka had it right.

"OK, what you had was a bunch of veterans who lived in there," said Joe Marek, who thinks there were encampments as far back as the 1980s, with different populations cycling through over the years. To Marek's knowledge, as many as 20 or 30 people at a time lived there until just a few months ago.

It's shocking that this played out for years, right under the nose of city officials and a large newspaper staff, with none of us catching on. On the other hand, the parcel sits on a plateau and is obscured by a berm, concrete and what passes for landscaping.

Marek said he never called the parking lot home, but as a salvage man, he used to go down there from the Broadway side — down the driveway and through a pried-open door — to collect cans and bottles from the subterranean. People down there divided the space into what Marek referred to as apartments, saying they used candles and lanterns at night.

It appears those days are over, and that it won't take another 40 years to eliminate one of the city's most enduring public eyesores.

But why am I chafing with self-doubt?

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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