Angels Gate Park Still Mired in Governmental Indecision : $4-Million Cultural Complex: A Study of Plans Gone Awry

Times Staff Writer

As art galleries go, it is a far cry from the Louvre.

The faded, two-story structure was built as an Army barracks in the 1930s. Paint peels from the narrow steps. A bare light bulb juts over the front door. The sign is a just a stenciled square of plywood: "Angels Gate Gallery."

Perched on a coastal ridge above San Pedro, the gallery is one of the few visitor attractions in Angels Gate Park, former military land that the federal government gave to the city of Los Angeles in 1978. But for Roberta MacFaden-Miller, who runs it, the gallery is also a graphic portrait of what has gone wrong at the 66-acre park site.

Six years ago, planners envisioned a major new cultural arts center on the land overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The $4-million complex was to include a 500-seat community theater, a senior citizens center, recreation rooms and indoor and outdoor art workshops--all surrounded by trails and picnic grounds.

And all to be built by 1985.

Proposals Unfulfilled

Today those proposals lie dormant, and city planners say they are not sure what they will build on the largely undeveloped land, which was once part of Ft. MacArthur. City officials say they are caught between the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is pressuring the city to complete the park or risk losing the land, and the Air Force, which has threatened to reclaim the land for military housing.

Reluctant to invest in land it might lose anyway, the city has undertaken only preliminary planning studies for the property, Los Angeles officials acknowledged.

Only about half of the park is open, much of it dotted with Army barracks, and planners say it may take 10 more years before Angels Gate Park is finished--even if the city is allowed to keep the acreage.

"It's very difficult to put this park on a (funding) priority list when, in fact, a very real cloud hangs over our heads," said Joel Breitbart, assistant general manager of planning for the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department. "We can't invest these kinds of funds . . . when every six months we get inquiries about the federal government taking the land back for military housing."

No Air Force Plans

The Air Force has no current plans to reclaim property at Angels Gate Park because it is trying to acquire a housing site at White Point Park to the west, Air Force spokesman Larry Hannon said. If it acquires the White Point property, perhaps in two or three months, the Air Force will not need Angels Gate Park land except in the event of a national emergency, Hannon said.

Even so, the city has set no date to begin developing the park, Breitbart said. The potential cost of the project and the city's lengthy list of other priorities--it has more than 300 park sites--make it impossible to say when detailed planning studies will be conducted, he said.

The uncertainty has fostered a tug of war involving the city, the Interior Department, the cultural center and the California Conservation Corps, which occupies some of the former Army barracks.

The nonprofit Angels Gate Cultural Center is pushing to follow through with original plans for the property.

It hopes to tear down the old barracks and build a privately financed, $50-million cultural arts complex, complete with an art gallery, a 500-seat drama theater and a coffee house. Cultural center directors say the hilltop site is ideal for a cultural arts showcase and that potential corporate sponsors have expressed an interest in funding such a plan.

Camp Threatened

Meanwhile, the California Conservation Corps, a state-operated work program for young men and women, stands to lose its home as soon as the city begins developing the park.

Federal officials have granted the conservation corps temporary use of several old barracks because its members provide the city with nearly 20,000 hours of free labor each year, most of it in landscaping and planting at other city parks. But park service officials say the land must be made available to the public, which means it cannot contain permanent housing.

"We would definitely have a problem" if the conservation corps were to remain on the site, said John Cherry, regional planning director of the National Park Service. "This land was (granted) for a certain purpose--and that's recreation."

Under federal guidelines, a cultural arts complex is permissible because it would be open for public enjoyment, park service officials said. But MacFaden-Miller, executive director of the center, has accused city leaders of deliberately stalling such development to exploit the presence of conservation corps workers, who might be lost to the city if they are forced to move.

"The city government is saying, 'We like this deal,' " MacFaden-Miller said. The conservation corps carries out important work for the city, she said, but "the land was deeded to the city for use as a park and cultural complex. As long as the CCC is here, it cannot be a park."

City leaders defend the conservation corps' presence as an ideal use of the property while the land remains undeveloped and while the Cultural Center continues to build its two-year-old arts program.

Ann D'Amato, an aide to Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, said the city has tried to encourage both groups. She lauded conservation corps workers for planting a hillside of flowers in Harbor City and for trimming trees on Western Avenue in San Pedro.

"I think the city's going to work . . . to accommodate the CCC, either by finding another site or by keeping them there," D'Amato said. "It's just ideal with the Army barracks being there and with the program it offers for young kids."

The debate has escalated in recent months, largely because the Cultural Center has asked for a long-term lease from the city to help it raise funds for a cultural arts project. Under its three-year lease, the center occupies nine former barracks at no cost in exchange for running an art gallery and conducting a number of free community art classes.

The organization has 150 volunteers and a paid membership of 450, and it offers more than 40 classes in subjects ranging from voice and dance to photography and sculpture, MacFaden-Miller said.

So far, however, city park officials have been unwilling to offer more than a three-year extension when the lease expires in August.

Necessity of Lease

Gat Lum, a senior recreation director in charge of the park, said the largely volunteer organization got off to a slow start after moving onto the site in 1982. The city would like to see it establish a longer track record before approving a long-term lease, she said.

"They're at a point now where we need three more years to see what they will develop," Lum said. "We would like to see them become a success--that's really our ultimate goal."

Without a 20- or 30-year lease, MacFaden-Miller argues, the center will be unable to attract the large private contributions necessary to build the complex.

"We've told the city we're willing, through our brawn and our brains, to build a very fine center," MacFaden-Miller said. But "if you're going to go out after millions of dollars, you have to be somewhat secure."

Federal park officials became involved in the issue earlier last year after conducting a routine biennial inspection of the property. The Interior Department, which oversees the development of federally granted land, reported that the conservation corps program appeared "anything but temporary" and noted that the program had expanded from 11 buildings to 19--apparently without federal approval.

In a Sept. 5 letter to city park officials, the Interior Department offered to allow the conservation corps to remain on the property until June, 1987, if the city promises that the work program will move by then.

Breitbart said the city would have no choice but to accept the compromise, but Cisco Hunter, director of the San Pedro conservation corps camp, said his organization will fight the eviction.

"How we're going to fight it, I don't know yet . . . but we're going to fight it," Hunter said.

He said 75 men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 23, live in the conservation corps barracks at Angels Gate Park. Most have had trouble getting or keeping jobs. The CCC program tries to teach them discipline and patience while carrying out worthwhile public projects, he said.

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