Panels Squabble Over Land Swap for Pump House

Times Staff Writer

The 92-year-old water pumping and chlorination station that serves much of northeast Los Angeles and the Civic Center is considered vulnerable to earthquakes and has to be replaced, officials say. But a proposal to rebuild the facility on nearby parkland has raised a controversy potentially pitting city commissions against each other and commissioners against their own staff.

The Department of Water and Power wants to demolish its Buena Vista pumping station, a two-story brick structure built into a cliff above the Los Angeles River and Southern Pacific rail yard, and build a one-story station about 500 feet away in a remote area just inside the eastern boundary of Elysian Park.

Because pumping service cannot be interrupted, the old station cannot be torn down until a new one is completed.

Plan for Land Swap

The plan, which would involve a land swap with the Department of Recreation and Parks, was proposed five years ago and has engendered much protest from a park preservationist group and from City Council members John Ferraro and Peggy Stevenson, who represent many of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Although parks department planners support the swap, their commission voted 3 to 2 against it in June. Nevertheless, the DWP's staff last week began reviving the matter and again received strong criticism.

"It must be concluded that the DWP is either blind or incapable of evaluating what constitutes a violation of the environment," Geneva Williams, president of the Citizens' Committee to Save Elysian Park, said at a Water and Power Commission hearing on the issue last week.

"To replace the historic, dramatic open space, surrounded by wooded hills, with industrial blight would, environmentally speaking, be a crime against nature," Williams said.

DWP staff members tried to convince their own commissioners to ask the park commission to give the proposal another chance.

After some heated testimony and debate, the Water and Power Commission deferred action for a few weeks so members could visit the park site.

New Commissioners

Some city officials said that the DWP staff may be trying again because four of the five park commissioners have been replaced as part of a citywide administration shake-up. Only commission President J. Stanley Sanders, who supported the land swap, remains on the parks board, and swap proponents hope their proposal will get a friendlier reception from the new board.

But Henry Venegas, a senior engineer for DWP, said the new makeup of the commission has nothing to do with the revival of the proposal. He said his staff has studied alternatives since June and remains convinced that the original idea is best. "We figure it is worth another try," he said.

Being forced to rebuild on a tiny parking lot next to the station would add about $650,000 to the estimated $2.6-million cost for the project, DWP staff told water and power commissioners last week.

More worrisome, they claim, is that building a station adjacent to the existing one could present engineering difficulties with the numerous underground pipelines.

'Continuity of Service'

"It does indeed present a problem of continuity of service," Venegas said.

The station helps deliver water for household, industrial, and fire-protection use to about 136,000 customers from downtown Los Angeles, through Echo Park, Silver Lake, Atwater, Los Feliz, Mount Washington, Highland Park and Glassell Park.

City building inspectors determined the pump house to be potentially unsafe in an earthquake and ordered it to be demolished or reinforced by the end of 1987. But water officials say that replacement is needed because even extensive reinforcement might not cure the foundation problems.

Under the DWP proposal, the 1.1-acre pumping station area would be exchanged for a half-acre plot on a hillside facing a large meadow in Elysian Park, about 500 feet to the northwest.

The field, cut off from the rest of Elysian Park by the Pasadena Freeway and from other parts of the city by the rail yard, was the site of the Buena Vista reservoir. The reservoir was taken out of service in 1956, given to the park in 1966 and then filled in. A large pipeline ditch and several above-ground manhole covers and air vents still dot the field.

If the swap goes through, the DWP staff promises that the new station would be well-landscaped and harmonize with the park setting. They also pledge to fill in the ditch, lower the vents and manhole covers, grade the current station area for use as a parking lot for park-goers, and put fencing and trees along the cliff facing the railroad tracks.

The flat area of the field would not be obstructed by the station and would be more attractive and accessible, they say.

Few Park-Goers

DWP staffers say that the remoteness of the meadow, which can be reached only on a narrow, poorly maintained road that leads down toward North Broadway, and the freeway noise keep most park-goers out of the area.

Two weekday visits by a reporter found the field area empty except for a few couples in cars parked nearby and some transients around the railroad tracks. The citizens' committee says it is more heavily used on summer weekends.

DWP pledges, however, do not appease park preservationists, who stress that, according to a long-range master plan for the park, the meadow area is to be made into a lake.

Even though the city has not appropriated money for the lake and top planners in the Recreation and Parks Department oppose it, the citizens' group said no steps should be taken to preclude the lake.

Terrible Precedent

Also, the use of parkland for a non-park purpose would set a terrible precedent, said members of the committee, which has successfully fought proposals to build a convention center, oil wells and condominiums in Elysian Park.

"Once the barrier is breached, the gold rush would be on," Williams told commissioners.

Such arguments appeared to make some headway with water and power commissioners, especially commission President Jack Leeney, who said: "I am personally sympathetic to the position that the park should be the park."

He said that the DWP staff would have to cope with the extra engineering problems and construction costs of rebuilding if the present station area were surrounded by office buildings. "It is only a coincidence that it is parkland," he said.

But Leeney was alone on the five-man panel in his seemingly total opposition to his staff's idea.

Money-Saving Device

Commissioner Rick Caruso said he strongly supported the land swap as a way to save money. Vice President Walter Zelman said he would rather not build on parkland but suggested a compromise: moving the pump house into the park, but making a donation of $650,000 toward a needed project, such as a ball field or irrigation, in another part of the park.

That idea, and whether it should even be considered, set off some squabbling among the six members of the citizens' committee at the hearing. Irrigation is desperately needed in the park, which still bears the scars of a major fire four years ago.

Williams said this week that the committee's leadership would meet to discuss the compromise, but, she said, "I don't think the committee would agree to that."

Meanwhile, Zelman and Commissioner Carol Wheeler said they wanted to visit the park and pumping station. The fifth commissioner, Angel Echevarria, expressed no preference, but joined in a unanimous vote to defer the matter.

Recreation Uses

In an interview this week, Joel Breitbart, assistant general manager for planning and development in the parks department, said that the meadow is still proposed to be the site of a lake in the 15-year-old master plan but that his staff opposes that idea and thinks the field should be used for picnicking and for a children's playground.

He said he would welcome another request for the land swap because the proposed pump house would not interfere with recreation uses on the field and the promised improvements are much needed.

"All in all, this would be a good deal," he said. But he declined to comment on speculation that a majority of the parks commission might support the idea if the Water and Power Commission asks them to.

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