DWP Drops Effort to Build Elysian Park Water Station

Times Staff Writer

Responding to protests from park preservationists, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has abandoned its plan to build a water pumping and chlorination station in Elysian Park. The decision appears to end a five-year controversy that had pitted city agencies against each other.

"We're doing what everybody seems to want us to do," Henry Venegas, senior water planning engineer with the DWP, said of the reversal.

In a move unanimously approved last week by its commission, the DWP instead is planning to build a new pump house on its own property next to its 92-year-old Buena Vista pumping station, which serves much of northeast Los Angeles and the Civic Center. When the new station is complete, the old one, declared an earthquake danger, will be demolished.

"This is good news in capital letters," said Geneva Williams, president of the Citizens' Committee to Save Elysian Park, a group that is fiercely protective of the inner-city park and has over the years successfully fought proposals to build a convention center, oil wells and condominiums in the park.

Money Argument

For five years, the DWP had said it wanted to save money and avoid engineering problems by building the replacement pump house about 500 feet away, in a remote area just inside the eastern boundary of the park. Otherwise, officials said, being forced to rebuild next to the current station would add about $65,000 to the estimated $2.7-million cost of the project.

But the land swap that was proposed to provide the site angered the citizens' committee and several City Council members whose districts surround the park. Even though that section of the park is fairly inaccessible and lightly used, a pump station there would ruin the natural setting and preclude plans to have a baseball diamond, picnic area or small lake there, they said.

Besides, although staff planners for the Department of Recreation and Parks agreed to the swap, their own commission voted against it in June, 1984.

Costs of Suits, Delays

Water officials now say that bureaucratic delays and threatened lawsuits involved in obtaining the parkland would raise costs just as much, if not more, than building on their own property.

The turning point apparently came during a meeting at the park in May between DWP officials and representatives of nearby neighborhoods, such as Chinatown and Echo Park.

"It became clear then that nothing we could do would mitigate moving onto that land," said Duane Georgeson, the DWP's assistant general manager for water operations.

City building inspectors have determined that the current Buena Vista pump house, a two-story brick structure built into the cliff above the Los Angeles River and Southern Pacific rail yard, must be demolished or reinforced by the end of 1987. But water officials say that even extensive reinforcement would not cure the weakness in the building's foundation.

Areas Served

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

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

The field is cut off from the rest of Elysian Park by the Pasadena Freeway and from other parts of the city by the rail yard. It used to be the site of the Buena Vista reservoir, which 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 meadow.

Under the swap proposal, the DWP promised to fill in the ditch, lower the vents and grade the current station area for use as a parking lot for park visitors. But those promises of improvements at DWP expense have been dropped, along with the whole idea of using parkland for the project. Now, in an unlikely alliance, both the DWP and the citizens' group are urging that the Recreation and Parks Department fix up the meadow.

'Not a Soul' There

At last week's meeting, Water and Power Commissioner Walter Zelman said he had visited the field several times in recent weeks and found no one there. "Not a soul," he recalled. "Nobody having a picnic, nobody playing baseball, nobody."

So, although they voted to drop the plan to use the parkland, he and the other four commissioners also voted to send a letter to parks officials asking them to make the meadow more accessible. "We're making a bit of sacrifice financially," Zelman said. "I'd hate to do that and see that parkland still unused."

The citizens' committee recently proposed that the city fix up the area with $107,000 remaining in a special account earmarked for Elysian Park from money paid by the Dodgers to build their stadium in nearby Chavez Ravine. The group says a gravel fire trail into the area should be paved and widened enough to allow curbside parking. They would like picnic tables and a baseball diamond for youth groups from Echo Park and Chinatown, where open space is at a premium.

Ideas to Be Studied

Joel Breitbart, assistant general manager for planning and development in the parks department, called those ideas "excellent" and said his staff will study their feasibility and cost. However, he said he fears that the $107,000 might be inadequate for the job.

He had supported the land swap because, he said, the promised improvements to the field would have been worth whatever visual incursion the new pump house might have made on the area.

"Regardless of what we determine, we don't intend to simply ignore that area and wait forever," Breitbart said. "We want the public to get better use out of the Buena Vista area."

The parks department and the preservation group argued in the past over the future of the field. A master plan had called for the meadow to be made into a swimming lake, which the citizens' committee said was badly needed. But city park planners now think such a lake would be too expensive and difficult to maintain, and have all but dropped the idea.

Sallie Neubauer, secretary of the citizens' committee, said her organization still supports the concept of a swimming lake but wants the area spruced up and used in the meantime. Breitbart said he and Neubauer have decided to put off a possibly controversial decision on the lake.

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