Community and Politicians Go to Bat for Ball Field

Times Staff Writer

What do Little League baseball and the politics of freeway construction have in common?

In most places, nothing. But most places are not Silver Lake. Or, to be more precise, most places are not a Caltrans-owned vacant lot next to where the Glendale Freeway ends, dumping heavy traffic onto Glendale Boulevard.

For about a decade, local parents and coaches have been trying to get that unlikely piece of property turned into a sports field for youngsters. An existing field at the municipal Silver Lake Recreation Center a few blocks away on the other side of a steep hill is crowded and there is no other relatively flat piece of available land in the neighborhood except the Caltrans plot, they say.

But the idea raised many questions, including ones about safety, finances and whether the state still hopes one day to extend the Glendale Freeway through Silver Lake.

Finally, after much haggling among neighborhood activists and officials from the city and state, the plan appears to be making progress.

"I'm confident we will be able to announce an agreement soon," Los Angeles Councilman Michael Woo said last week. Woo and Assemblyman Mike Roos both represent the area and have been working to get the city and state to sign a lease agreement.

The plan has political appeal, and not just because more than 300 youngsters are active in sports at the existing recreation center. According to Woo, the plan also has support from people who fear that Glendale Freeway will be extended to the Hollywood Freeway and out to Beverly Hills, as Caltrans wanted to do until the Legislature killed the highway project in 1975. The land, a former dumping grounds on the west side of the southbound lanes, would be needed for any freeway expansion.

"Once you get parkland, it would be very difficult for Caltrans to take it back, especially if it becomes an integral part of the community's recreation facilities," said Rodger Shimatsu, president of the Silver Lake Recreation Center Advisory Board, which would run the field as a satellite facility.

Shimatsu stressed, however, that the site was not chosen in hopes of blocking any freeway. In fact, he said, he would have rather found land that did not involve such bureaucratic disputes and was not next to the road. The location has raised concern about cars crashing onto the field and fly balls hitting windshields.

"It's the only available piece of flat land we can put a baseball diamond on. It's still 15 or 20 feet short of regulation Little League size. But we'll take it," he said.

As for the years of waiting, Shimatsu said: "It's been a long, frustrating process."

Gregory Uehlein, director of the center, said baseball and football teams from the overbooked Silver Lake center often have to use fields in other neighborhoods. That requires transportation by parents and often leads to an attrition in the numbers of youngsters participating.

Acquiring an extra home field, Uehlein said, "would be something of pride. It would make a big difference."

Uehlein said he wishes that the Department of Water and Power would give up some land at the northeastern corner of the Silver Lake reservoir for a playing field. But the DWP refuses to, so the weedy three acres of Caltrans land is the next best, he said.

The Caltrans property is at the corner of Duane and Waterloo streets and would be within walking distance of the existing center, albeit across busy Silver Lake Boulevard and over the steep hill of Duane Street. Uehlein said the city must install an extra traffic light on the boulevard or a pedestrian bridge across it before the new field is ready for youngsters.

Caltrans officials say they have no plans to revive a Glendale Freeway extension or to reconfigure what many drivers consider to be the dangerous downhill merging of the southbound side of the freeway and Glendale Boulevard. After the freeway extension plan was killed in 1975, the state sold off the hundreds of homes in Silver Lake and East Hollywood it had acquired for the project.

But fears of a freeway extension were raised again last year when the county Grand Jury and the Central City Assn. proposed a new route for the extension, one that would parallel Alvarado Street and eventually intersect with the Harbor Freeway at Slauson Avenue. State officials said such a project would be too expensive.

Nevertheless, Caltrans is reluctant to sell off the land proposed for the sports facility. Officials say they may need it to improve the intersection, the existing configuration of which was intended to be temporary.

The state agency is willing to lease the land to the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks for 10 years at $100 a year, with a possible 10-year renewal if the city grades the bumpy land and installs a 30-foot-high fence between drivers and batters.

On the other hand, the city department is wary of spending what officials say could be as much as $400,000 for improvements to leased land. So, Roos will try to obtain state money to make improvements to the field, according to his aide, Peter Taylor.

The city's Recreation and Parks Department has never been enthusiastic about building a ball diamond on the Caltrans land. "From out standpoint, it's not a good site. It's not a regulation field," said Alonzo Carmichael, the department's planning officer.

"If we had a choice of doing it or not doing it, we would opt not to do it," Carmichael said. "But, if the community and the councilman want it, we'll do it."

Said Jack Hallin, regional chief of project development for Caltrans: "I think it will happen. There is enough interest in it from the city and legislators."

If the lease contract is signed, construction will take as long as two years, officials said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World