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Officials Resort to Creativity in Trying to Meet Need for Parks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The plot of land along the Los Angeles River is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and covered with weeds as tall as a child. Underground chemical storage tanks have been dug up and discarded. Graffiti-covered remnants of a factory have been cleared away. Nearby, an empty warehouse stands facing the river.

For years this land--where Slauson Avenue crosses the Los Angeles River in Maywood--was dedicated to manufacturing: household detergents, roofing compounds and petroleum products.

But in the eyes of conservationist Esther Feldman, this is prime parkland--in an area where parks are deeply needed.

“I see tall trees lining the river and over here an inviting area with grass and benches where people can have picnics or relax,” said Feldman, who established the Los Angeles office of the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation organization. “I see wetlands restoration, maybe a lake or a small stream. . . . You could have ball fields and bicycle rentals.”

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With nearly 30,000 people occupying its 1.2 square miles, Maywood is the most densely populated city in California. And with only 5.8 acres of parkland, it is emblematic of a situation familiar to municipalities.

In dense areas of cities throughout the state, finding land for new public parks is often a study in creative thinking: visualizing green expanses where there are now industrial lots, oil pumps or asphalt schoolyards. But as the need for parkland and open space grows, such thinking may become the rule rather than the exception.

Demographers expect Los Angeles County’s population to rise about 2 million by the year 2010. Half that growth will occur in the city of Los Angeles. New parks will need to be created to meet the recreational demands of a burgeoning populace in a region that is already park-poor.

“Almost all of the unincorporated areas in the county need more local parkland,” said Jim Park, chief of the planning division for the county Department of Parks and Recreation. “You should have a local park every half-mile to a mile from your house that you can walk or bike to.”

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At the city-owned Rosecrans Park in the Harbor Gateway area, recreation director Glenda Howry already sees the pressure brought on by more park users.

“There are greater numbers of people wanting to use the facilities,” she said. “Our facilities just can’t accommodate the greater need. We just need more green space.”

Neither the city nor the county park system comes close to its goal of four acres of parkland per 1,000 people. By that measure, the county should have 3,972 acres of parks. It now has 621 acres.

“Are we ever going to reach that? The answer is no,” Park said. “That’s not going to be very feasible looking at the urban density that we have. It does stress a need for additional parkland.”

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Squabbling Over Park Access

A recent lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the West Valley Girls Softball League brought attention to the issue of park use.

Filed in April, the suit alleges that the city discriminates against girls in the private league by denying them equal access to public parks. According to the suit, the boys leagues are given leases to play year after year on the same prime diamonds, while girls teams are left to play wherever space is available, often on inferior fields.

The issue has been discussed in Los Angeles City Council committee meetings and was recently the topic of a Recreation and Parks Commission town hall meeting. City officials deny that they discriminate and say the controversy is an outgrowth of increased demands for use of park facilities.

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Those demands have not been lost on Los Angeles County voters. In 1992 and 1996 they approved ballot measures that raised $859 million to improve and expand the park system. In 1996, Los Angeles residents passed a similar measure, which will provide $25 million annually for parks.

Although much of the money will go to improving existing facilities--adding gymnasiums and ball-field lights--some is being used to acquire land.

In a corner of Los Angeles southeast of downtown the propositions have made possible a new eight-acre nature park at Slauson and Compton avenues. The area, which is represented by Councilwoman Rita Walters, has one of the city’s lowest ratios of parkland to people.

“This will be a major addition,” Walters said. “When you get poor neighborhoods, densely populated and with no park space, it contributes to the deterioration of the neighborhood. Parks really make a city livable.”

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The park will be built on what had been a Department of Water and Power storage yard for old pipes. Walters pushed to have the space converted into a park.

“With the city as built out as it is, you just have to snatch these opportunities when you see a piece of land,” she said.

The Department of Recreation and Parks is conducting a study to determine the park needs of various communities and where parks might be added, said Dallan Zamrzla, director of planning and development.

The city is nearing the close of escrow on Deervale, 80 acres in Sherman Oaks, and talks have begun on Sepulveda Park West, five acres in North Hills. The city tracks parkland by council district. Three council districts have only 0.3 acres of parkland per 1,000 people: Walter’s 9th, Nate Holden’s 10th, which includes Koreatown, and Jackie Goldberg’s 13th, which includes Hollywood.

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Districts 12 and 3--both in the San Fernando Valley--have 1.7 acres of parkland per 1,000 people, the highest ratio in the city.

“It’s a pattern we all understand,” Zamrzla said. “The urban areas of Los Angeles have less park facilities than the new areas or outer-lying areas, where ordinances require that parks be developed when housing developments go in.”

Passed in 1965, the state Quimby Law requires developers to set aside 2.5 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents for whom they build dwellings. However, if they erect residences within a mile of an existing park, they must instead donate money to the parks department.

In areas where land is particularly scarce, the L.A. city parks department might enter into joint agreements with another city entity or an outside organization to create a park, or it might look for land owned by other city departments and use that for recreation, Zamrzla said.

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Schools Do Double Duty

Last month Los Angeles Councilman Mike Feuer, chairman of a committee that oversees city parks, negotiated an agreement with the school board that will open some city school grounds on the weekend for use as parks.

Under the plan, participating schools will be revamped for their new role as recreation sites. Portions of asphalt playgrounds will be dug up and replaced with turf and trees. The DWP has agreed to spend $9 million over three years adding trees to public schoolyards. Some schools will receive funds from recent park initiatives to construct or renovate gymnasiums or other recreational facilities.

In the county as well, the propositions have made new parks possible.

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In Acton, where there is no local park, plans are underway to acquire land for a new 13-acre county park. In the Antelope Valley the county recently acquired the Antelope Valley Wetlands to preserve the area, Park said.

Looking well into the future, the county has entered into an agreement that grants it the right to buy 150 acres along La Cienega Boulevard near the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in the Baldwin Hills. The land is now dotted with oil pumps.

While there is no way of knowing just when the land will stop producing oil, gaining the right to the land after the wells have gone dry is a significant move, Park said.

“It’s a good way, at a discount value, to acquire future rights to a park,” he said. “The comfort is [that] we have locked up a piece of property for future use.”

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For Feldman, land along the Los Angeles River offers some of the best opportunities for new parks and open space.

In addition to the Maywood site, Feldman sees potential at other spots along the river, in such areas as South Gate, Bell Gardens, Bell and Lincoln Heights, all part of a proposed Los Angeles River Greenway. Parks built along the river would link communities much the way a river does, said Feldman, who is vice chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission and author of both county park initiatives.

“I’m a big proponent of buying land and turning it into parks,” she said. “I have my eye on a lot of places where I think that would be a good idea to do.”

If the plan is successful, the Maywood River Park would be the first active park created on a Superfund cleanup site, Feldman said. The park is a joint venture that includes the Trust for Public Land, Maywood and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that has recently become involved in the creation of parks in urban settings.

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“We consider roads and sewers all part of a vital urban infrastructure,” Feldman said. “Our networks of rivers, parks, recreation facilities and natural lands are as vital to the health of our cities as any other kinds of infrastructure.”

New parks are being created with an eye for the recreational habits of area residents.

“We have seen an explosive growth in soccer,” Park said. “Soccer wears the turf down very quickly. We’re investigating non-turf soccer-surface fields.” Roller hockey has also experienced a huge growth in popularity, and the department may develop rinks for that sport.

Creating Level Playing Fields

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The new park at Slauson and Compton avenues will include a nature center that offers classes and exhibits for schoolchildren and the public. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is building the facility, said Executive Director Joseph Edmiston.

The conservancy has been criticized as being exclusionary in its efforts, preserving mountain lands that residents of poorer neighborhoods use far less than the affluent.

Edmiston said he was asked, “Why don’t you introduce nature into South-Central?”

“That concept has blossomed,” he said.

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The conservancy is also creating a park near Walnut Park Elementary School in the Huntington Park area. These new recreational spaces will not include the pillbox-type buildings and scraggly trees that often characterize parks in poorer areas, he said.

“What characterizes parks on the Westside is a higher amenities level, a more aesthetic approach,” Edmiston said. “Higher aesthetics characterize what we’re doing here.”

The goal, he said, is to return the land to nature so convincingly that “15 years from now people will say, ‘This is an area where nature was allowed to flourish in Los Angeles.’ ”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Parkland Crunch

Growing use of local parks has stretched many facilities and searches have begun for sites as recent ballot initiatives have resulted in more money for new purchases.

City of Los Angeles

Both the city and county fall woefully short of their goals of providing 4 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. Here’s a look at Los Angeles parkland, by council district:

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Acreage Parkland per District/Council member Population acreage 1,000 1 Mike Hernandez 226,184 199.75 .9 2 Joel Wachs 236,714 285 1.2 3 Laura Chick 223,224 352.12 1.7 4 John Ferraro 237,705 180.43 .8 5 Mike Feuer 234,113 202.04 .9 6 Ruth Galanter 235,606 267.52 1.1 7 Richard Alarcon 231,767 12.4 .6 8 Mark Ridley--Thomas 224,413 106.57 .4 9 Rita Walters 229,171 78.15 .3 10 Nate Holden 220,256 70.48 .3 11 Cindy Miscikowski 237,781 313.43 1.3 12 Hal Bernson 230,379 391.82 1.7 13 Jackie Goldberg 227,525 79.33 .3 14 Richard Alatorre 226,132 163.63 .7 15 Rudy Svornich 230,989 219.61 1.0

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Selected County Areas:

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Acreage Parkland per District/Council member Population acreage 1,000 Florence--Firestone 71,831 43.1 .6 East Los Angeles 126,545 40.3 .3 Altadena 42,725 30.3 .7 Littlerock/Antelope Valley 30,024 23.7 .8 Rowland Heights 44,559 110.8 2.5 West Carson 20,189 0 0

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Source: Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, city of Los Angeles


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