An Unsung Legacy of Open Space, Greenery

Times Staff Writer

There are hundreds of Quimby parks in California. But there is only one Quimby Park.

It's a 4 1/2-acre playground in the San Fernando Valley community of Winnetka where Abraham Galeana was watching his two young children climb a jungle gym Tuesday.

"John Quimby? I've never heard of him," Galeana, a construction worker who lives in North Hills, said as he glanced toward Desoto Avenue and Hart Street -- where a sign designates the playground with that name as a part of Los Angeles' Department of Recreation and Parks.

Most others in the state probably have never heard of John Quimby either. But many of them benefit from Quimby parks of their own.

Quimby is a retired state assemblyman who wrote the 1965 landmark state law that allows cities and recreation agencies to require that developers donate land or help pay for new neighborhood parks near their housing projects.

About 250 cities and local park agencies -- nearly half of all of California's park operators -- have taken advantage of the Quimby Act by adopting it as part of their local ordinances.

The law uses special acreage and population formulas to determine how much land developers need to contribute for recreational use.

That typically comes out to 2 1/2 acres for every 1,000 new residents. If they don't want to donate land, builders can turn over cash that can be used to buy property that can be converted into a park.

Between 1979 and 1985 Los Angeles parks leaders spent $978,792 in Quimby Act developer contributions to buy five lots that constitute Quimby Park.

Surrounded by townhouses and single-family homes, the park includes a grassy play area, swings, a sand volleyball court and two pairs of basketball and tennis courts. It also has a large sand and rubber-padded pit containing the jungle gym that was giving a workout to 4-year-old Abraham Galeana Jr. and his sister, Johanna, 2.

It's precisely the kind of park envisioned 45 years ago by Quimby. At that time, he was a young member of the San Bernardino City Council and was being asked to approve one new housing tract after another in the fast-growing Inland Empire.

"We were still in a kind of post-World War II mentality, with rampant subdividing and speculation," said Quimby, a 68-year-old legislative lobbyist who lives in Carmichael, near Sacramento.

"I was really in love with neighborhood parks, with greenbelts and walkways. I wanted to see little pocket parks set aside instead of being paved over. We had a really good city planning director who was concerned about the rapidity we were developing." But he said they had a difficult time getting developers to agree on open space and setbacks.

So the first thing Quimby did after winning election to the state Assembly in 1962 was figure out a way to guarantee elbow room for future generations of suburbanites.

There was plenty of huffing and puffing about "confiscation of land" and Big Brother intrusiveness when Quimby wrote his law -- initially called the Neighborhood Park Act. But it passed the state Senate, and Gov. Pat Brown signed it. A quick court test challenged the legality of the parkland donations and the act passed that too.

"Today in retrospect that doesn't look so dramatic," said Peter Detwiler, staff director of the state Senate Local Government Committee. But at that time it was "an important breakthrough in government asking developers to mitigate" problems their projects create.

Nobody has kept a running tally of neighborhood parks acreage set aside under the legislation, which officials renamed the Quimby Act after local parks leaders and developers took to calling it by that name. The California Park and Recreation Society calculated that about half of all parks and recreation agencies in the state benefit from it.

Some small towns have decided not to use the Quimby Act because they lack large-scale subdivision activity. Cities such as Los Angeles benefit mightily, however.

Officials say 35 of Los Angeles' 385 parks -- mostly in the more recently subdivided Valley -- owe at least part of their existence to the Quimby Act. That comes to about 1,000 of the city's 15,600 acres of parkland.

Los Angeles took the unusual step of recognizing its Quimby parks by renaming Hart-Desoto Park in 1982. The name "John Quimby Park" was proposed by Councilwoman Joy Picus, who represented the West Valley from 1977 to 1993.

"Quimby park funds were really important in my district -- we quadrupled the amount of park space using them," Picus said.

"The Department of Recreation and Parks said we couldn't name the park after John Quimby because the city doesn't name parks after living people. I said, 'That's the point: Let's do it while he can enjoy it.' "

Quimby traveled from Sacramento for the ceremony, attended by local schoolchildren, residents and community leaders. "It stands out as one of the things I'm most proud of," Picus said.

It was a highlight to Quimby's life too. "It was a wonderful affair. It's the only park with my name on it," he said.

Back at Quimby Park, parent Abraham Galeana praised the playground around him. But there are other nice, new places for his children to play too.

"There are a lot good parks near where we live," he said.

They're Quimby parks too.

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