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L.A. -- it’s no park place

I WOULDN’T USUALLY look to Mark Twain for urban planning advice, but he was right about this: “Buy land; they’re not making it anymore.” And they’re really screwing up what there is of it.

Look at us. We’re putting in acres of 3 bdr, 2 ba subdivisions where we once put in beans (ever try to make a meal of drywall?). We behave as if there’s soooo much land here that we can squander it, and then it’ll grow back, like hair after a bad cut.

And when it comes to public lands, I worry that Los Angeles never, as they say, misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. We sold our river down the river. There’s talk of sowing a crop of skyscrapers on the Veterans Affairs campus in West L.A., the only sizable green and pleasant public place in those parts, apart from the military cemetery.

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L.A. is the nation’s worst park-to-people big city. The only reason the city’s pathetic park numbers look as good as they do is because of Griffith Park -- which accounts for more than a quarter of the city’s park acreage. It’s spectacular, but it’s also just one big lumpen-park -- and it’s hardly likely that someone will drive 30 miles from San Pedro for a stroll.

L.A. needs to take its green space where it can find it. I’ve watched the methodical dismantling of the old Caltrans building on Spring Street. When it fell, it revealed the new Caltrans building one block over -- one snazzy piece of architecture -- but I’d better look fast. In the rubble-mounded lot, the city plans to put in not a new park, as its own 1997 master plan envisioned, but a new Parker Center. The old police HQ hasn’t held up as well as “Dragnet” reruns, and the LAPD needs a new hive. But must there be yet another new building downtown, where the office vacancy rate is about 16%?

The city owns almost enough real estate to open an entire ‘nother city. It bought a building in the Transamerica cluster south of downtown, which Jim Hahn -- the old mayor, remember him? -- thought would be perfect for the LAPD. But the City Council says no, it’s too far from the powerhouse Civic Center, which I think means that it’s too much trouble for them to get there.

Two examples of how government trips over its own feet: Out the windows of The Times I see choice acreage that has been empty for more than 30 years. The state building that stood there was hammered by the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, and since it came down, there’s been nothing but dithering about the site. My colleagues and I used to play croquet there at lunch, to the amusement of the street characters, until it was fenced off. Now it’s unused and useless -- unless your definition of open space extends to a concrete slab rimmed with Potemkin plantings. Here’s a line from a 1997 Times story about it: “A proposal to allow snack carts or a coffee shop ... is being studied.” I could earn an advanced degree in astrophysics in the time they’re taking to say yes to java.

And there’s the South Central Community Garden, 14 acres under cultivation at 41st Street and Alameda. Two decades ago, L.A. got it by eminent domain for a trash-to-energy incinerator project with the comic-book superhero name of Lancer. But neighbors didn’t want Lancer. The city bailed on the plan, and a food bank opened the land for local families to farm. It’s been a blessing in a neighborhood where it’s easier to find a bottle of beer than a decent bag of salad fixings. But the original owner won the land back, and the freelance farmers have to go. All this might have been avoided had the city used imagination and muscle early on for land swaps, tax breaks, rezoning -- all the arrows in its civic quiver.

Angelenos will have to exercise some imagination too. It isn’t enough to be kindly disposed toward parks; we have to insist on them. So here’s to the day when we see a sign that reads “Park” and don’t automatically think “a place to put my car.”

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PATT MORRISON’s e-mail is patt.morrison@latimes.com.


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