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Column: A family wants to donate a soccer field in their son’s memory. Westwood neighbors are pushing back

Doug and Nikki Mark
Doug and Nikki Mark stand on a patch of land at the Westwood Recreation Center, where they are hoping to build a soccer field in honor of their late son Tommy.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

After their son Tommy died in his sleep in April 2018 at the age of 12, Nikki and Doug Mark of Westwood — suffering through grief, and determined to honor their son’s spirit — decided that building a soccer field in his name would be a fitting tribute.

The Marks say they got tentative support for Tommy’s Field from the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and the office of City Councilman Paul Koretz, so they set out to raise the money. Tommy’s personality and love of soccer made that an easy task.

In just 10 months, with proceeds from lemonade stands, bar mitzvahs and hundreds of other donations, the Mark family hit its target of $1.2 million. They were prepared to donate to create a regulation-size soccer field at a local park. The city, they said, suggested Westwood Recreation Center, on the spot where an often scrubby, parched patch of grass and dirt now exists.

But then the critics weighed in.

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“The opposition rises up, and they say this is our park, this is our backyard, we don’t want more kids and more noise, and we don’t want more soccer,” Nikki Mark said, recalling a meeting in early May.

What had looked like a sure thing was thrown into doubt. The Marks say that in trying to make a positive impact on their community, they were called outsiders by some and accused of cooking up a deal without soliciting neighborhood input.

“Stop the destruction of our natural green space!” said a notice from Defend Westwood Park, alerting neighbors to a meeting in late June. The notice warned of increased noise, fewer parking spaces and “lower property value due to loss of serene park space in exchange for a noisy soccer hotspot.”

There’s already one soccer field at the park, foes noted. But as the Marks explained, that’s a small field for tots, and the older kids and adults need one that’s regulation size.

Tommy Mark
Tommy Mark, who died in April 2018 at age 12, practices in an L.A. Galaxy uniform.
(Courtesy of the Mark family)

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Halfway through August, the scrum continues, and the story raises lots of questions.

Among them:

In a city with limited open space and multiple competing interests, who gets to decide how parks are used?

“It’s a balancing act,” said Mike Shull, general manager of L.A.’s Department of Recreation and Parks. “We go through this across the city and you have to try to satisfy all users … whether that’s a senior or a 10-year-old trying to play a sport.”

Shull said he appreciates private donations that have improved facilities throughout the city, and he tentatively supported the concept of Tommy’s Field. But “we’re not done vetting this out yet.” He said he wants to hear from a few more opponents, and he wants to know whether other possible locations for Tommy’s Field were given enough consideration.

I’ve met with Nikki and Doug Mark twice now, including once at the park. They’re discouraged by the negative reaction, but Nikki said she has responded to it by meeting with opponents to answer their questions and try to allay their fears.

She said some people thought the plan was to fence off the field and lock the gate, so she told them that in fact the facility would be open and free to all, because that’s the way Tommy would have wanted it.

Even though the open space area is often more brown than green, with plenty of gopher holes, some neighbors insisted they’d rather have that than the synthetic grass that would cover the soccer field. The Marks explained that artificial turf is a year-round, low-maintenance surface, which makes sense with limited city budgets and frequent drought.

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But they haven’t convinced the opposition.

“We like the idea of memorializing Tommy and recognize there is a shortage of soccer fields,” said neighbor Jim Lamb, who visits the park with his three young children. “I just don’t want other uses of the park pushed out without personal consideration. I like the natural open space and the grass and the dirt and the gophers.”

Because of the opposition, the city came up with several ideas for revisions to the plan, with input from the Marks. Ultimately they settled on one in which the coveted open space would be left untouched.

Instead, six of the eight tennis courts and the basketball courts would be cleared to make way for Tommy’s Field. Two new tennis courts would then be added to an area that often serves as a homeless encampment, and new basketball courts would be built in the southeast corner of the park.

The biggest losers in that proposition would be tennis players, who would retain only half the eight courts available to them now. The existing courts are often empty by day, as most of them were when I visited, although a woman who runs an adult tennis league told me there’s often a shortage in the evening.

And the revised plan for Tommy’s Field didn’t go over much better than the first plan.

“Something’s wrong with the process, that’s my biggest complaint,” said neighbor Jamee Decio, who said the public was left in the dark while Tommy’s Field was being discussed and designed.

“I think the Marks are lovely and I told them I support their idea,” Decio continued, as long as it’s in another park.

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The Marks have heard a lot of that. Nice idea, but take it somewhere else — preferably to a larger park that can more easily accommodate a second soccer field.

Mike Eveloff, who used to play football at Westwood Rec and has been on the center’s advisory board for several years, disputed complaints about the process. As with various improvements in the park over the years, Eveloff said, the plan for Tommy’s Field was presented in public, people aired their reasons for opposing it and it was revised.

Besides, said Eveloff, plans for a playing field go back to at least 2013, when a master plan for the park was drawn up.

“It called for a better playing surface on the large field because it was just not a great field. It was brown most of the time, people sprained their ankles all the time and a lot of people stopped using it because it was in such bad shape,” said Eveloff.

Eveloff recalled that in 2016, one of the neighbors who pushed for a better field was Nikki Mark. Nothing came of it at the time, but since the death of her son, Nikki Mark recommitted herself to developing a plan for Tommy’s Field.

The neighborhood desire for open space “is not a false concern,” said Eveloff. “There’s the press of development all around, streets are deteriorating, there’s homelessness, and people are on edge…. That’s part of why we said, ‘You know what? Let’s see if we can make this work for everyone.’ ”

The Marks told me Koretz supported the revised plan initially. But they were dejected last week after a visit to City Hall, when they were told nothing has been decided.

“It is true [Koretz] liked the latest proposal, which kept the open space and upgraded the tennis courts, basketball courts and bathrooms,” said Alison Simard, a spokesperson for Koretz. “But, because a few more community members have asked to meet with him, he will not take a formal position until he has heard their concerns or support.”

I understand some of the opposition. But with a little more tweaking and a little more leadership from city officials, there ought to be a way to find an acceptable compromise.

If they’re turned away, said the Marks, they’ll explore other options. Tommy, who died of unknown causes, loved playing soccer everywhere and anywhere. But it would be nice, they said, to have Tommy’s Field in the neighborhood where he lived — and where so many people have donated time and money to see that happen.

Steve.lopez@latimes.com


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