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What’s hiding in plain sight at Magic Johnson Park? Maybe a solution to our water problem

Gary Lai, Wendy Chan and Dan Lafferty stand at the edge of the lake at Magic Johnson Park.
Landscape architects Gary Lai, left, and Wendy Chan, with Dan Lafferty of L.A. County Public Works, stand alongside one of two lakes at Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook, a water capture and recycling site.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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It has neither the pomp of the Oscars nor the fanaticism of the playoffs, but California’s annual measurement of the snowpack in the Sierra is the sort of spring rite that brings with it intense expectation and dashed hopes. Certainly, that was the case in early March, when the state’s Department of Water Resources reported that the water content of the overall snowpack was only 61% of average.

Translation: It’s not only going to be a really dry year, but we also may be in the middle of a decades-long “megadrought.” In Northern California, sobering aerial photographs show Lake Oroville at 42% of its capacity.

Record amounts of regional water storage will buffer urban Southern California from the effects of drought this year.

Subtext: We need to be a lot smarter about capturing the rain we do get, much of which is flushed out to sea in chutes of concrete.

It’s really a story of design — about the ways water is designed to travel along the surfaces of our city, and how we can begin to tweak those surfaces so that we can hold on to that water rather than simply let it course through. And in this very Los Angeles story, there is one piece of infrastructure that tends to dominate the debate: our behemoth, 51-mile Los Angeles River, for which county supervisors are in the midst of producing a new master plan.

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But L.A. is finding other ways to capture and to store water. And in some cases, it is run-of-the-mill urban infrastructure that plays the starring role. Your neighborhood park? It might just be doing double duty as critical aquifer.

A combination of strategic landscape design and water engineering is transforming neighborhood recreational areas into sites where water is captured, cleaned and stored. That water can then be recycled and used to irrigate a park’s vegetation — making the park self-sustaining. Excess water also can be released back into the river system in far cleaner form. (Urban and suburban runoff is notoriously filthy with garbage, surface pollutants and all manner of bacteria.)

Park patrons sit on rocks and boulders in a set of shallows that connect two lakes.
Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook is an important recreational area in South L.A. A redesign has made it smarter about water.
(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

All of this is being designed in ways that are barely visible — if visible at all.

“It’s taking infrastructure but making it an asset to the community,” says landscape architect Gary Lai, a principal at AHBE/MIG, a planning and design firm with offices in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. “You can do the water conservation part and it would be good. But then putting in an amenity for a neighborhood that didn’t have it, that’s fantastic.”

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Parks around Los Angeles have water storage systems tucked under ballfields and recreation centers. In Santa Monica, there’s a 200,000-gallon cistern beneath a public library. One of the most recent public projects to emerge in this arena is Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook, an unincorporated community in South L.A., where Lai and the team at AHBE/MIG helped develop the design for an ongoing $83-million renovation.

A drone shot shows an overhead view of one of the lakes at Magic Johnson Park surrounded by newly planted terrain
Magic Johnson Park recently received an $83 million revamp that has not only made the park more drought resilient, but made it an important water capture site.
(Evan Mather / AHBE/MIG)

It’s a location with a fraught history. The park lies on the site of an oil storage facility — the former Athens Tank Farm — that was operated by Exxon Mobile until 1963. In the 1970s, a piece of the property was employed in a real estate project backed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that was intended to help working-class Black families find a path to homeownership. Ujima Village, as the development was called, housed 600 people in one- to four-bedroom units that shared a playground, basketball courts and a community garden.

But by the 1990s, the development had fallen into disrepair and ownership was transferred to L.A. County. Tests at the time showed the land remained contaminated from the previous oil operations. In 2008, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered Exxon Mobile and L.A. County to clean up the site. Residents were relocated and the entire development was ultimately razed.

Years of environmental remediation followed before the water quality board and the Department of Toxic Substances Control gave the go-ahead to use the land that Ujima once sat on as parkland (although Exxon continues to monitor the area for methane and other contaminants). That area, now integrated into Magic Johnson Park, will now feature an event lawn, a fitness loop and a natural amphitheater.

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If you think about what we do, it makes no sense. We import water from the Colorado River and then we dump it on the ground.

— Dan Lafferty, L.A. County Department of Public Works

Visit the park today and you‘ll notice pleasing surface changes. There are new jogging paths, drought-tolerant native-plant gardens studded with sagebrush and sycamores, scenic overlooks and a handsome 20,000-square-foot community center designed by Paul Murdoch Architects with shimmering interior murals by L.A.-based artist Carla Jay Harris. The park’s two lakes, previously clogged with algae and sediment, are now a clear blue.

A view across a lake to a building with a tilted roofline.
Because water is used more efficiently at Magic Johnson Park, the excess that it sends to Compton Creek is far cleaner.
(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Largely out of sight, however, are landscape design and engineering moves that have transformed the way the park uses water.

Prior to the renovation, Magic Johnson Park used potable water to irrigate its gardens and grass lawns, of which there are no small number — the park checks in at a sizable 126 acres.

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“If you think about what we do, it makes no sense,” says Dan Lafferty, the deputy director who oversees the water resources division at L.A. County’s Department of Public Works. “We import water from the Colorado River and then we dump it on the ground.”

With an eye toward conservation, the designers at AHBE/MIG, in collaboration with PACE Engineering and L.A.'s Public Works, looked for ways the park might employ runoff and captured rainwater instead.

They achieved this in five steps:

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1. Divert

Rainwater, along with the water people use on their lawns and to wash their cars, ends up somewhere: namely storm drains, which quickly flush water out to the L.A. River and ultimately to sea. So the team turned to the 84-inch drainpipe that runs under El Segundo Boulevard, on the southern edge of Magic Johnson Park. That pipe captures much of the neighborhood’s runoff and deposits it into Compton Creek, an L.A. River tributary.

But engineers diverted the water and fed it into a small pumping station where garbage could be removed. And there is a lot of garbage. “It’s a lot of chip wrappers, a lot of straws, a lot of random urban debris,” says Wendy Chan, an AHBE/MIG landscape architect. “We once saw a piece from a skateboard.”

Water levels at Lake Oroville have dropped to 42% of its 3,537,577 acre foot capacity.

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2. Clean

From the pumping station, the water is piped to a small water treatment plant — just over 1,800 square feet — near the park’s community center, where it is treated with alum and ozone to kill any bacteria.

The shrinking of water-cleansing technology over the last few decades is part of what makes a water recycling project within a city park feasible, says Lai. “In the 1960s, this would have been the size of a city block.”

An architectural renderings shows people strolling between a community center on the right and lakefront on the left
An architectural renderings by AHBE/MIG shows the design concept for a lakeside community center at Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook, in South L.A.
(AHBE / MIG)

A curving gravel-lined path borders a lake planted with wetlands
A view of one fo the wetland areas after construction — plantings that serve as an important environmental filter.
(Wendy Chan / AHBE/MIG)

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3. Employ nature

The treated water is slowly released into newly planted wetlands that border the perimeter of the park’s southern lake. Here, the water receives another level of cleaning as it slowly filters through saltgrass, native sedges and Arroyo willow, as well as a porous stone barrier. “Whatever didn’t get treated by the alum and ozone,” says Lai, “is dealt with by the plants.”

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A woman and child walks through a tree-lined section of Magic Johnson Park filled with plants in bloom
Areas around Magic Johnson Park have been replanted with native grasses, plants and trees.
(Calvin Abe / AHBE/MIG)

The wetlands, in combination with the new native gardens, create a critical ecology for native and migratory bird and butterfly species — one that is just as pleasing to humans. “It’s rethinking what a lake is and what it can give to a community,” says Chan. “If you live here, you get to see these native plants, you see the blooming cycle, you see all of these species.”

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4. Irrigate

Once the water has been sufficiently cleaned, it can be used to irrigate the park or released back into Compton Creek in a far healthier state. End result: The park is watered without having to open a tap, and the filtration process helps mitigate coastal pollution.

Though, to be clear, the park’s community center, bathrooms and splash pad all still employ potable water so that it’s safe to ingest.

A rendering shows people sitting at picnic tables by a lake
An architectural rendering produced prior to construction shows AHBE/MIG’s design concept for a recreational area for Magic Johnson Park.
(AHBE / MIG)

A group of teens wearing masks sit at picnic table surrounded by greenery
A view of one of the completed recreation areas, where a group of neighborhood youths hang out lakeside.
(Calvin Abe / AHBE/MIG)

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5. Capture

Because the park harbors two lakes, it’s also an important water storage site. The system was designed to handle the cleaning and filtration of water during heavy rainstorms, and each of the lakes can accommodate up to a 1-foot rise in the water level. “The big rainstorm in February, we reached an 85th percentile storm and the lake went up by a foot,” says Lai. “It all worked. It pumped the correct amount of water and cleaned everything.”

After storms, that water can be stored for future use or slowly released into Compton Creek as necessary. “This is a check in front of Compton Creek,” he adds. “It acts like a treatment facility.”

Ducks and geese dot a lake. In front is a netted area with plants; in the background, a community center and play area.
The lake at Magic Johnson Park also serves as water storage during heavy rains.
(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Magic Johnson Park is reflective of a new way of thinking about how existing land can be used in innovative ways to serve infrastructural purposes — such as water storage.

“Our largest spreading ground is 450 acres by Pico Rivera,” says Lafferty, referring to the Rio Hondo Coastal Spreading Grounds, an important water storage facility. “But we don’t have a 450-acre parcel out there for me to gather water. So now you’re talking about a multiple of smaller projects that capture water in a similar way.”

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Those smaller projects could be L.A.’s public parks, which cumulatively add up to thousands of acres of land.

In addition to Magic Johnson, the county’s Department of Public Works is devising a similar concept at the Rory Shaw Wetlands in Sun Valley. In Silver Lake, designers leading the ongoing master plan process for the park areas surrounding the reservoir are not just looking at drought-tolerant landscaping and the introduction of wetland ecologies, but also at developing a stormwater capture system to keep the reservoir replenished.

A silhouette of a wading bird is seen hanging out in newly planted wetland areas as the sun sets.
The introduction of wetlands and native species of vegetation at Magic Johnson Park has attracted a wide range of birds to the area.
(Wendy Chan / AHBE/MIG)

Other parks within the city of Los Angeles achieve a similar mission (on a far smaller scale). This includes Westside Neighborhood Park in West Adams, which draws runoff and uses it as irrigation. Echo Park Lake, which once employed potable water to maintain the lake, now recycles and cleans area runoff for that purpose.

The existing projects were all funded, in part, by recent bond measures, such as Measure W in L.A. County and Proposition O within the city of Los Angeles, which were designed to improve the quality of stormwater runoff around Los Angeles. In the process, they have helped improve the design and resiliency of parks themselves.

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California has entered another drought. But depending on who you ask, the last one may have never really ended.

Projects such as the one at Magic Johnson Park — with its intensive water engineering components — are part of a shift in focus in landscape architecture.

“The field of landscape architecture has been going through a transition these last 10 years, especially with sustainability,” says Lai. “We were a profession that dealt mostly with the aesthetic. Frederick Law Olmsted built Central Park mainly for aesthetics — though there were health and welfare aspects. Now we are thinking of aesthetics and melding it with hard science and ecology.”

Landscape architecture is often be treated as an afterthought — a way to gussy up the place after a building is done. But climate change and shifting attitudes toward the environment have made the field ever more critical. And, in Los Angeles, a city with little green space and even less water, it couldn’t be more essential to create water-conscious public spaces that are also joyful and aesthetically pleasing.

“Los Angeles imports about two-thirds of its water,” says Lafferty. “We get a third from the Colorado River and a third from Northern California and a third locally. And that means we are in drought all of the time. So you have to plan for that. You have to grow that local source.”

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Smartly designed parks are helping us do that.

VIDEO | 05:58
LA Times Today: A solution to our water problem, hiding in plain sight at Magic Johnson Park

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

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