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Watts Towers skateboard park is being ‘rushed through,’ state parks official says

Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s plan to build a skateboard park in the shadow of the Watts Towers is being ramrodded through without full consideration of the potential impact on the fragile national historic landmark or proper consultation with its owner, the state of California, the top state parks official in Los Angeles said Monday.

Hahn, who faces voters Tuesday in a runoff election for Congress, has proposed a skate park as a vitally needed recreational outlet for Watts youth. It has been controversial since it became public in 2009. But opponents say they were caught by surprise when the City Council voted June 17 to pave the way for the plan to go forward. The 11-0 vote placed the strip of city-owned land adjacent to the towers under the jurisdiction of L.A.'s Recreation and Parks Department, enabling it to move forward with a plan to start building the $350,000 skate park this summer with donated funds.

“Something of this magnitude deserves a full environmental review. It should be a much more open and democratic process,” Sean Woods, the state parks department’s superintendent for the Los Angeles sector, said Monday. “This is being hastily put together and rushed through.”

The state leases the towers to Los Angeles, which is responsible for maintaining them and operating them as a cultural site.

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Woods said that while he has followed the skate park proposal through news stories, he was miffed that city officials have not sought the state’s input.

“If you’re going to build a 1-acre skate park next to a national historic landmark, it would make sense that you contact the owner,” Woods said. “They’re very far along, and it would have made sense for us to weigh in early on.”

Hahn spokesman Doane Liu denied that Woods had been kept out of the loop, saying he’d been given updates by Recreation and Parks officials.

Liu said that two more official votes will be required — when the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners decides whether to approve the design plans, and when the City Council decides whether to accept donations promised by the Annenberg Foundation, star skater Tony Hawk and others.

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Woods said the state parks department will request a full-bore environmental impact review, which would require additional public meetings and detailed studies on the proposal. As it stands, Woods said, city officials have told him they plan to proceed under a much speedier, less in-depth review known as a “mitigated negative declaration,” which the California Environmental Quality Act says is appropriate for projects “where clearly no significant effect on the environment would occur.”

Woods said that’s not the case for the Watts Towers because of its vulnerability to heat and moisture — which last year led the city to contract with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to provide expert advice and hands-on help in conserving the towers and raising the money needed to ensure their proper upkeep.

Among the key environmental concerns, Woods said, is that paving over a plot that is now grass and gravel to install a skate park could create runoff that might erode the towers’ 18-inch-deep foundations. Another could be heat reflecting onto the towers from the skate park’s paving, which would begin about 40 yards from the towers.

Woods said that a detailed environmental impact report process would answer “troubling” unknowns. “Nonprofit groups, neighbors, everybody would have a chance to weigh in in a very transparent and democratic way,” he said. “I think the Watts Towers deserves that kind of analysis. If it’s such a great project, why not slow it down a bit and give everybody a chance to look at the details?”

Janine Watkins, a longtime Watts activist who owns the house on E. 107th St. that would be nearest to the skate park, said Monday that she requested early in June that the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency — which at that point controlled the land designated for the skate park — schedule a public discussion of the proposal. The next thing she knew, Watkins said, the proposal was on the City Council’s agenda for June 17, with no special notice to community members who had been concerned about it.

Watkins says that a skate park would improperly supplant city planners’ long-held vision of the Watts Towers as the anchor of a “cultural crescent” of restaurants and arts attractions aimed at drawing tourists and creating jobs. “There are other locations” in Watts for a major skate park, she said.

Hahn has said that isn’t so, because all other suitable public land in the neighborhood is claimed by gangs, leaving the towers site as the only one where all comers could feel safe.

Before the council’s vote June 17, member Tony Cardenas predicted “a synergy” between the skate park and the towers, with youths drawn by athletics becoming interested in offerings at the neighboring city-run arts center. “The vast majority of people in the community are going to welcome the skate park,” he said. “I believe from the bottom of my heart the skate park is going to save lives.”

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mike.boehm@latimes.com


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