Stephanie Harker has lived across the street from Plummer Park in West Hollywood for 28 years. When she talks about it, she calls it “my park.”
In a densely populated city with little open space, the park and its towering trees serve as a sort of urban refuge for longtime residents like Harker, young couples with children and elderly Russian men who enjoy daily games of outdoor chess with friends.
But these days, Harker, 64, and others are worried about the park’s future. Hand-painted signs in yards throughout her neighborhood put it simply: “Protect Plummer Park.”
The roughly 5-acre park — which includes picnic tables, tennis and basketball courts, and other recreational facilities — is set to undergo a $41-million renovation over the next two years. Sections of the park will be shut down in phases.
A large portion of the park will be closed for months during construction of an underground parking garage in the project’s first phase.
The park’s conjoined Great Hall/Long Hall building — a community center built by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression — will be bulldozed during construction of the garage and replaced with open park space.
Park benches will be replaced; 54 of the park’s 210 trees will be destroyed for various reasons, but the park ultimately will end up with three dozen more trees. A modern facade and band shell will be added to Fiesta Hall, a 61-year-old auditorium.
A new preschool will be built with the children’s play area on the roof to save park space.
Harker and neighbor Cathy Blaivas have spearheaded a campaign to stop the city’s plans. They are upset with plans to tear down Great Hall/Long Hall, and they worry about the length of time the park will be under construction.
They also believe the city is ignoring the park’s history. The park could use some repairs, such as fixing the cracks in the sidewalks and updating the interior of the buildings, Harker said, but it does not need to be built from scratch into something it’s not.
“I like it because it’s a little bit rural and wild and not so pristine and manicured that you feel like you have to have a personal trainer to walk through,” Harker said.
So far, more than 1,000 people have signed an online petition at Change.org asking the City Council to halt the project.
Earlier this month, dozens of protesters armed with signs in Russian and English staged a demonstration in the park before marching down Santa Monica Boulevard. And in October, more than 150 people, most wearing lime-green Protect Plummer Park stickers, packed a community meeting about park renovations.
For Harker, the “battle cry is that it’s not a done deal until the wrecking ball hits the side of the building.”
City officials, however, say many of the protesters are uninformed about details of the project. For instance, they said, the entire park will not be closed during the two-year renovation, temporary park space will be created during construction, and a number of planned changes will improve the park.
“It’s not something scary, we’re not destroying Plummer Park, we’re not uprooting seniors and throwing the Russians out and scaring away the children; and that’s kind of the way it’s being framed,” West Hollywood Mayor John Duran said at a Nov. 21 council meeting.
City officials have been surprised by the reaction of some in the community because, they say, plenty of advance notice had been given about the plans. The park renovation has been a topic of discussion since 1993.
“The city has nothing to apologize for in terms of outreach because we did enormous outreach,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Prang.
Nevertheless, the city has promised to review the renovation plans and see what changes can be made to satisfy the concerns of neighbors. Construction, initially set to begin in January, already has been delayed until a mitigation plan is developed.
For months, Blaivas, 61, has been knocking on neighbors’ doors and talking to residents about the city’s plans. She said the Protect Plummer Park campaign is made up of a diverse group.
“It’s not just a bunch of older people who want to hold on to something,” Blaivas said. The park “is the heart of this community. They’re ripping that heart out and turning it into an architectural project.”
For Lyndia Lowy, 62, the park has been a cornerstone of her life. Her parents first brought her to the park in a baby stroller. As an adult, she has spent dozens of evenings rehearsing with the Hollywood Master Chorale at Fiesta Hall.
The park is where Trevor Orr, 28, wants to continue bringing his 1-year-old daughter to play. Orr and his wife moved to West Hollywood a year ago, and the couple chose their apartment because of its proximity to the park.
Yefim Bochkis, Russian immigrant and retiree, has come to the park almost every day for more than 20 years to play chess. He brings a flashlight so he can continue playing after the sun sets.
He said he doesn’t mind the changes planned for the park as long as he always has a table.
“I come here because this is very important for people our age,” Bochkis said. “I am a chess player. I need this.”
Eugene and Gala Groisman, Russian immigrants, bring their 3-year-old son Gregory to the park, where he rides his red tricycle. Gregory has gone to bed wearing his own Protect Plummer Park green button.
“I cannot imagine our lives without this park,” Eugene Groisman said, waving an arm at the nature around him. “I cannot believe we could lose this.”