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Sam Hall Kaplan

Barnsdall Park May Get New Life

September 21, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

Barnsdall Park, for years, has been less of a park than a bureaucratic jungle, with a variety of city agencies squabbling over whose turf it is.

Often stumbling over themselves and each other have been the departments of Recreation and Parks, General Services, Cultural Affairs and Public Works and the city's administrative office.

The bureaucrats have been guided, as usual, by the Catch-22 macro ecopolitical mathematical formula:

Promises=megalomania paranoia=inaction.

Typical of government, no agency has wanted to take responsibility for seeing the park and the facilities maintained, let alone improved. Instead, all wanted to keep their thumb in the operation and take credit for whatever there was to take credit for. And, of course, no one wanted to take the blame for nothing being done.

Meanwhile, the historic park, with its landmark Hollyhock House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Municipal Art Gallery and Junior Arts Center, views and open space have suffered. And though the facilities have been functioning, thanks to a dedicated on-site staff and volunteers, their potential as a marvelous resource for the East Hollywood community and the city at large remains frustrated.

But there is hope that at long last the park and its facilities will be getting the attention they need and deserve.

Prodded by a persistent mayoral task force, the Friends of Hollyhock House and other volunteers, the city has selected a design team to develop a restoration and maintenance program for the landmark structures.

There is also the promise of some funds from the city and the hope of more funds from the state, depending on what is developed by the team of Mark Hall of Archiplan and preservation architect Martin Eli Weil.

This could be an important start in the process that will lead to the fulfillment of the spirit of the Aline Barnsdall's dream 70 years ago, to develop the area then called Olive Hill into an egalitarian art center. It was the oil heiress Barnsdall who gave Frank Lloyd Wright his first commission in Los Angeles to design for her a home on the hill as a centerpiece in a cultural complex. Eventually, the property was turned over to a reluctant city for a park.

But if the process is going to avoid falling into the trap that undermined similar past efforts, a broad and imaginative master plan will be needed to establish the framework and goals for the restoration and maintenance programs.

Many of the park's current problems, including difficult access, lack of parking and inadequate facilities, stems from the failure in the past of the city and others to be able to embrace the greater potential of this rare public resource.

Still needed to guide the effort is the good will, good works and good ideas of the task force and persevering others who hold dear the dream of Barnsdall and Wright.

The dream of a vital downtown streetscape also perseveres, thanks in part to Councilman Michael Woo. He recently prevailed upon the City Council and its Public Works Committee to stop the Traffic Department from getting its teeth into 10 feet of Flower Street and Grand Avenue for a possible street widening bordering the Library Square. The extra footage would have come out of the proposed park there.

This is the street widening (and park whittling) that had been protested strongly by, among others, the Friends of the Library, the Los Angeles Conservancy, the local chapter of the AIA and in this column. The transportation department had said the widening was needed to facilitate downtown traffic, including a possible left turn lane from northbound Flower to westbound 5th street.

As we know, the department has made a deity of left-hand turns and has let the resulting religion interfere with the secular administration of its responsibilities. And, as for that administration, the department still can't seem to get out of its 1950s mind-set that downtown exists simply for motorists, that pedestrians are some sort of alien form and pleasant sidewalks somehow are un-American because they generate crowds.

But Woo knows better, declaring in his minority report that "the benefits to motorists do not justify the disadvantage to pedestrians, which would be caused by the street widening." Happily, Woos's minority report overcame the arguments of the Traffic Department, the concessions of the Community Redevelopment Agency and the confusion of the Planning Department to became a majority report.

Some readers of this column also know better, and, of late, have been submitting unsolicited ideas how the city's streetscapes and, generally, the city's quality of life, can be improved.

Among them was the suggestion that the center divider of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood be bulldozed to serve traffic and that the additional width gained be used not to create an extra traffic lane or two but to widen the adjacent sidewalks.

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