San Fernando Valley residents and environmentalists squared off against community arts leaders at the first public debate over a proposed Sepulveda Basin arts center, a long-awaited meeting that at times dissolved into angry shouting matches.
Tuesday's meeting was held by federal and city officials as a forum for public comment on which issues should be addressed in separate federal and state environmental reports that are required for the envisioned Arts Park L.A. If the reports conclude that the Arts Park would cause too much damage to the basin or too many problems for nearby residents, some or all of the complex will not be built in the area.
The meeting was a first step in a decision-making process expected to take at least 10 months. About 50 people spoke before federal and city officials and a private consultant hired to help prepare the environmental reports.
About 60% of those who spoke opposed building the complex in the basin.
"As far as culture is concerned, I agree that it is needed," said Sandy Wohlgemuth, conservation chairman for the Los Angeles Audubon Society. "The question is, where should it go? We believe this intense development is inappropriate for the basin . . . the last remaining open space in Los Angeles."
Many opponents said they oppose all construction on open land.
Proponents were primarily leaders of groups such as the Valley Cultural Center, the Valley Artists Guild or members of the Cultural Foundation, the nonprofit organization that wants to build the park. Proponents testified that the Valley desperately needs facilities for adult artists and children who receive little art education in public schools.
The foundation envisions the Arts Park as a $70-million complex of theaters, workshops and exhibit spaces spread across 60 acres at the basin's northern edge, near the corner of Victory and Balboa boulevards.
The Cultural Foundation, based in Woodland Hills, has been working on the project for nine years but declines to say how much money has been raised for construction. Foundation officials have requested a free sublease on basin land from the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the flood-control basin, and the city of Los Angeles, which leases 2,000 acres for park use.
Whenever construction is proposed on federally controlled land, especially open space, the government must consider whether the project could be built in other locations. An initial list of alternative sites presented at the meeting included Hansen Dam, the Van Nuys Civic Center, Warner Center, Cal State Northridge and Pierce and Valley colleges.
Residents also suggested a government redevelopment area in North Hollywood, vacant schools and empty office buildings.
"There are two things we need more than we need open space," said Ross Hopkins, a Cultural Foundation member, replying to objections that the arts park would reduce the basin's greenery. "First is arts facilities. And the other thing we need is community."
Hopkins said the basin is the perfect location for the Arts Park because it is centrally located. Residents from all over the Valley could converge there, he said, and a central complex would alleviate traffic and air pollution because arts patrons would not drive to facilities downtown as often.
Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Los Angeles) said in a written statement read by a representative that the Arts Park would worsen traffic at the interchange of the Ventura and San Diego freeways.
The environmental reports also will consider effects of construction on plants, wildlife and ground water. Residents complained that construction will scare away already diminishing wildlife. One man said there are already fewer hawks seen over the basin. A woman said she no longer sees small frogs that formerly hopped across the jogging path.
"I like animals . . . but I like people better," said Sanford Paris, an Encino businessman who supports the arts park proposal. "While it may have a negative impact on some creatures on the Earth, there will be a positive impact on human creatures."
At day's end, however, Cultural Foundation officials sounded a conciliatory note.
"We want to hear from the community," said Linda Kinnee, the foundation's executive director. "We fully expect that there will be a compromise down the line. We just don't know where."
Government officials and the private consultant said first drafts of the environmental documents are expected by late summer. Additional public meetings will be scheduled to allow for comment on those draft reports.