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Storm Over Arts Park : Public hearings begin Thursday on the proposed cultural complex's environmental impact on Sepulveda Basin.


The Cultural Foundation knows it has a battle on its hands.

For more than a decade, this group of San Fernando Valley business and community leaders has hoped to build a cultural complex along the northern edge of the Sepulveda Basin. The members envision sparkling theaters and galleries that would attract world-class art.

Their quest has met with opposition. The Sierra Club went to federal court in a move that slowed the project. Neighborhood groups have argued that the basin should be preserved as one of Los Angeles' largest remaining green spaces.

A new round in this slugfest begins Thursday, with public hearings to review the project's environmental impact. Government officials will listen to both sides debate how the proposed 60-acre complex might affect everything from blue herons to rush-hour traffic.

The Sepulveda Basin is a federal flood plain owned by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. The city of Los Angeles has a long-term lease on the land. So, the foundation must persuade both entities to approve a sublease for the Arts Park LA site near the intersection of Balboa and Victory boulevards.

The foundation is at a midpoint in this process, having submitted first drafts of the required environmental impact reports. In hopes of appeasing critics, the drafts contained new, scaled-down plans. The foundation has deleted at least two buildings and squeezed the complex along the basin's border.

Still, the group doesn't expect to please everyone.

"We know there will always be opposition," said Ross Hopkins, the foundation's executive director. "But we think we've dealt with most of the reasonable concerns."

Indeed, the foundation seems more willing to compromise its plans than it has been in past years. But critics see the conflict as all or nothing.

"That land is an oasis, a natural open space," said Jill Swift, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club. "I'm talking about the guy from Pacoima who comes to play soccer or the family that comes for a picnic. Where will they go?"

"People are running around trying to save the rain forests," she said. "Well, we have our own rain forest to save here at home."

Arts Park, as it is proposed, would include a volcano-shaped outdoor amphitheater, a string of children's workshops, a natural history museum and an indoor theater. The foundation has insisted that this complex could blend with the natural setting, and that the rolling greenery would make it more attractive to families and visiting schoolchildren.

A 1989 Los Angeles Times Poll suggested that 61% of Valley residents wanted more arts facilities. But many of those who wanted such facilities did not support them on parkland.

Recent revisions to the Arts Park plan eliminated a proposed lakeside pavilion and food stands. The amphitheater would be set back from the recently filled Lake Balboa instead of being built on the shore and would be, like much of the complex, hidden by trees.

Perhaps more important, most of the complex would be shifted to the dry side of the 100-year flood line, which marks the portion of the basin that could be underwater during catastrophic rains. Last February's near-record storms threatened the proposed site and prompted the Corps of Engineers to move the line north.

"Are those the same engineers who, 10 years ago, said the Tillman Sewage Plant was out of the flood plain?" asked Peter Ireland, of the Coalition to Save the Basin. He was referring to the Donald C. Tillman sewage treatment plant that flooded and dumped 10 million gallons of treated but unchlorinated sewage into the basin during the February rains. "Now they are putting in huge berms and dykes to protect that plant."

Opponents have long argued that Arts Park should be placed in a more urban setting, or on the campus of Cal State Northridge, for example. The environmental drafts include analyses of these options, but Ireland and others insist that the Cultural Foundation is not serious about looking elsewhere.

"We're talking about ego-edifices for the wealthy patrons of the San Fernando Valley," Ireland said. "They want to muscle their way into the public domain for a facility where they will charge the public for tickets."

As far as the Audubon Society is concerned, the northern basin has already been damaged by the removal of cornfields that used to grow there. Canada geese, which migrate through the area, once fed on stubble after harvest time. The society's annual goose count suggested that only half the expected number of birds came through last winter.

"The geese have a certain charm, and not just for bird-watchers," said Sandy Wohlgemuth, a conservation chairman for the society. "They are a big attraction to people who don't even care about birds. They're big and they make noise and fly in those beautiful V's."

Opponents have also wondered whether the foundation can raise the $70 million needed to construct Arts Park.

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