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Opponents of Larger Recreation Center Gain Upper Hand : Community: Residents say the proposed 11,000-square-foot facility would attract unsavory characters and displace young children, who currently use the site.


SILVER LAKE — The Silver Lake Recreation Center is a small, run-down and vaguely Spanish-style building plopped in the middle of a well-kept neighborhood of vintage Los Angeles homes.

Children flock to the center for T-ball and peewee baseball, and its small-scale playground is custom-made for kids in the barely walking, into-everything stage.

"I like this little building," Darcee Olson said on a recent Saturday as she watched her year-old twins, Alec and Theo, tottering in the sand. "It's nothing spectacular. It's nice and neutral."

This nice, neutral little building, however, turned into a battleground 18 months ago when the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department offered to tear it down and replace it with what some residents feared would be a windowless behemoth that would blemish the neighborhood.

In a rancorous meeting called by City Councilman Michael Woo in November, 1991, residents opposing the new center confronted neighbors who advocated building an 11,000-square-foot recreation center with an indoor basketball court on the site, which is slightly under one acre in size.

Since then, however, the voices against the center have turned their fears into action while those in favor of the center seem to have disappeared.

"I'd say about 99% of the phone calls we have received have been for a smaller version (of the proposed recreation center)," said Kathy Godfrey, a senior field deputy for Woo's office. "The area has its limitations because of the size of the park."

In fact, those opposing the new recreation center mobilized as a result of the 1991 meeting. They formed an advisory council to the Silver Lake Residents Assn. and surveyed about 500 people. The group has drawn up a list of recommendations and presented it to the parks department in a meeting Wednesday night.

Jan Soo Hoo, who helped conduct the neighborhood survey, declined to be specific about those recommendations, saying the committee wanted to present its ideas directly to the department.

But in a number of interviews with civic leaders, it appears that the community will ask the parks department to go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan they deem more suitable to the property, at the southern tip of the Silver Lake Reservoir.

"It was not scaled to the site," Jim Bonar, president of the residents association, said of the parks department's original plan to replace the center at West Silver Lake Drive and Van Pelt Place.

"The building (they designed) was ugly. It had no windows, and a basketball court will displace the heavy users of the park--little kids," Bonar said. "Recreation and parks did not do its homework. They haven't assessed the needs of the community."

The residents are concerned that there is no parking to accommodate an increased use of the facility, and they fear that an indoor basketball court will attract an unsavory variety of characters.

"If they put an indoor basketball court here," said Jerry Olson, father of the twins, "drug deals and gang rivalries would be played out right here in this park."

As a result of those fears, it appears likely that the advisory council will ask the parks department to either renovate the existing structure or replace it with a similar building that will reflect the character of the neighborhood.

Bonar, an architect, suggested that it might be financially prudent to tear down the 1930s building because of regulations passed since the center was built, including different electrical and seismic requirements and access to the disabled.

The residents group does acknowledge the need for a larger facility to accommodate older children, and it is likely that it will recommend putting such a building in nearby Griffith Park at a site on Riverside Drive, near the Golden State Freeway.

Whether the department will accept the group's recommendations will most likely come down to two factors: politics and money.

The recreation center is in mayoral candidate Woo's district, and his office appears eager to reach a settlement with the parks department before he relinquishes his City Council seat June 30.

"Mike's goal is to get a win-win situation so that the community will get a recreation center that will last a long time," said Godfrey, who has worked with the residents association on the issue. "And he wants it to conform to the needs of the community without sacrificing outdoor space."

In addition, the community has the support of two contenders for Woo's seat, Tom LaBonge and Jackie Goldberg.

LaBonge supports a small-scale center, saying, "I feel strongly that a large-scale gym would be a detriment to the site." Goldberg expressed her willingness to work with the community, saying, "We need to find a way to have improved recreational facilities without a fight."

But funding could be a problem.

Frank Catania, planning and development supervisor for the parks department, said a larger building would cost about $2 million and the smaller center will cost $1.5 million. Money has not been budgeted for two buildings, though Catania said additional funds might become available in a few years.

"I think anything that is suggested by the community will be seriously considered," said Catania, who remembers the bitter 1991 meeting all too well.

"We will go along with public consensus," he added, "but there hasn't been a true consensus in the community."

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