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All We Need Is a Little Space to Breathe

April 01, 2001|JAMES RICCI

WHEN IT COMES TO PARKLAND, LOS ANGELES IS LIKE A MAN WHO squandered an inherited fortune and must now scrounge for coins to maintain a semblance of respectability.

The greed that drove the city's development devoured so much of an uncommonly beautiful landscape that the city today has less than one-fourth the national average of four acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. It is dead last among major cities.

With the notable recent exception of the "Cornfield" site in Chinatown (the Riordan administration wanted it for a warehouse complex until the nonprofit Trust for Public Land wrested it from developers), City Hall and community groups have been reduced to scaring up greenable vacant lots. This would be pathetic if it weren't the only remaining hope of open space for the city's teeming poorer neighborhoods.

"Pocket parks increasingly are the only option, [what] with the affordable housing crisis in this city," says Suzi Hoffman-Kipp, a field representative for former City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg. "A quarter-of-an-acre park is still worth developing because it improves the quality of life for the little kids who have only the hallways of their apartment buildings to play in."

Property in the city has become so expensive that "we can't buy large parcels anymore," says city Recreation and Parks Department project manager Robert Gutierrez.

Given the demand for its residential property, Los Angeles doesn't abound in vacant lots. The L.A. County assessor's office counts 40,818 such lots among 745,758 total parcels in the city. About 9,700 of these are zoned industrial or commercial and, by dint of location, are probably not suitable for parks. The remaining 31,100 are residential, the vast majority zoned for single-family housing, which means they're small.

Even residential lots don't automatically lend themselves to becoming pocket parks. Joe Linton, a parks activist in East Hollywood, visited about half of 88 vacant lots identified in a city study of the Vermont-Western area. He estimated that only one in five has pocket-park potential.

City Rec and Parks, after a long history of focusing on larger, more cost-effective regional parks, appears finally to have come down with a mild case of pocket-park fever. Last year it opened the Lexington Avenue Pocket Park in East Hollywood and the Central Avenue Jazz Park in South-Central. Its Latham Street Pocket Park, also in South-Central, just opened, and Washington Irving Pocket Park, opposite Washington Irving Library in the Mid-City area, is scheduled to open in May. None of these is larger than a quarter-acre. The city also has just acquired about three-fourths of an acre for a Hope and Peace Pocket Park amid the apartment warrens just west of downtown.

These aren't the first such city parks. Over the years, mostly as an afterthought, Rec and Parks created, among its approximately 380 parks, about two dozen of half an acre or less.

The current pocket-park movement, however, is principally the work of community groups and nonprofit organizations. Northeast Trees, for example, has established seven small green spaces along the Los Angeles River. ARTScorpLA, a collective of artists and architects devoted to family-oriented community development, has set two whimsical "art parks" on vacant lots in overpeopled neighborhoods, La Tierra de la Culebra in Highland Park, and Spiraling Orchard near the vexed Belmont Learning Center west of downtown.

City acquisition of privately owned vacant lots for small parks is typically a drawn-out affair. Lexington Pocket Park, once the site of a burned-down apartment building, took 2 1/2 years to buy and construct, at a cost of $415,000. Its playground, picnic benches and landscaping cover less than two-tenths of an acre in a neighborhood packed with apartment buildings.

Pocket park advocates say Rec and Parks isn't really set up to create and maintain pocket parks in anything like the number needed. The City Council currently has before it a "Neighborhood Oasis" proposal submitted by the neighborhood organizing activists of Coalition L.A. It would earmark $900,000 a year for a public land trust to help acquire park-appropriate vacant lots, and for a quasi-public agency that would provide technical expertise, liability insurance and other services to community groups wanting to create pocket parks.

More than $52 million for parks in Los Angeles is currently available through city Proposition K, which voters approved in 1996, and state Proposition 12, which the electorate embraced in 1999. The problem is getting it to the congested neighborhoods. The Proposition K funds and about half of the Proposition 12 funds are distributed via competitive grants, and neighborhood groups usually lack the sophistication to compete for grants against large organizations and governmental agencies. The Neighborhood Oasis proposal, or something like it, would help.

What we're talking about here is breathing space. Places to which young mothers with small children imprisoned in tiny apartments can readily escape. Places where the hot sunlight is filtered by trees, the rain is absorbed into the ground to replenish the water table, and a stumbling toddler hits soft grass or sand.

Providing such rafts of calm on the urban sea "is simply what a civilized society should do," says Northeast Trees president Scott Wilson. It may be late, and it may be a historical embarrassment, given all that nature originally bestowed, but with people continuing to pour into the city, it's now or never.

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