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Takeover of Long Beach Park Space Stirs Debate

February 13, 2001|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1889, two public parks that formed a mile-long promenade of flower beds, eucalyptus and Moreton Bay fig trees on the coastal bluffs of downtown Long Beach were dedicated in perpetuity for recreation. Today, Santa Cruz and Victory parks along Ocean Boulevard don't seem so public anymore.

Modern office buildings, high-rise condos, walls, steps and driveways encroach on much of the land. Giant slabs of modern sculpture and 18 commercial real estate signs also intrude, most of them without permission.

Passersby who venture onto some of the remaining parcels risk being shooed away by security guards.

Over the decades, downtown development decisions by City Hall have transformed Victory and Santa Cruz into little more than landscaping for private property. Such cannibalizing of parkland for uses other than public recreation has been a regular occurrence in Long Beach, already affecting or threatening an estimated 20 sites.

Now, a public outcry is growing over those losses and ongoing attempts by local government to take recreational areas for other uses. Consequently, elected officials are beginning to rethink guidelines for the city's 70 parks.

Last week, a City Council committee embarked on a plan to inventory recreational land, identify new park sites and give citizens more of a say in how their parks will be used. The panel also held the first in a series of public hearings on the issue.

"A lot of people have been waiting a long time for this," said City Councilman Ray Grabinski, who proposed the park meeting. "We need to make sure that no short-term gain takes away from the long-term gain of saving what we have and acquiring more land for parks and open space."

Long Beach, which is the state's fifth-largest city, has about 2,500 acres of parkland, including beaches, municipal golf courses and public school playgrounds. The parks vary in size from so-called pocket parks of less than half an acre to massive El Dorado Park with 650 acres.

The National Recreation and Parks Assn. recommends that cities have a minimum of 10 acres of parks per 1,000 residents. But Long Beach has about six acres per 1,000, less than many major metropolitan areas, including New York City.

More Space in Affluent Areas

Most of the recreational land is concentrated on the city's affluent east side. The 3rd and 5th council districts, for example, have four acres and 18 acres of parks per 1,000 residents, respectively. The 1st Council District in downtown, among the poorest, has less than half an acre per 1,000 residents.

Preservationists say that demand for parks is growing with the population and that Long Beach should end its long history of trying to put private and non-recreational facilities on public parkland.

Much of Lincoln Park, the city's first and perhaps most famous, was taken in the 1970s for a massive expansion of the main library and construction of a concrete plaza in front of the new City Hall.

A temporary police station sits in Scherer Park. Heartwell Park contains a large day-care center. Fire stations, government buildings, freeways and redevelopment projects now sit on what was once other parkland or public beaches.

Still other recreational lands have been lost due to subsidence from oil drilling, changes in the city master plan, and expansion of the Port of Long Beach, one of the busiest harbors in the nation.

Victory and Santa Cruz parks, which run from Golden Shore to Alamitos Boulevard, have practically been erased by commercial development approved by the city over the last three decades.

"It's been a giveaway and the slow privatization of public land," said Lester Denevan, a former city planner, whose complaints about illegal real estate signs in both parks are being reviewed by Long Beach park officials.

Preservationists and city officials partly blame the situation on a lack of clear guidelines designating what can be built on parkland. Long Beach, they say, has never formally differentiated its parks from other city property.

"We need direction for the future," said city Parks Director Phil Hester. "There needs to be a balance between open space, natural areas, recreational facilities and government uses."

Under current zoning, day-care centers, preschools, communication towers, parking lots, certain private clubs, community service organizations and school playgrounds, as well as government buildings, can be located in parks.

The ordinance is "too broad," said Pat Garrow, a Long Beach city planner. "There should be open space and recreational uses. As far as other structures [are concerned], I would like to see us draw a line somewhere."

But park advocates and neighborhood leaders contend that vague laws aren't the only culprits. In some cases, they say, city officials have viewed building in parks as a way to hold down the cost of municipal projects and prevent private property from being removed from the tax rolls.

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