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Commentary

A Much-Needed Park May Go Up in Smoke

June 20, 2001|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Despite long-standing efforts by civic boosters and Hollywood studios to promote Los Angeles as a paradise of sandy beaches and palm trees, few cities have done less to protect their natural legacy. The city is on the verge of adding another chapter to that disquieting history.

For the last several years, conservationists have been lobbying to transform a number of dilapidated oil fields into one of the most enlightened public projects in the city's recent history: a 1,200-acre public park in Baldwin Hills, the largest south of the Santa Monica Mountains. State and county agencies have secured 68 acres of land, which they purchased in December for $41 million.

Now a proposal is in the works to build a 53-megawatt power plant at the heart of the site. On Friday, the state Energy Commission in Sacramento will rule on the proposal, made by Stocker Resources oil company. But faced with the mounting strain of the state's current energy crisis, the commission has yet to deny approval for a new plant since Gov. Gray Davis enacted emergency power orders.

What is certain is that if it is built, the Stocker plant would effectively destroy the park. More important, it also would extinguish a rare opportunity to correct an appalling reality: Los Angeles has the smallest number of regional and neighborhood parks of almost any major urban center in America. That is more than a quality-of-life issue; it has had a deep, corrosive impact on the city's social fabric.

To a large extent, the city's lack of public parkland is a historic problem. Shaped by unchecked real estate speculation, Los Angeles has never developed a comprehensive plan for urban growth, nor has it ever made protecting its natural environment a priority.

The one real hope came in 1930, when Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.--the son of the noted designer of New York's Central Park--and his partner Harlan Bartholomew unveiled their plan for a system of parks and playgrounds that would extend from Long Beach to Malibu and across to the San Gabriel Mountains. But the plan was quickly buried by the city's powerful real estate interests.

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The result of such self-serving greed is one of the poorest regional park systems in the country. And despite a number of new nature preserves, most notably in the Santa Monica Mountains, Los Angeles County has just four acres of regional or neighborhood parkland per 1,000 inhabitants. The standard set by the National Recreation and Park Assn. is six to 10 acres per 1,000. In the Baldwin Hills area, the ratio is one acre per 1,000.

The fact that the Baldwin Hills site has remained undeveloped for so long is due only to a stroke of dumb luck. Since the 1920s, the land has been owned by a small group of local homeowners, who leased it to oil companies. In the 1970s, the oil began to dry up and the state was able to purchase a 350-acre parcel of land to create the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation area. In 1999, state lawmakers commissioned the design of a much broader master plan, with the idea that the rest of the land would soon become available.

Designed by Mia Lehrer & Associates and Hood Design, the plan is an attempt to give that vision some cohesion. Its most radical feature is a half-mile-wide land bridge that would link two large, unconnected parcels on either side of La Cienega Boulevard, transforming them into one contiguous urban park.

The power of the design stems from its relationship to the city around it. The park's outer edges would remain largely untouched, creating the aura of a natural oasis set in a tough urban cityscape.

That sense of isolation is reinforced inside, where visitors arriving by car can park at one of three major entry points--at La Cienega, Slauson Avenue and Stocker Street--and then take a series of electric trams to the various recreation areas, which include playing fields and an amphitheater.

Once they reach the top, however, the entire city suddenly reappears, from the Pacific Ocean to the downtown skyline, set against the background of the Santa Monica Mountains. It is a spectacular view that is unmatched anywhere in the city.

But to see urban parks as solely an aesthetic experiences is to misunderstand their function. To the elder Olmsted, for example, parks served as agents of social change--the essential feature of a healthy democratic society in which rich and poor, black and white, Catholic and Protestant could mingle in an Arcadian paradise.

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In the 1860s, when Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were refining their design for New York's Central Park, civic leaders saw the plan as an antidote to the violence and racial rioting that was then overtaking the city. Not surprisingly, the current Baldwin Hills plan was also conceived in the wake of racial unrest, a few years after the L.A. riots.

Thus, the park's location has powerful social resonance. Set in one of the city's densest, most park-starved areas, it joins a predominantly white neighborhood on the west with a mostly black neighborhood to the east. There are a number of wealthy and middle-class enclaves in the area, yet 20% of the surrounding population lives below the federal poverty line. In that sense, the park should be seen as a generous--and important--act of social healing.

Such an act holds even greater weight today, in a world in which corporate interests are increasingly encroaching on the public realm. As places like Universal CityWalk begin to pass as legitimate public spaces, and corporations like Nike are allowed to sponsor the construction of children's playgrounds, public parks have become one of the few remaining strongholds of an egalitarian society.

To destroy that for shortsighted goals would be an act of idiocy. In Los Angeles, it is also an opportunity that may never come again.

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