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Lights Turn Off Fans of Park

Recreation: Activists fear Little League plan would pave the way for further development.

April 16, 2002|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The battles over development in and around Elysian Park--a hilly area near downtown Los Angeles with breathtaking views of the city's sprawling landscape--have spanned years.

Its fierce guardians have fought back, among other things, proposals for a professional football stadium, oil drilling and an expansion of the Los Angeles Police Academy in the pristine, 575-acre park.

The latest battle is over a proposal from the Northeast Little League--which serves about 300 children from Lincoln Heights to Silver Lake--to install lights on two hilltop diamonds just north of Dodger Stadium.

"We want to have a little more time for the children to play so they're not running the streets," said Pete Plasentillo, president of the league. "We need to give kids this opportunity."

The Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks is considering the proposal, which calls for 10 light poles--two of them 90 feet tall--to be installed by fall.

The group fighting off development since 1965 has been the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, which consists of 1,200 dues-paying members.

The organization's steering committee, in an uncharacteristic action, actually voted 7 to 4 in favor of the lights.

"It was a very difficult decision," said Scott Fajack, the committee's president. "A lot of people weighted it differently than fighting a football stadium. This was a nonprofit group that does a good job at the site."

But the minority on the committee remained vocal in their opposition at a community meeting on the issue held last week by recreation officials. Among the arguments: The lights could open the door for other development.

"I think it was ill advised for us to take a position when we have this much dissent," said Sallie Neubauer, past president and current vice president of the committee.

The committee majority aims "to be more of a friend and less of a fighter," she said. "Unfortunately, in this business, you really have to be a fighter--otherwise you lose the park."

The first battle over Northeast Little League came in 1997 when the Citizens Committee opposed the league's using the field. But that year the league moved to the Elysian Park field from an old site in Lincoln Heights.

Today, Northeast Little League is operated by dozens of parents who volunteer for everything from coaching to running the concession stand and trimming the outfield.

The popularity of the league is so great that it has to turn away boys and girls, said Plasentillo, adding that the league plans to start a softball program for girls.

That's why league leaders came up with the idea for lights that could accommodate games until 10 p.m. up to 120 nights a year.

For months, Little League representatives met with the Citizens Committee to try to address the committee's concerns.

As a result, Little League officials modified their plans, such as agreeing to install black rather than silver poles that glitter in the sunshine and using special lights that would shine strictly on the baseball field.

Agreeing to such details raised the estimated cost of the lights from $125,000 to $250,000--which the Little League is willing to pay to satisfy the committee's concerns, Plasentillo said.

But the compromises have not pleased all members of the committee--such as Neubauer, who has been part of the organization since 1979.

The Citizens Committee was formed almost 40 years ago by journalist Grace Simons, a tenacious defender of Elysian Park. She created the group to oppose the city's plan to take 63 parkland acres for the Los Angeles Convention Center that was eventually built on Figueroa Street.

"We figured that if we had not stopped that project, by now there would be no park at all," Neubauer said.

Most recently, the Citizens Committee has helped kill such things as a preliminary idea for a football stadium. In January, the group lobbied to stop Los Angeles Police Department bike officers from training on a fire road in the park.

Now those who oppose the lights say the issue is not whether the Little League program is worthwhile--which most agree it is. Among the issues, they say, is the impact that the lights would have on the undeveloped area of the park.

A pristine park, and not light standards, is a better heritage to leave children, said Peter Shire, an artist and lifelong Echo Park resident whose mother was one of the founding members of the Citizens Committee. "The natural land is also part of our children's heritage."

Others have used the renewed focus on the Little League to suggest that the whole program should be moved outside the park and that nighttime is too late for children to be playing anyway.

"It's good to play, but they have the daytime and the weekend to play," said Ming Siu, a resident of the area. "Why should they go into the night?"

To be sure, Little League officials still need to raise the money for the lights, Plasentillo said.

One possible source for a good portion of the money is the Little League's neighbors--the Dodg- ers, which indicated they would be interested in helping buy the lights if the city approves. The Recreation and Parks Department will consider all viewpoints, said Mark Mariscal--who supervises the Elysian Park area. "The lights are not a done deal," he said.

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