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An Art Park Is the Answer, Not a Gym

Commentary

June 19, 2002|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is a quintessential urban conflict: An art community looks to stake out new territory in an ethnic enclave, while local activists strive to counter an invasion from unwanted outsiders.

This time, the controversy centers on a small plot of land in the shadow of the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo. MOCA and its allies hope to transform the barren, 3 1/2-acre lot into a public "Art Park"--an open green space that will anchor a cluster of downtown cultural institutions that already includes the Japanese American National Museum and the East West Players theater, as well as the Geffen. Neighborhood activists, on the other hand, see the city-owned site as a perfect spot for a gymnasium that would function as a home for the local Japanese basketball league.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 17 inches; 617 words Type of Material: Correction
Meeting place--A story in Wednesday's Calendar about two development proposals for a site in Little Tokyo gave the incorrect location for a public meeting on the plans. The meeting will be held at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center's theater today from 6 to 8 p.m.
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The two sides will air their differences at a public meeting scheduled for Thursday at the Japanese American National Museum, when city officials hope to settle the dispute and move on to the next phase of the site's development.

But appeasing angry constituents is one thing. Creating a livable environment is something else. And from an urban-planning standpoint, this is a no-brainer. The Art Park proposal would do what all good urban plans should do: Strengthen the communal fabric of downtown and provide a tranquil public space that would serve a range of ethnic and cultural groups. The gym proposal, by comparison, would be more of an urban disaster--the kind of big-box space that would dwarf its surrounding context.

The conflict is less the result of a clash of opposing visions than of bureaucratic bumbling and the sore feelings that subsequently resulted. In the mid-1980s, the Japanese American community was first promised a new gym as part of the newly constructed Japanese American Cultural and Community Center complex at San Pedro between 2nd and 3rd streets. But sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who was then designing a public artwork for the complex, argued that the site would function better as a plaza for his work, and the notion of building a gym there was dropped.

A decade later, community leaders tried again. This time, a coalition led by Bill Watanabe, director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, approached then-City Councilwoman Rita Walters, whose district included Little Tokyo, about building the gym alongside the Geffen Contemporary. That idea was rebuffed because Walters envisioned the creation of a park at the site. (Former MOCA director Richard Koshalek came up with the Art Park idea several years later.)

Over the next couple of years, the group looked at a number of other potential sites, but with little financial backing, they were almost inevitably outbid by developers with deeper pockets. (The group has raised about $1 million in federal and state grants, but it has yet to raise the additional $6 million to $7 million that would be needed to build the gym.)

It was only in the past year, after decades of fruitless negotiations with the city and various developers, that the group turned its attention back to the proposed Art Park site. The location had two basic advantages: It stands in the heart of Little Tokyo, and, because it is a city-owned property, it would cost $1 a year to lease.

Unlike the Art Park, however, it had no real relationship to its immediate surroundings. Since 1983, when the Geffen Contemporary opened, the museum building has sparked a small but important cultural renaissance in downtown L.A. The East West Players organization moved to its current theater just to the south of the Geffen in 1998. The Japanese American National Museum opened next door a year later. And last year, the city approved a plan to build a new Children's Museum building at the corner of Judge John Aiso and Temple streets, framing the park site's northern edge.

The result has been the largely spontaneous growth of a loose-knit, creative enclave, one whose various institutions reflect a particularly rich cultural matrix.

The Art Park would be the final piece in that puzzle. In effect, it would weave these disparate organizations into a cohesive whole. Just as important, it would act as a social condenser, a public gathering place that could be shared by a range of communities, from local residents to museum-goers. That this would occur in an area of the city desperately in need of green space is a yet another plus.

MOCA and the Japanese American National Museum have received a block grant to develop a master plan for the Art Park. If the proposal is approved, they hope to pay for it with public and private funds. The cost of the project is estimated at about $7 million.

Designed by Los Angeles-based Michael Maltzan Architecture, the park would rest on top of two levels of partially underground parking. Visitors would enter the lawn from the north, at ground level. From there, the park's form would sweep up to a height of 16 feet, like an enormous grass carpet, its surface scattered with trees.

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