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City Street Will Go From Shortcut to a Small Park on the Cutting Edge

May 07, 2003|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

Tearing out a street to start a park may not be an option in many parts of a congested city where any avenue of escape is indispensable.

But southeast Hollywood, with its hodgepodge of auto body shops, churches and aging apartment houses, carries the unwelcome distinction of being one of the most park-poor parts of Los Angeles, with 0.38 of an acre of green space per 1,000 residents.

With no vacant land for the government to declare a park, politicians and neighbors had to think creatively -- and when complaints rolled in about a side street used to avoid a busy stoplight, they realized they had found their park site.

This summer, the city will shut down the half-block section of West 2nd Street used as a cut-through route and start turning it into a public park complete with benches, metal animal sculptures, trees and a "tot lot."

Environmentalists and community activists say that although the sliver of green will occupy barely a third of an acre, it will fill a void in a part of town that is crammed with young immigrant families that have been without a public gathering place. That neighborhood is bounded by 3rd Street on the south, Santa Monica Boulevard on the north, and Virgil and Western avenues on the east and west.

But the Bimini Slough Ecology Park, as it will be known, will be much more than another pocket of green in the concrete landscape. Urban environmental activists are billing it as one of the most sophisticated little parks in all of Southern California -- one that will not only end a neighborhood traffic problem and provide a play spot for children, but also clean polluted rainwater and return a bit of nature to the area.

"This is a pretty creative way to get a park. No place in Los Angeles has anything like this," said the Rev. Jeff Carr of the Bresee Foundation, a nonprofit group that runs a community center next door to the park site. "Most people consider this the ghetto, and this is going to be a pretty progressive park. This is going to be a park that anyone on the Westside or the Valley is going to be envious of."

The neighborhood, minutes west of downtown, was once a soggy wetland called Bimini Slough. But the only water to be seen there today is the river of oily street runoff that flows into the gutter and west to Santa Monica Bay when it rains.

The 100-degree hot springs of the old Bimini Baths once made the area a top tourist attraction. But the baths went bankrupt decades ago, and drivers speeding along Bimini Place these days are typically just trying to skirt the stoplight at Vermont Avenue and 3rd on their way somewhere else.

The park will not bring back the baths or the Bimini Slough. But it will create a tiny artificial creek bed of sorts that will capture the runoff in the area and filter out some trash and pollution before it flows to Ballona Creek and out to the ocean, much as the old wetland did decades before.

The creek bed -- topped with a native grass called creeping wild rye and reinforced with what a landscape architect calls a virtual lasagna of soil, sand and gravel -- will serve as a demonstration project for bio-filtration techniques that could be used to naturally clean storm water throughout the city.

The land now covered by the street was "part of a vibrant ecosystem that was there at one time," said Nishith Dhandha, a landscape expert with Northeast Trees, a Los Angeles nonprofit group that designs public spaces in urban neighborhoods. "We thought when pitching this park, instead of building a 2-foot concrete pipe to carry storm water, why not try to filter out the pollutants, expose them to sunlight and break down some of the volatile elements that contribute to our runoff problem?"

Several years in the making, the park is being built through a collaboration between public and private organizations. Northeast Trees is designing the park, which will be maintained by the Bresee Foundation. The city Department of Water and Power and Bureau of Sanitation will provide free work and materials, testing such technologies as water-saving sprinklers in the process.

Former state Sen. Richard Polanco obtained $250,000 in state funds, while former Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, now an assemblywoman, persuaded the city to close the street and secured $250,000 in local funding. Mayor James K. Hahn and Councilman Eric Garcetti later added $50,000.

"This is the first project I know of that is trying to restore some of the watershed in the center of the city, in the places where it existed before," Garcetti said. "You don't have to live in the mountains or the ocean to have something like this in your neighborhood."

Los Angeles has only 4.2 acres of parkland per 1,000 people, according to a USC study. That is far below the six to 10 acres considered the national standard. And the figure includes much of the Santa Monica Mountains, so does not reflect how little green space the central and eastern parts of the city have, activists say.

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