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Makeover for a grande dame

January 02, 2006

GRIFFITH PARK IS A LOT like Los Angeles: sprawling, haphazard and alternately majestic and shabby. It is claimed equally by downtown and the San Fernando Valley. People who know it well love it fiercely, yet newcomers are bewildered by its lack of a center. Its signs aren't much help to walkers or drivers. And for every grand vista, there's an otherwise quiet spot ruined by a noisy freeway.

Central Park it's not, nor should it be. Griffith Park is a grande dame in her seedier years, but 2006 could be the park's turnaround year -- if infinitely squabbling factions can agree on the elements of a new master plan.

The one sure thing is the reopening in the fall of a restored Griffith Park Observatory and Planetarium -- which hasn't been an observatory for decades but is an educational treasure, an architectural glory and a favored movie set. Otherwise, a draft plan for the park has dawdled through three years of fits and starts, generating some belated outrage among well-heeled neighbors over suggestions of a hotel, aerial trams and other commercial and sports field additions.

That a plan is in the works at all is due to City Councilman Tom LaBonge, in whose district much of the park lies. He's the biggest park-hugger in the city, with decades of official and personal involvement in Griffith Park. LaBonge says the hotel idea is dead. The trams, mostly dead. A big restaurant at the observatory, dead. So what is going to happen in the nation's largest urban park?

Many of the draft plan's recommendations are blindingly obvious and just as necessary. Fix and expand some roads, eliminate others. Remove superfluous buildings and concentrate maintenance yards in a concealed area. Add pedestrian sidewalks and shuttle buses. Relocate and replace the hideous, ancient bathrooms. Restore native habitat and trails for hikers and horses. Preserve the carousel, Travel Town and the informal tree gardens that offer shade and rest in the wild central hills.

Fix and maintain worn playing fields. Get rangers out of their trucks and on foot to cut vandalism and make places like the cool, green Fern Dell safe for walkers. Cluster parking and recreation at the edges, as the zoo, observatory, Autry Museum of Western Heritage, golf courses and main roads already are. Sprinkle information kiosks, including maps, at entrances and around the park.

The most shocking statement in the draft plan is that the park needs its own superintendent. You mean it didn't have one already? It's a measure of the dysfunction of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks that Griffith Park was treated as just another park, with staff moving in and out, overseen by an official with many other parks to think about. This recommendation is fortunately already in place, with a newly appointed superintendent in charge of the 4,100-acre park. That's one step toward a park fulfilling the proletarian promises of its 1896 donor, Griffith J. Griffith, offering both recreation and solitude without being too manicured.

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