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Getting Ready to Set L.A. on Its Ear With a Park at the Cornfield

September 21, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

It's been rolled over, dumped on, plowed up and fought over.

And now Chinese lion dancers are poised to cleanse an abandoned railroad yard of more than 130 years of evil spirits to help turn it into what some are already calling "the front lawn" of downtown Los Angeles.

State parks leaders said a grassy, tree-shaded temporary park will open to the public Saturday at a former industrial site known as the Cornfield.

The $1.4-million recreation area will cover about 18 acres and will be used until a professionally planned "world-class park" is built on the entire 32-acre Cornfield site adjacent to Chinatown.

The interim park will feature a natural amphitheater for community events, four acres of open turf for informal recreation and events, a multiuse plaza for community productions and temporary buildings for public meetings and events, officials said Wednesday.

The new Los Angeles State Historic Park will also feature interpretation panels and "footprint layouts" depicting archeological features and the history of the parcel, roughly bounded by North Broadway, North Spring Street and the Los Angeles River.

A light display will depict the foundation of a century-old railroad roundhouse buried on the site. The high point is expected to be a knoll equipped with a telescope for viewing skyscrapers.

"This transformation has taken a brown field and made it a beautiful green field that many feel is now the front lawn of this great city," California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman said in announcing the opening.

The parcel picked up its nickname from the stalks of corn that sprouted from seeds spilled from railroad cars being pulled into Los Angeles starting in the 1870s.

But the roots of the site's history are even older, state parks officials said.

The earliest Spanish explorers camped next to the Los Angeles River near the property. Later, the Los Angeles pueblo's first water project -- the "mother ditch" -- ran through the area. The transcontinental railroad once ended there, turning the site into what parks officials describe as the "Ellis Island of L.A."

Chinese laborers who helped construct the cross-continent rail route created the first Chinatown near the property.

When the railroad tracks were abandoned and removed, the dusty, weed-filled lot was earmarked for development as an industrial warehouse site. That prompted a decade-long battle by a coalition of organizations that called itself the Chinatown Yard Alliance to turn the area into a park.

That campaign was marked by vigils, protests and lawsuits before the state intervened in late 2001 and purchased the land for $36 million.

Since then, development of the site has sparked debate in Chinatown and neighboring communities. As a result, parks officials this summer took the unusual step of staging an international design competition to pick a final development plan.

These days, three finalists -- Field Operations of New York City, Hargreaves Associates of San Francisco and Mia Lehrer + Associates of Los Angeles -- are putting final touches on their entries. They will be displayed Oct. 14 at a public workshop. Each firm is receiving $25,000 for its master plan design work.

Neither the cost nor the timetable for the park's permanent construction has been set by state parks officials or the California State Parks Foundation. But the design competition is being underwritten by the Annenberg Foundation, which last year staged a conceptual art project at the site that featured cultivated corn and was dubbed "Not a Cornfield."

Saturday's 9:30 a.m. opening ceremony can be reached by an entrance gate on North Spring Street. The Chinese East Wind Lion Dancers will lead the opening processional.

Along with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Gov. Gray Davis, who ordered the Cornfield's purchase as a part of his urban policy, has been invited to take part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony, parks spokesman Roy Stearns said.

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