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MacArthur, Echo parks boat-free?

Rental fees don't cover costs, L.A. officials say. A deal restores service at one facility, for a while.

July 04, 2007|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

For decades, pedal boats on the lakes in MacArthur and Echo parks have offered a way to glide through the summer doldrums.

But the tide has turned.

"All of a sudden the boats were gone," said Joan Valencia, 45, a writer who lives in Echo Park and has memories of both lakes since her youth. "We had no input, and now my core workout on the lake is possibly gone forever."

MacArthur Park's boats, plagued by aging facilities and financial deficits, were docked indefinitely Saturday. Echo Park's pedal boats, also floundering financially, were temporarily spared a similar fate by an 11th-hour deal engineered by City Council President Eric Garcetti.

The boats at Echo Park are to resume operation today and will be available on weekends and holidays, but only through Sept. 9.

Over the last month, residents from the communities near both parks have rallied around saving the pedal boats. The Echo Park closure struck many as particularly ironic, given that the city has spent about $500,000 over the last few years to renovate its boathouse and dock.

"Why would you restore a boathouse and then get rid of the boats?" asked Jenny Burman, 40, an Echo Park resident for more than a decade who writes a blog, Chicken Corner, about the community. "It was just the wrong place to cut and try to save money because it can't be that expensive."

On Sunday, Martin Cox, 47, a photographer, feared the worst when he made the short trip from his home to Echo Park to look for the boats, and then worriedly headed to MacArthur Park. At both lakes, on what was a beautiful, hot day, the pedal boats were tied to the docks, calmly bobbing on the water.

Cox, who said he has enjoyed taking photos of waterfowl while riding in Echo Park pedal boats, recently bought a postcard on EBay showing a July 1910 boat ride in the park with a woman in an Edwardian dress and frilly bonnet, her male companion in a vest and shirt sleeves rowing the boat.

"There's a bit of history here," Cox said. "It seems like such a terrible thing for it to be taken away."

Blame the bottom line. Last year it cost the city about $153,600 to run the boats at the two lakes, but their $10-an-hour fees ($7 for half an hour) yielded just under $22,400 in revenue.

The two operations "were a financial drain for us," said Regina Adams, executive officer for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

Last week, Garcetti reached an agreement with the department, promising to seek out $13,000 in the city's budget and through community donors to help keep the boating operation temporarily afloat at Echo Park, which is in his council district. Other pedal boating spots still being run by the city are at Lake Balboa and Hansen Dam.

The parks, and their man-made lakes, have storied pasts. MacArthur Park's lake, known as Westlake until the early 1950s when it was renamed after the celebrated World War II general, once was a swamp marking the western boundary of Los Angeles.

And it's not the first time that the boats have suffered financial problems: In the late 1980s, city officials said, deficits scuttled the service at MacArthur Park. The lake was drained in the early 1990s to build the Metro Rail Red Line, which was completed in 1993. In 1997, community activists worked with the city to bring the boats back.

Echo Park's lake once was a stream that ran down Glendale Boulevard. Later, it was dammed up to power a woolens mill on today's Figueroa Street and became the city's water reservoir, according to Kevin Kuzma, president of the Echo Park Historical Society.

In 1895 the city spent $5,637 to dredge the 15-acre pond, and the park and first boathouse were completed. The lake initially welcomed rowboaters -- in the 1974 movie classic "Chinatown," actor Jack Nicholson rowed across Echo Park lake -- but pedal boating took over in the early 1970s, Kuzma said.

For years, the squeaking of the pedals from the now pink-and-blue fiberglass vessels filled the summer air as boaters powered their way past the ducks and geese.

"It's a different perspective," Valencia said. "You get to see everything up close, you get to see the little islands, you can see the ducks. And there's a way of pedaling, or not pedaling, so you take the wind. You pedal toward the wind when you're going out, and you kind of relax going back in, so the wind's behind your back."

Those placid scenes were a sharp contrast from the high-crime reputations the parks developed in recent decades. But that, city officials said, is why family-friendly activities such as the pedal boats at the two parks are important.

"We've made those areas a lot safer in the last few years than they have been in decades," Garcetti said. "But if you begin pulling a seemingly harmless program out, you'll see a gradual return to the less-safe days, [and] fewer people will use the park."

Though the pedal boats are back at Echo Park, MacArthur Park's boats seem to have taken their last sail.

"We thought that they'd be there forever," Valencia said.

tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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