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Parks to the people

Stop fighting over Griffith Park and give L.A. more green spaces.

September 28, 2008|Sara Catania | Sara Catania teaches journalism at USC and blogs at laobserved.com.

Next month, the city's Cultural Heritage Commission will consider a request unlike any other in its 46-year history: whether to make all of Griffith Park a historic-cultural monument.

Other Los Angeles parks and park-like places bear the city monument designation, including Echo Park, MacArthur Park and the Venice canals. But never before has protection been sought for such a massive swath of urban space, one that encompasses both the iconic (the Griffith Observatory, the Greek Theater and views of the Hollywood sign) and the mundane (drainage canals, water fountains and stoppage drains).

The request was underwritten by Griffith Van Griffith, great-grandson of the park's namesake and benefactor, who fears that, without it, little stands in the way of increased development of the city's primary urban respite. If approved by the commission at its scheduled Oct. 30 meeting, the monument designation would be voted on by the Los Angeles City Council, which has the final say.

Monument status would bar alteration of buildings, grounds and just about anything else that might affect the visual or historic nature of the park without some degree of commission review. It could mean protection for the tiny train rides, the ruins of the old zoo and a bird sanctuary built by Boy Scouts in 1922. The designation won't necessarily mean no new parking or roads to remote trail heads, but it will subject such changes to commission oversight.

The proposal is now in the hands of the city's office of Historic Resources, which is compiling a list of the park's "character defining" features. Besides structures, such features could include trees, railroad cars, golf courses, the merry-go-round, tennis courts, nature trails and anything else that may be subject to special protection. So-called nondefining features (probably including an old garbage dump, two freeways and a stretch of the L.A. River) would fall under far less stringent control, requiring only that the commission be alerted to any changes that might affect the rest of the park.

Does this proposal go too far? Quite the contrary. It does not go far enough.

When Griffith J. Griffith first bequeathed 3,000-plus acres of the former Rancho Los Feliz to the city in 1896 (later supplemented with 1,000 additional acres along the L.A. River), Angelenos numbered less than 150,000. At that size, Griffith's vision of "a place for rest and relaxation of the masses" was eminently achievable. Today, 3.8 million residents call Los Angeles home, and we can no more demand that Griffith Park directly serve us all than we can expect Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to show up on our doorstep for dinner.

Nor do L.A. residents want it to. Witness the crash and burn a few years back of the ill-conceived Melendrez plan, which called for aerial trams, widened roads, a hotel, sports complex and multilevel parking structures, all in the name of attracting more people to Griffith Park.

Griffith Park is among the nation's largest municipal parks, but the concept of a centripetal urban magnet along the lines of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Chicago's Grant Park or New York's Central Park never fit this piece of geography. Situated on the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains with seven peaks exceeding 1,000 feet, Griffith Park is made up largely of hills, canyons, gullies and rarely trod-on open space. The developed eastern side provides ample space for recreation, at the zoo, Autry Museum, picnic sites, golf courses and train rides. And there are many miles of trails throughout. Still, much of the parkland is steep, rocky and inaccessible to the majority of weekend pleasure seekers, or even those seeking simple respite from the daily urban grind.

And that's fine. L.A. needs untrammeled open space to protect the biodiversity of animal and plant species, to help reduce lethal carbon emissions and to provide a modicum of spatial relief in an ever-more pressurized urban environment. As it is, the accessible parts of Griffith Park see more than 10 million visitors each year.

It is imperative that L.A. preserve the rich history that Griffith Park represents. But an equally beneficial outcome of a cultural-historic designation might be that we stop fighting over Griffith Park long enough to focus on the paucity of other green space citywide.

The goal of nature lovers, city officials -- and nature-loving city officials -- should not be to bring more people to the park but to bring more parks to the people. Los Angeles is part of a far-flung, park-starved tri-county region where less than 15% of residents live within easy walking distance of a sliver of public green, according to a Green Visions study by the Center for Sustainable Cities at USC. L.A. County's top public health official has linked the lack of neighborhood parks to an obesity rate among children approaching 25%, creating what he calls our “biggest epidemic.”

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