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L.A. City Hall park reopens with more succulents, no occupants

Occupy L.A. protesters are let inside after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and others reopen City Hall park, the site of a two-month encampment in the fall.

July 19, 2012|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

The City Hall park that was used — and some would say abused — byOccupy L.A.protesters last year reopened Thursday after a $1-million rehabilitation.

With a smaller lawn and native succulents and salvias, the park will need one-third less water than it did before the demonstration, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, making it a "symbol of sustainability."

The mayor marked the reopening with a ceremony on the south lawn. But not everyone was invited.

PHOTOS: City Hall park reopens

A dozen Occupy protesters, who had been barred from entering by police, stood unhappily on the other side of a concrete and chain-link fence.

"We're discussing how ironic it is that the reopening of this public park is closed to the public," one of them said.

The protesters were eventually let in through a gate after the officials had finished speaking. The city plans to keep the fence in place for several more weeks "to ensure a smooth transition," the mayor said. The gates will be open daily from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Villaraigosa said he was committed to protecting protesters' free speech, and said there were two places in the park — on City Hall's Spring Street and 1st Street steps — where activists will be allowed to demonstrate.

"We're dedicated to preserving our freedom to speak and protest and organize," he said, "but we're also dedicated to preserving this park as a space for the public."

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who was also on hand, said he wants to see the park used lawfully. "Now it's time for people to retake this park," he said. "It is not the property of one group to be used over other groups. It is all the people's park."

When protesters first set up their tents in October as part of a nationwide protest against income inequality, they were welcomed by sympathetic city leaders.

The City Council granted them an exemption to laws regulating overnight camping in parks. And on one rainy day, Villaraigosa had his staffers hand out ponchos to soggy protesters.

But concerns about health and safety, as well as the deteriorating condition of the lawn, prompted the eviction of the activists two months later.

Since then,Occupy L.A.has held encampments on skid row and outside of the Central Cities Assn., a downtown business group. Some business owners have complained about violence and vandalism by the protesters.

Tensions surfaced last week when 17 people were arrested at the monthly downtown Art Walk after police moved in on a protesters chalking the sidewalks. Villaraigosa said afterward that the chalking was not about free speech, calling it "criminal behavior."

After the protesters were let in the park Thursday, a group of them followed Villaraigosa as he strolled back to City Hall. One of them loudly accused him of "criminal behavior" for taking part in a charity event with cyclist Lance Armstrong that involved chalking in the streets. The mayor kept walking.

The two-month-long Occupy protest devastated the City Hall lawn, leaving a space that "resembled a dirt lot more than a place of civic pride," said Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents much of downtown. "The condition was heartbreaking," he said.

Sprinklers were broken, and a historic marble fountain had been damaged and defaced with graffiti.

The cost of the park renovation was projected at $390,000 but ended up costing $1 million in supplies and labor, said Ramon Barajas, who supervised the project for the Department of Recreation and Parks. About $70,000 of that was paid for by donations from Home Depot and Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. Other funding came from the Department of Water and Power and from a pool of money from subdivision developers set aside to preserve park land.

Barajas said he was proud of the park and hopes the public enjoys it. He had only one request: "Please take care of it."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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