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Watts Towers skateboard park plan: Public invited to comment

June 15, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • The Watts Towers
The Watts Towers (Robert Lachman, Los Angeles…)

The public is invited to express its preferences on two different matters in a city-sponsored barbecue Saturday at the Watts Towers.

The pleasant and easy one is: hot dog or hamburger?

The thorny and contentious one — an issue simmering since 2009 — is whether it's a good idea to plant a state-of-the-art skateboard plaza in the shadow of the Watt Towers, a national historic landmark that's one of the most revered and symbolic public artworks on the West Coast, if not the nation.

The purpose of the event, sponsored by the city's Department of Recreation and Parks and coordinated by its nonprofit planning partner, the Trust for Public Land, is to gather as much community opinion as possible about what to do with a triangular parcel anchored at its south end, at East 107th Street, by the towers and two adjoining art center buildings.

The hot dogs and hamburgers are a gustatory inducement, paid for by a private foundation that supports city parks, to generate maximum turnout and in turn a wide sampling of public sentiment. The "draft design presentation" runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will include different preliminary proposals for the land — some with a skateboard plaza and some without. Attendees will asked to be vote their preferences — but that vote is only advisory.

Andrea Epstein, spokeswoman for the recreation and parks department, said the department's planners will consider Saturday's comments as well as reaction from a series of previous park planning meetings held in Watts since February as they come up with a formal plan to present to the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners.

At that point — and the timetable is unclear — if the skate plaza proposal is alive, the controversy will spill into the realm of formal governmental hearings and votes by city officials.

Edward Landler, a leading advocate for the Watts Towers, said it's an issue that in most cases would be a no-brainer. He said a staffer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which oversees conservation of the state-owned, city-operated towers, gave him a horrified look recently when he asked whether the museum would put a skate park next to Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass," the $10-million boulder-as-artwork it will soon unveil on its Hancock Park campus.

Landler, a filmmaker who chronicled Simon Rodia's single-handed creation of the towers in the documentary "I Build the Tower," said the towers deserve to be seen in the same serenity as "Levitated Mass," not amid noise and bustle from a skate park. Also, he said, residents in the row of homes on 107th street would suffer from a skate plaza close by.

The argument for the skate plaza — pushed hard by then-Councilwoman Janice Hahn before she was elected to Congress and now backed by her successor, Joe Buscaino — is that Watts desperately needs good recreational facilities and that the towers triangle is one of the few patches of public land not claimed by street gangs. A skate park on "neutral" turf would serve everybody, the reasoning goes, while one built within a gang's orbit would be either off-limits or potentially dangerous to many users.

Another argument is that the skate plaza would be cost-free to the city: The Tony Hawk Foundation, established by the star skater to advance the sport, commissioned a pro-bono design by Upland-based California Skateparks and raised $355,000 to cover construction.

Miki Vuckovich, executive director of the Hawk Foundation, said that objections have led to possible changes from the original plan, which placed the skate plaza on a bare patch of land southeast of the towers. There, skaters would have been within 40 yards of the steel and cement folk-art fantasia that Rodia decorated with shells and colorful fragments of pottery and broken bottles.

Vuckovich said the skateboard plaza instead could go north of the towers on what's a grassy area, allowing for a larger buffer. He said the plaza is designed not just to give skaters a fun course to ride but to serve other purposes. A raised platform that provides elevation for skaters could double as a stage for performers, solving one of the Watts Towers campus' chief design flaws — an existing concrete amphitheater, just north of the towers, was built as a venue for events such as the annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum and Jazz Festivals, but it's generally despised for its ugliness and lack of shade. Towers advocates also contend that heat reflected from the amphitheateris bad for Rodia's masterwork.

By doing double duty, Vuckovich said, the skate plaza "would create a significant net addition" for cultural as well as recreational purposes. But Landler said he's not convinced that changing the location would make a difference — it would be directly across Santa Ana Boulevard from St. John's United Methodist Church. "Are they going to say nobody can skateboard on Sundays?"

Landler said there's no disputing the benefits of a major, well-designed skate park, but that there are better places for it in Watts — such as the county-owned Ted Watkins Memorial Park, several blocks to the northwest.

But skate park proponents have said the Watkins location would be a problem because of gangs' turf claims. Landler won't buy that.

"It's basically the cops saying, 'We can't do our job, so put the skate park at a neutral place.'" The towers site's neutrality is a blessing, he said, and shouldn't be jeopardized by adding a sporting magnet. "It's a constantly volatile situation because of the nature of the area," he said. "Why would they want to endanger the good feeling about this entire Watts Towers campus with such a potentially volatile addition to the mix?"

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