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Children’s Museum’s plan for edge of Griffith Park has few fans

Wednesday, Dec 15 1999
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The swath of land at the corner of Riverside Drive and Los Feliz Boulevard, home of the stately Mulholland Fountain and a popular spot for wedding photographs, is a possible site for a new L.A. Children’s Museum.

The private, nonprofit museum has been located in a space intended for a Japanese restaurant in the downtown L.A. Mall since 1978. The 17,000-square-foot space is too small and was supposed to be only a temporary home, says Doug Ring, president of the museum‘s board of trustees.

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Ring would like to see a three-story museum built at the edge of Griffith Park, which would require cutting an access road and isolating the historic fountain on an island at the busy intersection.

The proposed move has attracted many opponents. At their November 17 meeting, the president of the city commission that approved the site said he will ask for a status report on the project and whether it is possible for it to be reconsidered. Steve Soboroff, president of the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Recreation and Parks and a mayoral candidate, said he no longer favors the site. “As the plan for the project emerges, it is becoming clear to me that this is the wrong location. I believe the best location for the Children’s Museum would be in the parking lot of the L.A. Zoo, where we wouldn‘t lose one inch of green space and the two organizations can benefit from each other.”

Foes also include members of the Los Feliz Improvement Association (LFIA) and the Griffith Park Chapter of the Sierra Club, who agree that the museum needs a new location, but say the Mulholland Fountain site is the wrong place. Among their objections: an environmental-impact report has not been done; the fountain-monument is historic; cedar trees planted in 1916 would be destroyed; and the land contains easements for the city’s water and electrical supplies. In addition, the land was deeded to the city by Griffith J. Griffith as public parkland in perpetuity, and opponents say no one -- especially a private organization -- has the right to build there. Consequently, the LFIA has sued the city, the Department of Recreation and Parks and its commissioners, along with museum trustees. The lawsuit alleges that the failure to conduct the full environmental study violated the California Environmental Quality Act.

The project got its biggest boost at a contentious meeting September 15 at Friendship Hall, just across from the proposed construction site. It was there that the Recreation and Parks commissioners approved the museum‘s 50-year lease, at $1 a year, a violation of the City Charter which says leases of park property may be made for a term not to exceed three years. The commissioners also approved a Negative Declaration stating the project will have no significant effect on the environment. But all that could be in question if Soboroff succeeds in having the board reconsider the approvals, possibly in January.

Opponents and mistakes have dogged the project from the start. One of the biggest gaffes: The lease mentions 21 parcels, but only seven of them are owned by the city; 11 are privately owned, two are located miles away near Franklin and Western avenues; and one, Lot 17, is occupied by Immaculate Heart High School.

“There are tons of problems with the site. The main issue is the land is owned by the city -- why should a private organization locate in a public park?” asks Andrew Garsten, a community activist. “They want to construct an 80,000-square-foot, three-story building, with a cut-through road from Los Feliz to Riverside, leaving the fountain on an island of land in front of the building. That’s not an appropriate use for this land.” Garsten, who is a member of the Coalition To Save Van de Kamp‘s Bakery, would like to see the Children’s Museum consider the old Van de Kamp‘s building, citing the successful reuse of an old factory for the Children’s Museum in Boston. The asking price for the bakery is $6.5 million.

Charlotte De Armond is the president of the Los Feliz Improvement Association, whose board voted unanimously to oppose the museum‘s plan. The organization cites a proposed increase in traffic of a million visitors a year as a major problem. “Museum officials say that increase will not have a significant impact, because they are mostly weekend visitors,” De Armond says. “However, the traffic gridlock on Los Feliz on the weekends is huge because of people using Griffith Park.”

Parking is another issue. It would be difficult to find room for the 1,648 spaces required by city codes. The museum plans to build a 300-space lot and use the 207-space lot at Friendship Hall across the street. Making the site challenging is a 66-inch water cistern that carries the High Sierra waters to Los Angeles below the site, and power lines carrying 130,000 volts of electricity above.

Doug Ring, who has been trying to find a new space for the museum for six years, says he is at the mercy of city officials, and has been aided in his search by Councilman John Ferraro, who suggested the corner after a site near Travel Town was shot down. “The only land the Children’s Museum can look at realistically is land owned by public agencies. They are the only ones who will lease it to us for $1 a year. As a nonprofit, we can‘t raise enough money to buy the land and then fund-raise for the construction.

”I believe the opponents to the site are not opponents because of the utility rights of way, or because it is currently parkland. I believe they are opponents because it’s going into their neighborhood. I can‘t prove this, but I think they are opposed because of my bringing large quantities of children who represent the diversity of Los Angeles to Los Feliz. No one has said or done anything else to convince me otherwise,“ continues Ring, a real estate developer who was recently nominated by Richard Riordan to the board of commissioners of the Community Redevelopment Agency. Ring says he is willing to complete an environmental-impact report for the site, but as of yet, the city has not mandated him to do so.

Beside Van de Kamp’s, the financially ailing Petersen Automotive Museum has been discussed as a possible site. Ring says it is not a situation he wants to discuss: ”That is a decision that has to be made by the Natural History Museum, not by me.“ The Petersen lies in the district of County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who wants to make sure another museum takes its place if the automotive museum indeed closes down. He also is hesitant to discuss his talk with Ring about the potential move. In the meantime, Ring continues to focus his energy on the Riverside Drive site.

The proposed site is zoned OS-1-XL -- open space, non-structural unless related to recreation, with a controlled floor-area ratio and a height of no more than 25 feet, such as a community center, according to John Perica of the L.A. City Planning Department. A small community theater on one portion of the property burned down in the late ‘70s. (The nonprofit L.A. Shares, which would have to find another location if the project goes forward, currently resides in one of the theater buildings that survived the fire.) On the site are cedar trees planted in 1916 by the LFIA and the Los Feliz Women’s Club. The trees were declared historic-cultural monuments in 1970. The William Mulholland Memorial Fountain, built in 1940, received the same recognition in 1976.

Keith Herried, who lives in neighboring apartments, has collected 60 signatures from nearby residents on a petition opposing the construction.

The Children‘s Museum is slated to receive nearly $9.5 million in Proposition K bond money over the next three years to facilitate construction, in what sets a precedent for a private nonprofit museum to benefit from public land and public money. (By comparison, the L.A. Zoo will get $10 million and the Griffith Observatory $7.4 million.)

As a condition of receiving the bond money, the Children’s Museum must raise matching funds from public and private donors. Proposition K moneys are dispensed by the L.A. for Kids Steering Committee, composed of William T. Fujioka, city administrative officer; Vitaly Troyan, city engineer; and Ron Deaton, chief legislative analyst.

A watchdog group consisting of two citizens appointed from each council district -- the Proposition K Volunteer Neighborhood Oversight Committee -- unanimously opposed giving money to the museum. Christine Mills O‘Brien, a member, says she based her decision on the high administrative costs of the nonprofit and low attendance, as well as the message the relocation sends to the downtown revitalization effort.

The project does have its supporters in the community.

Reiko Mathieu, a member of the Los Feliz Business Association and a mother of two, says she likes the museum’s plans. ”That land is so detached from what we think of as Griffith Park. It‘s a patch of land that never attracted me to bring my kids, it’s not a dog park -- it‘s a nice-looking grove of trees, but that’s all it is right now.“ The Los Feliz Business Association has declined to take a position on the matter.

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