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Take Me to the River 

L.A.’s hopes for a new park

Wednesday, Mar 21 2001
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It is not yet a done deal. But if Governor Gray Davis authorizes a hard-sought $30 million state-parks grant, downtown Los Angeles will soon have its first serious new green space since the City Hall lawn opened in 1928.

We are talking of the Chinatown Yard Settlement agreement here, resulting from an amazing, surprise deal last week. The Trust for Public Land, with the strategic assistance of the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR), the Chinatown Yards Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council, got an option on 32 acres of abandoned property -- mostly an old rail yard -- that Mayor Riordan and Majestic Realty had recently been on the verge of re-industrializing. Crucial to the green-space takeover was huge public opposition to the development, both in the vicinity and elsewhere.

Equally crucial, perhaps, was the fact that the developers, with suicidal overconfidence, forgot to get an environmental-impact report. The opponents leveraged this legal vulnerability with a lawsuit, and the state withdrew its own fiscal support.

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Now, with the nearby 40-acre Taylor Yard, Los Angeles is in line for its first major state park (the only one since the state left the city running El Pueblo several years ago). We’re talking of up to 100 acres total along a waterway recently known as the region‘s largest storm drain.

“Now it’s a mother-and-apple-pie issue,” says Lewis MacAdams, the poet and sometime performance artist most responsible for this attitude change. “You won‘t find anyone against it.”

MacAdams’ 15 years of involvement in saving the Los Angeles River have made him a local legend. His organization, Friends of the Los Angeles River, was originally the name of a lost, early-1980s performance piece that “nearly everyone hated.” But shortly after that, the river got a big break when then-Assemblyman Richard Katz proposed to build a freeway along its 51-mile course. (Katz later called this proposal one of his major career mistakes.) A Times reporter seeking an opposition response got one from MacAdams: “Over our dead bodies.” He recalls, “I was embarrassed . . . to have said that, but the quote was a key.” The freeway was stopped, and the river revealed.

Over the next 15 years, MacAdams and his friends have delighted in proving to people, one at a time and in small groups, that the L.A. River not only exists, but already includes -- mostly by accident -- stretches, such as that near Atwater, of lush natural beauty, replete with wildlife and vegetation. FOLAR wants to see as much as possible of the river -- particularly its downtown length -- like this. It‘s made plans and maps and, three years ago, hosted a “public planning process” that included a conference and public workshops on the river’s prospects that seems to have ignited the public imagination. The organization has, in fact, run into some back-pressure downstream, where cities like Lakewood and Pico Rivera fear that de-channeling the river could increase their risk of flooding. But in the inner city, the movement has the political wind beneath its wings. In fact, Latino politicians -- particularly former state Senator Art Torres -- were among the first to appreciate that re-appropriating the city riverbanks would mean a lot more open space for schools, sports fields and parks -- amenities now scarce downtown. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association was eager to see the land saved for Chinatown‘s densely populated area. FOLAR and friends now have until the end of November to persuade the governor.

Beyond this, however, MacAdams eventually wants to see the city redevelop itself around its riverfront recreation areas, much as central Manhattan regrouped 130 years ago around its then-new Central Park. “I actually intended this as a 40-year performance piece,” he says of the project he initiated not quite half that long ago. “It’s something I want to see survive me.”

Following Finucane

Soon-departing Los Angeles County health chief Mark Finucane may not only be a hard act to follow. Succeeding him may be impossible.

Finucane‘s five-year reign contained few solid victories and more near failures. The Department of Health Services (DHS) never seemed completely under control -- whether it was the failed transfer of services from hospitals to clinics mandated in the 1995 $342 million emergency-bailout agreement with Washington, or the long-delayed installing of a uniform patient-information computer system throughout the $2.5-billion-a-year, six-medical-center entity that provides services for one of the largest, least prosperous clienteles in the nation.

In fact, you sometimes got the idea that he didn’t know what was going on -- or even what was where -- in the labyrinthine bureaucracy responsible for the health of a county of 10 million.

I particularly got this feeling three years ago, when Finucane came close to being ousted. This was due to the near-complete failure of his department‘s public-health division to maintain the cleanliness of the county’s infinite array of eateries. It wasn‘t just that Finucane was so blatantly unaware of how badly the county was doing at this essential service. It was that the supervisors heard about the problem via a Channel 2 investigative piece that churned the stomachs of millions of viewers. It didn’t help either that, while the news report‘s existence was known in advance by certain top county officials, somehow Finucane was not among them. He even managed to be out of town while the story hit, and his subordinates fumbled the ball facing the news cameras, making the problem look even worse than it was.

It was the kind of career PR disaster that could have sunk any public official. Amazing to tell, Finucane had the wiles to survive.

He did this with unusual frank humility; for instance, he called me at home -- quite unexpectedly -- as he must have called others who were reporting the fiasco. He explained with patience and candor just what, in his view, had gone wrong. He neither groveled nor shifted blame. He said he’d fix the problem. He was convincing. It was a brilliant move.

But such openness could only work when the problem could be solved. This time Finucane remedied the situation; he disciplined and shifted staff. He oversaw the introduction of the current letter-grade enforcement system (most major California counties already had one). But that was probably the last time he ever completely solved a major DHS dilemma. I received no more calls.

After this, Finucane‘s board appearances got more embarrassing. While he reduced expenditures and created successful partnerships with private, nonprofit clinics, he wasn’t able to meet his own cost-cut projections. Some of the county‘s own major clinics were still underused. Washington, after allowing -- over five years -- the DHS $1.2 billion in Medicare waivers for clinical treatment, was growing impatient, even under the Clinton presidency.

The board members kept nailing Finucane for failing to meet objectives. But they had their own overpriced health-care agendas that he could not allay: Gloria Molina wanted a much larger version of County USC; Mike Antonovich wanted to keep the costly and underused High Desert Hospital; Yvonne Brathwaite Burke protected the costly, disaster-ridden and ill-reputed KingDrew medical complex. Now Finucane leaves behind a projected $884 million deficit over the next five years. But at least he takes with him something his predecessor, Bob Gates, did not: his health. Gates, we may recall, retired after he collapsed during a board member’s harangue at a public meeting. He was hospitalized for several days and rumored to have suffered a stroke.

It may be impossible to make the DHS work in a post--Proposition 13 county with an ever-swelling near-indigent population. Certainly, it is going to be a lot harder under the anti-public-sector Bush administration. But the toughest problems Finucane‘s $240,000-a-year-plus successor will face won’t come from Washington. They‘ll come, as they always have, from his own employers on the eighth floor of the Hall of Administration. As one county employee put it, “Finucane’s biggest mistake was that when the board members originally told him to go ahead and do what was right, no matter what they‘d say later, he believed them.”

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