By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
ON A COOL, SUNNY MORNING in South Los Angeles last week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, flanked by Parks and Recreation General Manager Jon Mukri and a curtain of school children and TV cameras, announced a bold new plan: “We’re going to build 45 new parks by 2011,” he said, to wild applause.
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Cary Adams stands near a lot that could have been a park. Instead, another ugly complex will get crammed in.
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Pocket park? Nope, yet more density is planned for this open spot in NoHo.
The mayor’s idea is one that even his fiercest critics won’t dispute: If parks are “lungs,” Los Angeles has emphysema. After generations of speculative real estate booms, L.A. has the smallest percentage of space devoted to parks in any major American city — a paltry 4 percent — most of it in the rough Santa Monica Mountains.
New York, where real estate is no less valuable, has devoted 17 percent of its limited land to parks.
But with City Hall mired in a $300 million budget deficit, Villaraigosa can’t pursue 45 new parks without access to a huge pot of so-called Quimby funds — $130 million in riches earmarked for parks that the Parks and Recreation Department has been twiddling its thumbs on for years.
The trove was revealed last month by City Controller Laura Chick in her audit of the city’s Quimby program, named for a state law that charges developers fees of $3,000 to $9,000 per unit of new construction, then sets aside those fees to finance or refurbish parks or civic facilities near the developments.
Months before Chick’s stunner audit unearthed the full extent of the unspent hoard, parks manager Mukri sent a letter to Villaraigosa admitting he had no way to adequately track how much money was flowing in from developers, or where money was being spent on parks.
News of the massive surplus caused a small scandal, leaving bureaucrats scrambling for excuses. The City Council — whose members are responsible for finding park sites in their districts — seemed befuddled. Councilman Tom LaBonge alone has nearly $10 million in unspent funds in Council District 4, the majority of it extracted from developers of high-density complexes rising near the North Hollywood subway station.
“Everyone was shocked,” says Jeanne Min, director of finance and special projects for LaBonge. “We had no idea we had that kind of funding at our disposal. Everything that we had done up to that point was piecemeal.”
Yet while LaBonge sits on a fortune, in densely populated South L.A., where very little development is under way, not a single dime of the $130 million pool has been allotted to Councilman Bernard Parks. In his District 8, made up of many working-class and poor neighborhoods with little open space, Parks has already spent his meager $800,000.
“The real problem,” Min says, “is that the districts that really need parks have no development to pay for them.”
Chick blames a provision devised long ago by the city’s own Planning Commission, a law of unintended consequences that requires developers’ fees to be spent within a “two-mile radius,” of the development. “The arbitrary two-mile rule,” Chick wrote in the audit, “greatly restricts our options to provide more parks and should be changed to something that makes more sense for the Los Angeles of 2008.”
No parks are proposed in North Hollywood, for example, which has arguably seen the greatest land development aside from downtown. The only civic space even under consideration there, using the developer funds, is a senior center nearly 10 blocks from the new density.
If you take a giant compass, put the point on North Hollywood’s thicket of development near the subway station and draw a circle with a two-mile radius, the area includes almost all of North Hollywood. Is there no room in this four-mile-wide swath of land for a park? And if not, why can’t LaBonge send his funds to park-starved South L.A.?
One problem is a Parks and Recreation Department regulation, which the City Council could change, requiring that the fees be spent in the same council district in which they were collected. Another problem, Senior City Planner Alan Bell recently told the council’s parks committee, is a state law requiring that these parks be developed within a “reasonable distance” of where the Quimby funds are collected. So while Villaraigosa soaked in the applause of South L.A. constituents on a sunny morning last week, he neglected to mention that few of the new parks, if any, will be for them.
CARY ADAMS CAN SEE THE FUTURE of North Hollywood, and it doesn’t look like this. Standing at Blakeslee and Weddington streets, with hardly a soul in sight, surrounded by weed-strewn empty lots and postindustrial detritus, Adams describes a bright new world full of condos, moderately priced apartments and retail shops.
“This right here will be turned into a 660-unit development,” he says of a dingy-looking building. “Down the block will be two 26-story apartment towers. Pretty much everywhere you look, something new is going up.”
With major transit lines nearby, the area is an epicenter of so-called transit-oriented development. While many locals resent becoming guinea pigs, Adams, president of the Mid-Town North Hollywood Neighborhood Council, is excited.