By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
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By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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If it’s this difficult to get park space in the central city, the focal point of urban renewal, just imagine what the rest of Los Angeles is like.
Bound and Gagged by Red Tape
While there’s no excuse for a city trying to become the “greenest” in America not to have a holistic master plan for its park system, in fairness, there are other issues at play. Obviously public space costs money — money the city historically hasn’t been willing to spend, and, because of its record $405 million deficit, money it doesn’t have. Yet L.A.’s lack of green space is a significant impediment to economic growth. Despite the money being poured into projects like L.A. Live and the rebranding of the area around the L.A. Convention Center, “Los Angeles is considered a second-tier convention city,” says Jack Kyser, senior vice president of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. “Civic amenities like parks and promenades are a major criteria for convention consideration, and we simply don’t have them.”
According to Kyser’s most recent economic forecast, Los Angeles is in for several rough years. One potential growth industry is tourism. So, as Paris did more than a century ago, why doesn’t the city adopt a parks-based approach to economic growth in order to lure visitors?
“Parks are not self-sustaining enterprises,” Kyser explains. “Unless you have revenue-generating programming, they’re a drain on the general fund.”
Indeed, instead of public space, Los Angeles’ urban-renewal investments have historically been retail oriented. Angelenos have plenty of municipally funded spaces — they just need to bring their credit cards to go there. But shopping malls do not an emerald city make, and it’s tough to imagine Hollywood & Highland competing with Central Park or the Champs-Élysées.
“I think Los Angeles’ insistence on programming is completely misguided,” says Lehrer’s business partner, Esther Margulies. “People really need to re-evaluate the role parks can play in education, gang prevention, public health, environmental sustainability ... the list goes on.”
“Of course,” Margulies notes, “L.A.’s emphasis on retail is undoubtedly influenced by Proposition 13.”
Prop. 13, the infamous third rail of California politics, puts a 2 percent cap on the amount a property’s assessment can increase. The tax itself is then levied at a maximum of 1 percent of that assessed value. Though in many ways the measure is a homeowners’ dream, Prop. 13 strips cities of a primary source of revenue. The results speak for themselves: New York’s world-class park system is backed by a general fund of more than $62 billion. Los Angeles, with roughly half New York’s population, has a general fund of only $7 billion and a massive deficit.
California voters ratified the measure in 1978. L.A.’s park system has been deteriorating ever since. Though other California cities face the same budget crunch, most already have adequate park space. They simply need to maintain.
In the rare cases where L.A. has built new parks, it has been forced to stem the financial bleeding with bond measures — Prop. O, Prop. K, Prop. 12, as well as several others, each with their own laws and regulations that govern the distribution of those funds. For instance, the well-funded Prop. O can only be used for water projects, which explains why plans for new, so-called “water parks” have been popping up across South Los Angeles.
And, of course, there is the infamous Quimby program — Los Angeles’ best and most bungled hope for new green space. The city is sitting on nearly $130 million of these funds, collected from the developers of new housing complexes, for the express purpose of building new parks. Though kept separate from the general fund, the management of these fees is nonetheless left to the city Department of Recreation and Parks, which, to quote Lewis MacAdams, is historically known for attracting a staff of “slouch-shouldered ticket punchers.”
Senior city planner Alan Bell, who is helping to revise L.A.’s Quimby policy, paints a more complex picture. “The program is understaffed,” he says. “You’ve got two or three people overseeing the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Even if it were properly staffed, Bell explains, there are limitations as to where money can be directed; for instance, the city can’t hire more park staff. The state law governing the Quimby program dictates that the fees must be spent explicitly on parks that are located within a “reasonable distance” of where those fees were collected. There is some discretion in that phrase, but it’s typically understood as walking distance. So it’s difficult to pool the funds in one area for a massive project.
“On top of that,” Bell says, “by law, these funds can only be used for the creation or refurbishing of a park, not for general maintenance.”