Griffith Park's Empty Canvas Problem 

Will an obscure "cultural" board resist the density hawks?

Wednesday, Sep 24 2008

DON’T LET THE RECENT unanimous “yes” vote fool you — City Hall appears to be girding for a mammoth fight over a bid by 15,000 Los Angeles residents to declare sprawling Griffith Park off-limits to hotels and restaurants.

Park lovers and residents seeking to have the entire 4,218-acre park set aside as a historic cultural monument scored a critical victory in late August, when an obscure body appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — the Cultural Heritage Commission — voted 3-0 for an analysis of whether monument status for the park can be justified.

But the meeting’s contentious vibe was troubling to 175 activists who showed up. It took Olympic-style arm-twisting by commission president Richard Barron to get fellow Villaraigosa-appointee Glen C. Dake to back the study, after the naysaying Dake appeared ready to quash it.

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“[Dake] was adamantly against it from the get-go,” says Griffith “Van” Griffith, whose great-grandfather donated the park to Los Angeles. “He’d have said no and killed it.”

Since three votes were necessary for allowing the study, and since two Villaraigosa appointees — Oz Scott and Miriam Guttfreund Lehrer — didn’t think it was important enough to show up, a lone “no” vote by Dake would have abruptly ended more than two years of work by Griffith, the Los Angeles Sierra Club and others.

In April, the coalition of residents and park lovers submitted a 350-page application aimed at sheltering the park from developers, in response to a 2005 “master plan” devised by city consultants that shocked park users by pushing for hotels and aerial tramways — all money-making ventures for City Hall’s treasury.

L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge has repeatedly voiced concern that landmark status might somehow hinder routine fixes needed at city golf courses and a landfill in the park.

Beyond LaBonge, the City Council is controlled by a majority faction of aggressively pro-billboards, pro-density, pro-high-rise politicians led by Silver Lake–area Councilman Eric Garcetti.

In the face of this, activists who want the park protected, as it has been for decades, have one key weapon: public pressure. Chris Laib, co-chair of the parks committee for the Los Feliz Improvement Association, has taken a strong stand, collecting 15,000 signatures to stop the “master plan.” Now, he says, “We may step it up.”

Before the plan reaches the City Council, in October the study goes before the cultural commission, which can reject the plan or send it to City Hall. Most of the cultural commissioners seem — on paper — like creative types who aren’t ready for a political fight, but might be inclined to protect Griffith Park.

COMMISSIONER BARRON, who sparred doggedly with Dake to gain his yes vote, is an architect who has won awards for refurbishing historic buildings as affordable housing. St. Andrews Bungalow Court in Holly­wood and the St. George Hotel down­town are two of his projects, and he’s a founder of the Highland Park Neighborhood Association.

Roella H. Louie, who sided with Barron in wanting to keep the historic designation alive, is a former director of public art and cultural planning for L.A. Best known for a program that diverts 1 percent of private construction costs to public art projects, she formerly served on the cultural commission under Mayor James Hahn.

Dake, the contrarian, is a noted landscape architect who worked on campus renovations at UCLA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — perhaps giving a clue to his resistance to lands unshaped by human design. He touts himself as a former “green” deputy for the avidly pro-density Garcetti.

The two commissioners who missed the first vote also have strong creative backgrounds. Lehrer is a landscape architect who helped to create the World Bank Coastal Zone Project in her native El Salvador and is on the board of TreePeople.

Scott, the other no-show at the August vote, has directed hundreds of TV episodes: His credits include The Jeffersons, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and CSI.

It’s a bizarre situation: In any other park-poor metropolis, city fathers would probably trip over themselves to stop hotels and trams in a place like Griffith Park. But in developer-controlled L.A. the question is, who will win this quality-of-life skirmish? Will it be the mayor and City Council, most of whom eagerly accept wads of cash from developers and construction unions? Or will it be the 15,000 residents who want Griffith Park left alone?

“I am guardedly optimistic that [the historic designation] will come to pass,” says Joe Young, co-chair of the Sierra Club of Los Angeles’ Griffith Park Planning Task Force.

LaBonge, for his part, says, “It’s good to have a vision, so people remember what the true objective, the purpose, of the park is.”

Van Griffith’s grandfather spelled it out clearly when he gave the land to the city decades ago: It should never be used for commercial purposes.

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