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Branding Griffith Park: Heirs of Land's Bequeather Fight Commercialization Plan

PERHAPS NOWHERE IS THE CURRENT PUSH led by Los Angeles City Hall and its platoon of private lobbyists for an overbuilt, overcommercialized, re-engineered L.A. better epitomized than in the unfolding struggle over the so-called Melendrez Master Plan for Griffith Park.

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"Pleasure pier": Tacky commercialization envisioned on Los Feliz Bridge.

The voluminous report, prepared at a cost of $400,000, is packed with ideas for jazzing up the nation’s premier swath of urban wilderness — aerial tramways, parking structures, meeting rooms, paving, concrete and concentrated development that many feared would include restaurant and hotel chains.

Given that the whole point of Griffith Park is the opposite — to preserve unspoiled natural beauty for all citizens, rich and poor alike, to use for free — reaction to the plan has been predictable. Virtually everyone hates it.

“I was aghast, and I’m sure most longtime users of the park were,” says retired graphic designer Clare Darden, a North Hollywood resident who has been hiking in the park since 1975. “I’ve treasured my time spent there — the feeling of getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city, right smack-dab in the center of it. But I’m leery because there’s so much area there that I’m sure the city would love to see it bring in more dollars.”

The Melendrez plan, a transparent attempt to turn Griffith Park into a cash register for city coffers, was unveiled three years ago. Though the grandiose recommendations developed by Melendrez Landscape Architecture, Planning and Urban Design of Los Angeles have been widely vilified and in some cases tossed out, the plan remains a focal point of controversy because its essential vision could still become reality.

Distrust of the density hawks who today control City Hall, and who will decide the park’s future, is so intense that one scion of the Griffith family, Griffith “Van” Griffith, is pushing to have the entire 4,218-acre park declared a historic cultural monument — an unusual step for so large a parcel, and one that the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission will begin discussing August 21.

“We’re trying to keep it just a park, not commercialized, not developed,” says Griffith, 55, whose great-grandfather, Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, and his wife, Tina, donated the land to the city more than a century ago, spelling out in the deed that it must be maintained as free urban wilderness. “[The city] at one time tried to put a 50-cent entrance fee [on the park], and my parents sued them when that happened,” Griffith says. “There are millions of people that don’t even have a backyard.”

Van Griffith, who once sold pencils in the Griffith Park Observatory souvenir shop, has been stewing over the “ramping up” by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and city parks bureaucrats bent on wringing more revenue from the beloved open space. A friendly snack shop once served the observatory, for instance. Now there’s a costly Wolfgang Puck restaurant that cries out “political statement”: Candy bars are banished, and the café’s unfriendly industrial-lite design badly clashes with the old-time observatory.

The café is just one of many ill-fitting decisions made by the Villaraigosa administration during a much-ballyhooed multimillion-dollar expansion of the observatory museum and its grounds that have helped to erode trust in any further moves by City Hall to change Griffith Park.

“I don’t see any need for upscale restaurants in the park,” Griffith says bluntly. “When you go to a neighborhood park, you don’t go there to eat. You go there to enjoy the grass, maybe have a picnic. It’s not a theme park. It’s not a movie studio. People don’t want to see it turned into Disneyland ... I’m sure if they have an aerial tramway, it’s not going to be free.”

Declaring the park a historic cultural monument would make it tougher, but not impossible, to add a tramway or things like a highly commercialized “pleasure pier” suggested for the adjacent Los Angeles River. Significant new public buildings or changes to existing ones would have to go before the five-member Cultural Heritage Commission, which is supposed to ensure that plans affecting the city’s degraded cultural heritage don’t further screw things up.

“The point is not to freeze a [historic monument] at a point in time, but to recognize a property’s historic significance and to better manage the potential change,” says Ken Bernstein, head of the commission staff, who calls the 350-page application to turn Griffith Park into a historic cultural monument one of the fattest ever.

Nobody knows how the five commissioners (historic-renovation architect Richard Barron; former Eric Garcetti aide and landscape architect Glen C. Dake, landscape designer Mia Guttfreund Lehrer, television director Oz Scott and former city arts bureaucrat Roella H. Louie) will rule on the cultural designation for the park. But all are political appointees handpicked by Villaraigosa, who is surprising some former supporters by proving to be the most antagonistic to open space of any mayor in recent memory.

If commissioners grant a preliminary thumbs-up to the historic designation next week, they will likely conduct an exhaustive tour of the park before a final vote, probably in October. But after that hurdle, the whole enterprise then goes before the Los Angeles City Council.

MOST MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC are unaware that crucial decisions made by the 15-member council — even one affecting the 10 million visitors to Griffith Park each year — tend to be quietly deferred to just one person, the local council member in whose district the project or battle is centered.

Barring a public outcry, once the fate of Griffith Park goes before the City Council, the decision will be made by City Councilman Tom LaBonge — and rubber-stamped by the majority of the other 14 council members.

LaBonge professes a great love of Griffith Park and often leads hikes there. But he’s sounding vague about giving the park protected status. He wants to be sure the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks — the same folks who devised the unworkable car ban that kept the public away from the observatory for years — isn’t saddled with red tape if it tries to modernize the park’s golf courses and other assets. LaBonge wonders, “Does the city have the ability to create more space for soccer fields or camping? Does making it a monument impede that?”

Almost unable to help himself, LaBonge then shows off the controversial “fiefdom” power that he, a relatively obscure elected official, holds over Griffith Park: The Melendrez Master Plan was rife with “outside-the-box-type ideas that didn’t make sense,” he tells L.A. Weekly. So now, “Those are all dead. Those are never going to happen.” Not the public at large, not the 15-member City Council, but “I rejected all those [ideas].”

LaBonge instead formed a new task force to devise a master plan, and that 11-member committee, made up of various community groups, is nearly finished. LaBonge thinks it might be better to protect only certain areas that are mountainous wildlands. The question is a prickly one, because if LaBonge decides to oppose the fight for historic-monument protection, he will find himself at odds with members of the committee he helped to put in place.

Some of his committee members are far less concerned about LaBonge’s worry — streamlining the steps needed to improve campgrounds or golf courses — than they are about the Villaraigosa administration’s ceaseless determination to build, build, build. Sooner or later, if adequate safeguards are not adopted, bureaucrats, developers and elected officials will succeed in twisting the Griffith family’s original vision in order to bring in more bucks, worried residents say.

Already, that has occurred at the observatory, renovated for $93 million. A couple of months ago, this august building owned by taxpayers was closed to the public to host a swanky movie-premiere “after-party” for Hollywood insiders, says committee member Bernadette Soter, a Los Feliz resident.

Soter was one of hundreds of residents who fought back when Wolfgang Puck bizarrely sought a liquor license for his fussy eatery at the crest of the park’s twisting, poorly lit, carefully negotiated roads — an application later withdrawn.

“What lurks behind everything is a repurposing of the park,” Soter says. “That’s what people reacted to. The park was being repurposed as an engine for revenue.”

The kicker is that the observatory itself is “protected” as a historic cultural monument, yet Puck somehow got in the door. If such profit-wringing can occur at the safeguarded observatory, what might City Hall’s commercialization hawks do to the vast amount of acreage that requires no historical review?

“This is a citywide concern,” Soter says. “I think people need to wake up and realize that.”


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