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Funny Math on Downtown L.A. Civic Park

Canapé canopy: The heavily paved park, obscured here by greatly oversized trees, could cost $5.2 million per acre while L.A. neighborhoods beg for parks.

A few weeks ago, Los Angeles nightly news reports, daily newspapers and blog sites featured an upbeat story that arose from a carefully timed public announcement, colorful drawings and architectural model: A rare new park was coming at last to this park-poor city.

The news was a bright spot in ugly economic times, especially since the unusually high $56 million price tag in a county where new parks average about $5 million in cost was going to be paid not by battered taxpayers but by a huge corporation, the Related Cos.

Now riding a wave of sunny press, the park’s official design, with its emphasis on “programmable” paved spaces that lend themselves more to organized sponsor-driven events than to picnicking or playing Frisbee, is likely to sail through approvals at the Community Redevelopment Agency and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on April 2 and April 7.

Last summer, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, in an effusive statement, “The Civic Park will be a signature icon for Los Angeles,” and, “All Angelenos will reap the benefits.”

But despite the glowing spin, two crucial questions remain unanswered about this “privately funded” L.A. Civic Park launched in a time of disastrous economic woes:

Why has a seldom-mentioned $27.1 million pot of taxpayer funds, which would bring the real cost of Civic Park to $83.1 million, been approved by the California Legislature?

Why are politicians pushing what is arguably the most expensive 16-acre park ever built here on public land, located nowhere near park-poor neighborhoods teeming with children?

Those two issues have been lost — some say purposely repressed — during the positive press pile-on over Civic Park.

In fact, L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry and others who sit on the obscure Grand Avenue Authority joined Related Cos. in applying for — and last summer won — $27.1 million in public bond money to turn the $56 million Civic Park into a far glitzier $83.1 million park.

They quietly mined a loophole in the 2006 Housing and Emergency Shelter Trust Fund approved by California voters who had widely believed the money would be used to house the homeless and battered women. If L.A. pols spend the $27.1 million, they would jack up the price tag on the costly Civic Park to an almost unheard-of $5.2 million per acre.

Yet voters approved the 2006 housing fund solely with “the intent to help the neediest Californians,” says Karen Naungayen, of Housing California. Voters did not know about a yawning loophole in the measure, known as Proposition 1C. Its fine print allows politicians to use the fund, not to create shelter for the poor but for classic pork projects like deluxe improvements of public areas if they are within striking distance of “affordable” apartment units.

The director of California’s Department of Housing and Community Development, Lynn L. Jacobs, e-mailed the Weekly a jargon-filled technical defense of L.A.’s decision to mine that loophole, saying, “Financing infill infrastructure for mixed-use development is a key component of [the Housing Trust Fund], as stated on the ballot. ... This is a very appropriate expenditure.”

In truth, taxpayer monies for development was not peddled as a key component of the ballot measure — as Jacobs, an Arnold Schwarzenegger appointee, insists. State legislators in 2006 wanted to help rich developers, but they knew that touting the bond measure as a fat public subsidy for developers would kill it. Led by Bay Area state Senator Don Perata, the Legislature pushed Proposition 1C as help for the poor and homeless — and slyly folded in wide-open subsidies for “in fill,” “transit-oriented development,” “other uses” and parks. L.A. leaders jumped on this perfectly legal pork, accessing the $27.1 million.

Says urban critic and author Joel Kotkin, “There is no mechanism anymore for the public to question these things because it’s all an inside deal. You don’t have legislators who are going to question it because they’re all part of the same machine.”

Kotkin, a Chapman University fellow whose blog and books are influential in debates over how to govern urban areas, asks: “How come we don’t have $50 million for parks in South Central Los Angeles or the Valley? Has anyone noticed why we don’t have parks or only have crummy parks where people actually live?”

Last June, even as L.A. faced runaway foreclosures and horrific housing problems, close allies of Villaraigosa’s in the California Legislature agreed to earmark $27.1 million to turn the Civic Park into an $83.1 million extravaganza complete with decorative flourishes — the very kind of backdoor subsidizing of downtown that sparked the Valley secession movement a decade ago and enrages many today.

Councilwoman Perry has pushed hard for the park, which would be just down the block from Perry’s luxury condo. As the Weekly previously reported, Perry is directly involved in key decisions to spend public funds on Grand Avenue and on Civic Park, expenditures that could easily enhance the value of Perry’s own luxury condo building near Disney Hall. Perry insists that she is not breaking any formal ethics rules.

In February, Molina and Perry used their votes on the Grand Avenue Authority to let Related Cos. off the hook over a stiff $250,000 monthly penalty it is supposed to be paying for failing to break ground on the Grand Avenue luxury project.

Paul Novak, planning deputy for L.A. Supervisor Mike Antonovich, termed that vote “shocking . they completely undid a deal that they signed six months ago.”

Despite all this insider maneuvering, the plan to mine the 2006 bond-money fine print so pols could use the Housing Trust Fund on a City Hall–adjacent park is running into trouble. The obstacle? Local politicians can’t use the $27.1 million on Civic Park unless Related Cos. constructs luxury housing on Grand Avenue, and, to comply with the trust fund loophole, builds a sprinkling of 100 cheaper rentals.

Molina’s policy director, Gerry Hertzberg, says that if Grand Avenue fails to break ground, they hope to get permission to keep the $27.1 million for “other developments.”

Beyond these two quiet controversies — the little-mentioned $27.1 million pot of taxpayer cash, and the city and county’s hot pursuit of a downtown park while poor neighborhoods go begging — is the problematic location of the Civic Park. Much of this public land is really an earthen cap covering a parking lot near the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The extremely poor location, involving multilevel land crisscrossed by roads, resulted in the high base cost of $56 million, which is to be picked up by the developer. It is believed to be a record cost for a modest-sized park on L.A. public land.

Official records show that during six years of wrangling over the plan, L.A. County spent just $9.4 million creating other new parks. Molina responds to this by arguing that the county spent $150 million fixing up and developing parks, and alludes to “urban barriers we inherited” to explain why some parks soak up far more money than others.

Similarly, Villaraigosa and the L.A. City Council have spent little on new parks in a city infamous for neighborhoods jammed with children who have no green space to play in.

Two significant new parks are the $15 million Vista Hermosa Park, built with public and private funds and operated by a conservancy, and Ascot Hills Park in East Los Angeles, 140 acres of mostly city-owned land. An open-space park, it cost just $3.55 million to create. Meanwhile, L.A. is still regarded as ranking last among major U.S. cities in per capita open space.

Civic Park is becoming a feel-good poster child — the centerpiece of a sophisticated media push designed to praise Related Cos. and sell taxpayers on a costly park stuck in a difficult location — ­nowhere near the crowded neighborhoods that need one.