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Griffith Park Shenanigans

Having orchestrated a flurry of last-minute deals and concessions in the polished corridors of City Hall, Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge beamed like a sure winner as he strode into a hearing room and declared his full support for turning Griffith Park into a historic landmark — a stance that drew loud applause from his constituents, and which virtually assures the measure’s approval by the City Council as early as January 27.

The chafing question now, though, is whether the unwieldy preservation plan, jam-packed with City Hall–esque exclusions and qualifications that almost nobody can decipher, will accomplish what homeowners and activists have fought for — a Griffith Park protected forever from chains and large-scale development. Or is the door still open to traffic-generating restaurants, aerial tramways and theme hotels?

“I’m not sure myself,” says Griffith “Van” Griffith, who has spearheaded the defense of the mountainous 4,218 acres, a crown jewel among the nation’s urban parks. “It seems like a kind of gray area floating in limbo. If they wanted to put aerial trams in the zoo, I don’t know what would happen.”

The plan contains enormous wiggle room for would-be developers despite three years of fighting to keep Griffith Park as it is — a vision backed by 15,000 Los Angeles residents who signed support petitions.

The Los Angeles Zoo is one area where the picture gets murky. While the zoo is clearly located inside the park, the strictest standards of preservation would not apply there under the proposed historic-landmark plan, according to Ken Bernstein, manager of the city’s Office of Historic Preservation. Old buildings could be razed and new ones built with a degree of latitude that many activists might not have counted on when they began deluging City Hall with signed petitions.

Such issues began to draw attention last week, when the ever-evolving plan for the park reached the City Council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee, its final stop before a City Council vote. In a hearing room packed with more than 100 residents, nearly all of them hoping to thwart development, Bernstein laid out a response shaped by LaBonge and city staff members acting upon the Griffith Trust’s original 350-page landmark-designation application.

One critical feature seems scripted in neon: The zoo and several other sites — including the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, the now grassy and peaceful Toyon Canyon Landfill site deep in the park’s interior, and the Roosevelt Municipal Golf Course — were deemed by city officials to contribute nothing to Griffith Park’s historical importance, and to deserve no special protection beyond existing zoning codes.

Proposed development within these so-called “noncontributing” areas would be evaluated with little or no extra importance given to that area’s history or preservation, except when surrounding, truly historic parts of the park might be affected, according to Bernstein.

The Cultural Affairs Commission might, for example, limit or block chain restaurants or hotels in Toyon Canyon if commissioners believe the project would damage protected areas adjacent to it — but the canyon could be commercially developed otherwise.

“We’ll be more concerned with the spillover effects,” Bernstein says.

This means the protected expanses of Griffith Park would receive less a blanket of protection than an overlaid slice of Swiss cheese, even though technically, the boundary of the historic-landmark area follows the boundary of the park.

Officials shrewdly adopted the entire park boundary to avoid having a “gerrymandered” look, Bernstein says, and, guess what, it also implies, on paper, a level of protection that many park lovers would have hoped for — even while LaBonge and the pro-growth city power structure were crafting something that leaves the door open to developers.

Toyon Canyon, an erstwhile garbage dump, is an especially salient case, since the closed landfill is one site where homeowners have long feared the eventual construction of commercial enterprises like restaurants or a theme hotel. In fact, Marian Dodge, president of the Los Feliz Improvement Association, points out that the furor to protect the park began when the Melendrez consulting firm suggested the possibility of an “eco-hotel” and other commercial growth in Toyon Canyon as part of a widely derided 2005 master plan for the park.

Although the Melendrez report has since been tossed out, residents remain wary about what City Hall might try to do, if the legal language allows it. Dodge insists that Toyon Canyon would eventually contribute much to the park’s cultural significance if left alone to merge with the wilderness that surrounds it.

“We’re hoping that gets clarified,” she says.

As if to suggest the stakes involved in a city that’s growing more crowded by the minute, LaBonge was busy right up to, and during, the Planning and Land Use Management Committee meeting at City Hall, surrendering protections in exchange for endorsements from pro-development players like the Autry. He and representatives of the Griffith Trust agreed that the historic designation will not affect two substantial developments — a controversial two-phase expansion of the Autry Museum, which could win city approval this year, and a reservoir facility planned near the Los Angeles River.


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