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Public Parks and Los Angeles: A Match Made in Hell: July 16, 2008

It’s been nearly six months since L.A. Weekly revealed that South L.A.’s newest playground was built on top of an open sewer line. Do kids still have to hold their noses to go on the jungle gym?

“Actually, the park has worked out well,” says Ted Thomas, president of the Park Mesa Heights Neighborhood Council. “We have free Spanish lessons there on Tuesdays, neighborhood meetings on Thursdays, and we haven’t had any more complaints about the smell.”

When the Weekly last checked in with Thomas in the summer, he noted that while he was grateful for the new, one-acre playground (despite the occasional eau de shit), it wasn’t going to fill the needs of Park Mesa Heights’ 36,000 residents. An additional, larger park was needed for his public-space-starved community.

Any traction?

“No,” Thomas responds flatly. “With the economy the way it is, they’re telling us we’re not going to see a new park anytime soon.”

Yet, despite the economy, there has been greater progress on the parks front in the past few months. The landscape architecture firm Lehrer and Associates recently completed the city’s much anticipated park-needs assessment plan. Michael Shull, Superintendent of Planning and Engineering for the Department of Recreation and Parks, says the needs assessment, along with a recently completed park infrastructure analysis, gives the city the information it needs to undertake a more ambitious, citywide approach to public space. “We’ve surveyed every community in the city and we now have valuable information about what people want and need in their neighborhoods.”

Shull says that even the much-lambasted Quimby program, which is designed to take fees from new developments and uses them to build public space — $128 million was discovered languishing unused last year — is in a better position than it has ever been. “That money is worth a whole lot more than it was a year ago. We can now buy property in areas of the city we could have never afforded before.”

However, Robert Garcia, of the public space advocacy group City Project, cautions against too much optimism.

In good economic times “it took the city three years to get this needs assessment finished. And though I think the report is well done, the document isn’t even actionable. I was told that it would take another four months before the city can begin drawing up a master parks plan. In 1930, the Olmsted Brothers created an entire master plan, financing system and new park bureaucracy in less time, for less money and with less resources.”

Even Shull admits that in the current economic climate, a master park plan may be some time away. “We’re going to do our best, but given the economy, we can’t count on any money from the general fund.”

And so it’s up to the City Council and the “green” mayor, assuming he gets re-elected, to find the money to finish the job. Where there’s a will there’s a way, as they say, and history provides precedence: The Olmsteds finished their plan in the middle of the Great Depression.

Matthew Fleischer is a senior editor at L.A. City Beat.

 

From “Parks and Wreck: In Search of the Emerald City” by Matthew Fleischer

There’s a foul smell in Pershing Square. Well, several foul smells, really. Most prominently, there’s the smell of urine. It wafts in all directions, emanating from a dozen dark, hidden recesses spread throughout the square. There’s the smell of the fountain, a giant purple modernist abomination that every so often belches a tiny stream of liquid into a stagnant brown pool below. There’s the smell of a small colony of homeless, who have made this place their bathroom. They occupy nearly every bench in sight, baking and sweating in the treeless glare of the unforgiving sun. At noon, in the largest public space in the downtown business district of the country’s second largest city, these men and women are the area’s sole occupants.

Meanwhile, two blocks away, a group of businesspeople in sleek skirts and tailored suits enjoy a quiet lunch at the packed Café Pinot in the L.A. Public Library’s Maguire Gardens. Next to the café, a multiethnic band of children play in and around a series of three tastefully tiled fountains. More than a dozen homeless congregate nearby. Some inevitably work the grounds, meekly asking for change, but most take quiet naps in the shady grass. Others read library books on benches. The wealthy and the destitute, young and old, black, white, brown and yellow — coexisting and enjoying the day in peace.

Not all spaces are created equal.


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