Jill Banks Barad is still waiting for her invite to last week's groundbreaking for the $56 million Civic Park, the park for all of Los Angeles.
“I'm disappointed,” she says. “I should have been invited.”
The president of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council and president of the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, which represents one-third of the city's total groups, says the snub underscores the downtown-centric nature of the $3 billion Grand Avenue project and its Civic Park.
“Do they want citywide support for this massive project, or is it enough for them to just say, 'We're talking to the Chamber of Commerce and the Center City Association '?” asks the PR consultant. “People in the Valley think of L.A. Live as a City [Hall] thing. Now the Civic Park is starting out the same way.”
But, Barad says, “It's our city, too.”
Other Neighborhood Council activists outside of downtown concur.
“I've never seen any outreach,” says Michael McCue, of the Studio City Neighborhood Council. “I think the Grand Avenue people are perfectly happy with that state of affairs.”
Now that tangible evidence of a Civic Park is arising — well, arising on an awkward, sloping space marred by two underground parking garages and concrete ramps still to be removed — it raises a question: How will L.A.'s 3.8 million residents benefit from what was touted as a showcase jewel of a park for the 21st-century city?
When the design for Los Angeles Civic Park was unveiled 16 months ago, it was greeted by widespread dismay.
The consensus from the Los Angeles Times architectural critic, commenters in L.A. Weekly articles, park lovers and others: lots of concrete; little grass, trees or shade. It was supposed to be a real outdoor park where you felt good after a visit, not a garishly overdesigned Pershing Square 2.0, where too often you felt like taking a shower after walking — quickly — through.
At the golden-shovel groundbreaking two weeks ago, plans for the 14-acre park linking City Hall to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion had undergone a mild makeover. There were new seating areas, terraced green spaces, an “event lawn” and native landscaping with trees from around the world.
Credit for that responsiveness, however, goes largely to private designer Rios Clementi Hale Studios, not to the reticent L.A. politicians and civic leaders known as the Grand Avenue Authority, who made all the bigger decisions.
One change is an 1,800-foot-long dog run on the eastern side, near City Hall.
“We tried to listen to the voices out there, and at the last meeting, that call for a dog run was the loudest voice we heard,” Tony Paradowski, a Rios Clementi Hale senior associate, tells the Weekly.
At a daylong meeting in March 2009, Paradowski says, more than 1,000 people viewed the first set of plans.
Despite the intense interest 16 months ago in those early drawings of a rare new park for park-poor L.A., the Grand Avenue Authority members — L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, California Transportation Secretary Dale Bonner, L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency official Cal Hollis and L.A. County CEO Bill Fujioka — bafflingly, held only two blisteringly fast public meetings this year.
One lasted for nine minutes.
Just a week before the July 15 groundbreaking, the authority met to approve construction documents for the park, whose design and features by that time had been set in stone.
At the authority's public meeting, in shades of the city of Bell's approach to public participation, no members of the public were present.
Grand Avenue staff member Martha Welborne explains, “We did all we were legally required to do” to attract public participation.
But it turns out that actually communicating with L.A. residents is not legally required of L.A. politicians as they embark upon a signature park nearly at the foot of City Hall's grand, white steps.
Welborne's group, chaired by Molina, was only required to alert those on an e-mail list — mostly people with a vested interest, such as developers and some downtown dwellers — and to post the meeting at least 48 hours ahead on a Grand Avenue Authority Web site few Angelenos even know exists.
Responding to criticism by neighborhood activists, the Grand Avenue Authority sent the Weekly a list of more than 10 outreach meetings it held while planning the Civic Park.
Most of those meetings occurred five, six and seven years ago.
After that, only three outreach meetings took place.
The contrast with cities like Seattle is stark. There, everyone living within half a mile of a new park is invited to project meetings and asked to vote, as with the eagerly anticipated new Lake Union Park on the water, near the Seattle Center.
Dewey Potter, spokesman for Seattle Parks and Recreation, has no problem critiquing the severe disconnect between L.A.'s City Hall leaders and its citizens.
“I don't think what the [Grand Avenue Authority] is doing is adequate,” Potter says. “It needs to improve. They need to make their meetings more convenient for people. They could reach out to the blogs to alert people about their meetings like we do here. … They have [them posted online] in a few minutes.”
In San Diego, they don't just meet rules forced upon city and county politicians by California state law. “We always do the legal minimum, but we also strive to do a lot more than that,” says Scott Reese of the San Diego Parks Department. “We find that it's better to cast a wide net.”
The Civic Park is the only successful project to emerge so far on a choice swath of downtown land that was slated to be turned into the grandiose, $3 billion Grand Avenue project.
Civic Park can be placed in the even-a-blind-squirrel-finds-a-few-acorns file. Without it, the city and county would have nothing to show for six years of effort — and their claims that this public-private project would create 29,000 construction jobs, 5,900 long-term jobs and more than $35.6 million annually in taxes.
None of that ever came to pass.
Under the deal with the developer, Related California, Related paid a nonrefundable $50 million development fee that has now, with interest, swelled to $56 million.
That money was always earmarked for Civic Park, which had been considered a relatively minor part of the original plan.
But when the economy tanked, Related was unable to float a $700 million construction loan, and by 2008, the envisioned Grand Avenue luxury hotel, condos and shops were temporarily abandoned. Today the financial markets have no appetite for any of it.
That's left many touting the Civic Park as a tasty appetizer served up at no cost to the taxpayers. There is, in fact, a big cost. The roughly 14 football fields' worth of space is owned by the citizens of L.A. County. A study has valued nearby city-owned land, where billionaire Eli Broad hopes to put a museum, at $473 per square foot. Although to build on the park acreage is more problematic than to construct on the proposed museum land, if it is valued anywhere in the region of $473 per square foot, it's worth up to $20.6 million. Yet county residents had little say over the best use of the park land they are donating.
“Everybody who has looked at this thinks it's pretty spectacular,” Grand Avenue Authority chairman Molina said at the superquick July 7 Grand Avenue meeting, speaking to almost nobody in the audience.
Bill Witte, president of Related California, says the park will feature concerts, art exhibitions and a farmers market. He describes it as “an outdoor living room for the city.”
But Denny Schneider of the Westchester Playa Neighborhood Council — a group never asked to weigh in on the people's park — thinks it's too close to the traffic-choked 101 freeway. He warns that Witte's city living room will be filled with L.A.'s version of secondhand smoke.
“There are so many studies that say if you live within 500 feet of a freeway or a major highway, you have an increased proportion of respiratory problems, especially among kids,” Schneider says. “It blows my mind that they're going to put the Civic Park on top of a freeway.”
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