The way Tom LaBonge was talking, you’d have thought the veteran Los Angeles City Councilman had been toiling his entire political career to protect rugged, 4,218-acre Griffith Park from future commercial development.
“Griffith Park is absolutely the most special park in the United States,” LaBonge told a jam-packed meeting of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission recently, as the five-member panel weighed a plan to shield the park from potentially massive construction — including restaurants, hotels and an aerial tramway — by declaring it a historic monument.
“Every morning, God willing, I climb my way to the top of Mount Hollywood,” LaBonge said in dramatic tones to about 125 people representing the 15,000 petitioners pushing to preserve the century-old open space. “It truly is an unbelievable spot,” LaBonge said, adding later, “I want more people to enjoy the park and visit the park in such a way that they’ll have memories like I have.”
Initially, the park lovers burst into lengthy applause. For LaBonge, who had waffled in recent months about whether to give his all-important support to declaring the park a landmark, the tenor of the Oct. 30 meeting seemed to suggest there was never any doubt. If not a complete reversal, LaBonge’s remarks certainly came across — at least at that moment — as a ringing endorsement. When LaBonge finally finished, Cultural Commission Chairman Richard Barron could only respond with a stunned, “How about that!”
Given the inordinate powers a single councilman has over matters in his district, LaBonge’s apparent enthusiasm made the commission’s subsequent vote almost a foregone conclusion. Panelists voted 3 to 1 in favor of adopting landmark protections, with only pro-development commissioner Glen Dake voting no. (Mia Lehrer, a landscape architect, didn’t vote because she has a conflict as a city contractor.)
The commission has now sent the proposal to the full City Council, where a vote could occur in a few weeks. That vote could be a slam dunk but only if LaBonge signals to the rest of the 14 council members that they, too, should join him in protecting Griffith Park.
But does he? Already, development-wary residents, who have seen commercial towers, huge apartment complexes and worsening traffic blanket several parts of the city under density hawk Antonio Villaraigosa, are questioning LaBonge’s intentions. Shepherding the plan through the Cultural Heritage Commission may only have been a buy-time move as LaBonge further explores his options. He has spent weeks saying landmark status might impede routine, noncommercializing upgrades to park facilities such as the golf courses — but has given no coherent reason why he believes this.
A darker suspicion is that LaBonge, forced into a corner by the political might of 15,000 petitioning residents, hikers and joggers, waxed eloquently in favor of the plan but will find some excuse to torpedo the idea before the City Council vote.
“We have to keep a watch on that,” says Bernadette Soter, chairwoman of the parks committee of the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council, who hugged LaBonge after the meeting but who later was going so far as to rewatch videos of his comments, looking for hints of treachery. The neighborhood group’s Web site, www.ggpnc.org, posts a 22-minute clip in which LaBonge can be seen stopping just short of actually saying he supports landmark protections.
Following his glowing talk about the wonders of hiking Mount Hollywood, LaBonge starts to address the proposed landmark status directly but then halts and changes course in mid-sentence: “I think the opportunity now to be able to go forward with this recognition — I want more people to use the park. I want more people to hike in the park. … ” And so on, with words that could just as easily be construed as support for yet another tacky Wolfgang Puck bistro like the one now appended to the Griffith Park Observatory.
In his final burst, LaBonge again implies more in his tone and gestures than he says, grandly telling the commissioners, “I am happy to support the full consideration of this nomination to your board.”
Reflecting on what LaBonge actually said, Soter’s voice trails off into an audible sigh. “So … that did not say, ‘I am happy to support the designation of Griffith Park as a landmark.’ ” Rather, the key phrase is about supporting consideration of the idea. “Which does leave him room to retreat on his position if he should choose to,” Soter notes.
Asked whether this means LaBonge will quietly upend the protections, Soter voices the same battle-bruised attitude so many L.A. activists share: “I think the public has to continue to send the message downtown that this landmark has to be preserved.”