ON A COOL, SUNNY MORNING in South Los Angeles last week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, flanked by Parks and Recreation General Manager Jon Mukri and a curtain of school children and TV cameras, announced a bold new plan: “We’re going to build 45 new parks by 2011,” he said, to wild applause.

Matthew Fleischer

(Click to enlarge)

Cary Adams stands near a lot that could have been a park. Instead, another ugly complex will get crammed in.

Matthew Fleischer

(Click to enlarge)

Pocket park? Nope, yet more density is planned for this open spot in NoHo.

The mayor’s idea is one that even his fiercest critics won’t dispute: If parks are “lungs,” Los Angeles has emphysema. After generations of speculative real estate booms, L.A. has the smallest percentage of space devoted to parks in any major American city — a paltry 4 percent — most of it in the rough Santa Monica Mountains.

New York, where real estate is no less valuable, has devoted 17 percent of its limited land to parks.

But with City Hall mired in a $300 million budget deficit, Villaraigosa can’t pursue 45 new parks without access to a huge pot of so-called Quimby funds — $130 million in riches earmarked for parks that the Parks and Recreation Department has been twiddling its thumbs on for years.

The trove was revealed last month by City Controller Laura Chick in her audit of the city’s Quimby program, named for a state law that charges developers fees of $3,000 to $9,000 per unit of new construction, then sets aside those fees to finance or refurbish parks or civic facilities near the developments.

Months before Chick’s stunner audit unearthed the full extent of the unspent hoard, parks manager Mukri sent a letter to Villaraigosa admitting he had no way to adequately track how much money was flowing in from developers, or where money was being spent on parks.

News of the massive surplus caused a small scandal, leaving bureaucrats scrambling for excuses. The City Council — whose members are responsible for finding park sites in their districts — seemed befuddled. Councilman Tom LaBonge alone has nearly $10 million in unspent funds in Council District 4, the majority of it extracted from developers of high-density complexes rising near the North Hollywood subway station.

“Everyone was shocked,” says Jeanne Min, director of finance and special projects for LaBonge. “We had no idea we had that kind of funding at our disposal. Everything that we had done up to that point was piecemeal.”

Yet while LaBonge sits on a fortune, in densely populated South L.A., where very little development is under way, not a single dime of the $130 million pool has been allotted to Councilman Bernard Parks. In his District 8, made up of many working-class and poor neighborhoods with little open space, Parks has already spent his meager $800,000.

“The real problem,” Min says, “is that the districts that really need parks have no development to pay for them.”

Chick blames a provision devised long ago by the city’s own Planning Commission, a law of unintended consequences that requires developers’ fees to be spent within a “two-mile radius,” of the development. “The arbitrary two-mile rule,” Chick wrote in the audit, “greatly restricts our options to provide more parks and should be changed to something that makes more sense for the Los Angeles of 2008.”

No parks are proposed in North Hollywood, for example, which has arguably seen the greatest land development aside from downtown. The only civic space even under consideration there, using the developer funds, is a senior center nearly 10 blocks from the new density.

If you take a giant compass, put the point on North Hollywood’s thicket of development near the subway station and draw a circle with a two-mile radius, the area includes almost all of North Hollywood. Is there no room in this four-mile-wide swath of land for a park? And if not, why can’t LaBonge send his funds to park-starved South L.A.?

One problem is a Parks and Recreation Department regulation, which the City Council could change, requiring that the fees be spent in the same council district in which they were collected. Another problem, Senior City Planner Alan Bell recently told the council’s parks committee, is a state law requiring that these parks be developed within a “reasonable distance” of where the Quimby funds are collected. So while Villaraigosa soaked in the applause of South L.A. constituents on a sunny morning last week, he neglected to mention that few of the new parks, if any, will be for them.

CARY ADAMS CAN SEE THE FUTURE of North Hollywood, and it doesn’t look like this. Standing at Blakeslee and Weddington streets, with hardly a soul in sight, surrounded by weed-strewn empty lots and postindustrial detritus, Adams describes a bright new world full of condos, moderately priced apartments and retail shops.

“This right here will be turned into a 660-unit development,” he says of a dingy-looking building. “Down the block will be two 26-story apartment towers. Pretty much everywhere you look, something new is going up.”

With major transit lines nearby, the area is an epicenter of so-called transit-oriented development. While many locals resent becoming guinea pigs, Adams, president of the Mid-Town North Hollywood Neighborhood Council, is excited.

“Change is good,” he says. “If we do things right here, it could serve as a model for development throughout the city.”

That’s a big “if.” Development in North Hollywood could soon make it one of the most packed places in L.A. County. Cramming thousands of people in with a Jamba Juice or two between them isn’t a proven recipe for urban renewal.

Says Adams: “To make this work we’re going to need more green space.” He points to a small lot, the right size for a tiny, so-called pocket park on a quiet cul-de-sac. “That land right there belongs to the [Community Redevelopment Agency]” — which is supposed to fight “blight” and could easily cough up land for a park.

But creating a new park requires the avid participation of the City Council member for each area. After Chick released her embarrassing audit, Council President Eric Garcetti, who had previously begged poverty on parks, quickly announced plans to spend nearly $4 million in his district, including a $3.2 million recreation facility in Hollywood.

Others are not as engaged — LaBonge, for example. “We’ve had absolutely no discussion with LaBonge’s office,” says Adams. LaBonge staffer Min responds, “Our doors are open. We’ll take any suggestions we can get,” which implies that the citizens should find the land, when in fact it’s city staff and agencies like the CRA that know where the acreage is.

LaBonge says he wants money for parks along the Wilshire Corridor. But under existing rules, the congested Wilshire area is too far from NoHo, where his district’s developer fees are piling up. “It’s one of the most densely packed places in the country outside of Manhattan,” he argues of Wilshire. While LaBonge ponders, North Hollywood’s open spaces are vanishing, and LaBonge could end up with yet another large, dense community without parks.

In a different part of town facing the same bleak outcome, Theodore Thomas, president of the Park Mesa Neighborhood Council, says he is in constant contact with Councilman Bernard Parks’ offices.

Thomas’ group, desperate for open space south of the 10 freeway, has submitted seven prospective locales to the dithering city Department of Parks and Recreation. “They tell me finding the money to acquire them will be tough,” says Thomas, because his ironically titled “Park Mesa” district doesn’t have any of the four-mile-wide circles where massive park funds are piling up.

“There are absolutely no facilities for kids down here,” Thomas explains of his community of 36,000. With the exception of a tiny, state pocket park, “the majority of our community has no access to parks. We don’t even have a basketball league.”

Though his District 8 would benefit from the sharing of the $130 million, Councilman Parks supports the city’s two-mile-radius rule. “Down here we don’t need rule changes,” says Parks, “we need more development” — an unlikely prospect, since developers avoid South L.A., and now poor immigrants are displacing the old middle class.

Whether it’s City Hall’s own self-defeating rules or the state’s “reasonable distance” provision, District 8 gets left out.

So for now, a $130 million pile of cash is out of reach to areas that need it, amid a massive deficit that has prompted City Hall to seek higher taxes and fees on residents. Meanwhile, North Hollywood riches lay idle as potential park sites disappear. The Quimby program is a tale of two cities — both of them parkless.

Reach the writer at mfleischer@laweekly.com.

LA Weekly