After more than a decade, a new Los Angeles State Historic Park is getting ready to rise on a 32-acre green space, known for years as the "Cornfield." A groundbreaking ceremony was held Saturday to mark the start of the $18-million construction project funded by Proposition 84. Construction will begin April 13.
"We hope what we've created will be even more enticing for the people in the neighborhood," said Amy Schuessler, architect for California State Parks during an open house to showcase the final plans for the park last Thursday.
Sandwiched between Chinatown to the west and the L.A. River to the east, the eye-shaped parcel of land holds special meaning to its community. In 2001, residents, environmentalists and activists overturned a plan to transform the land into yet another series of warehouses. Their efforts also preserved precious open space for the community. Since then, the sliver of land has been used flexibly, hosting pick up games, overnight camping, music festivals and art shows. Despite not having the pristine, well thought out amenities of other parks, it still gave the neighborhood a place to enjoy open space. Given the site's history, it's no wonder the open house, held at Goodwill San Fernando just across the river from the park, was filled with community members.
The new park is set to open sometime in 2015 after a year of construction. The design shows a far simpler plan than what was originally proposed before the economic downturn. "It includes a pedestrian thoroughfare running throughout the park. It will have lots of topography and a cluster of native plantings," explained Schuessler.
Other features include a welcome pavilion (which will be home to an interactive exhibition by UCLA's Interpretive Media Laboratory), a flexible space that can be used for community events and other festivals, a citrus grove, and a wetland area. It will become home to a long-gone waterwheel system by artist Lauren Bon. A pedestrian overlook is also in place on the northwest side of the park. The ramp would be a slowly ascending spiral structure that would elevate pedestrians, giving them a view of downtown on one side and mountains on the other.
Schuessler says California State Parks is looking to build a connection between Broadway and the park. Currently, residents have to take the long way around just to get to the State Historic Park, which is just across the street but on the other side of the tracks for the Metro Gold Line.
"I like it," said Lewis MacAdams, founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River. He helped mobilize community groups against developers in the early 2000s. "It's a lot less designed than when they started. [State Parks] started with trees and grass, then it changed into something more elaborate, and now it's back to trees and grass. That's good. It'll eventually be a valuable connection to the river."
During the over-a-decade effort, State Parks has reached out to many members of the community, ensuring that whatever is designed is something that is appropriate for the community. When I spoke with locals, everyone expressed cautious optimism. No one faults the design, yet they wonder what will happen when it comes to programming.
"It looks great," said Diane Valencia, who has worked at the native plant garden, called the Anabolic Monument, that used to be on the interim space, "but it's going to be different. I worry that they aren't looking at what community assets there are before building on top of it." Valencia is waiting to see what programs they'll have available for people, like her, who have been used to growing plants on the land and seeing the wildlife come to life in the space.
Sara Harris, secretary of the Historic Cultural Neighborhood Council that represents Solano Canyon, Arts District, Chinatown, Victor Heights, Little Tokyo, and Historic El Pueblo, on the other hand is concerned about future programming of another kind: concerts. The park is a popular venue for popular music events such as FYF, HARD Day of the Dead, and about a few dozen events. Large venue music means noise, right in the backyards of neighbors.
"We're concerned about what's going to happen to the open space in the middle. There have been concerts held at the park that have caused amplified sounds as late at three o'clock in the morning. Some concerts, like the Great Horror Campout, [which turned the park into one big horrific campout site complete with zombies] are especially egregious to children," said Harris. "We're hoping that with the new park is also a chance to revisit those types of events and not to go back to the mistakes made previously. We care about State Parks and understand that they're in a tight spot, but there has to be a creative solution for them to raise the funds to cover their operating budget."
The State Historic Park has a $1 million operating budget each year, according to Sean Woods, L.A. superintendent of California State Parks. Contracting with organizers to hold events at the park raises a large part of its budget. Major concerts can bring in $250,000 to $300,000.
"It's a legitimate concern," said Woods in response. "The programming from before is different from what it would be. It's going to be a park now. It's not just going to be a piece of land." State Parks is currently consulting with other outdoor venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theatre, and the Rose Bowl to see how others manage to balance differing interests from stakeholders.
Harris, as well as other residents are waiting to hear their proposals. "We'd like State Parks to be more transparent about their programming plans," said Harris. "Let's bring it to city hall and have a debate about it. Don't just go ahead and do it and define the surrounding area as industrial. We live here too."