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PUBLIC-INTEREST LAW FIRM ORGANIZES TO PROVIDE PARKLAND FOR L.A. NEIGHBORHOODS

1930 Map of Green L.A. Inspires Urban Vision

By Liz Valsamis
Los Angeles Daily Journal
Jan. 28, 2005

LOS ANGELES – In 1930, [the firm started by the sons of] Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted presented officials with a map showing a green Los Angeles criss-crossed with hundreds of square miles of parkland. The [report] warned that, unless his leafy vision of Los Angeles was implemented, the region would become unlivable, strangled by sprawl.

But the city lacked the vision and organization to execute Olmsted’s blueprint for a green utopia, and it was shelved. The thousands of acres of proposed parkland were paved over, leaving the city of Los Angeles with few parks, particularly in its poor, urban neighborhoods.

Although Olmsted’s plan is just a memory, [The City Project at] the Center for Law in the Public Interest has revived his vision of urban parkland.

In November 1999, the center fought the city of Los Angeles and Majestic Realty Co. over the fate of the Cornfield: a 32-acre wasteland located on the eastern border of Chinatown.

Critics say Garcia’s groups have misrepresented competing development proposals in order to get their way, costing poor neighborhoods jobs and economic development.

But Garcia says he is merely responding to public thirst for parkland.

“Our goal was to give the community a voice,” he said.

Garcia’s admirers say that he’s raised urban park development to the level of other big issues in Los Angeles, like affordable housing, jobs and education.

Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, said Garcia’s achievement is the more remarkable because other cities just aren’t building urban parks anymore.

“The victories they’ve been able to achieve are unprecedented,” Bullard said.

Opened in 1970, the public-interest law center has handled civil rights, consumer protection and criminal matters, but in recent years, parkland has become its defining project.

“In the past five years, we have definitely focused on the urban park movement and bringing cases that lie at the intersection of civil rights and the environment,” Garcia said recently from his offices in Santa Monica.

In November 1999, The City Project fought the city of Los Angeles and Majestic Realty Co. over the fate of the Cornfield: a 32-acre wasteland located on the eastern border of Chinatown.

Los Angeles and Majestic Realty wanted to build warehouses, Garcia says, and officials tried to sell the project on the promise of jobs for the economically depressed area.

Using his opponents’ own data, he says, Garcia declared that the warehouses would create, at most, 1,000 jobs, each averaging $20,000 a year in salary.

“We took the information to the community, and the people said, ‘We don’t want warehouse jobs,'” Garcia said. “‘We want quality jobs. We want parks for our children to play in.'”

Majestic Realty developer John Semcken bristles at the suggestion that his company was trying to take advantage of the community. Majestic Realty has a solid record of giving back to the community, and its projects, like the
Staples Center, create jobs, Semcken said.

He says the proposed buildings were not big enough for warehouses and instead would have been “used by the type of tenants that you find in downtown Los Angeles,” he said, “food businesses, garment businesses and
import/export businesses.”

Nevertheless, a coalition of 35 organizations, organized by the center and known as the Chinatown Yard Alliance, filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which ruled that there would be no public subsidies for the project without a full environmental review considering a park as an alternative. The group also filed a state Environmental Quality Act lawsuit, which eventually settled.

“Once the federal subsidies were gone, the alliance and the developers and the city reached an agreement,” Garcia said. “If we could persuade the state to buy the park within that budget year, Majestic would walk away
from the warehouse proposal. And, if we could not persuade the state to buy the site, then we would withdraw the opposition to the warehouses.”

The state purchased the park and neighboring Taylor Yard in 2001 for $60 million. Four years later, the only thing parklike on the site is a small mound of green decorated by some bench tables and a few trees. But Garcia
says the state is fully committed. The process is just slow.

Dianna Martinez, the state parks project manager for Cornfield and Taylor Yard, agreed, saying the state expects to present a draft of the park’s general plan to the public for review later this year.

Garcia is proud of the fact that the Cornfield agreement was reached without court intervention.

“The Cornfield will not be a park as a result of any court order but because of a creative deal between developers and the alliance,” he said.

“The protections for civil rights and for the environment are being rolled back in the federal courts and the federal system,” Garcia said. “The traditional model of taking a case to court and taking it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and winning nationwide precedent is no longer the working model.”

Garcia said he joined the center to reshape public-interest law, something that he admits sounds grandiose, but says isn’t.

Garcia came to Los Angeles when he was 6. His family immigrated to New York in 1956 from Guatemala City before settling in the Los Angeles area two years later. They were part of the first wave of Central Americans to inhabit the neighborhood around crime-plagued MacArthur Park.

Garcia excelled in school and soon was at Stanford University. He credits his grandfather for his academic achievements. In Guatemala, his grandfather worked as a linotype operator, allowing him to read constantly, and he instilled that trait in his grandson.

The stark contrast between the leafy campus and Garcia’s park-poor, decayed neighborhood stood out in sharp relief.

“[It’s] one’s of the most beautiful campuses in the world, with lush green spaces,” Garcia said. “All of the children of Los Angeles should have the benefit of great places to play. That is the least we can do for them.”

After graduating from Stanford law school, Garcia worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York. His first public-interest job was serving as western regional counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., where he first became interested in studying disparities in access to parks. Before joining the center in 2000, he was with the Los Angeles office of Environmental Defense.

Now, Garcia is turning his attention to creating a 2-square-mile park in Baldwin Hills in the historic African-American heart of Los Angeles that sits at the intersection of African-American, Latino and white neighborhoods.

The state-owned project, called the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, would be the largest urban park development in more than a century, bigger than Central Park, according to Garcia.

The site is dotted with oil derricks and dry brush. The idea of a park there grew out of a public campaign against a power plant proposed during the state’s 2001 power crisis.

A thousand people, mostly opponents, showed up at a hearing on the project by the state Energy Commission. The plant was killed.

The city proposed building a solid-waste transfer station on the site. Garcia says that really meant a dump.

Again, Garcia rallied the troops, and public pressure killed the plan.

Cora Jackson-Fossett, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, said the city’s proposal was grossly misunderstood. It was not a dump but a temporary holding station that would have facilitated faster trash pickup in the surrounding neighborhoods, with minimal impact on Baldwin Hills.

“We erred in not making the proposal to residents earlier,” Jackson-Fossett said. “If people understood it was a transfer station and not a dump, I believe they would have been a lot more receptive and understanding and supportive even.”

Garcia, however, said the community understood all too well what the project entailed.

“That was a huge victory, because once the newspapers started calling it a garbage dump, people knew what they were facing,” he said.

The site is home to the Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area, which is run by the county. Garcia would like to see the state buy up the land in sections as oil operations peter out, to form a larger system of trails and parks, really a wilderness area.

But the Baldwin Hills Conservancy is under threat by the state Performance Review Commission, which recommended in August that the state transfer the property to local government. The transfer, along with six others, would
save the state $2.1 million annually, the commission said.

“This is a geographically limited entity,” said Bob Martinez, spokesman for the commission, which was set up to look for state budget cuts. “It should be a local entity.”

“That’s absolutely no answer,” Garcia responded. “It was the local authority, the city of Los Angeles, that wanted to put a garbage dump there.”

“We don’t look for consolation from local authorities when it comes to parks and recreation in the city of Los Angeles,” Garcia said.

He added that he will take the state to court if it gives up the land.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently included funding for the Baldwin Hills Conservancy in the state budget.

Garcia said he is “cautiously optimistic” that he’s won another battle.

But the past has shown he is not afraid to litigate to secure parkland.

In October 2002, the public-interest law group intervened on behalf of residents in South Los Angeles and Baldwin Hills in a Santa Monica Baykeeper suit attacking the dilapidated sewer system.

Baykeeper, an environmental group, said the system was polluting local waters and fouling the air with a strong stench. The suit was successful, ending in a $2 billion settlement to fix the system.

The center also is preparing litigation against the La Vina Homeowners Association and Los Angeles County for allegedly breaking a promise to build trails in a canyon above Altadena.

Last year, the center won a similar trail-access battle against homeowners who began building a fence to block the entrance to trails above Canyonback Road in Brentwood.

Bird, Marella, Boxer Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks & Lincenberg partner Tom Freeman, who lived near the road, did some Web research and found Garcia and his group, who agreed to come to their aid.

In August, the city withdrew its approval of the homeowners’ gate.

“Robert was so critical in making this happen,” Freeman said. “It would have been a lot tougher, and I don’t know how successful we would have been without his leadership on this.”

The center also is involved in assuring that playing fields and open space are included in new Los Angeles hools.

Garcia is chairman of the Los Angeles Unified School District School Construction Bond Oversight Committee. The committee makes recommendations to the school district on how to invest $14 billion in school construction and modernization funds.

“And my single goal is to make sure that those schools aren’t just warehouses with seats for children but that those schools are something Los Angeles will be proud of for the next 100 years,” Garcia said.

He believes that people in Los Angeles finally are taking urban recovery of parkland seriously. And the Olmsted vision is leading the way, he said.

“It fell into our laps like manna from heaven around 2000,” Garcia said of the Olmsted map. “And since that time, it has provided a coherent vision for much of the work we do on schools, parks, beaches and forests. And we don’t see anyone else with a clear vision for the future.”