Viewpoints

How California can turn a miracle into a disappointment

Riddle: When is a miracle also a disappointment?

Answer: When the miracle is a California state project.

Case in point: the very miraculous recent opening of the Los Angeles State Historic Park.

Miracle one: It’s a 32-acre park – with grassy fields large enough to fly kites or hold big concerts, and a signature bridge with selfie-ready views of the downtown skyline – in the dense center of park-poor Los Angeles.

Miracle two: It was built on a historic railyard and industrial site that required costly soil decontamination and was originally planned for business redevelopment, before the intervention of the state saved it for parkland.

Miracle three: The state’s woefully underfunded parks department built this park with public funds.

Miracle four: The park didn’t die during a 16-year odyssey that coincided with a crippling recession, budget crises and an accounting scandal inside the parks department.

So why do all these miracles add up to disappointment? Because the story of the park, like so many other big projects in California, mixes miracles with missed opportunities.

The park represented, in the words of one state press release, a “once-in-a-century” opportunity for California to reshape a transit-connected parcel with historic resonance that extends from Metro rail’s Chinatown station to the L.A. River. But just getting the park opened required many compromises, not the least of which was a reduced $18 million price tag for a park originally planned as a $55 million facility. And so the Los Angeles State Historic Park still lacks the basics of a great park.

Like shade.

There are no shade structures, and newly planted trees provide little relief from the blistering sun. Many of the features of the original plan for the park, advanced a decade ago, haven’t materialized – no elaborate gardens, no fountains, no children’s playground. And the park is open for limited hours – 8 a.m. to sunset – and is cut off by fencing and trains from its two bordering thoroughfares, Broadway and Spring Street.

My first visit, with my three young (and quickly bored) sons, left me angry. Here again was the California disease: Our big ambitions aren’t matched by dollars or management follow-through. If this park – with so many champions, from state politicians to local activists – can’t be better, what hope is there for the many plans around California to create new, dynamic public spaces?

The problem is as much with business and philanthropy as state government. Rich folks in New York ponied up millions in donations to make the High Line (a $152 million project) brilliant. Chicago and its philanthropists devoted $475 million to Millennium Park, which is of a similar size to the L.A. State Historic Park. But here the state parks department – with a budget so stressed that it nearly had to close down dozens of state parks in recent years – had to perform a cut-rate miracle. Couldn’t billionaire Eli Broad have sold off a few pieces of his art collection to add more to this park?

All that said, let’s stay positive. What’s not done is not done. There’s still time and opportunity to make this a great signature park.

A brand new nonprofit friends group is supporting the park. An in-park restaurant and a new water wheel project from artist Lauren Bon are on their way. There’s plenty of space to add a children’s playground, shade structures, and a bridge over the Metro Gold Line track to Broadway. Hours could be extended to something that matches the life of the neighborhood – 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“Now that the park is open, you have the canvas from which to create the future,” says the tireless Sean Woods, superintendent for the Los Angeles sector of California State Parks.

All that will require more money and another miracle – of Californians taking full advantage of an opportunity to do something great.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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