Parks Build Community Project Takes Shape in Los Angeles

August 1, 2012, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

NRPA and its partners are joining community organizers in LA to bring an exciting new park to a neighborhood in need of a safe place to play.In 2009, NRPA launched a major initiative to demonstrate the transformative value of parks to urban communities. Known as “Parks Build Community,” NRPA led the effort to seek donations from NRPA’s partner vendors and manufacturers, and in cooperation with nonprofit organizations and NRPA member agencies, the association joined with citizens in selected cities who wanted to make their communities a better place.  Since the project’s inception, NRPA has contributed to two remarkable park rebuilding projects, Marvin Gaye Park in Washington, D.C., and Selena Butler Park in Atlanta, Georgia. NRPA and a number of partners are now at work to complete a third Parks Build Community project, this time in the City of Los Angeles.

The El Sereno site, as it is known by local residents, is somewhat of a different story than the previous two Parks Build Community projects. Marvin Gaye and Selena Butler were parks that were already built out and had fallen into disrepair. This one-acre site in LA has never been a park—it is just a barren fenced lot containing some scrub vegetation. The site is a long-unused parcel of land owned for decades by Caltrans, the state transportation agency, that was intended to be part of an interstate highway extension that was never completed. Sitting vacant for all these years, the parcel originally caught the eye of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks in their search to bring more local parks to underserved communities. The vacant land was an ideal choice for a new park to contribute to fulfilling Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s “50 Parks” initiative, launched in 2011. Jon Kirk Mukri, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, puts it simply, “This is all about bringing more parks to the people of underserved communities in Los Angeles.”

The stars came into perfect alignment for the El Sereno site when local elected officials took the cause to Caltrans to gain a 25-year lease of the property. The city’s Department of Recreation and Parks was joined by the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit that has a special focus on aiding local communities in acquiring and building needed urban parks; the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI), a city-chartered nonprofit community development corporation; the Los Angeles Parks Foundation; and the National Recreation and Park Association, which recommended this site as an excellent choice for a national model of NRPA’s highly regarded Parks Build Community projects.

The initial outreach to the community was led by the Department of Recreation and Parks and TPL, which conducted a community workshop and outreach effort to assess the needs of this community devoid of parks. Local residents and community members, notably the Concerned Neighbors of El Sereno and the LA32 Community Group, have advocated for more usable park space for several years. More than 200 members of the community attended a series of three workshops, and the Concerned Neighbors of El Sereno made a special effort to involve a diverse group of residents that now numbers more than 450 people.

The needs in this community for open space and play areas are great. This easternmost district of Los Angeles has the highest percentage of all areas in the city of children under the age of 10. There are no parks within a half mile of the site, and only one park within a mile. Moreover, more than 5,000 kids age 5 or younger live within two miles of the proposed park.

“The community did not have high expectations—they just wanted some open space for kids to play safely, saysTori Kjer, project manager for TPL’s Los Angeles office.  But the park that is taking shape (as yet not formally named) will go far beyond the initial modest expectations of this park-poor community. The extraordinary efforts of the partners (NRPA, TPL, LANI, and the Los Angeles Parks Foundation, under the leadership of the Department of Recreation and Parks) will produce a jewel of a park for young children. A full state-of-the art 4,000-square-foot playground is being donated by PlayCore, the national playground equipment manufacturer. A grant from the First 5 Commission, a California state program dedicated to early childhood development, will fund the construction of a Nature Play Garden adapted for younger children.

“People are really excited,” says Dana Valdez, community program director for LA DRP. “This park and playground will be a tremendous asset to this community.”

Other donors have stepped up to support the project as well. Aileen Getty, a philanthropist and founder of GettLove, a nonprofit that provides for the needs of the homeless, has made a substantial personal donation. The Gilbert Foundation, a California-based foundation focused on health and fitness, has promised a $100,000 donation. Local landscape architecture firm EPT DESIGN and engineering firm Breen Engineering have signed up to donate their services for the project, and most recently, Grifols Biological, Inc., a local bio-medical corporation near the park site, has pledged a $50,000 donation for fencing to protect kids from high-speed traffic on an adjacent street. Local donors are stepping up with offers of landscaping and other park improvements.

The urban play garden at El Sereno is being considered for selection as a national demonstration project by the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Learning Institute of North Carolina State University for natural play and learning areas.

NRPA sees the Parks Build Community projects as national models of the transformative power of urban parks to build strong, healthy, vibrant communities. The park is expected to be completed by the fall of 2012 and dedicated on Thursday, October 18, as part of NRPA’s national Congress and Exposition in Anaheim, California.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA's Vice President for Conservation and Parks.