Spending a day in the country might be an easy thing to do for Long Beach and Signal Hill residents in the not-too-distant future if lovers of the outdoors have their way. Last Saturday, Long Beach city officials and a landscape design group invited local residents to the first planning workshop for a proposed regional park on 48 acres of land roughly bounded by Orange Avenue, Willow Street, California Avenue and Spring Street. The land had been an oil field for most of the 20th century but also contained other industrial facilities for many years.
About 80 people went on a 90-minute-long walking tour of the site, and about 75 of them stayed for the workshop, which took place in a conference room at the EDCO facility, at 2755 California Ave.
The event was organized by the office of 7th District Long Beach City Councilmember James Johnson and the staff of the City’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine. Johnson said he has been working to have the City convert the parcel to park use since he was elected in 2010. “I found out that the City purchased this site in 1882, and since then it has never been open to the public,” he said during the tour, adding that in the past 10 years, environmental studies were completed in order to develop the land as a “pay for play” sports park. That plan died about three years ago because of the City’s deepening budget woes.
The tour began at an entrance close to the EDCO facility. Once inside the site, participants had to walk past maintenance equipment, as well as concrete and asphalt stockpiles. As the morning progressed, the hikers walked up and down hills, often coming to locations where streets could not be seen and the noise of the city could not be heard. They also passed by old, dry stream beds, a reservoir that collects storm water from the 405 Freeway, and an urban farm where people grow food collectively.
Toward the end of the tour, participants visited the recently opened Longview Park, a four-acre site that offers views of Catalina Island, Downtown Long Beach, Signal Hill and the San Gabriel Mountains. Eventually, Longview Park will be a part of California Gardens.
“This could be the biggest park to open in Long Beach since El Dorado Park opened in 1952,” Johnson said. “The question is, what kind of park will it be?” He explained that the purpose of the workshop was to determine what features local residents want to see in the site. “The idea is, how can we work with the land and the hills it contains and create something that is feasible and sustainable in the future?” he said.
“This is an incredible resource,” said John Royce, president of the California Heights Neighborhood Association. “We live in one of the most densely populated areas in the US, and to have an opportunity like this is very rare.”
Larry Rich of the Long Beach Office of Sustainability agreed. “We have always seen this property as a major opportunity for model sustainable development and restoration of natural habitat in what has been a degraded oil field,” he said, noting that the site already contains wildlife including rabbits, coyotes, hawks, other types of birds, lizards, snakes, tree frogs and other small animals.
Johnson noted that Signal Hill Petroleum has oil-pumping rights on the site, but that activity will not necessarily interfere with the enjoyment of open space. He noted that Bolsa Chica Wetlands, the Hilltop Park in Signal Hill and many other scenic areas have ongoing oil drilling with minimal impacts to the environment. “The truth is: if not for oil drilling this land would have been developed for residential or commercial uses 50 or 60 years ago,” he said. “The best neighbor for oil drilling is open space, so this is a win-win situation where we can work with the oil company to really open up access to the public.”
Johnson stressed that the park will not be just for Long Beach, but for the entire region. “One of our biggest regional partners is Signal Hill,” he noted. “I look forward to working with [the Signal Hill City Council] to make this not just the biggest park for north, central and west Long Beach, but the biggest park for the City of Signal Hill.”
Signal Hill City Councilmember Larry Forester explained that his City, which owns four acres of the site, is very happy to work with Long Beach on the project. “If we all work together, we can share a magnificent oasis in the middle of an urban environment,” he said.
Many of the hikers said they were pleasantly surprised by what they saw on the tour.
“I drive by here several times a week, and I didn’t know there was a garden here until today,” said Long Beach resident Alan Fishel. “I think the plan to make this into a park is wonderful.”
Another Long Beach resident, P.G. Herman, said she was excited by the potential for a huge passive park in that area of Long Beach. “I hope walking trails and a nature center will be included in the park,” she added.
Merilee Atkinson is a Long Beach resident who volunteers as a tour guide through Johnson’s office. “Generally, we have tours of this site once a month,” she said. “I would love to see restored native habitat on this land that attracts people as visitors and wildlife as permanent residents, especially native birds and butterflies.”
After the tour, representatives of the RJM Design Group, which is based in San Juan Capistrano, conducted the workshop, which lasted about two hours. “RJM is just the facilitator to help the community design what we are now calling California Gardens Park,” said Zachary Mueting, an RJM landscape architect. He explained that his company will take all the written and spoken comments made by residents during the workshop and synthesize them into a report that the company will submit to the parks department and to the city council later this year. The company is working under a contract with the parks department.
“I am very pleased with the number of participants, and I am happy with the dialogue that took place here,” said Larry Ryan, an RJM partner. “We have made good progress, and this is a good foundation for us to start the master plan.”
Ryan explained that RJM’s goal was to take the community through a series of exercises that would help them come up with ideas. “We will certainly refine the plan and make sure that all the technical things are provided for,” he explained, “but the genesis of the ideas will come right out of this room.”
During the workshop, Ryan and Mueting collected written comments from the participants. Asked to name things they liked about the site, residents mentioned the historic stream beds, varied topography, the already existing hiking trails, the seclusion from the hustle and bustle of the city, and the potential for restoring natural habitat for wildlife.
Participants also had many ideas on what the proposed park should contain. Those included restrooms, more refined walkways, paths accessible to bicycles and wheelchairs, picnic areas, a playground, restrooms, the planting of shade trees and natural plant species, a restored wetlands, benches, free parking, and an educational center.
Concerns listed by workshop participants included the possible toxicity of the soil, keeping the park safe for children, and preventing it from becoming a homeless encampment.
Although the park has been tentatively named California Gardens, Johnson will announce a permanent proposed name at 7pm at The Factory during the August First Fridays art walk. He will then recommend that the city council send the name to the Parks and Recreation Commission for continued input and approval.