In a territory mostly used for its oil reserves, a 47-acre property owned by the City of Long Beach for more than 130 years, surrounded by Signal Hill, just above Willow Street, has the potential to be tapped for a dwindling local resource– new park space.
On Jan. 8, the Long Beach City Council approved a master plan that loosely outlines a multi-phase project to develop Willow Springs Park. The plan is an opportunity for what city leaders say might eventually become “the biggest park in Long Beach since 1952,” which was when the City first opened El Dorado Park in east Long Beach.
Seventh District City Councilmember James Johnson said the proposed park has been a pet project of his since taking office nearly three years ago, with a goal to pick up after an abandoned proposal, once called California Gardens, that the City Council approved in 2006. Since the City already owns the property and environmental clearances are approved, any state or federal grant funding would go directly toward developing the new park, without having to worry about land-acquisition costs or lengthy analysis, he said.
“I realized [there are] 47 acres of land that the City already owns, which, with the environmental work already done, is an incredible gift,” Johnson said. “I wanted to move forward with something that could actually happen… and the first dollar we get goes directly into opening up this space.”
After about a year of planning workshops and committee meetings, a reduced and modified design now aims to return the land, bounded by Willow Street, Spring Street, Orange Avenue and California Avenue, to its natural state by restoring degraded wetlands, improving water quality and bringing back a willow-tree forest. The future park would eventually include hiking trails, small shade structures, a visitor center, a BMX-bike track, a dog park, community gardens, a farm and associated parking spaces.
The master plan now allows the City to start applying for state and federal grants to pay for the project. Johnson said the total cost of the entire park is still undetermined, but he added that the City would most likely be able to move forward with a few acres at a time and that the project would cost less than previous proposals.
The first four acres of the park already opened up last October as a hilltop plaza called Longview Point– considered the highest point in Long Beach– located off of Orange Avenue between Willow and Spring streets, just above the Municipal Cemetery. The plaza includes a 7,850-square-foot topographical map of Southern California.
On a clear day, the park plaza allows residents to take in sunsets and sweeping views of the downtown Long Beach skyline, the Pacific Ocean, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the Hollywood Hills and Catalina Island, Johnson said. “It’s a great beginning to this whole park,” he said, adding that the idea for opening the small section first was to give the community a glimpse of the potential for the park, which Johnson called “Long Beach’s best kept secret.”
Cleanp-up of acreage outside of the plaza was funded through state-park bond funds through Prop 84 awarded by the Conservation Corps of Long Beach, while the development itself was paid for through grant funding provided by Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe and other City park funds, according to local City officials.
Signal Hill City Councilmember Larry Forester applauded Johnson’s effort in moving forward with the project, adding that the councilmember was “stubborn enough and didn’t take no for an answer.” Forester said, “It’s a real positive move… it will be a natural park… the potential is phenomenal.”
For decades, the untamed, mountainous gulch has been kept virtually untouched by development largely due to oil operations since the 1920s. Before that, the land once had a thriving willow forest that extended west to the Los Angeles River. The former artesian spring had also served as the main water source for Long Beach when it was founded as Wilmore City in 1882.
There have been many failed attempts to develop the land, however, most of which involved leveling the terrain and paving over the wetlands. Multi-million-dollar proposals included building a racecar track, constructing an auto mall and selling the land to a developer to build condos or homes.
A proposal that went as far as receiving environmental approvals nearly seven years ago included plans for several baseball and softball fields, a skate park, soccer fields, concession buildings and a 615-space parking lot. That plan, however, was expected to cost about $60 million, which the City had “no possible way” of acquiring, Johnson said.
He added that the community determined that a “less intensive” proposal, with a majority of the design incorporating “passive use,” would be a better fit for the hilly landscape rather than the original idea of paving over mountainous terrain to build a “100-percent active-use” sports park that would have only destroyed the area’s natural habitat.
“When you blow up mountains and pave over wetlands, you create a lot of environmental problems,” Johnson said. “… People wanted to work with the land, not against the land.”
Although a majority of the park would be intended for passive use, the new plans do call for utilizing concrete portions of the property on the northwest corner for active use, sectioned off by a berm. One area could be used for a designated BMX-bike track, which may include dirt jumps, preventing bikers from trampling over natural habitat, he said. “The idea is, if you provide a small area for active use, then you can keep those folks… from destroying the rest of the park,” Johnson said. “… We don’t want BMX people riding their bikes through the wetlands.”
He added that restoring the wetlands and improving water quality at the park will go a long way to cleaning up water pollution in the region, since the property drains right into the LA River and local beaches. Johnson said he hopes that this and many other aspects will help the project garner state and federal grants in coming months.
“Drive over to the Bolsa Chica wetlands, and see what the City of Huntington Beach has done with hundreds of millions of federal dollars,” he said. “They saw value in restoring those wetlands, [and] I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to restore wetlands right here in the heart of Long Beach.”