BY NICK DIAMANTIDES
There is a movement underway to establish a greenbelt adjacent to the Los Angeles River stretching from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the San Gabriel Mountains.
Phil Hester, director of Long Beach’s Department of Park, Recreation & Marine, recently explained what the city is doing to make that dream a reality. Hester spoke to an audience of about 40 at the monthly meeting of the Wrigley Area Neighborhood Alliance (WANA). The meeting took place at the Jackie Robinson Academy last Thursday.
Hester spent the first few minutes talking about park development in general. He noted that in compliance with the city’s 2010 Strategic Plan, the parks department has spent the last several years increasing its inventory of open space through strategies such as converting city-owned parcels to green uses, acquiring former oil properties for parks and natural habitat, purchasing private property for park development in high-density neighborhoods and increasing the number of safe places for after-school programs for the city’s youth.
Hester noted that soon after he took the helm of the department in 2002, he directed his staff to update the city’s Open Space Plan, which had not been changed for 27 years. “We set a goal of eight acres (of park space) per thousand people in the city,” he said, explaining that the national standard is 10 acres per thousand. “We are now at about six acres per thousand,” he stressed, acknowledging that West, Central and North Long Beach have much less than that per thousand people. “To reach our goal of eight acres per thousand, we are in need of approximately 867 additional park acres within the city,” he said, noting that as the population increases, the need for more park space will also increase.
Hester also explained that a few years ago, the city dedicated all existing park space for park use exclusively in perpetuity. “That means it can’t be used for any other purpose,” he said. “One of the little tweaks of that is that under certain circumstances, if the city council decided that they needed the park land for some other purpose, the city would have to replace that lost acreage at a two-to-one basis, one acre in the area from which it was taken and another acre in an area where park space is needed.”
The parks department director spent a few minutes describing some of the new parks developed in the city in the last few years, and some of the planned park developments that will be completed in the near future. “So far, all of the land acquisitions and all of the development has been done with no general fund money,” he said. “These have all been done with grants that we got from the county and state and some bond issues we have been able to work through.” He added that the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency has also helped the city acquire land for park development.
Hester spent about 20 minutes describing the plan to develop the river greenbelt. “I am sure a lot of you have heard of the L.A. River Master Plan, which is spearheaded by L.A. County and L.A. City,” he said, noting that until recently the plan paid very little attention to Long Beach. “Basically, we had to develop our own plan and address our own issues,” he said. “We started the River Link Plan, had a lot of community meetings and had a landscape architect students’ group from Cal Poly Pomona do a lot of the leg work.” He explained that the students developed a conceptual plan for creating wetlands and restoring natural habitat on land close to the river, but the plan would evolve as time progressed and land was acquired.
According to Hester, the parks department has identified several areas along the river that have the potential to be developed as parks or open space. The first area he described is at the city’s northern boundary where Southern California Edison has an electrical transmission right-of-way. “There are discussions about the possibility of being able to access that at least from Atlantic Avenue west to the river,” he said.
Next, he talked about the expansion of DeForest Park. That project is a joint effort of the city and county to develop a wetland similar to the recently completed Dominguez Gap Wetland. “We need about $1.5 million more to complete it,” he said. Then he talked about properties along Market Street close to the river, Dominguez Gap Wetlands, and other vacant parcels including a golf driving range, flood control property and some acreage owned by oil operators in Wrigley Heights.
At that point, several Wrigley Heights residents told Hester that they have been fighting off the oil operators’ plans to develop the site for industrial use for 25 years with little help from the city.
“It is still one of the city’s top priorities to be able to purchase all that property for open space,” Hester said. “We have negotiated for a number of years with the oil operators for that particular site, but we’re still not there yet.” He noted that the city needs about $20 million to purchase the property and is talking with the state, the county and an agency called the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy in hopes of getting grant funding for the acquisition.
Hester then went on to describe several other parcels along the river, including the land already acquired for the Drake-Chavez Greenbelt, which will link Drake Park to Chavez Park. He also talked about the city’s plan to develop other greenways running east to west in other portions of Long Beach. “We are looking to integrate a lot of these parcels into an overall plan to benefit our residents and increase our overall park space,” he said. “We feel that we have a pretty good vision and we’re looking forward to continuing to work with the community on a lot of these projects.”