As the population of the nation's second-largest city grows, pressure on the world's largest municipal park grows accordingly. In order to create a beautiful, natural, and accessible Griffith Park of the 21st century, the Melendrez Group has recently completed a master plan to manage and upgrade the park. TPR spoke with Lauren Melendrez about the plan and about the continuing process to receive and implement public comment before Parks and Rec begins implementation.
Griffith Park has had two master plans in the past few decades, and now your firm has completed a draft version of a third. What shortcomings plagued these earlier plans, and what has resulted from this new plan that offers a ray of hope that the park can be re-invested in successfully?
First, let me clarify that I am referring to a draft version and that there will be significant community input before it is finalized, so we are talking about a plan that will have many changes to it. Now to answer the question, the difference between this draft plan and previous plans is that this plan has a lot more detail. Obviously over the past 25 years – the previous plan was from 1978 – things have changed and there are new issues that need to be addressed. We developed this draft master plan like a workbook so that it could have a lot of specifics in it that could be taken to the next step. We didn't want to leave a lot of questions about which direction is taken from here. The next steps are more straightforward, and the plan should provide a clear guide for future planning, capital improvements, and operations and maintenance throughout Griffith Park.
What problems surrounding Griffith Park does this new plan address?
The population of the region is increasing rapidly and there is continuing increased use of the park. The park needs to accommodate greater usage without impacting the quality of the environment. In particular, the park can lead in addressing water quality issues that are becoming increasingly significant in the region.
Further, the face of the city changes as time goes by, so the park needs to change to accommodate the coming population. Additionally, this plan addresses environmental responsibility within the park, takes advantage of new ideas and technologies relating to sustainability, and focuses on additional strategies for management.
Paint us a picture of what the master plan responds to. What sort of entity is Griffith Park today, and what impels the changes that the plan presents?
The park has more than 4,200 acres making it the largest municipally owned urban park in the United States, and it has more than 10 million visitors annually. It's really comparable in size to a small city, and the Department of Recreation and Parks is responsible for everything in its boundaries. The department is responsible for the roads, water system, infrastructure, as well as all the facilities in the park, and providing active and passive recreation for the region.
When we first started working on this project we spent a lot of time in the park learning about it. We discovered so many opportunities to learn about all kinds of things: environment, biology, nature, and cultural history. There is also a lot of social interaction as part of the recreation and we felt it was an opportunity to make the park an educational resource for the whole city, since learning and play are very symbiotic.
This master plan addresses the park as a whole, but it defers to the other planning documents already produced for the zoo, the Observatory, the Greek Theater, the Autry, and Travel Town Museum. It does deal with how these facilities integrate into the park. The master plan creates a framework that will guide the management and operations of the park over the next 25 years.
This plan is not a specific plan, but it may be appropriate for its major conclusions and recommendations to be incorporated into the city's general plan. It includes the history of the park, project goals and vision, comprehensive mapping defining the natural systems and habitats, existing uses and proposed future enhancements to the park, opportunities for improvements addressing mobility, sustainability, habitat restoration, design guidelines, and management and maintenance issues going forward that incorporate the major plan goals provided to us by the Recreation and Parks Department, with all of the elements being rooted in the existing strengths of the park.
What are those main elements of the plan?
There is a chapter on the natural environment that inventories the flora and fauna in the park and suggests strategies for ongoing restoration, management, and enhancement of the natural systems. The park has really deteriorated over the years because of a lot of deferred maintenance. Park use has had an effect on the natural areas within the park. There's erosion, exotic plants that shouldn't be there, and wildlife habitat that has been lost, so the draft plan recommends that the park have a full time ecologist to oversee and manage these systems, and suggests ways to do that.
There is a mobility chapter focused on making the park more accessible to all people. The park has a lot of different kinds of users: bicyclists, equestrians, runners, walkers, those with disabilities, motorized vehicles, etc. The plan proposes a shuttle system, which doesn't exist now, and consolidation of surface parking into structures to free up more open space in the park. It also addresses improvements to streets, trails, paths, parking lots, as well as safety and security. It proposes user amenities like information kiosks at entrances and enhanced trailheads to help people find their way around the park.
Another chapter covers the built environment, focusing on ways to improve the visible and invisible infrastructure in the park. This chapter stresses preservation of open space as a priority and stresses that any new or upgraded facilities should be concentrated in areas where they already exist. It also suggests some ways to re-organize portions of the park so that there is more open space.
The design guideline section is meant to reinforce the unique character of the park, which is old, historic California. The draft plan emphasizes using recurring materials, colors, images, and designs, to enhance the park's personality throughout the park so that it is recognizable upon entering. For example, in the Fern Dell area, if you were to build a new wall or repair an old wall, you wouldn't do it with concrete block, you would do it with stone consistent with the materials that are already there. Or if you were to plant trees, they should be native trees to provide wildlife habitat and a palate of "furniture" that is consistent throughout the park.
Additionally the concept that the entire Griffith Park is an amazing resource for learning opportunities for all ages is explored as an idea.
Redesigning a park the size of Griffith Park, with the assets, uses, and constituencies that you've enumerated, means a lot of stakeholders must grapple with change. Some will be comfortable; others will be uncomfortable. Describe the community feedback process and the role the working group has played?
I think the details of that process are still being worked out. However, it is absolutely critical that meaningful feedback and input from the community be incorporated into the final version of this master plan. It was unfortunate that we didn't have a more significant public involvement component when the draft plan was being developed which was due to the limited funds that were available at the time, so now it is kind of happening after the fact.
The city has developed a community-based working group made up of some very committed individuals who are passionate about Griffith Park. The working group is currently going though the draft plan chapter-by-chapter and they are redlining the document and actually developing text revisions and other comments for the city.
There are also plans for additional public input, and I think the city's intention is to keep working with the public until there is consensus about the direction. Unfortunately, when the draft master plan was first released to the public the communication was spotty, and there has been misunderstanding about some of our intent for the plan. We're trying to address that now and hope to bring greater clarity as to our intent. Most importantly, the message to be sent is that there is no commercialization of the park proposed in the draft plan.
And what issues have dominated the conversation with the community?
There are definitely some hot-button items and even conceptual approach issues that are being debated. A proposed aerial tram is extremely controversial, and we knew it would be. The proposed parking structures in the draft plan have not been seen as a good solution to the appointed community working group currently reviewing the document. We'll need to find other potential solutions that deal with the mobility problems that may include some parking structures, but at the perimeter of the park, with other solutions in the park's interior.
I think there needs to be a discussion about the trade-offs. Right now, when the park is really busy, the entrances close down because there is no place for all the people to park. There is also a general desire to reduce the number of cars in the park's interior. Parking structures offer one way to address these issues, but there are other alternatives and we need to work with the various groups to figure this out.
Also, some people would prefer more natural areas rather than new sports fields, particularly in the Toyon area. A real hot-button has been the misconception that this master plan is proposing commercialization of the park, which is not the intention. However, it does propose ways to increase revenue. The park is under-funded, there is deferred maintenance, they could use more staff, and there are many necessary improvements, but that doesn't mean commercialization.
As you mentioned, the master plan does not focus on the zoo or the observatory or other such facilities. How, though, does it respond to them?
Those facilities create an activity area, a zone that is more family- and destination-oriented. The master plan responds to that. That zone is not a natural zone; it is more of an active zone, so it has a different character and needs to accommodate more people than natural areas of the park.
The plan also addresses connections between facilities. For example the master plan suggests moving the Zoo Magnet School, which right now is kind of in a parking lot, either inside or immediately adjacent to the zoo to facilitate the relationship between the two. This would be an advantage to the school, as well as providing more open space for additional picnic areas.
It's not the responsibility of the park's master planner, but tell us what you know about plans to implement the plan, and where the funding might come from.
We haven't specifically tied implementation recommendations to potential costs and identified funding sources. We have identified a range of options to consider for funding, from pursuing the range of grant opportunities available, to state bond fund sources and private funding sources and partnerships.
Much of the implementation we suggest can happen through the regular maintenance and operations of the park. Some of it can occur in the course of regular upgrading and maintenance. Some of it is changing the behavior of the decision-makers about how things are done in the park – what benches are put where and what kind of trash receptacles are available. But some of it will need funding, such as improving and standardizing the signage throughout the park, and hiring some key personnel such as a park ecologist and a volunteer coordinator.
One of the major recommendations in the Plan is to have a single Griffith Park manager. In my mind that is the most important recommendation because everything starts at the top with strong leadership and a single person who feels accountable for the park and has the authority to make decisions and implement this master plan over time. The city actually has appointed a superintendent of the park since the draft was finished, which is a good first step.
Mayor Villaraigosa has set forth some ambitious environmental goals for the city. What example will adopting the Griffith Park Master Plan set for the city's other parks and open spaces that we all could learn and borrow from?
The park should be a model of environmental responsibility for the whole city. It is a significant element in our watershed with its runoff currently channeled into traditional underground drainage systems impacting the L.A. River. It is the perfect opportunity for the city and the DWP to partner to show how watershed can be managed, and how natural systems that have been lost, such as wetlands, may even be restored.
All the practices in the park should be teaching and learning models with best management practices implemented for reducing pollutant discharges from the park, enhancement and restoration of natural habitats and wildlife corridors, and even recycling systems. That is just one example; every aspect, every facility in the park is an opportunity and can be a part of this whole system and contribute to the mayor's plan to keep L.A. green.
Your firm has worked on a number of projects related to land use planning and landscape. What's unique about the Griffith Park master plan? What new challenges have you faced?
Griffith Park is so much more complex than we thought when we started. I used to live near the park and ride my bike there on the weekend. In fact, our whole team has some relationship with the park. And yet once we really got involved, we were stunned at the complexity and all of the issues that we hadn't previously perceived. It's as complex as a city, but in a different way, and there are so many different kinds of uses and so many different agendas.
Trying to manage all of them and make them work together while still having a beautiful, natural place is a real challenge. But it is also really fun, and we look forward to seeing a lot of positive improvements in how Griffith Park is managed and how it serves the people of Los Angeles for generations to come.