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California State Parks Face Uncertainty As Budget Cuts Loom

Kristie Hang |
April 27, 2011 | 6:09 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

The big waves of dust swept through the Los Angeles park one after another. Each time a car drove by, visitors sitting under the trees were enclosed in a cloud of dust. But not everyone seemed to mind. Two trees over, a man who looked homeless lay face down motionless obviously not noticing the massive amounts of dust piling around him. Noticeably annoyed, Joy Cunningham moved to another tree, this time with her sunglasses on, ready for the next cloud of dust to hit.

Los Angeles State Historic Park (Laurie Avocado, via Flickr)
Los Angeles State Historic Park (Laurie Avocado, via Flickr)

On a Friday afternoon, the Los Angeles Historic State Park was quiet and empty with the exception of some snoring visitors sleeping under the trees and a few joggers that would pass by every so often. With Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed $22 million cuts to state parks budgets, more campgrounds, entire parks and services will be closed and/or cut. Because of the economy, almost all of the state parks have already seen partial closures and service reductions in the past two years. Garbage is collected fewer times, bathrooms are cleaned less.

The 32-acre park just north of downtown L.A. was the site of an art project cornfield, and is now a desolate park in flux. Home to the only remaining piece of the original Los Angeles Aqueduct and the former home of the original Union Station, roundhouse, and a hotel, it is now just a dusty field, with some benches, a path or two filled with patches of grass. The once lively park with a beautiful view of the downtown skyline is now in a transitional period, leaving much of the original park closed and blocked off. The park was originally chosen for its prime location as a gathering place where people from all social, economic, and cultural backgrounds can meet and interact. The site has significant historical importance as well as a region with Native-American historical roots, an agrarian past, and the historical site of old Southern California transportations.

“The budget has not been approved yet, but we will have a methodology to decide which parks will be closed and which will stay open, which is a shame because we don’t want to price people out of their public park system. It should be as accessible as possible,” said State Parks Deputy Director of Communications Roy Stearns.

Cunningham, 29, fresh off the train from Indiana opted to walk from Union Station to the Los Angeles Historic Park just down North Spring Street. She wanted to check out what she thought would be a great place to read and sunbathe while waiting for her L.A. friend to pick her up once he got off work.

“I was expecting there to be more trees, you know more naturey looking. I wanted to see more types of L.A. plant life but instead I’m afraid to sit here by myself. This place looks really sketchy”, she said glancing over at the two men sleeping under trees in the park.”

In 2006, Hargreaves Associates, a San Francisco architecture firm won a design competition to transform the park into what they say would be a world-class area that would stand out in the midst of the city life, skylines, and the hustle and bustle of Downtown L.A. But currently, the L.A. Historic State Park is a temporary 13-acre field used for informal soccer games, picnics, and shade for some visitors to sleep. Cunningham was clearly not impressed. The project is still underway. According to Hargreaves Associates, the proper permits to begin construction are being secured right now. The project will take a number of years before it is completed and Stearns is hopeful that the economy will be up and running again by the time any construction actually begins.

Even with the hopeful changes to come, the park has already made a strong first impression on a certain out of town visitor.

“I could have easily waited at a local Starbucks with air conditioning and Internet, but I wanted to experience nature and tour more of L.A. instead of sitting in a generic store and make the most of my trip.”

But not everyone was disliked their Los Angeles Historic Park experience. George Minero, 38, jogs with his dogs Princess and Bear at the park at least three times a week.

“It’s great for the community. I enjoy being here. I hope it doesn’t get shut down.” Minero acknowledges the rundown state the park is in compared to a few years ago, but hopes that this is only a transitional phase.

With 278 state parks in California in limbo status until the budget cut is finalized, it is evident that many parks that have their doors open now may be permanently closing until the economy turns back around. Stearns says that charging park visitors more is no longer an option. After substantially raising fees in 2009 and subsequently losing large amounts of visitors in doing so, that is no longer an alternative.

“Back in 2007-2008 we had over $150 million to spend from our budget, but for 2012-2013 it looks like it’s going to be down to $99 million. We can’t start allocating our money to certain parks until we know how much money we will actually have. It’s a tough decision.”

Although Stearns says the L.A. Historic State Park is presently not on the list of parks to be closed because of the money set aside since 2006 for the project, it is unclear how close it is to being finished and if the prevailing budget woes will force officials to redirect that money towards other projects. While unimpressed visitors like Cunningham from Indiana would not seem to mind if the L.A. Historic State Park was shut down, others who frequent the area like jogger Minero, Bear, and Princess would be saddened if any closures were to happen to the park.

“We really like it here. You have a great view!”

“We’re in a day and age when people have shown they love their state parks and that’s evident with over 65 million visitors a year, but on the other hand, no one seems inclined to want to have more taxes or fees to sustain some parks of the government,” said Stearns.

Voters shot down Proposition 21 during the Fall election, which would have added $18 to vehicle licensing fees and given visitors free day access to all state parks and beaches.

As another cloud of dust hit Cunningham, she packed up her things and left for the nearest Starbucks unlikely to give the L.A. Historic State Park another chance even when the project is finally completed.

This report is part of our special series, California in Crisis, which explores the personal, local ramifications of the state budget debacle. Please click here for more.

Reach Kristie Hang here.



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