Saturday, July 26, 2008


Editorial | Los Angeles Downtown News.

Monday, July 28, 2008 — Finally, wonderfully, they got it right.

The new Vista Hermosa Natural Park in City West is a triumph, a resource for a community that for too long has been shortchanged in facilities that other neighborhoods take for granted. With its winding trails, ample flora, emerald soccer field and more, it is proof that, with creative thinking, leadership and funds, even the biggest debacles can be righted.

The 10-acre park opened Saturday, July 19, on the western half of the plot that was once envisioned as the sprawling Belmont Learning Complex. It is filled with user-friendly amenities, from an information sign (in English and Spanish) indicating that the park could attract up to 350 varieties of birds, to benches, picnic tables and grass so green and lush that one feels nervous about stepping on it.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which undertook the construction of the $14 million project and will manage the park, deserves credit for paying attention to even small details. The children's play area, complete with climbable, gigantic snake and turtle toys, includes a rubbery patch so that tumbling tykes won't injure themselves. The colorful tile sign fronting First Street, created by students at Downtown's ArtShare Los Angeles, commands the attention of passersby. Even the fence that separates the park from the adjacent high school (slated to open this fall) stands out; it is shaped to resemble tall, bending grasses and reeds, rendering it more than stark iron.

The park is an instant success. On the first weekday afternoon following its opening, it already was attracting a heartening mix of users: One man walked a dog on the curving paths, while another rode his bicycle. A group of kids were kicking balls on the soccer field and on an upper level, near the gurgling waterfall, a couple was making out and laughing, in full view of anyone who walked by. While you could hear the traffic on First Street, there was also the chirp of birds.

The success needs to be taken in context. This was the mega-school/housing/retail complex that the Los Angeles Unified School District began building more than a decade ago. It was a bust almost from the groundbreaking, as the LAUSD was clearly out of its element. Then, construction on the site at First and Beaudry streets was halted due to the discovery of dangerous underground gases. The subsequent finding of an earthquake fault killed progress on the half-built campus, even though hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent.

The LAUSD was excoriated for its failures, which included never conducting appropriate soil and site tests before construction began. For many years it was the albatross around the school district's neck.

While there were cries to raze all the buildings and leave the site, or sell it to a developer, some better heads prevailed. José Huizar, then a school board member (and currently a city councilman), and Ed Reyes, the councilman representing the area, pushed to alter the former Belmont Learning Complex plan, ultimately earning the support of Roy Romer, the former superintendent of the LAUSD.

Ultimately they got their way, and the decision was made to tear down two existing buildings and divide the property, creating the school on one side and the park on the other. Steps were taken to build away from the earthquake fault and mitigate the danger posed by the gases. Finally, construction re-started.

Many feared it would be a case of throwing good money after bad, and indeed, by the time the school opens, it will be a shocking total expenditure: more than $350 million.

That said, the new park is a gorgeous addition to a neighborhood that, finally, is getting some of the attributes it deserves (including access to two nearby pools). The park will be used by Downtowners, by neighborhood residents and by others who happen to pass by.

It took much longer than it should have, and cost so much it hurts to think about it. But the Vista Hermosa Park is a wonderful addition to Downtown.

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