Creating new park space in Long Beach ‘not impossible, but challenging’

Residents in East Long Beach have access to nearly 16 times the park space than those living in West Long Beach. But as the City Council tries to address this inequity, it will likely run into two big obstacles: time and money.

A report released by the city this month outlined the park inventory in the city and potential ways the city can expand it, but also the challenges that would accompany those additions. The largest park in East Long Beach, El Dorado Regional Park, consists of 400 acres of open public space, while Virginia Country Club and Rancho Los Cerritos make up the largest open area in the western half of the city.

The report was requested by the City Council in February amid years-long efforts to close the park-access gap. Council members have tried to more equitably distribute park programs and performances in the past, and now some are trying to identify parcels in the city that can be purchased and converted to open space. But creating new park space in a city that is largely built out could be a tall order.

“It is challenging,” said Deputy City Manager Kevin Jackson. “Not impossible, but challenging.”

Jackson said he’s hopeful that the report brings transparency to how much of a challenge it is to create new open space as the city begins preliminary work to expand park space on the westside.

The history of Long Beach parks is a patchwork one. Drake Park in Downtown didn’t become a public facility until 1904 when it was donated by Col. Charles Rivers Drake. Bluff Park was built by housing developers as a way to enhance homes along Ocean Boulevard and later donated to the city.

What would have been the city’s largest park at the time, located where Willow Springs currently sits, was abandoned when oil was discovered in the area in 1921. Development reduced the Willow Springs site from a planned 200 acres to just over 48 acres.

Purchasing land for El Dorado Park was approved by the City Council with the park’s northernmost section (El Dorado East) being purchased with bonds. Now the largest park in the city, El Dorado is about 400 acres.

Some of those parks were inaccessible to communities of color because of policies like redlining that kept non-Whites segregated from areas of the city that had the most green space. The effect of that is still felt today with the largest parks located near single-family neighborhoods where fewer people have access to them.

The city has made efforts in recent years to expand park space in West Long Beach. While one project to replace the Terminal Island Freeway with a greenbelt has stalled, another to build a new Shoemaker Bridge is moving forward. That project could see the old bridge turned into open space as well as connect Drake and Chavez parks.

The city has also purchased smaller parcels of private land like Tanaka Park and is working to install a greenbelt along the 91 Freeway as well as bringing Lincoln Park back to life as one of the last legs of the City Hall rebuild.

Now officials are looking at spaces that will continue to close the park-equity gap.

First, the city would have to find a willing seller and then come up with the funding to buy and develop the land, something that could cost tens of millions of dollars. Then it would have to increase the parks department budget, or stretch the current park maintenance funds, to pay for the upkeep and programming for the newly developed green space.

The report noted that the city’s 3,125 acres of parks and open space are already underfunded.

The $20-million park maintenance shortfall, something made worse when city departments were forced to make cuts due to the pandemic, has resulted in grass going unwatered, community centers closing due to lack of funding and nearly half of the city’s 29,000 trees left dying, dead or diseased.

“That is a reality that we have to face here in Long Beach,” said Meredith Reynolds, a planning manager in the parks department. “If we’re spreading the same budget around, all park acreage suffers across the board.”

Reynolds and Jackson said the city would not be pursuing residential parcels to convert to park land but could focus on areas around the Los Angeles River where many chunks of open space are owned by Los Angeles County or Southern California Edison.

But it won’t be cheap

The study identified opportunity sites along the river—which runs along the eastern flank of West Long Beach and up through North Long Beach—with development estimates ranging from about $30 million to a high of $67 million. It did not list acquisition costs because the city has yet to start negotiations with any of the owners.

Working with another public agency could create “mission alignment,” Reynolds said, which could be helpful since the county does own a lot of property along the river. Last week the city began preliminary talks with the county to use 11 acres of land straddling the river just north of the 405 Freeway.

But turning them into parks is going to require funding and patience.

There is a variety of city revenue sources (Measure A) and county taxes that the city can tap into for park funding. The report also points out that President Joe Biden’s upcoming infrastructure plan, which could put $2 trillion in federal funding into capital improvement projects nationwide, could also be a source.

But even with funding available, the stars have to align, Reynolds said.

“If we were able to get every grant we applied for in the sequence we needed, it would still take two to four years,” Reynolds said of the timeline to build a park. “And that has never been the case in my experience in this department.”

Reynolds pointed to a more realistic scenario in the Deforest Wetlands project. The project’s $8.5 million in grant money came in waves that spanned 11 years.

Trinka Roswell, the executive director of Partners of Parks, a non-profit in the city that works to activate and improve Long Beach parks, said that equity can be achieved quicker and cheaper by investing in programs.

“I think given our current budget crisis we’re in a better position to affect communities by bolstering programming in communities,” Roswell said.

She pointed to the Be S.A.F.E. program, a summer parks program that provides supervised activities for youth when school is out. The program has struggled to maintain funding, and in some years has had to eliminate park locations from its list of programming.

But with $25 million, the low-end of what acquiring a parcel along the LA River could cost, Roswell said the Be S.A.F.E. program could be fully funded at 11 parks in the city year-round for 25 years.

“I feel strongly about park equity but I think we have a better way of delivering that sooner by improving programming than expanding green space, because it does take time,” Roswell said.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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