Around the County

Not just a drop in the bucket

July 9, 2014

The Pacoima Spreading Grounds will be able to store more stormwater. Photo/Architect Magazine

When it comes to quenching the water needs of a thirsty region, seemingly modest or far-flung efforts can come together to make quite a splash.

Witness a dozen local projects, from Agoura Hills to south Gardena, that just received an infusion of state grant funding totaling $23.4 million. Each initiative has a singular focus—creating bigger and better groundwater supplies in Pacoima, for instance, or installing curb screens in Calabasas to keep debris from flowing from city streets to the ocean.

But collectively, these endeavors add up to something greater than the sum of their parts: an integrated approach as diverse agencies come together to advance the kinds of water projects that will do the most good across the region.

As California’s drought makes headlines and prompts consideration of mandatory conservation measures, several of the projects have an extremely timely aim: retaining as much stormwater as possible to boost the region’s drinking water supply. Others focus on improving water quality, while some combine water initiatives with community recreation and beautification efforts.

Together, they’re the wave of the future, as the Los Angeles region looks beyond its Mulholland-era history and imagines a new approach to the next 100 years.

“It’s a new paradigm, a paradigm of cooperation and collaboration,” said Mark Pestrella, chief deputy director of the county’s Department of Public Works, which is overseeing the grant projects as leader of the Integrated Regional Water Management coalition in greater Los Angeles.

“There are 500 small water agencies in L.A. County alone, and probably six major water agencies, all talking to each other, reaching out to the communities that we serve and identifying projects that have the biggest community benefit,” Pestrella said.

The $23.4 million in Prop. 84 grant funding  that was formally accepted by the Board of Supervisors this week is just one such infusion over the past decade. Since the collaborative water management model went into effect in California in 2002, nearly $100 million has been awarded to water resource agencies in the county, Public Works Director Gail Farber said. The state grant funds, she added, “go a long way towards ensuring a more sustainable water future for L.A. County.”

The endeavors awarded the grant funds approved this week include:

  • The Pacoima Spreading Grounds Improvement Project, where new and updated equipment and improved stormwater storage will yield enough new drinking water to supply 42,000 Los Angeles residents for a year. Plans also are under consideration to create a park or open space on the grounds of an adjacent channel.
  • Development of a second phase of Marsh Park in the Elysian Valley neighborhood near the L.A. River. The new design will convert industrial land into an open space park that also happens to collect and treat stormwater.
  • Restoration of a 34-acre “flood retention basin” in the Upper Malibu Creek Watershed area.
  • Design and construction of a 1¼-mile recycled water pipeline in south Gardena.

And, with California’s drought front and center, more help may be on the way soon. The state later this month is expected to issue a new round of grant funding devoted exclusively to drought-fighting projects.

An ambitious slate of 14 L.A. County projects seeking more than $28.8 million in funding has been submitted, with an emphasis on water recycling and replenishing groundwater. The overall goal of the drought-related projects is building the local water supply and reducing dependence on imports.

Posted 7/9/14

 

L.A.’s cool summer hotspot

May 30, 2014

Memorial Days's salsa fest set the stage for a fun-filled summer in Grand Park.

A crowd of 4,000 showed up to Grand Park for a salsa festival on Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. The dancers were sizzling, but the park is just getting warmed up— in the coming months, many more fun times are planned for downtown L.A.’s newest public space.

Park programming director Julia Diamond said she tries to cast a wide net when planning events.

“We go for a broad spectrum so that we can cater to a lot of different interests,” Diamond said. “We want people to have varied reasons to come into the park.”

The summer schedule includes three large events with smaller happenings that will take place on a regular basis. The first biggie is the 4th of July Block Party. After attracting 10,000 last year, Diamond is expecting closer to 25,000 in 2014. The event’s footprint will grow to match her expectation; several adjacent streets will be closed to accommodate the throngs. There will be DJs, live music, food and, of course, fireworks—but this year they’ll be shot from the roof of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion so all of downtown can see the show.

After that, the next big date is July 26, when the park will celebrate National Dance Day with top performers in a variety of styles, plus a wet dance party in the park’s ever-popular splash fountain. Then, the final summer offering comes on September 28 when the Music Center presents “Universe of Sound: The Planets.” A huge tent with planetarium-style visual displays will be the setting for an interactive musical experience in which attendees will be able to conduct and play their own music as 132 live musicians perform Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

If you can’t wait until July, other fun is just around the corner—the first of four Sunday Sessions will take place this weekend, on June 1. The event will bring some of the top electronic dance music artists in SoCal to perform in a family-friendly environment so party people of all ages can get their groove on. And for those who want to create the beat themselves, “Drum Downtown” events offer percussionists of all skill levels a chance to beat the skins with guidance from pros. Equipment will be provided.

For the daytime crowd, “Lunch a la Park” brings a rotating cast of L.A.’s best gourmet food trucks on Wednesdays and Thursdays. After the workday, Grand Park’s Bootcamp can help work off any double bacon kobe sliders in which you may have indulged.

But sometimes families may just want to chillax at the end of a long summer day. The “Movies in the Dark” series hearkens back to the days of the double feature and adds games, contests and trivia competitions with prizes to the experience.

Not all events have been posted on the park’s website yet, so the best bet for those who want to attend is to keep tabs on the calendar or follow the park’s Facebook page.

It may sound like a lot of stuff will be going on, but Diamond says that the park has actually scaled back the number of events.

“We’re trying to get out of people’s way a little bit,” Diamond said. “We want people to use Grand Park just as a park.”

Diamond said the young park is starting to build solid regular attendance. The hot months of the summer are among the busiest, with the splash fountain offering a sweet way to beat the heat—and a safe place for kids to cavort while their parents kick back and sip iced lattes under palm trees atop the hot pink furniture.

Another major attraction is how photogenic the park can be. Between the Arthur J. Will Memorial Fountain, city hall and the gardens of blossoming flora from around the world, Grand Park has generated plenty of shutterbug enthusiasm, as can be seen on sites like Instagram, where its official account has more than 6,200 followers.

But Diamond hopes that when people leave they take more than snazzy snapshots with them. She wants Grand Park to become a place of nostalgia for Angelenos, a place they will remember years from now.

“I want to be in people’s memories at the end of the summer when they put that sweater on for the first time,” Diamond said. “I want them to remember that a high moment came at Grand Park.”

Kids play while parents take 5 at the park’s popular splash pad.

 

Posted 5/30/14

Kindle-ing interest in reading

May 15, 2014

Keeping step with its visitors, the L.A. County Library is launching an eReader pilot program.

Before Los Angeles County Librarian Margaret Todd boards a plane, she often asks her staff to “surprise” her by uploading some titles to her Kindle. For Todd, relying on the expertise of librarians is like consulting staff recommendations at a bookstore before choosing her next read.

Some library users will soon have a chance for a similar experience when the county’s new eReader Pilot Program begins rolling out. Come June or July, hundreds of Kindle Paperwhite devices—complete with preloaded titles in a variety of genres—will be made available to patrons as easily as taking out any book on the shelves.

“We are trying to learn and grow with our customers,” says Migell Acosta, the library’s assistant director and spokesman. “It’s a way for us to test how our customers want to read their books.”

While numerous public libraries have adopted eBook lending programs for customer-owned devices, Los Angeles County libraries are joining a much shorter list of libraries nationwide that lend eReaders. In 2011, the Sacramento Public Library system became one of California’s earliest adopters of a large-scale eReader program, using the  Nook  device instead of the Kindle. Acosta says Los Angeles County chose the Kindles because of a tool that allows for easy loading of material and automatic loading of additional titles in the future.

Initially, 705 devices will be made available in 24 libraries throughout the county’s First and Fifth supervisorial districts. Later this summer, three libraries in Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s Third District are expected to join the pilot program, with 190 devices distributed to the Topanga, San Fernando and Agoura Hills libraries.

L.A. County Librarian Margaret Todd says nearly 900 Kindles will be available at selected libraries.

According to librarian Todd, the cost of each is $250, including $80 for content. The devices are primarily being paid for with county funds, with some help from private donations.

Todd says the price is now competitive with the cost of stocking traditional books. “If a kid checks out seven of our books and loses them, they’d have to pay us more than what the Kindle is worth,” she says. The devices have no WiFi and are locked to prevent downloading titles directly from Amazon.

The library plans to treat the devices like traditional books, with two exceptions: They must be returned to the lending library and they cannot be put into book drops because of the potential for damage. Borrowers under 18 must have the same parental permission currently required for borrowing audio and video materials.

Each Kindle comes loaded with 100 public-domain titles selected by Amazon. In addition, each will include 10 to 15 genre titles in more than 30 categories that include biography/memoir, popular nonfiction, urban/street lit, romance and young teen fiction. The reading rosters also include entire book series because library visitors tend to want to borrow them all at once. These include the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings.

As with traditional books, Kindle titles are being selected by the county library’s collection development department, which chooses books for the whole district and are not tailored to any one neighborhood.  In that way, collections can easily circulate from library to library, officials say.

To load the devices, library spokesman Acosta says the collections department must consider the Amazon’s eBook price for each title, which can vary like stock prices. “For example, there was a book that won a Pulitzer Prize and the price spiked from $9.99 to $25.99.  If a book gets signed for a movie deal, then we see the price spike,” he says.

San Fernando Library manager Hilda Casas is excited about the new program. She says the Kindles will serve as additional available copies of popular books and can be adjusted to larger print for customers who need it.

But in the end, a book is a book, Casas says.

“Some people prefer paperbacks, some people prefer hard copies, some prefer an eReader,” she says. “We’re trying to make that option available.”

Posted 5/15/14

Your name here?

March 19, 2014

County officials will soon launch an adopt-a-bike path program, complete with recognition signs.

Attorney Steve Hansen makes no apologies for getting under the skin of government bureaucrats. “If I annoy people,” he says, “it’s for good reason. I only nag about stuff that’s justifiable.”

Most of his nagging has centered on the county’s bike paths, particularly the San Gabriel River Bikeway, which begins in Azusa and ends in Seal Beach. An avid, high-mileage cyclist, Hansen’s been riding it for nearly three decades. His dad, at age 78, still gets out there on his bike four times a week.

For years, Hansen has been firing off emails complaining about everything from the bikeway’s underpass dangers to its undulating asphalt to potential crime problems along the 28-mile route. Many of those bluntly-worded missives have filled the in-box of Allan Abramson, a senior civil engineer in the L.A. County Department of Public Works, who, among other things, oversees bikeways.

He calls Hansen, who heads a community advocacy group in Lakewood, “a gadfly.”

“On certain things, he’s very reasonable,” Abramson says. “In some things, there’s a certain semblance of unreasonableness.”

But late last year, Abramson says, the gadfly hit on an idea that made sense. “A winner,” Abramson calls it. (“A no-brainer,” in Hansen’s words.) He suggested that the county start an adopt-a-bike path program along the San Gabriel River Bikeway, modeled after popular state highway programs, complete with signs recognizing those who’ve adopted a stretch to keep clean.

Steve Hansen, the cyclist behind the new plan.

Hansen says a bike club with which he was riding “thought it would be cool to have their name on the path. It was an advertising thing, for a good cause.”  Public works officials liked the idea so much that they decided to expand it to dedicated bikeways throughout the county. They’ll be promoting the program, scheduled to be launched in the weeks ahead, as a way for organizations and individuals to support health, recreation and “active transportation” in their local communities.

Abramson acknowledges that the program probably wouldn’t have happened without Hansen’s agitation. “I’m comfortable giving him credit,” Abramson says.

Under draft requirements of the adopt-a-bike path program, organizations, businesses and individuals who want to participate must commit to collecting litter, sweeping and trimming vegetation along the path at least four times a year for a minimum of two years. There’ll be no costs to the adoptees. Vests, hardhats and trash bags will be supplied by the county, along with the program’s biggest draw: recognition signs that would be placed at each end of an adopted stretch.

Throughout the county, numerous segments of the 100 miles of bike paths maintained by the county will be up grabs—from the foothills to the sea.

Abramson says some details of the program remain to be worked out, including the county’s potential right-of-refusal when it comes to certain groups or individuals who might apply. “You don’t want to say on a sign that ‘the American Neo Nazis adopted this,’” Abramson explains.

He says the county also opted not to make painting over graffiti part of the program. “If gang members saw people spraying over their gang insignias, they could be in peril,” Abramson says.

As for Hansen, who’s been on cycling adventures throughout the world, he says he’ll continue riding the region’s public officials to make sure they keep making improvements on his home turf.

“I’ve been riding that path since 1986,” Hansen says, “and I know where all the problems are.”

Posted 3/19/14

Scratching a $33,413-a-month itch

January 29, 2014

Fleas used to wreak havoc at county shelters. Now donated spot treatments are spelling relief.

We all have our baggage. Take the 70,000-plus dogs and cats that arrive each year at Los Angeles County’s animal shelters. Think they come alone? Think again.

“Ohhhhh,” laughs John Gonzales, a former animal control officer who is now president of the nonprofit Los Angeles County Animal Care Foundation.  “Ticks and fleas.”

“All it takes is for one dog to show up with a couple and within 20 minutes they all have them,” says Gonzales, whose organization supports the county shelters through fundraising for spay-and-neuter programs, pet adoptions and other animal welfare initiatives.

“And then if you adopt the animal out, even if you give him a quick bath, people will come back complaining that not only does their new pet have fleas, but their whole house is infested. It’s not a pleasant situation. And that’s not including what the poor animal goes through.”

That scenario used to play out with dispiriting frequency at county shelters, where intake workers rarely had the time or budget to do more than spritz flea spray onto the itchier-looking arrivals, and where managers periodically had to call pest control companies in to treat the kennels.

“The ticks were especially hard to get rid of,” says Animal Care and Control Director Marcia Mayeda, ”because they can jump off the animals and hide, even in the crevices of broken concrete.”

For the past three years, however, the county has been deploying a secret weapon, donated through the Foundation from a pet products manufacturer.

“Now, when animals are brought in, they get a physical, vaccinations and a spot treatment of flea medication,” says Mayeda, crediting a $33,413-per-month, in-kind gift of Frontline Plus by the Georgia-based Merial Corp.

“We still obviously clean and disinfect our kennels daily but we no longer have to bring in people to treat them for ticks and fleas.”

The product donation, which is not unusual between manufacturers and pet advocacy organizations, is part of Merial’s “Partners in Protection” community outreach program to shelters and veterinarians.

Nikkia Starks, director of consumer marketing at Merial, says the program has connected with more than 50 shelter clinics across the country to help protect pets from fleas, ticks and heartworm disease while educating shelter staff and pet owners on the importance of preventative pet health care. The Los Angeles County gift, she adds, is among its larger ones.

Though some municipalities have agreed to tout Merial’s products in return for their donations, the county’s use of the product carries no such conditions. Rather, Gonzales says, Merial donates supplies of Frontline Plus to the Foundation, which then passes it on to the county’s seven animal shelters. “We’re kind of the middle man,” he says.

The foundation’s nonprofit status, he adds, offers the manufacturer a tax break without obligating the county to serve as a marketing partner. Mayeda says Merial approached the county in 2011 with the offer. Recognizing the brand, she in turn took it to Gonzales, she says.

Such spot treatments—so called because the pesticide is applied on a spot of skin at the back of the animal’s neck so the pet can’t accidentally ingest it—typically keep pets flea-free for up to 30 days at a time, but tend to be pricey. Frontline Plus, for instance, retails in pet stores for up to $18 per dose.

“We never used it before because we couldn’t afford it,” says Mayeda. “But our flea and tick problem has gone from an ongoing concern to pretty much nonexistent, and it has made a big difference in the overall health of the animals, and in customer service as well.”

Posted 1/23/14

Saving animals by the numbers

January 23, 2014

Better data can lead to programs to save the lives of kittens, like this one in a new Mission Hills “nursery.”

Furry pet faces never fail to tug heartstrings, but when it comes to animal welfare, numbers don’t lie: Last year, some 79,150 cats, dogs and other pets ended up in Los Angeles County animal shelters, and fewer than half of them made it out alive.

That, believe it or not, is actually good news. Five years ago, the euthanasia rate in county shelters was 65%. But while most people know that pet adoptions and spaying, neutering and licensing are all acts of kindness, nothing drives home the point like the hard facts.

That’s why the county Department of Animal Care and Control has gone online with its statistics.

“Our biggest hope is that people will see these numbers and realize not only that the department is doing great work, but also that this really is serious. Spaying and neutering and keeping pets secured so they don’t end up in shelters is really important,” says Betsey Webster, chief deputy director of Animal Care and Control for the county.

“These animals end up with us as a result of human behavior. Some people just don’t understand, but some of it also is just irresponsible ownership.”

Department Director Marcia Mayeda says the new stats pages, which went up in late December, were on her to-do list for a long time, but couldn’t be implemented until the department upgraded its 13-year-old web site. Though animal control data have always been a matter of public record, until now, people had to call or email the department and request them.

“Other agencies put their statistics online, but we wanted to do more than just put up spreadsheets,” says Mayeda. Working with the county’s Internal Services Department, her team spent about six months turning its raw numbers into colorful graphics and pie charts that demonstrate the scope and the challenges of animal welfare in the county.

For instance, Mayeda offers this disturbing data point: Only a quarter of the nearly 30,000 cats that ended up in county shelters last year escaped euthanasia, and only one in 100 was returned to an owner.

“The No. 1 reason why an animal dies in our shelters,” she says, “is because it’s a feral cat.”

For dogs, on the other hand, the picture is much more optimistic. Only about 35% of the county’s 41,500-plus shelter canines had to be euthanized last year.

“When I started in 2001, our euthanasia rate for dogs was about 66%,” says Mayeda, noting that 60% is still the national average. “But we’ve made tremendous inroads. We’ve worked closely with more than 200 animal rescue groups. We do pet transport, where groups will take 30 or 40 dogs at a time to other parts of the country where there’s a demand for adoption.

“And we’ve gotten a lot more volunteers in the last 10 or 12 years, who have helped us with finding pets homes through offsite adoptions. A lot of people don’t want to go to shelters because they’re afraid it’ll be too sad for them, so we’ll take 10 or 20 dogs to a PetSmart, and people will come and adopt them. All of it has really pulled down our euthanasia rate.”

Marc Peralta, executive director of the Best Friends Animal Society in Los Angeles, which has worked with the City of Los Angeles to reduce the kill rates of healthy, treatable animals in its shelters, applauded the county’s efforts. Good animal control data, he says, can literally mean the difference between life and death for lost, abandoned or homeless pets.

Though some shelter animals will inevitably be put to sleep—vicious dogs, for example, or pets who are too old, ill or feral to be feasibly adopted—many end up being euthanized merely because public shelters have limited space but are forbidden by law to turn any stray away.

“In Los Angeles’s city shelters, one of the first things we noticed was that something like 6,000 of 13,000 cat euthanasias were neonatal kittens,” says Peralta. The baby cats were too young to be spayed or adopted, he recalls, but the city shelters weren’t equipped to provide intensive bottle-feeding to that many kittens without badly neglecting their other charges.

So last year in Mission Hills, Best Friends and the No Kill Los Angeles animal welfare coalition jointly opened a neonatal kitten nursery.

“We thought, if we can get those newborns to two months, who doesn’t want to adopt kittens?” That initiative alone, he says, has saved thousands of cats from euthanasia. “All that was based on data from shelters,” he says. “It helps us know where to point the guns.”

Mayeda says the department is hoping over time to deepen their online statistics, which currently focus on overviews and shelter-by-shelter outcomes in the county’s six regional shelters. Those numbers in themselves are eye-opening—pets in the county’s Agoura shelter, for instance, are about twice as likely to be adopted or returned to their owners as are pets in the much-larger Downey shelter.

But Mayeda says she also wants to drill down on the feral cat outcomes so that the public better understands the urgency of the problem.

“A lot of people will say, ‘There’s this cat in my yard and I don’t mind putting out food, but she keeps having kittens and they get hit by cars or beaten up by tomcats.’ Well those people mostly don’t want to spend $300 to take that cat to a veterinarian and have it spayed, but a feral cat is like a raccoon—you can’t really adopt it.”

In fact, she notes, the county offers discounted services for senior and low-income pet owners, and animal welfare groups such as the Spay Neuter Project of Los Angeles will spay or neuter a “community cat,” as they call feral felines, for as little as $25. But many people are unaware of those services and believe that a trip to a vet is the only option.

“So people end up bringing it to the shelter, where our only option is to euthanize it.  But if they were to see the numbers, and if there were, say, a big push for free or low-cost spaying and neutering and a program they could go to, well, that would be one less cat that we’d have to put to sleep.”

In the meantime, Webster and Mayeda say, pet owners can take advantage of the vaccination, licensing and microchipping services offered at shelters countywide. Currently offered on various weekdays at the shelters, the services will gradually shift this year to alternate Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Click here for the current microchipping schedule, and here for information on the new Sunday clinics.)

“Microchipping is mandatory in unincorporated Los Angeles County,” Webster points out. “But it’s also great because an animal that is microchipped can make it home without entering the shelter at all.”

These kittens, and many others, are up for adoption at the Baldwin Park Animal Care Center.

Posted 1/8/14

Code busters beware

October 29, 2013

Deputy County Counsel Dusan Pavlovic at the scene of one of his successes near La Puente.

Dusan Pavlovic is making a real nuisance of himself.

As a member of the Los Angeles County Counsel’s office, it’s his singular mission to make life difficult for people who violate Los Angeles County’s public nuisance codes for everything from operating neighborhood drug houses to building structures without permits to running raves in warehouses rented under false pretenses.

Then there’s the downright creepy.

“We found one house that had concrete prison-style cells underneath,” Deputy County Counsel Pavlovic recalled. “The owner said he constructed it as a bomb shelter but the Sheriff’s Department suspected it may have been used to keep undocumented immigrants.”

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors gave Pavlovic and his small code-enforcement unit a much-needed boost in their “nuisance abatement” efforts for Los Angeles County’s unincorporated areas:  a new ordinance that, for the first time, allows the county to collect daily fines, attorney’s fees and administrative costs.

“When you hit them in the pocket book, that’s where it hurts,” Pavlovic said. “They’re more attentive to the problem.”

Pavlovic, who has led the enforcement team since its creation eight years ago, said the existing public nuisance law needed toughening because violators had little to fear, given the unlikelihood of judges giving jail time for most code transgressions.

“You’d be surprised how many times people choose to ignore the issue,” explained Pavlovic, who pushed hard for the stiffer penalties. “They tell us, ‘Do what you want.’ Now we will.”

The ordinance, which has been on the books for decades, bans property uses that are “detrimental to the community’s tranquility and security.” Those include activities that, according to the law, “endanger public health, safety and welfare, invite crime, reduce property values, degrade the environment and negatively impact the quality of life of the residents.”

Pavlovic said he’s seen—and heard—it all out there since joining the county counsel’s office in 2005. “I tell you, these people get pretty creative,” he said.

For example, there was a property owner in Topanga Canyon, who, for reasons that remain unclear, perched an automobile on the roof of his carport. Rather than remove the vehicle as ordered by the county, the violator, according to Pavlovic, “just took a couple of plywood boards and enclosed the car so it was no longer visible. He said, ‘You see, it’s no longer there.”

Some violators, on the other hand, are so open about their entrepreneurial misdeeds that they practically invite neighbors to drop a dime on them. Take the case of an East Compton man who was running an illegal “chop shop” at his home. Pavlovic said the man not only was dismantling cars but was then selling parts in the front yard.

“Residents kept complaining, and he kept dismantling,” Pavlovic said.

Pavlovic said he doesn’t want to sound like a cliché but that he’s committed to “improving the quality of our neighborhoods and eliminating these public nuisances.”

“We’ve all been in situations where we’ve had a bad neighbor,” he added. “I think that’s something every person can relate to.”

Posted 10/29/13

Rising river lifts neighborhood, too

September 6, 2013

Chief Ranger Fernando Gomez orchestrates a "community paddle." Photos/Grove Pashley, LA River Kayak Safari

It was still weeks before kayakers would start journeying down a lush stretch of the Los Angeles River, but boosters of the summer-long pilot program could feel the resentment building.

Residents of Elysian Valley were worried that interlopers would start flocking to—and disrespecting—their diverse, working-class neighborhood along the river. Some wary families were still nursing hurts going back generations, when people were relocated to “Frogtown” after being forced from nearby Chavez Ravine to make way for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ new home.

“There are some long memories out there,” said artist Steven Appleton, chairman of the Elysian Valley Riverside Neighborhood Council and an advocate of the escalating efforts to remake the L.A. River. “A perception was developing that a lot of people from outside the area were going to take advantage of them.”

So Appleton donned another hat. He and his partner, Grove Pashley, quickly created a kayak company and began working with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority to build a local constituency for the new Los Angeles River Recreation Zone—a brief, closely-watched collaboration that ended on Labor Day but is winning praise as a model of neighborhood engagement for the future.

News coverage of the pilot program has mostly focused on the strange yet appealing sight of 3,000-plus kayakers who, between Memorial Day and last Monday, worked their way down a 2.5-mile section of the river in the Glendale Narrows area. There, the bottom is coated in silt and rocks, unlike other sections of the 51-mile route, where concrete is the dominant feature. Paddlers included everyone from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to veteran thrill seekers and upstart adventurers.

But what’s proven especially gratifying to organizers is the less heralded success of their strategy to get buy-in from Elysian Valley residents.

“We told them, ‘We want you to feel comfortable. We’re not excluding you. We’re including you. ’ It was my job to make sure they felt comfortable and welcomed,” said MRCA Chief Ranger Fernando Gomez.  

Among other things, Gomez said, the MRCA, which managed the project on behalf of the City of Los Angeles, increased the number of rangers in the area and told them to enforce such park rules as no overnight camping, drinking or smoking. This quickly gave residents a heightened sense of security in a neighborhood with an engrained gang history. At night, Gomez said, he saw entire families—including a pregnant mom, her husband, son and family dog—walking along the riverbank’s bike path.

“That’s something I never would have seen 10 or 15 years ago. Back then, if people were out, they were up to no good,” said Gomez, who patrolled the area as a rookie ranger. “These families have stepped up and said: ‘This is our backyard.’ ”

Another turning point came when Appleton’s company started to organize “community paddle” evenings for locals, many of whom couldn’t afford the kayak tours ranging in price from $55 to $65, offered by Appleton and a competing company. In all, there were three events, which took place between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. The final one drew a crowd of 70 residents.

Appleton said one of his best memories of those evenings was of a woman who’d lived along the river her entire life but had never ventured into the water, not even as a kid. “It was on her bucket list,” Appleton said. Although she tumbled five times into the calm and shallow waters in front of Marsh Park, she was having such a good time that, unlike other residents, she wouldn’t relinquish her boat.

“It was occupied the entire three hours,” Appleton recalled admiringly. “She just wouldn’t get out.”

“Initially people in the community were skeptical” of the recreation zone, said Appleton, who began canoeing as a youngster in Michigan. “But those events really helped turn things around.”

Ranger Gomez was more effusive: “The community was ecstatic about it.”

Come next summer, river advocates hope the Glendale Narrows recreation zone will be back and embraced by the community—along with some changes for the next wave of kayakers.

Among other things, Gomez said, it would be helpful to have a second exit along the 2.5 mile zone so novice kayakers, weary from paddling or navigating rocks, can get out sooner. What’s more, he said he’d recommend removing some rocks in difficult passages to create “a little alley or lane that doesn’t alter the river in any shape or form” so frustrated kayakers don’t have to work so hard. “For a quarter of a mile, I don’t think the world would end downstream.”

Like Appleton, the ranger of 20 years has a memory that he also says he’ll treasure of the recreation zone’s inaugural season. His is of a young boy, around 12, who works as a “junior ranger” and is always quiet— “just a follower,” in the words of one MRCA colleague.

The youngster was the last down to the water. When he got into the boat, Gomez said, “he clenched his teeth and was literally started shaking with fear. I said, ‘Hi Buddy. I’m going to help you out.  I’m going to teach you how to paddle—right, left, right, left. Not only did he learn about the river, he learned the skill of kayaking. By the end of the trip, he was racing other kids.”

Gomez paused at the memory. “I’m getting chills thinking about it,” he said.

Elysian Valley activist and entrepreneur Steven Appleton takes some neighborhood youngsters for a paddle.

Posted 9/6/13

Where summer lingers after Labor Day

August 29, 2013

Lance Wichmann says he finds serenity on the Santa Monica sand when the crowds disappear in September.

Lance Wichmann’s playpen was a patch of warm sand at the foot of Ocean Park Boulevard. His family’s Santa Monica house was less than a block from the beach, and his mom started carrying him there before he could walk.

Today, more than seven decades later, you can still find Wichmann at that same spot, sunning himself in retirement, a few tentative steps from the shoreline home that remains in the family. He knows just about everything there is to know about beach life around lifeguard station 26, which draws some of the heaviest crowds in Southern California during June, July and August.

And one of the things Wichmann knows (besides the best body-surfing breaks) is this: although Labor Day on Monday represents the unofficial end of summer, it’s the beginning of a two-month-long, locals-only holiday, when ideal conditions come to the beach—but not the people. The truth is that, unlike other coastal areas throughout the nation, air and sea temperatures here drop an average of only a few degrees between Labor Day and Halloween.

Before long, sea gulls will outnumber people on L.A. beaches, a trend that took off this week.

“It’s so much quieter,” the 72-year-old former insurance executive said of LA.’s extended summer season of September and October. “I know Santa Monica is a tourist town, but I like it when I can come down here at low tide, when the kids are back in school, and walk along the sand by myself. To me, it’s spiritual.”

Let the rest of the country use Labor Day as its farewell to summer. Here in L.A., savvy beachgoers know that the occasion actually signals “the start of the beach season,” joked county lifeguard Captain Kyle Daniels, who oversees community services and youth programs. In September and October, he says, “the days are warmer, the winds are lighter and the views of Catalina are better.”

And the crowds are so much thinner that, after Labor Day, lifeguard stations are staffed every mile or more, rather than every 200 yards. “I don’t want to say it’s easy,” Daniels said of the workload that comes with reduced staffing levels. “But it’s less intense.”

There are other signs in the bureaucracy that, come this weekend, vacationers are about to vanish.

Carol Baker, a spokesperson for the Department of Beaches and Harbors, offered this post-Labor Day tidbit: the agency’s facilities and property maintenance division, which oversees beach restrooms, has just received its last major order of toilet paper and expects to use only 400 cases during the winter months, compared to as many as 1,000 cases during the summer.

When asked about her own favorite beach month, Baker declined to pick a favorite. “I know this will sound like a bubbly cheerleader, but every month at the beach is my favorite.” That said, she acknowledged that “some of the best summer days are in the fall.”

And that may be particularly true this year because of the fog that has shrouded the coastline during August—or, as Baker calls it, “Fogust.” This week saw some of the best weather of the summer, with the weekday visitor count already way down.

“In July, you could barely see the sand, there were so many people,” lifeguard Chris Smith said on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon as he kept watch over a couple of body boarders and surfers not far from where Wichmann was working on his tan. “The crowd is non-existent right now.”

“It’s a secret,” he added, “that the beach season is still going strong in October.”

Up along the bike path, meanwhile, business was slow enough at Perry’s café that chef Robin Hathaway could take a break to talk to a visitor about the post-Labor Day rhythms. “All the locals come down to reclaim their spots,” Hathaway said. “People have their routines. It’s more health and fitness oriented—running, riding, yoga, skate boarding, surfing.”

Of course, if the café had its way, she said with a wink, “summer would last forever.”

Lifeguard Chris Smith has a secret: after Labor Day, he says, the beach is at its best.

Posted 8/29/13

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