Parks promised to poor California areas unbuilt years later
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A decade after California voters were promised $400 million worth of parks in some of the state's poorest neighborhoods, an Associated Press review finds fewer than half of the 126 projects that received the money have been built, as Democratic lawmakers push to add another $1 billion to the program.
State officials say the long wait is the result of strong oversight, but people waiting for the parks see only empty lots.
In the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Florence, Jennifer Schott won't let her kids play outdoors, nor is she willing to make the eight-minute walk through gang territory to the nearest park.
No one told Schott, who directs a mental health facility in the high-crime neighborhood, that the state has shelled out $5 million for the city parks department to replace vacant industrial buildings with 4 acres of grass, basketball courts and a community garden. Six years after the project was approved, the structures haven't been touched.
"I would hope that they would start construction on it soon," Schott said. "If they have a grant, let's do it."
Diana Bulnes, a department spokeswoman, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the park or five others for which the city of Los Angeles has received funding. One has been completed, according to state data.
Community organizer Charisse Bremond Weaver said the park has been stalled amid bureaucratic hoops that became more problematic after Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated LA's redevelopment agency and hundreds of others when California was climbing out of the recession.
About 54 percent of voters approved Proposition 84 in 2006, allowing California to sell $5.4 billion in bonds and distribute the money to water, parks and conservation projects. The initiative promised $400 million to create parks in neighborhoods without them or to expand overused parks in low-income neighborhoods.
Based on guidelines that prioritized the neediest communities, the state parks department chose 126 parks and recreation center projects and awarded them $396 million from a pool of 900 applicants that requested $3 billion, data provided by the department show.
Slauson-Wall Park in Florence is one of 68 projects that have not yet been built, according to the state data and officials overseeing the projects. The unbuilt parks account for $230 million, or more than half, of the money given out from the 2006 initiative.
Parks pledged to disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles County account for one-third of all the projects and one-third of those that are incomplete, the data show. The rest are scattered across the state.
The state, local and nonprofit groups putting the money to work have broken no promises in taking a leisurely pace, because the original ballot measure made no commitments about how long it would take to build the parks. Still, people like Florence furniture builder Gustavo Guerrera are left thinking, "They're never going to build a park here."
The regulatory hurdles largely blamed for the delays are ubiquitous in California and make it extremely difficult to build a house, let alone a public park, in under a decade, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
"It should not take that long," Coupal said.
The state parks department awarded the last dollars in 2013, but most recipients couldn't immediately put the money to use. Municipal boards had to sanction projects led by local parks departments, a process the state tried to expedite with fill-in-the-blank authorization forms. Accommodating new projects meant some agencies and organizations had to rearrange staff.
"We're building the parks as fast as we can. There's just multiple things we're doing at the same time," said Tori Kjer, Los Angeles program manager at the Trust for Public Land, a national organization that's been building parks since 1972. It received funding to build eight of the California projects, four of which are complete.
It often took a year to finalize grant agreements, organize a team and select contractors, Kjer and other project coordinators said. They typically spend another year designing the project and getting permits, and additional time to engage the community in the hope that residents use and maintain the space in perpetuity. Then construction can begin.
"Everyone wants their park right away, but projects of this scale are huge projects — we're not talking about just replacing a bench," said Jennifer Isacoff, national operations director at the Trust for Public Land. "It's really important to us to design a planning process that will give a community its voice."
The projects were given generous deadlines to facilitate oversight, officials say. Some of the incomplete parks must be finished by 2017, but most will be considered "on time" if they're built by July 2019.
"A lot of these kinds of safeguards of planning and permitting and regulating are important, but make it so that doing anything in California takes time," said Jon Christensen, an environmental humanities researcher at University of California Los Angeles who studied the program earlier this year.
Christensen found in a May report at least 90 percent of the parks funding has been dedicated to needy communities, as voters intended.
Democratic Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia of Coachella is pushing the Legislature to place a measure on the November ballot asking voters to dedicate another $1 billion to the same program for new or expanded parks.
"From the state side, we met our obligation to the voters delivering the resources to these communities," Garcia said.
Charisse Bremond Weaver, president of South Los Angeles community program Brotherhood Crusade, said she just wants to ensure the Slauson-Wall Park is not forgotten.
"It would be a game-changer for the neighborhood," she said.