Beloved Koreatown Park At Risk

FEB17KTImages of soccer fans waving Korean flags in the summer wind could be replaced with images of residents and shoppers snarling into parking lots at the site of one of the very few parks available to  Koreatown residents. If Jamison Properties moves forward with a skyline-altering project, a new glass tower would rise above 3700 Wilshire where Liberty Park stands today. 

The park was designed 50 years ago to address the scarcity of green space on Wilshire Boulevard, and this shortage rings truer than ever today.

Councilmember Jose Huizar highlighted neighborhood’s desperate need for parks in his message announcing the approval for increased funding for parks. The $8 million annual funding increase for parks projects would come from a hike to the fees developers pay under the Quimby Act. These “Quimby fees” on residential projects allow developers to pay a fee in lieu of creating sufficient park space for the community where they are building. How much of this funding would go to Koreatown parks remains to be seen.

“Green space is really important to the community,” recognizes Jamie Hwang, a deputy representing the north west region of Herb Wesson’s Council District 10.


KOREATOWN NEEDS PARKS
Koreatown has been identified as one of the most park-poor areas in the city. It has 0.1 acres of park space available for every 1,000 people, according to a countywide ‘park needs’ assessment. The region houses 170,000 residents. The report estimates 94 percent of residents have a “Very High” need for parks. 


HISTORY TO BE BULLDOZED AWAY?
The sites historic value prompted residents to reach out to the Los Angeles Conservancy.While the park has served as a soccer viewing venue for fans of South Korea’s team, the space’s true historic value dates back to its conception. 

Beneficial Insurance Group, the original developer of the property, built an 11-story building and included the green space intentionally to address the lack of open space in a growing Koreatown 50 years ago. Since the park was (and still is) a privately owned property, the L.A. Times called it the nation’s “deepest setback” between city street and private office building at the time, according to the Conservancy. 

Beneficial hired award-winning landscape architect Peter Walker, who is now recognized for his work on the National September 11 Memorial in New York City, among many accolades in his extensive career.

In addition to adding 2.5 acres of green space to the bustling Wilshire Boulevard, the park‘s design offered a futuristic, post war optimism theme.

The objects included a replica of the Mercury, the first U.S. space capsule; a full-scale model of the Apollo space capsule; and an exact replica of Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, made by the same London company as the original. This bell remains onsite to this day.


WHAT WOULD THE DEVELOPMENT INCLUDE?
Jamison’s 36-story glass tower would contain 506 residential units ranging from one bedroom to three-bedroom penthouses, more than 40,000 square feet of retail space, and nearly 22,000 square feet of restaurant space, ranging from fast food to quality dining. Four liquor licenses are in the works. The more than 530,000-square-foot building would replace the 46,000-square-foot lawn and plaza (i.e. Liberty Park) that lies next to to the 11-story Radio Korea building today.


WHAT DOES THE OPPOSITION SAY?
Members of the community are concerned about the removal of green space, loss of historic value, and Jamison Properties dismal reputation as a property owner.

As one of the largest commercial property owners in Koreatown,
Solair resident Anne Kim claims Jamison has a reputation in the neighborhood of running its properties to the ground, with poor maintenance and high vacancies. [Sixteen 1 star ratings for property management on Yelp] “The community doesn’t need more retail,” she said, noting there is a large area of empty commercial space in her building.

“We saw that this historically significant site was not properly evaluated by the City as part of the project review,”
said Marcello Vavala, preservation associate at the Conservancy.

In a letter addressed to the planning department, local urban designer Mia Lehrer hails the park’s design as a “classic example” of Walker’s “minimalist, reductive style.”

 “Liberty Park was originally intended by Beneficial Insurance Group as a monument to the nation’s heritage and an outdoor museum of patriotic objects heralding great moments in American history,” Vavala said. 

Vavala said the Conservancy submitted comments to also alert the planning department of the city's flawed historic analysis. City Planning representative Yeghig L. Keshishian said these historic assessments are completed by third party consultants, which are approved by the Office of Historic Resources. The original assessment determined the site is not a historic resource based on a 2009 report from the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency. Vavala claims this survey is irrelevant, however, because it only analyzed buildings built prior to 1962, while 3700 WIlshire was completed in 1967.

“The historic resources survey involved the visual examination of a total of 1,911 properties constructed before 1962,” states the Community Redevelopment Agency report.  Therefore, the decision that the site lacks sufficient historic value was based on a report that never reviewed the property to begin with.


AN ATTEMPT TO CHANGE THE ZONING
The city honored Beneficial’s president and CEO in 1966 for contributing open space to the community. The Conservancy says a city 1968 planning case zoned the green space under a “P,” or parking designation, which essentially precludes the space from commercial use. This designation is the closest thing the city can do to protect a property, short of purchasing land for public open space, the Conservancy says, citing key language from the case: “The interests of good zoning practices and relevant considerations of public necessity, convenience and general welfare would best be served by retaining this open space asset to the community and preclude further intensification of land use in this block.” 

In contradiction of this protection, Jamison has requested for the city to change the “P” zone on the park portion of the property to allow commercial development.


DONATIONS TO THE CITY

Since Jamison is a large development company and owns a lot of projects in the district, the council office meets with the company to evaluate the impact of each project on the community, as it does with any other developer, she said. The company has more than $106,000 in contributions to all city candidates and officeholders on the record since 2001. In the past 13 years, more than $13,000 have gone to Council District 10 office and candidates, with more than $11,000 of that going to Wesson’s campaigns since 2005. These Ethics Commission disclosures, however, do not include possible contributions to programs promoted by the Council office or Wesson as an individual. In response to resident claims that Jamison has bribed the Council District office to usher their projects through approvals quickly, Hwang said the office has no special relationship with the company.


CD 10's PLAN
The district has proposed to convert the parking lot at a nearby library into a park, potentially with underground parking. In an opposition letter to 3700 Wilshire, resident Keith Kresge argued the proposed park is much smaller than Liberty Park and it could be a potential illegal gift of a public asset if it is being offered as a replacement. He recommended a City Attorney investigation.

CD 10 Deputy Hwang denies claims this park was a concession project. While the library is in close proximity to Liberty Park, she said this project has been in the works for years before Jamison submitted its proposal and is not related to the potential loss of Liberty Park. The project’s timing and proximity are “just a coincidence”. 


WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The planning department confirmed the proposal is currently on hold. A Feb. 9 planning department hearing for the project has been suspended. Jamison is currently reevaluating the site’s historic value, according to Hwang. This process could take about a month.

The Conservancy recommends that residents interested in saving the park learn more about what they can do at savelibertypark.org, a website organized by Kim and other opponents. Vavala also suggests contacting Councilmember Wesson’s office to express concerns.


THANK YOU to resident Mark Lawrence for alerting us to this story.
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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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