The Day Angelenos Lost Elysian Park…Almost

Photo courtesy The Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park Archives

March 10, 1965: The L.A. City Council votes in favor of a proposal to construct a convention center and exhibit hall in Elysian Park, on 63 acres of the park’s most popular play and picnic grounds, which include the recreation lodge and the Avenue of the Palms. At the Council Meeting, retired journalist Grace E. Simons vehemently protests the plan. Representing the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, Simons informs the Council that the main issue at hand is “whether Elysian Park…[will] be preserved inviolate for use of the people or plundered for private gain.”[1] Calling the park “irreplaceable,” she argues that if “downtown interests” are “successful in putting over this land-grab, they stand to reap enormous profits at no financial risk to themselves.” More importantly, the decision would set a dangerous precedent that would jeopardize both the rest of the park, and ALL parks in Los Angeles. No one, Simons argues, could measure the “cost in sociological terms, in the loss of a needed recreational area, in the blighting of a residential neighborhood and in traffic congestion.”[2]

The City Council’s vote in favor of the proposal, despite Simons’s protest, sparked an eighteen-month controversy over where convention center facilities belonged. Simons was incensed that the Council dared once again to encroach on public parkland. It was bad enough Elysian Park had lost nearly 30 acres to Dodger Stadium just a few years earlier. Nearby residents of the park–including Simons–were still stinging from the lost battle to keep the Dodgers out of Chavez Ravine. Simons often frequented Elysian Park and found the increased traffic on game days nearly intolerable. Not only did she believe adding a convention center to the area would make the problems of traffic and noise significantly worse, she was deeply concerned that the City Council’s view of Elysian Park land as merely ‘land in storage’ for commercial exploitation would have long-lasting negative repercussions for every park within city limits.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, Simons responded by founding the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park (CCSEP). She fought hard. She won.

Between the founding of CCSEP in February and the Council vote in March, Simons and CCSEP had enough time to begin building a coalition against the proposal and gather supporters to attend the March meeting in force to voice their opposition.

The controversy over the Elysian Park proposal would have serious repercussions for Los Angeles politics because it would play a role in determining the outcome of several City Council races in an upcoming municipal election. Councilman John C. Holland (14th District), for one, retained his seat. Prior to the Council’s March 10th vote, Holland proclaimed his vehement opposition to the Elysian Park proposal. In his statement to the Council, he invoked comparisons to Dodger Stadium: “the pressure to take 65 acres of one of our most beautiful parks for a convention center…smacks to me as the same type of deal as the infamous trade of 315 acres in Chavez Ravine for the White Elephant of Wrigley Field a few years ago.” He further noted, “it somehow seems significant that so many familiar names and faces are urging quick action again today.” Finally, he questioned the morality of circumventing the will of voters by obligating taxpayers for bonds without a vote.[3]

The Elysian Park proposal was approved with a vote of ten in favor, and only four dissenting votes from Council members Holland, Rosalind Wiener Wyman, new Council member Tom Bradley, and Council President L.E. Timberlake. The vote followed over six hours of public hearing and debate, the longest council session since 1958’s Chavez Ravine controversy.[4] It would take another eighteen months of protest before the Council finally decided to vote in favor of the Pico-Figueroa site for the new convention center.

Had Simons not sprung into action fifty years ago, Elysian Park would look very different today.

For more on Simons, visit the Historic Echo Park website.

 

[1]  Simons use of the word ‘inviolate‘ was a reference to the L.A. City Charter of 1925, Section 170 which stated all dedicated park land must “ forever remain for the use of the public inviolate.“ Sonenshein, Raphael J., Los Angeles: Structure of a City Government (Los Angeles: League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, 2006), 87–88. Section 594c of the current City Charter (1999) repeats this language: “All lands heretofore or hereafter set apart or dedicated as a public park shall forever remain for the use of the public inviolate.“

[2] Grace E. Simons, “ Statement Before City Council,“ March 10, 1965, CCSEP Papers, USC Special Collections.

[3] John C. Holland, Statement: Convention-Exhibit Center–Elysian Park, Oral Presentation (Los Angeles: Los Angeles City Council, March 10, 1965), Council File 122183, Los Angeles City Archives. Councilwoman Rosalind Wiener Wyman (5th District) supported Holland’s suggestion the Council adopt his minority report in lieu of the majority report’s recommendation to build in Elysian Park. Holland reportedly had also been against the decision to give Chavez Ravine to the O’Malleys for Dodger Stadium. See Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt, Thinking Big: The Story of the Los Angeles Times, Its Publishers and Their Influence on Southern California (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977), 268–269.

[4] City Council Meeting Minutes, March 10, 1965, Los Angeles City Archives.

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