The Runyon Canyon Basketball Court: Doing Deals and Keeping it Quiet
When Edward Snowden disclosed that the United States government was abusing the powers of the National Security Agency by collecting data on every American’s phone calls and emails, most citizens were outraged to learn that they had been duped by the very folks who claimed to be looking out for their interests. Even if you were one of the few people who thought it was a great idea to stop terrorism by monitoring the private communications of law-abiding Americans, you found it disingenuous at best and disgusting at worst that President Barack Obama declared his interest in a vigorous debate after he and his cronies were caught doing something unconstitutional. Something that had previously not been debated publicly.
The most current controversy involving the Friends of Runyon Canyon organization (FORC), and there have been several recently, involves the closure of Runyon Canyon for at least 3-months while a 100-year-old water main gets replaced. Like the NSA debacle, FORC has lost credibility and trust with the public they allegedly represent and serve by making secretive deals that ought to have been discussed openly before the deal was finalized. Now it’s probably too late to do anything about it except complain about subversion of the democratic process.
If you’ve walked the East Trail recently, you’ve probably noticed that the old tennis court ruins, which sit on a bluff between the lowest level of the trail and the middle portion, have giant mounds of dirt and metal poles sitting on them. It looks like a construction site. That’s because it is. While the park is closed for the necessary DWP pipe work, FORC has arranged for a sponsor to “refurbish” the concrete, replacing the tennis court with a basketball court. (One can only speculate why they were in such a hurry to start work that they couldn’t wait for the April 1 park closure.) The plans call for snazzy new hoops, a weather-resistant synthetic floor, and, most important, the logo of the sponsor at center court. The cost: $252,000. The buyer: Neima Khaila, CEO of Pink Dolphin Clothing, LLC , a Southern California-based clothing manufacturer and distributor, with retail stores in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Another company, Aquahydrate, will have their name on a new $9,800 water fountain.
Khaila recently announced on social media that his firm was “redesigning the Runyon Canyon basketball court.”
The nearby bench currently bearing a plaque thanking the company Runyon Canyon Apparel – “dress your inner wild” is their slogan — was arranged by the LA Parks Foundation.
You can find all the facts (and artist renderings) in this November, 2015 Parks Department report, prepared by analyst Joel Alvarez, introduced by Commissioner Vicki Israel, and signed by General Manager Michael Shull. Fun item: the proposed phrase “legends at our craft” was stricken from center court, but the phrase “pink dolphin” was allowed to stay. Twice.
Another fun item: FORC has been aware of this deal since July of 2014, three months before the group even had a formal Memo of Understanding (MOU) with the City. Why the City was seeking FORC’s cooperation before the group had a formalized MOU is an unanswered question. FORC waited until March, 2016 to share the good news.
And this: Both former Councilmember Tom LaBonge and his successor, Councilmember David Ryu, provided “positive support” to the Parks staff. The people in charge of looking out for the public interest failed to include the public in discussing the best use of their space. Ryu’s staff did not respond to written questions before publication of this report.
There was no public input on this deal. In violation of their MOU with the City, FORC never brought the proposal to the attention of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, the advisory board that reports to the City Council on behalf of neighborhood stakeholders.
There was no CEQA environmental impact study, despite the fact that heavy construction is planned in the middle of a Nature Area. Rec & Parks determined this wasn’t necessary, but the formal exemption has not been filed with the City Clerk, where constituents can easily access it. There was no sound testing. The public was not advised or consulted.
Why not? “I really have no idea,” John Gile, President of FORC, told me in a phone interview. “I don’t know. It was just a complete oversight.”
That’s not the view of Anastasia Mann, President of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, whose board has given money to FORC in the past. “I’m deeply concerned that FORC has not respected the process. Whether or not you’re for or against a basketball court in Runyon Canyon, these construction projects need to be discussed out in the open, where there can be vigorous debate.”
This was also the main complaint about FORC’s parking-lot and café proposals contained in their “vision plan”: the organization has shown a greater commitment to erecting banners and signs with their names on them than complete and sustained transparency throughout the decision-making process. FORC claims to represent the will of the Runyon Canyon constituents, but most of the constituents have no contact with FORC until after plans have been proposed or, in the case of the basketball court, implemented.
John Gile said in our interview, “We have no secrets.” That may be true. But FORC certainly behaves as though they have plenty to hide.
So I asked Gile directly, does FORC have any other sponsorship deals currently in place, any other initiatives being funded by private companies. “No,” Gile said. “I’m not for commercialization of the park.”
Yet, FORC touts the basketball court deal as “an excellent example of the private-public collaboration necessary for parks in today’s environment. With limited access to public funding, we see this as the way of the future.”
If you’d like a preview of FORC’s “new and improved” Runyon Canyon, you may wish to locate a copy of the 1986 Master Plan for Runyon Canyon, which FORC vows to uphold on behalf of all of Los Angeles. That badly outdated scheme, nearly 30 years out-of-step with present reality, calls for on-site parking, which FORC promises to implement in their MOU. It also calls for “development” of certain areas of the Canyon. In FORC’s agreement with the City, they artfully claim they will “limit development” to the areas allowed in the 1986 Master Plan.
How will the public react to a gleaming new Ranger Station sponsored by ExxonMobil, and a carbonated refreshment kiosk generously provided by Coca-Cola?
Gile actually asked me how people would feel about, say, YogaWorks donating, say, $100,000 to “improve” the yoga meadow near the Fuller Gate? “We wouldn’t allow banners or signs. Any recognition given is very subtle,” he said, reassuringly. “It blends right in.” Better, one assumes, than the aggressively unsubtle “Friends of Runyon Canyon” vinyl banner sign, mounted on towering poles in the middle of the park, in an otherwise unobstructed area of wood-chips. Above another vinyl banner touting their sponsors.
FORC and John Gile are under the impression that Runyon Canyon needs to be improved, to be given further amenities – and they claim that’s what the public is asking for. The vast majority of park patrons I’ve talked with want precisely the opposite. They want Runyon Canyon to be treated gently, to be left undisturbed, to be Nature with some trails running through it. Fix the paths, they say. Repair the railings, they say. But we don’t need zip lines, archery ranges, donkey rides, parking lots, cafes, or, for that matter, basketball courts in a place that’s best used as on off-leash hiking area.
Now Gile is entertaining the idea of bringing Music Festivals to the park, which, in addition to all the other wonderful things you associate with music festivals, would require finding a sponsor, because these things don’t pay for themselves, you know. Naming rights, anyone?
That’s the formula: “improve” the park by developing it or bringing in attractions that require money, then strike deals to thank and acknowledge corporate sponsors with advertising budgets. Or ask the public to give.
Gile requested that I help get the word out on FORC’s fund-raising campaign to save (to buy) acreage along the West Trail slated for real estate development. But almost no one I know is inclined to donate to FORC at the moment, given their current “vision of the future.” Indeed, a comedian friend proposed the organization change its name to Developers of Runyon Canyon. At least they would have a funnier acronym.
Is FORC really a protection and preservation organization? Or is it a politically well-connected facilitator of financial deals? That our local community is even considering the question speaks to how badly FORC has handled their relations with the public.
If you would like FORC to know your opinion about sponsored developments in Runyon Canyon, email: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. You can (and should) also call Councilmember David Ryu’s office and ask him why he allowed the basketball court to proceed without public involvement: 213-473-7004.