Friends of Runyon Canyon?
Runyon Canyon Park, the dog-friendly nature sanctuary in the hills above Hollywood, has been the subject of several essays in this space, as well as a scenic location in at least two or three of our books. It’s just about the greatest part of living in this neighborhood, and maybe all of Los Angeles.
For the past several months, banner signs and kiosks have announced the presence of a new non-profit called Friends of Runyon Canyon, whose goal is, their Website says, “in partnership with the city, to raise money to improve, restore, manage and protect Runyon Canyon.”
Right on. Sounded good to us. Preserving and protecting the fragile hillsides and dirt walking paths will allow Runyon Canyon to provide joy for many future generations. Installing additional trash bins and recycling receptacles will mean a cleaner, more natural nature area. Encouraging every visitor to treat the land with respect and dignity will lead to nothing but good things for everyone. As one of the few nearby residents who has made it a daily practice to pick up litter in Runyon (and the surrounding streets), we were delighted that our years of solitude as the lonely trash picker in the Canyon might soon be ending and a new era of community-minded altruism would be born.
Then we looked more closely at FORC’s “Vision Plan,” copies of which are posted on the gleaming new information kiosks FORC recently renovated. Most of the listed initiatives are righteous, big-hearted measures that will improve a visit to the Canyon – things like reinforcing clifftop trails. But two of the ideas have no place in a sensible and kind Runyon of the future: a parking lot and a café.
A few years ago, Councilman Tom LaBonge was ready to support a parking lot inside the park, on a grassy meadow currently occupied by yellow-rumped warblers and yogis. After we published a letter in the Times opposing the idea – for reasons that are so patently obvious we won’t catalogue them here – Mr. LaBonge’s office called to ask if we’d like to take a walk in Runyon Canyon with the Councilman and show him a true local’s perspective. (We’ve lived on Vista Street for 23 years). The politician saw that walking a couple blocks up the hill wasn’t a hardship; it was a delightful warm-up for the hike to Mulholland and the panoramic bench overlooking Capitol Records and the Cineramadome. He realized that folks don’t have to bring cars to a pedestrian paradise. They can be pedestrians. Not long thereafter, the parking lot idea evaporated and a general sigh of relief was heard all around Hollywood.
Now the parking lot proposal seems to be back. This time, though, the development is being billed as “protecting and preserving” the park, and it’s being spearheaded by a 501(c)3 whose very name promises friendship. Call it Orwellian, call it misguided. But be concerned.
Friends of Runyon Canyon’s Vision Plan also includes a café inside the park. As we documented in our essay about litter in Runyon, the main source of rubbish in LA’s natural wonderland is food and water packaging: cellophane wrappers and plastic bottles and caps. The emerging presence of an honor snack bar at the Fuller Avenue entrance has demonstrably added additional litter in the Canyon. (This assertion comes from perhaps the chief amateur collector of Runyon rubbish, someone who carries a trash bag with him and knows intimately what ends up desecrating the landscape.) The park already attracts more than 1 million visitors a year, including more than 300,000 dogs. They come not for “amenities” and conveniences but for the increasingly rare opportunity to connect with nature in an urban environment.
We recently encountered a FORC board member, a lovely fellow named Josh, who, with his abidingly patient son, took some time out of volunteer trash bin installation – kudos, FORC! – to brief us on the thinking behind the café. To paraphrase: The idea was to generate revenue from the park, for the park, so that funds can be plowed back into “protecting and preserving.” FORC, he told me, wants to have paid docents and other staffers on site, and this seemed at the time of the “envisioning” as the best way to do that.
He now understands that a café and parking lot may not, in fact, be good for Runyon Canyon at all. (Installing more drinking fountains – there are now three in the whole place – is a much better idea.) He also told us not to worry about the parking lot. It was just an early idea, something for the architect to include on the provisional plans, but by no means decided.
That’s reassuring. We’ve learned from experience, however, that any organization with a war chest like FORC’s — more than $250,000 according to a reliable source – and connections to the local political structure must be overseen assiduously. That the Friends of Runyon Canyon believe (once believed?) that a parking lot and a café will be a net positive for the park we love suggests that the organization is operating on the old model, the one that says “sustainability requires growth, and growth requires revenue.” But when enough like-minded volunteers band together to accomplish something – anything – the old rules don’t apply. This was the lesson of the Better Angels Festival, and it’s the reason some of us have personally collected enough Runyon Canyon litter to fill, well, a newly paved parking lot.
We really want to be friends with everybody. We truly want and hope to be friends with the Friends of Runyon Canyon. But first we must confirm that the Friends of Runyon Canyon intend to treat the park like a genuine friend.