Reparations Becomes a Park

The Port of Los Angeles wanted to move further inland. The neighbors said: We have a better idea. 

By Jennifer Zell, ASLA

The Arup designed cable-stayed pedestrian bridge has become an iconic image for the park. Photo by Craig Kuhner.

On the southern edge of the city of Wilmington, California, just before the Port of Los Angeles begins, lies the newly constructed Wilmington Waterfront Park. It will be remembered for some time, maybe this lifetime, maybe longer, as a place of contention. The park, which spans almost 30 acres, with the Port of Los Angeles on one long side and the stacks of the petroleum industry on the other, stands as a reminder of the tension between people and industry, and the unlikely but somewhat qualified triumph of the people.

Wilmington is a tough town, known for its hardscrabble longshoremen and for having been a convenient dumping ground for industrial waste. Tougher still is Ken Melendez, who has been a leading advocate for the new park. Melendez, who is 58, is a tall, swarthy man of French Canadian and Hispanic lineage who has the mouth of a sailor and the devotion of a nun. To hear him describe the pleasure he gets from watching his grandkids play at the park, it’s hard to imagine the years he spent hectoring and name calling city and port officials for their obliviousness to the residents of Wilmington.

Melendez owned a business in Wilmington for 25 years and lived there for 20. He now lives in nearby Harbor City. As a young teenager, Melendez did some picketing for farm workers’ rights, but then his activism lay dormant for decades. After he retired in 1999, Melendez began listening to and learning from local activists who were tired of Wilmington’s getting dumped on by big industries and oil companies. Melendez discovered a pattern in Wilmington, similar to one in other low- to middle-income communities. Business interests establish relationships with individuals in the community by funding nonprofits or big dinners and events. When those businesses make proposals that are detrimental to the community, it is hard for community leaders to stand up to the companies that pay their salaries and sponsor their programs.

In the mid-1990s, the Port of Los Angeles began buying properties in the area that is now Wilmington Waterfront Park to expand its container terminal and move trucks more easily through Wilmington. The properties were blighted and contaminated by a cocktail of industrial waste. They had held metal plating shops, a strip club, and open storage, among other holdout uses.

In 2001, the Los Angeles Harbor Commission approved a plan to move Harry Bridges Boulevard 500 feet closer to the residential community north of C Street. This move would bring the port’s stomping ground closer to a mostly Mexican American community of ordered streets and green lawns and networks of large, extended families. To cut the port’s noise intrusion, the proposal included construction of a sound abatement wall along the length of the realigned roadway.

The neighbors hated the idea. Melendez and others in the community opposed the port’s plan and rallied others to action. Melendez got rather mouthy with port officials at times; he told them they were practicing institutional racism. “If you talk nice with them, you don’t get anything,” Melendez says.

The park was designed by Sasaki Associates. It is generously appointed with sculptural Escofet benches and light standards. It has a 62,600-square-foot main plaza, a sculptural earthwork that is 16 feet high and half a mile long, four pedestrian bridges, two water features, 653 newly planted trees, three buildings, and two amphitheaters. West of the park is an oil refinery; to the east is a power generating station. Harry Bridges Boulevard runs east–west along the southern border of the park. The park’s parallel border, one block north, is C Street. North of C Street is a neighborhood of single- and multifamily housing. Wilmington was incorporated into the city of Los Angeles in 1909 to give the city the harbor access it wanted—a sort of gerrymander. By the late 1930s, shipbuilding was the port’s main activity; the wharves and rail lines built to support the trade were Lilliputian compared with the container terminals, shipping berths, and bulk storage facilities that loom over the Port of Los Angeles today.

The Port of Los Angeles takes up the fore-, middle, and background of Wilmington with the infrastructure of a global distribution economy. Container trucks rumble through and sometimes park on streets where people push strollers or sell bags of fruit. On the skyline are container cranes 16 stories high and the machinery of petroleum processing. Freight trains wend their way through town. Around here, emissions of diesel particulate matter, oxides of nitrogen, oxides of sulfur, and carbon dioxide are measured by the tons. Not far away, along Anaheim and Avalon Boulevards, are commercial strips of 99-cent stores, nail salons, and restaurants.

The Port Community Advisory Committee (PCAC) is an organization formed to ensure the proper representation of local residents to the Board of Harbor Commissioners. Melendez was the chair of PCAC in 2004. He used the position to push the port to build a buffer park instead of the proposed road realignment.

Around this time, the port brought in Chris Brown as its civil engineer and project manager. Brown is a tall, articulate man with a bouncy gait, and his carefully groomed appearance communicates a corporate agenda, not consensus building. “When I came in, the community was very angry,” Brown says. “Over time, and in the course of these meetings [between PCAC and the port], the two parties started listening to each other.”

The result would be a park. By January of 2006, the Port of Los Angeles hired Sasaki Associates. It funded the entire project from port capital improvement funds.

The park feels contemporary and straightforward, with a solid, angular character. The historic street grid runs right up to the park from the north and, in lines, divides it into orderly sections. Atop this interior park grid are secondary pathways that run in arcs and diagonals to articulate the ground plane. The most complex and interesting parts of the park are at the edges, where its internal logic must reckon with the context of the neighborhood. The park divides into two sections, called the East and West Ends, which unite against the massive earthwork that runs like a series of big ramparts for half a mile along Harry Bridges Boulevard. Dominating the center of the park is a flat, open lawn area, six acres big, divided into three grass recreation fields and one artificial turf field for soccer, baseball, and football. The community told the port it wanted nine acres of flat, open fields. “We ended up with six,” Melendez says.

So much grass, though, is a liability. Long Beach, next door, is offering homeowners cash to take turfgrass out of their yards. Wilmington Waterfront Park is piped for reclaimed water; the intended source is the Terminal Island Water Reclamation Plant. The source has not yet been extended to the park, and for now the 16 acres of grass (including the 1.6 acres of artificial turf playing field, because of public health issues associated with dog urine and feces) are irrigated with potable water.

The earthwork along the park’s southern edge looked at first like trouble. In the planning phase, neighborhood people saw it as yet another barrier to the water. But in fact, the raised landform shelters the park from the harsh sights and sounds of the port and moves them into the middle ground. To solve the barrier problem and give people ways to reach the water at the ground level, the earthwork slopes down to the street in four places, where people can see and walk through to Harry Bridges Boulevard and its bus stops—though, as a barrier, the earthwork keeps people out of the way of the container trucks that roll down the boulevard. The breaks in the big berm also helped avoid the moving of underground utility lines.

The park is a brand-new gathering place. People in the south part of Wilmington have small houses that don’t easily hold big family events. Now they can gather in a grove at the West End of the park, which is a terrific place for picnics. The grove has dense clusters of trees around nearly two dozen picnic tables, 10 barbecue grills, and a fountain.

The big idea for the park was to design the massive earthwork so it would rise up from the flat site dramatically. Atop the earthwork is the El Paseo Promenade, which gives you a seat at what has been described as the theater of the port.

Where the picnic grove and the promenade meet, there is a sequence of austere but boldly colored spaces like those of the architect Ricardo Legorreta, whom Angelenos recognize, if not always by name. The two ends of the park, West and East, connect over a red cable-stayed bridge designed by Arup that obliquely references a ship’s mast and, at 105 feet high, challenges the scale and posture of the container cranes that dominate the view. The landform, the light standards, and the pylons of the cable-stayed pedestrian bridge all reflect a defiant posture, like arms akimbo, that seems to embody the narrative of the park’s development.

Even with the new 30-acre gift of this park, the city of Wilmington (which is confusingly incorporated into the city of Los Angeles, which runs its parks) is essentially park poor. The Harbor Regional Park officially lies within the boundaries of Wilmington and puts the town over the threshold that state law uses to define a park-poor community—three acres or fewer of parks per 1,000 residents. But Harbor Regional Park sits across the Harbor Freeway from 95 percent of Wilmington’s people, and its open space pales beneath the towering, sprawling ConocoPhillips Los Angeles Refinery right next to it. The refinery has a footprint roughly 20 percent larger than the entire Harbor Regional Park. The Wilmington Waterfront Park nearly doubles the amount of open space west of the Harbor Freeway.

Public recreational facilities are scarce in Wilmington. If you follow the guidelines of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), the city has 37 percent of the outdoor basketball courts it should have, 37 percent of the recommended soccer fields, and 14 percent of the tennis courts. There are more oil refineries in or directly bordering Wilmington (six, with ConocoPhillips, Ultramar, Valero, Tesoro, BP, and Shell) than there are facilities of the city of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks: Wilmington has four outdoor basketball courts, five baseball diamonds, two soccer fields, and four tennis courts. The city has almost 54,000 people.

Wilmington Waterfront Park has no recreational facilities to bring it closer to what NRPA would call adequate. Basketball hoops and marked sports fields are nowhere to be found. The park occupies land owned by the port and is therefore held in public trust as California Tidelands, so there are development limitations. Only uses that are for the benefit of all the people of the state are allowed. Basketball courts and backstops are confusingly considered as services only to the neighborhood and are not allowed. So the designers had a challenge on their hands in not being able to incorporate the kinds of courts that would naturally draw users into the space. Meanwhile, nearby, I saw kids playing handball against an industrial building.

The Project for Public Spaces has a quixotic method for determining what makes great public spaces: It uses quantitative strategies to measure quality—the “Power of 10” principle, which dictates that “any great place itself needs to offer at least 10 things to do or 10 reasons to be there.” Cloying and simplistic as it is, the principle could help animate this park. Scott Sjoquist, with whom I spoke while he was visiting the park with his kids, observed that “they could have gone lower end [on benches and lighting] and provided more attractions.” The calculations at work to make the park, however, are more obscure than simple budget line items.

The park’s main magnet is a playground that spreads across nearly 20,000 square feet, with both wet and dry play areas. But the playground has no shade. There are trees nearby to shade adults while they watch the kids play. There are explanations but no excuses for not having shade: Kids need protection from the sun while they play to cut their exposure and the risk of skin cancer. It can be costly and technically hard to build shade over playgrounds because they need clear bubbles of unobstructed space. But with $55 million spent on the park and an already vulnerable population of children, the missing shade is unfortunate.

Kids also like to slide down and play on the sloped banks of the earthwork. They like it so well that the fluffy, no-mow fescue planted on the slope will have to be replanted, because the bare slopes have become unsightly and eroded by wind and rain.

“When we asked the community how they saw themselves using the space, they said that they wanted performance venues of different sizes,” says Melissa McCann, ASLA, Sasaki’s lead project designer for the park. The nearly 4,000-square-foot West Pavilion Building is composed in a contemporary vernacular of wood and brightly colored tiles, meant to recall the colors and textures of Mexico. The structure houses restrooms and maintenance space. It inserts neatly into the earthwork so that the pavilion’s roof becomes an observation deck you can reach from the elevated walkway or the plaza below. An amphitheater, one of two in the park, ties into the earthwork and the pavilion. The amphitheater’s curving, concrete seat walls are set as terraces into the sloping lawn. Wilmington hosts several annual festivals, and their organizers had found it a hassle to obtain permits they needed to close streets for them. The intention is that the community will move these festivals into the park, and the amphitheaters offer flexible spaces for concerts or plays alongside the festivals. The port has sponsored a few events at the park in the six months since its opening, and more are scheduled. Melendez is looking forward to summer concerts and movie nights. There is also talk among local longshoremen of organizing a walk to commemorate “Bloody Thursday,” which occurred on July 5, 1934, during the West Coast Waterfront Strike and led to the deaths of two strikers in San Francisco. It was one of several events that helped lead to the unionization of port workers.

On the East End, there are two buildings—a restroom and a concession stand—and a shade structure that covers nearly 5,000 square feet. The restroom building has a dogtrot plan; its open center closes at night by a rolling lattice door. Next to it, the concessions wing runs perpendicular to form a semi-enclosed space between the two buildings. The geometry of the buildings, with the terraced landscape, creates an intimate space for the second of the park’s two amphitheaters. Just to the east of this area is a water feature that Sasaki calls a “liquid plaza.” It does little to add to the character of the park. It is yet another grid of sequenced spray jets, like those you see everywhere these days, and because the fountain follows the same grade as the plaza, the water sheet flows across the plaza for 20 to 30 feet before it drains. Kids will likely flock to the fountain when temperature rises, but the water feature is both a safety and maintenance liability and a missed opportunity to insert a creative expression of water into the landscape.

Nearby, at the park’s eastern edge, are a small parking lot and shaded seating. Separate seating areas fall into small groups ordered by a grid of handsome, narrow modular pavers and overlaid with an arc; the intersection of both forms delineates the planter areas. Portions of the planter beds act as a biofilter for the parking lot’s stormwater.

The planting in this area is airy and more naturalistic than most of the park and creates a romantic expressiveness unique to this section. The plants were selected to only somewhat obscure the clear view to the plaza from policing vehicles driving by along C Street. Arranged in groups are Escofet’s Nigra polished cast stone chairs set in crushed stone paving. Because the chairs are set in crushed stone and not concrete, they are not likely to be damaged by skateboards and BMX bikes. Conversely, along El Paseo Promenade, several cast stone benches were poorly placed and have already been damaged beyond repair. The soft, ivory-colored benches, with no deterrent, were situated in the perfect line for board slides and grinds.

Keeping the design of the park open was important for the perception of safety and natural surveillance within the park. Members of the community were skeptical about building a park that might become overrun with gangs. In Wilmington, Avalon Street divides the East Side and the West Side Gangs. The Los Angeles Police Department doesn’t have the resources or manpower to patrol the park, but the Port of Los Angeles does. In fact, the entire park is secured with closed-circuit surveillance cameras and monitored 24 hours a day in the same manner that the port facilities are secured. And most of the park’s 29.2 acres have unobstructed sight lines from nearby streets. If someone were inclined to commit a crime, the Wilmington Waterfront Park would not be a good place to do so.

The Port of Los Angeles is to be admired for its responsiveness and commitment to this project. Whether motivated to build the park by increasing political pressure or a sense of civic responsibility, the port has laid down the money necessary to build, secure, and maintain a world-class park. Even more admirable is the dogged determination of the neighbors in demanding that positive change come to their community. Melendez committed 10 years of his early retirement to building this not merely as a buffer, but as a great place for the community. When asked why, he replied: “I am not looking for a job. I am not a lobbyist. Not any of that.” It was, he intones, just the right thing to do.

Jennifer Zell, ASLA, is a landscape architect and principal at ZOLA in Long Beach, California.


Prime Consultant/Landscape Architect of Record Sasaki Associates, Inc.,Watertown, Massachusetts. Client/Owner Port of Los Angeles, San Pedro, California. Design Team (Project Lead) Sasaki Associates, Inc., Watertown, Massachusetts (Steve Hamwey, Honorary ASLA, principal in charge; Nancy Fleming, Tim Stevens, and Owen Lang, FASLA, participating principals; Melissa McCann, ASLA, lead project designer/landscape, and Tim Stevens, lead project designer/architect; Caleb Bruner, Mark Eischeid, Raphael Justewicz, Joon Yon Kim, Chang Keun Lee, Shannon Lee, Conard Lindgren, Meghen Quinn, ASLA, Simon Raine, ASLA, and Nitza Thien, project team/landscape; Grace Leung, Tomer Maymon, Scott Odom, Vitas Viskanta, and Angel Cantu, project team/architect; Zach Chrisco, Chuck Coronis, Michelle Gauvin, Oswaldo Palencia, and Jose Miranda, project team/civil). Technical Specifications Rico Associates, Shrewsbury, Massachusetts (Vincent P. Rico). Geotechnical Engineer Earth Mechanics, Fountain Valley, California. Bridge Structural Engineering Arup, San Francisco. Civil/Structural/Site/Electrical Engineering Moffatt & Nichol, Long Beach, California. Structural/MEP Engineering TMAD Taylor & Gaines, San Francisco. Water Feature Engineering STO Design Group, Santa Ana, California. Irrigation Brookwater Irrigation Design, San Ramon, California. Methane Design/Engineering Dudek, Encinitas, California. Solar Design Solar Design Associates, LLC, Harvard, Massachusetts. Art Consultant Fine Art Services, Los Angeles (Jody Rassell, principal; Barbara Bishop, project team; Jenna Didier and Oliver Hess, and Walter Hood, ASLA, artists selected). Planting Consultant AHBE Landscape Architects, Culver City, California (Linda Daley and Brian Mitchell). Planning and Entitlements/Permit Expeditor PSOMAS, Los Angeles. Survey and Zoning Wagner Engineering and Survey, Inc. Northridge, California. Security TEECOM, Oakland, California. Community Liaison Katherine Padilla & Associates, Pasadena, California. Wilmington Waterfront Community Leader Ken Melendez. Construction Team Port of Los Angeles, San Pedro, California (Dina Aryan-Zahlan, J. Chris Brown, Engineering Division; Jan Green Rebstock, Environmental Division; Dave Matthewson, Planning Division; and Shaun Shahrestani, Charles Adams, Mark Nelson, Leilani Walsh, Scott Gilmour, Construction Division). General Contractor Griffith Company, Santa Fe Springs, California. Construction Management Berg & Associates, San Pedro, California.

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