DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - For years the Los Angeles State Historic Park has served as a quiet reprieve from the noise and traffic of Downtown Los Angeles. It’s a place for picnics, evening runs around the jogging track and a spot for families who need green space for the kids to run around.
In the next few months, it could take on another role — major concert venue.
The 32-acre facility currently hosts about a dozen shows and events a year, but this summer programming at the attraction on the edge of Chinatown will increase significantly. While it won’t be mistaken for Coachella, there will be a series of one- and two-day festivals that will have tens of thousands of music fans flocking to Downtown.
The lineup is part of an effort to make the park economically self-sufficient. It coincides with an $18 million renovation that is expected to start next year and be complete by mid-2014.
In the coming months park officials, who also plan to have special events such as weddings at the site, will have to walk the line between increasing revenue and insuring that the public space remains, well, a public space.
“First and foremost this is a state park,” said Sean Woods, a California State Parks superintendent in charge of the Downtown facility. “What we’re really trying to do here is pay for the operation and keep the park open. Our main goal is to provide open space.”
State Park officials have signed a deal to stage the inaugural H2O Music Festival. The Aug. 25 show organized by Univision will be headlined by Snoop Dogg and Ozomatli. It will also include Latin stars such as Paulina Rubio and Alejandro Sanz.
Woods said he is working on bringing another new event this summer, though he would not release details until plans are finalized.
Some older events are expanding. The Hard Summer Festival, an electronic, dance and hip-hop concert that draws about 30,000 people, will add a second day this year. The Aug. 3-4 shows will include more than 50 bands on four stages.
Additionally, Gary Richards, CEO of Hard Events, said the company will move the yearly Hard Haunted Mansion concert from the Shrine Auditorium to the park. It will take place in October.
“We’ve fallen in love with the L.A. State Park,” said Richards. “There are no seats so it really works well for what we try to do.”
The additional shows won’t be the only source of new revenue — Woods said the park will be available for weddings and private parties. Rates have not yet been set. The events will not require closing the entire park to the public.
Other revenue streams are being explored as well. Woods said there are plans to establish a food concession at the park. Officials are also reaching out to corporate sponsors.
“We don’t want to rely heavily on musical events because of the impact with things like noise, so we’re looking at a diverse array of options,” Woods said.
In the Green
Before it was a park, the whale-shaped site was a business hub. In 1875 it housed the Southern Pacific Railroad River Station. The seeds that fell off trains prompted the nickname of the Cornfield.
The land was empty for most of the second half of the 20th century (though a quarter-mile long replica of the New York subway system, completing with working rail cars, was built on the site for the 1995 film Money Train). It was reactivated in 2005 when artist Lauren Bon transformed the land into the “Not A Cornfield” art project. Corn was grown and harvested on the property and weekly cultural events were held.
When that project ended Bon donated the lights, irrigation equipment and other infrastructure to California State Parks. The department began holding events there in 2006.
The park is one of six within the department’s Los Angeles Sector which operate with a cumulative $1.7 million budget. Woods said that budget is expected to be reduced by $250,000 next year.
The Downtown park alone has an annual budget of roughly $300,000, about 20% of which from the state, said Woods. Last year the park generated approximately $200,000 from special events.
With the new concerts and events, Woods said the park should be able to pull in up to $400,000 this year.
That’s important at a time when a major renovation is approaching. An original plan to conduct a $55 million upgrade was shelved by the economic downturn. The $18 million upgrade will create a welcome pavilion, a promenade for a farmers market, an amphitheater and permanent restrooms.
Woods said the department has to present a business plan to the Department of Finance by this fall showing that the fully renovated 32-acre facility can be operated without help from the state.
“Before we get the final approval to go to construction with this park we have to demonstrate the potential to generate enough revenue to basically be cost-neutral,” he said. “We cannot impact the general fund.”
He said annual operation costs after the renovation will be about $1 million. The department expects to meet that by a combination of the special event fees, sponsorships and the food concessions.
Off the List
California parks have taken a beating amid the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis.
In 2009, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed closing 220 state recreation sites, including the Los Angeles State Historic Park. The property was eventually spared.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s January 2011 budget proposal called for reducing state parks funding by $11 million. This year the proposed chop for the department was $22 million.
Last May the State Parks department announced that budget woes would force it to shutter 70 of its 279 parks (the Downtown property was not one of them). Some sites have since have found donors and financial partners. According to the California State Park website, by January 2012 the department had reached agreements to keep nine of those sites open.
While the Los Angeles State Historic Park has survived so far, some Downtown green space advocates support efforts to make the park financially independent.
“State parks are all finding themselves in the situation that there’s just not going to be funding down the road,” said Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, which has called for keeping state parks open.
Fine said it is important to create a balance so that the park is not overused with essentially private events, but also so that is has enough money coming in to remain open.
Increased concerts could have an impact on neighboring Chinatown. That doesn’t worry George Yu, the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District. He said the park has been a considerate neighbor and officials have done a good job of keeping the “negative impact” to a minimum. He expects that to continue.
“The park needs to be activated,” he said. “Without these events there’s no way to maintain a working budget to keep the park open in this day and age.”
Meanwhile Woods said he is optimistic about the future of the park.
“We know that what we have here,” he said, “is of immense value in terms of what we provide to the public, and also event promoters who see this as just an incredible location with the skyline of Los Angeles in the background.”
Contact Richard Guzmán at firstname.lastname@example.org.