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LA's downtown 'Cornfield' greenspace to close for $20M renovation

The 34-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park is tucked between the Metro Gold Line tracks and an old industrial area  just north of El Pueblo, the historic founding center of Los Angeles.
The 34-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park is tucked between the Metro Gold Line tracks and an old industrial area just north of El Pueblo, the historic founding center of Los Angeles.
Shirley Jahad/ KPCC

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The state park near downtown Los Angeles known as “The Cornfield”  is closing down next month for a yearlong renovation that will cost $20 million. 

The 34-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park  is tucked between the Metro Gold Line tracks and an old industrial area  just north of El Pueblo, the historic founding center of Los Angeles.

The $20 million renovation plan calls for the park to be developed into three recreational areas, moving from urban green space to more natural, native habitat. The first zone is nearest to downtown L.A.

Gateway from urban city center to native green space

“At the southern end, we’re actually going to have a beautiful promenade entrance off the Gold Line Chinatown station,” said Sean Woods, the California State Park Superintendent in charge of the LA green space.  

Crews are charged with transforming the concrete ground that was a maintenance yard into a welcoming gateway to the park for people coming from nearby Chinatown, Olvera Street, Union Station or the downtown business and civic centers.

“We really want to promote public transportation and bicycle access,” Woods told KPCC, adding that one of the most prominent features of this area of the park will be a circular walkway ascending 16 feet to a landing that will serve as the picture postcard spot. “The idea is to be above the park so you an look in one direction and see the downtown skyline and, in the other direction, the San Gabriel Mountains.” 

There are also plans for a  restaurant and beer garden in this section to host lunchtime or evening concerts “to create programming so the park is active throughout the day and on weekends as well,” said Woods.

The Great Meadow in the middle

The central zone of the park will be 12 acres of open green space. “We’re calling this the Great Meadow,” Woods said.

There aren’t any designated soccer or baseball fields. But the open space is to be used by families, school children, or anyone wanting to kick a ball or fly a kite.  

Woods added: “This is a space where we can also have events to generate revenue to help pay for the operations of the park.” For the past several years, the park has hosted several big concerts and music festivals, drawing tens of thousands of people.

The Native Habitat Zone

The northern zone of the park closest to the L.A. River is designated as a wetlands area, with 13 acres of native plant habitat. It will include a 2.2 acre open water wetland “which will be pretty much a retention pond holding enough water to completely irrigate the park,” Woods said.

“We’re looking at this as an outdoor environmental educational laboratory for all the school children who surround the park," Woods added. "Within a five-mile radius, there are 250,000 schoolchildren,” he said. “So rather than have to bus kids out to wild lands outside the city, this will be right here, right in the heart of urban Los Angeles.”

The storied history underneath the park

Layers of history are under the ground where the Los Angeles State Historic Park is being built. Just a few feet below the surface are the foundations of the old Southern Pacific Railroad that stopped here in the 1870s.  

Before that, in the 1780s, Spanish missionaries built a channel known as Zanja Madre, or the Mother Ditch. It was the first large public works project by the city founders. It brought water from the L.A. River to serve the historic city center and irrigate the fields of walnut and citrus trees then lining the landscape in between.

Designers going back to 1930 and the Olmstead plan had envisioned the space to be a park, part of a network of green space outlined in an overall vision for Los Angeles that was never realized.

More recently, environmentalists and community activists won a victory over business interests wanting the land for industrial warehouses. Instead, back in 2001, the State Parks bought the land.

In 2005, L.A. artist and philanthropist Lauren Bon used the undeveloped park land for a public art project dubbed “Not a Cornfield.”