In Closed Session

This is the story of how a westside Long Beach neighborhood got a desperately needed park, and how some skilled bureaucratic maneuvering is keeping it a park in perpetuity.

Fair warning. I said bureaucratic and it is just that, so this explanation is more than a little wonky. I'll do my best to keep the wonk at a minimum.

Tanaka Park is 1.4 acres of land at 1400 W. Wardlow Road. There's a basketball hoop, a playground, a picnic table or two and a walking path, but primarily it is an oasis of green in one of our poorer parts of town. But it wasn't always an oasis, or a park.

Eighteen years ago, the Tanaka family approached the city with a proposition. They had a piece of land, and they weren't sure what they wanted to do with it. So, they suggested, maybe the city would like to let the neighborhood play there, at least until something better came along.

A 10-year lease was crafted. The lease was one of those $1 a year deals, with the understanding that the mini-park would be developed and taken care of by the city.

It took a village to raise this park — a partnership amongst the Seventh City Council District office, the surrounding community and several city departments in the midst of tight budget times. When the ribbon was cut in January 2004 to open Tanaka Park, there was pretty universal celebration.

The lease was extended in 2011 for five more years, then continued on a month by month basis. Then early this year, the people in charge of the estate of Roy Masaru Tanaka, the current owner, told the city that they wanted to sell the property.

That got the bureaucratic wheels turning. First, Seventh District Councilman Roberto Uranga pledged $50,000 of his one-time Council District Priority funding to start the purchase process. That was important because, while the city did have first option to buy the property, there was no guarantee it would remain in city hands.

Behind the scenes, those government experts people love to complain about if they think about them at all began to do the voodoo they do so well. Gerardo Mouet and his Parks, Recreation and Marine Department team said the city could get money from Los Angeles County Measure A funds. That was a bond issue for countywide park acquisition and improvements, paid for through a parcel tax. Long Beach was earmarked for funding in several areas as part of the county's Comprehensive Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment (yes, a government study), and Mouet's group figured Tanaka Park could get $764,455.

But the purchase price was set at just more than $1 million.

So the bureaucrats turned to an obscure source of money — the Construction and Demolition fund handled by the Development Services Department. Developers pay into that fund as a deposit to guarantee they will recycle material from construction. If the developer can't or won't recycle, the city keeps the money for uses just like this — one-time sustainability projects. Another $234,679 was put into the Tanaka Park purchase package.

A little gap remained. Looking around, the city types saw the reconstruction of The Breakers just a couple of blocks from City Hall. The Pacific Six group is turning the historic property back into a hotel, but needed a larger driveway to serve a more modern facility.

That meant they needed to cut into Victory Park, a sort of virtual park that runs along the fronts of buildings on the south side of Ocean Boulevard. For the most part, the park is actually the front lawn for high rises and business buildings, but it still technically is a park and can't be developed without compensation.

So the developer agreed to pay $55,866 for the grass to be turned into a driveway.

And just like that, the $1,050,000 purchase price was met, as well as another $55,000 needed for acquisition-related costs (closing costs for you and me). Tuesday night, the City Council approved the purchase.

Now, with just a little bit (okay reams) of paperwork, Long Beach will add another 1.4 acres into its inventory of permanent park land.

Those kids in the Tanaka Park playground couldn't care less — they just know they have a place to play. But for the bureaucrats who made it happen, it was a very good day.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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