Over 60 residents gathered at the Hazard Park Gym last week to voice dissent over the proposed master plan for the University of Southern California health sciences campus in Boyle Heights. While the range of objections covered all aspects of the project, the principal concern is the idea of Hazard Park being reduced in size to accommodate new roadways, specifically, the city plan to extend Norfolk Street to Soto Street to create a new entry point into the campus.
For many of the residents gathered in the gym on August 8, a follow up to a similar meeting held on August 3rd, Hazard Park is sacred ground and any plans to alter the area is grounds for suspicions. The park is considered sacred to many residents as it is the site where iconic educator Sal Castro addressed student protestors during the famed walkouts of 1968. Castro died on April 15 of this year and there is currently an ongoing effort to create a monument at the park to Castro and student participants.
Though the proposed Norfolk street extension would appear to have a minimal impact on the overall park, the move symbolizes a much larger concern that the deep-pocketed private university could easily expand its reach further down the line.
“[USC] are junkies,” local resident Martin Hernandez said to the delight of the crowd during the public comment. “… And they got plenty of money to pay for their habit.”
Voicing his concerns, Dave Luna, 82, demanded that the planned Norfolk extension not cut into the adjacent ball fields. USC officials earlier stated that the ball fields will not be impacted by the extension, but in an area where distrust towards both the university and the city run high, residents are not shy in expressing doubts.
For some, the distrust stems from years of frustrations at what they feel is a systematic neglect of the park and programs for local children. Luna first started coaching football and baseball at the park back in 1972. He recalls various grassroots efforts that were needed to deliver sports equipment and renovated playing fields. “There were a number of things that we did here for the park,” Luna said. “They didn’t give us a damn thing…that is why I hate to see the park cut up.”
Lawrence Calderon spent several minutes engaged in an animated conversation with former state senator Martha Escutia, who was recently hired as vice president of USC government relations. Calderon was adamant that parents need a break from the poor parking conditions at the park. Currently the lot in front of the gym can only hold a few dozen vehicles. Those who cannot obtain a spot have to use metered parking on Norfolk Street. Calderon recalled many times when he had to excuse himself from his coaching duties to put additional money into the meter during games.
During the opening remarks, Escutia summarized the recommendations and concerns expressed at the earlier meeting. Laurie Stone, executive director of land use and planning for USC Real Estate followed with a project summary and encouraged the audience to visit the four stations set up along the perimeter of the gym to comment on different components of the large-scale project. Residents mostly focused on the first two stations that covered Norfolk Street and traffic and parking.
Escutia said the August 3rd meeting wasn’t as productive because once residents completed the public comment session they walked out. In an effort to generate feedback and ideas for the plan she moved the public comment portion to the end. The switch worked as residents actively participated in most of the groups and generated a lot of excitement during the public comment portion, including many attacks against USC and Escutia herself over her tenure as a state senator. Despite the shots, Escutia expressed satisfaction with the outcome.
“Overall I thought it was a fantastic session tonight,” Escutia said. “We were finally able to get some dialogue and engagement, and writing down ideas and some good ideas came out.”
“We just have to do more of this,” she added. “It is never to late. I don’t know why people say it is too late. It is not too late.”
Escutia said no permits have been issued to begin any construction so there is plenty of opportunity for residents to share their ideas for the project.
“That’s what I am doing right now, just information gathering. It’s a process of community engagement.” Escutia added. “This is not the last time people will see me. If people want to invite me into their homes or their gym I will go.”