SGV Connect 106 Interview: Damien Interviews Chester Kano, Rodrigo Rodarte, Megan Horn and Kevin Johnson

Damien Newton (DN): Hello, welcome to SGV Connect. This week, I am speaking with a team working on the Puente Hills landfill Park project. We first discussed this project back in July when Chris Greenspon interviewed supervisor Hilda Solis not just about the work that was being done on the park, but also some of her personal history growing up near the area and why she was so excited to see this legacy project get funded. And now we are beginning to talk about the outreach and how the vision for it, it’s starting to take place. This week, I’m talking with Chester Kano, with the LA County, Parks Department, as well as  Rodrigo Rodarte, Megan Horn and Kevin Johnson with studio MLA, Landscape Architects and Planning. Thank you all for being here today. And I can’t wait to talk about what’s going on a little bit more with this project. 

The place to start would be with you, Chester, and just talk about what’s been going on and what the public outreach has been like, since we checked in last July.

Chester Kano (CK): So we’ve been busy with Studio MLA, conducting community outreach, and having several events. I’m working with our partners at LA County Public Works. And we are bringing aboard the rest of the project implementation team, which includes architects, engineers, geotechnical specialists, construction specialists. We are assembling the team, while Studio MLA is busy at work, connecting with the community,  validating ideas from our approved master plan from  seven years ago, and moving forward with it starting to materialize.

DN: That’s important because there’s some people I think that have just started to hear about the park when the funding went through. It was such a big project and sort of existed in space. But it’s starting to feel, I think, a little more real for people sort of in the past 18 months …past six months. Are you getting sort of a different feel as you talk to people about it, that there’s maybe a little more excitement in the air than there was when it was just sort of a project that might happen at some point?

CK: Yes. In our community events, we’ve encountered people who have been following this since the very beginning, they’ve been following it since the closure of the landfill in 2013. And we’ve also encountered a new generation of folks who have become interested more recently. And that tends to happen in these larger projects that get drawn out over decades, which will be the case for this project…first contemplated before the closure. So in the early 2010s. And then here we are in 2023. And finally talking about steps toward starting construction. And they won’t be complete until 2026-27. So it takes a few decades to complete projects of this magnitude. And this is no different.

DN: I wonder sort of as far as preparing for this, I was wondering if you were moving sort of from a phase where people are excited about it, but it seems really far off to actually being almost impatient for it. This is  going to be a large open space area when it’s opened. one of the largest ones in the whole San Gabriel Valley. Is people the expectation of how it’s going to change people’s experience in that part of the region?

CK: Yes, I think what’s interesting is, we’ve encountered people who continue to be concerned. The folks that came out and were concerned about the impacts to the area and their neighborhood or to the traffic and such, they came out in force. But also, as I mentioned, a whole new crop of people, a lot of younger folks who are excited at the possibilities for trails. 

Meghan Horn (MH): As we explain the park, we’re explaining that it is still going to be built over time, just to the nature of the landfill itself. So we’re reminding people that yes, we are having this opening, targeting 2027 for this first phase. But it is something that will going to expand over time. And so that they need to think about it for their future generations as they’re contributing to the park.

DN: Streetsblog did start as a blog that almost completely focused on mobility. And in the pre-interview, Kevin, you had mentioned, the way the park and the future park was going to be able to improve mobility by accessing some of the other trails and you’ve been working on that or even new trails, could you talk a little bit about how access to the park is going to be improved and access to the area is going to be improved by being able to, to work with a connecting a trail system?

Kevin Johnson (KJ): I’m kind of here to speak to that point and a separate project that is very closely related to the Puente Hills Landfill project, where we are kind of analyzing and planning and designing new trails and greenways along tributaries and flood control channels within the San Gabriel Valley. So there’s 140 miles of tributaries that we’ve been analyzing as part of this project. We’ve been collecting right of way data, demographic information, and doing a lot of community outreach. And actually going through a programmatic EIR for some of these projects, one of which is along San Jose Creek. So just just at the base of the landfill park site, there’s an existing equestrian and bikeway trail. But looking at expanding that “and” connecting it to Workman Mill Road, which would provide a lot more multimodal options for access in this area. 

Anyone who’s looked at this park has realized pretty quickly that  getting there is an issue. So, we’re just looking to make those connections, making the trail alignment along San Jose Creek a lot more robust. There’s been a transportation study,access studies. And there’s a whole future suite of projects that are coming to this area that can hopefully start to bridge some of those gaps and change some of those access issues.

MH: We’re also trying to change the mindset that you don’t have to drive to a park. There’s options to ride your horse to the park, ride your bike to the park, take a shuttle to the park. So we’re exploring all of those different options to try to decrease the amount of cars coming to and from the site.

DN: I always like to ask this, and sometimes we don’t get to include it in the podcast because there’s not an answer that people can give quite yet. But as you’ve been doing the outreach, and as you’ve been talking to people, has there been anything that’s really stuck out as really surprising or something that’s extra exciting, that you’re going to be able to either include or incorporate in some way as you’re moving forward? I find sometimes public outreach can be really produced just something that no one thought of that really becomes then what people identify as part of the project.

MH: I think something I’ve been really inspired by is the community’s reaction to inclusivity. So at our outreach meeting, you know, we had a lot of youth there and speaking with them after and asking them “what did you learn”, and one of the girls’ responses was that “my neighbors opinions are just as important as mine”. And I thought that was really kind of exciting and that  everyone wants to make this place unique for themselves but also inclusive for their neighbors.

DN: Oh, that’s a fun story. I never hear things like that at public outreach.

MH: We had a really good outreach meeting. Maybe I was just getting all the positivity, but it was awesome. 

Rodrigo Rodarte (RR): It’s been all around pretty good, positive engagement. Outside of the traditional public workshop that was quite large that we hosted with Parks, we’ve had a number of outings to the site. So, we’ve been able to hike the trails, and even do a bike ride with community members altogether. We’re hearing the feedback in the context of the place itself, which has been cool. We’re meeting people out on the trails, and I’ve been surprised by the number of younger park users that both came to the meeting and also were willing to just stop and chat with us, project team members on the trails. Not just to chat and have a quick word, but actually give that really useful, meaningful input and really want to stay involved. And that’s been pretty cool and surprising.

DN: You guys may have taken my next question. I was going to ask, “When we’ve been doing these interviews, whether it’s for SGV Connect, or for another Streetsblog thing; what we’ve been hearing, especially the past three and a half years or so, is that changes are happening to your traditional public outreach…have a meeting with a microphone and a PowerPoint presentation. People still do those, but they’re doing other things to reach broader audiences.” 

MH: Absolutely. I think it was the charge from Parks that we do this a little bit differently. And it is important to the success of the project that the community is informed and part of the decisions that we make moving forward as it is coined as ‘a park for all.’ In addition to just our general public meetings, we’re really trying to make interactive with lots of different activities. 

We’re doing these other things like the hikes and the bikes and getting people out to the site, but also educate them about some of the issues, some of the challenges we have and some of the opportunities…or just about nature itself that you’re experiencing. I think another thing that we’re doing is we are looking for future park partners, so people that could provide programming for the park and understand what they might need in the future. 

We’re outreaching to Rio Hondo College, and working with their student groups as well as educators. How can the park be accessible to the programs they offer as part of their education? Or are there different traits that we can teach things in the park that will help jobs creation in the future?

DN: All right, well, we are starting to run up against as I always joke about our artificially created time limit. I always promise that there will be a question at the end to give people a chance to answer any questions or say anything that I didn’t ask the right question for. I always say you’re welcome to say “no, Damien, that was the best interview. I don’t have anything else to add.” But nobody has done that in eight years. So, if there’s something that you would like to add that we didn’t touch on, now is a great time to do so.

CK: I’d like to add a couple of things. One to partially address, one of your earlier questions. I was surprised at the number of people at our largest or larger community event who approached me about access. 

More so than our other typical Park outreach events, perhaps given the nature of the park, its location sort of wedged on a couple of sides with one only one highly public entrance. These are factors I think contributed to focus being concerned about, “How are we going to get there? Do we have to drive if there is going to be enough parking?”  Those have been concernsed fFrom the outset of the master plan, and I loved hearing from folks that say, “I want to ride my bike, show me on the map how I’m gonna get there. I want to walk. Can I walk from that Carl’s Jr, you know, by Crossroads Parkway?” 

Frankly, you know, I didn’t have an answer, because we haven’t worked that out yet. There is no sidewalk to go up the entrance road and into what’s going to be the Visitor and Education Center. Those are things that we’re going to have to work out in the design phase. But it was nice to hear people mention those things. I had one person mentioned, “Hey, there’s all these empty parking lots around there on the weekends with the tilt up office park that’s below the future park. Can we park there? And if so, can we get a shuttle?” Those are things that we’ve contemplated, but hearing it from the public has really reinforced that, that those are things we’re going to have to figure out. 

One of the surprises that we hope to provide for the future park users is at this future Visitor and Education Center, the only significant building as part of the Park, near the entrance of the park; we would like this to educate the public on the history of the site, the transformation from what was essentially a flat area, or even a canyon and built up into what most people see as a mountain.

And it is a mountain built up artificially with the trash of all of us who have lived there for a very long time. We want to incorporate that into the education delivered by the park and also turn it into a broader messaging platform for human waste streams. This is our past,  what is our future? and, and propose questions like that to the public. And we think people will not just be educated but they’ll be enlightened and exposed to what these waste streams do. 

The trash doesn’t disappear, it goes somewhere. And also, what we collectively, all of us, not just County Parks, but the design community,  our outreach partners, or community based organizations; all of us together, can correct some of these environmental injustices that have plagued this area. 

My pm on the project lived in the shadow of this mountain, and he remembers the truck traffic and the and the odors. We’re really happy to flip it around and turn it into some feature that is attractive, and  actually draws people toward that site.

One gentleman came and he acknowledged that he was hoping we do something so great, that hisa nearby house will be worth more. And I thought it was refreshing for him to be transparent like that. Just saying it right up front. You know, “This was a nuisance to me, this was actually making my property worth less. And I hope that you guys can make my property worth more with this fantastic park that you’re trying to build.”

DN: Well, I live on the flight path of the Santa Monica airport on the Westside. So I feel that guy.

CK: Someday that’ll be something else.

DN: Looking ahead to February and March, is there anything else we should be looking forward to?

RR: We are having a follow up community workshop. A very interactive participatory workshop where we’ll share a little preview of design thinking and what we’ve heard from the community so far. But also have some interactive engagement activities and continue to get feedback. That’s February 11, at the Hacienda Heights Community Center, from 10am till noon.

We have another educational hike and site visit to the park to the landfill on February 26, with a local nonprofit called Nature for All leading the hike. And then a bike and hike event with Active SGV On March 4,