Council Seeks Compromise on Tuna Canyon

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Tuna Canyon advocates stand up and applaud after being acknowledged by Councilmember Richard Alarcon.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The issue of historic-cultural landmark designation for the site of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station was considered on Friday by the Los Angeles City Council, which decided to put together a compromise motion for a vote on Tuesday, with the hope of satisfying all of the concerned parties.

Councilmember Ed Reyes, chair of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee.

The compromise involves designating only a historic oak grove as a landmark rather than the entire property. All sides agree that the trees have historical value because they date back to World War II.

After Pearl Harbor, Japanese, German and Italian immigrants were detained at Tuna Canyon by the Justice Department. The site, currently the Verdugo Hills Golf Course, is slated for development into housing, and members of the Sunland-Tujunga and Japanese American communities have been working to have its history commemorated.

Landmark status was proposed by Councilmember Richard Alarcon, who represents the northeastern San Fernando Valley. The proposal was rejected in April by the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, which cited the absence of any structures from the internment period as well as changes in the site’s topography.

The property owner, Snowball West Investments, has maintained that it also wants to commemorate the camp, but that historic designation would place undue restrictions on development.

The City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee did not vote on the proposal earlier this month, but recommended that a working group — consisting of advocates, the developer and the District 7 councilmember’s office — come up with a plan.

Although the council could have granted landmark status if 10 of the 12 members present on Tuesday supported it, Councilmember Ed Reyes, who chairs the PLUM Committee, said the agreed-upon process should be allowed to go forward. “I have a problem with that,” he said of Alarcon’s request for an immediate floor vote.

“We need to commemorate the sacrifices made by our forefathers, men and women who went through such a devastating experience,” Reyes said, but he emphasized, “In this instance we have an opportunity to provide a process that allows for a dialogue … Up to this point, it’s on record there was a gap in not having a conversation that allows us to complete the dialogue … [The working group] allows us as a city to be inclusive of all parties.”

Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, who represents the Venice community.

Alarcon argued, “The determination of the Cultural Heritage Committee … that this should not be a cultural site was based on the fact that there are no structures there. Well, this is a list of 19 locations that we have designated as historical that do not have structures. Furthermore, this site is bountiful with trees … and we have designated 20 other locations because of the trees. So that’s 39 sites that have been designated in direct contradiction to the findings that the Cultural Heritage Commission made in this particular case …

“To say that structures are necessary to make history important is to fundamentally have a misunderstanding of what history is all about. Events are critical to history. Most of the important events in history do not have structures … Think of the battlefields that the federal government has designated. Do they have structures on them? … Even here in Los Angeles we designated a Disney studio that is [now]a Gelson’s market. Come on, give me a break. Is this not more important than that?”

Alarcon, who is leaving office along with Councilmembers Reyes, Dennis Zine, Jan Perry, Bill Rosendahl and Eric Garcetti (mayor-elect), said that under the compromise, his successor will chair the working group, which will “come back in 60 days with a minimum of one-acre designation to be worked out by the group … I think this is a good deal for Los Angeles, it’s a great deal for the Japanese American community … I think it’s win-win for all parties.”

Councilmember Mitchell Englander, a member of the PLUM Committee, praised Reyes for his leadership. “He’s been very successful at getting people to work together … I understand there’s already a meeting taking place next week.”

Englander agreed that “this is a sensitive, culturally significant, important heritage [that]needs to be forever immortalized … We’re bringing together this working group to figure out how that should be done.”

Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Tom LaBonge.

Rosendahl, who has visited Manzanar and was involved in placing a historical marker commemorating the internment at the corner of Lincoln and Venice, said of Tuna Canyon, “I think it should get a historical marker. I think this should be worked out … We will never forget this and I look forward to the process that includes everybody in it.”

Councilmembers Tom LaBonge and Paul Koretz also commented on the importance of preserving history as well as the importance of compromise.

After consulting with staff and conferring on the sidelines with stakeholders, councilmembers struck the phrase “at least one acre” from the revised motion and came up with the following language amending the PLUM Committee’s report: “Declare at a minimum the oak grove at 6433 West La Tuna Canyon Road (historically located at 9101 Tujunga Canyon Boulevard) a historic-cultural monument … with the specific boundaries to be determined in consultation with the Working Group …” 

The motion also states:

“Precedent exists for designation of sites of, former sites of and significant trees or grounds associated with a site or structure of historic or cultural significance as historic-cultural monuments (HCM), including sites in which the historic-cultural resources were lost, such as: HCM Nos. 112 (Gabrielino Indian Site, Griffith Park), #141 (Chatsworth Reservoir Kiln Site), #163 (Walt Disney Studios and Animation School), #171 (Site of Timm’s Landing — Landscaped Park of Fishermen’s Co-op, San Pedro Harbor), and #490 (Sa-angna Sacred Burial Site of Gabrielino Indians).

Councilmember Jan Perry greets Rose Ochi, former director of the Los Angeles Criminal Justice Planning Office and pro bono counsel for the Manzanar Commitee.

 “Natural landforms, particularly mature oak and sycamore trees, which remain amazingly intact from the period of significance, are located on the site and are landscape features which may be integrated into an area set aside for purposes of developing appropriate commemorative improvements and educational enhancements.

“The council has the legislative authority to override a Cultural Heritage Commission recommendation of denial of a council-initiated designation in accordance with Los Angeles Administrative Code, Chapter 9, Division 22, Article 1, Section 22.171.10.”

Council President Herb Wesson expressed gratitude to Alarcon, Reyes and Englander, saying, “Now we have a working product … This is government at its best.”

Tuesday’s council meeting was attended by dozens of Tuna Canyon advocates, many of them wearing red shirts. Only one representative, former city official Rose Ochi, addressed the council. A former internee herself, she recalled that the designation of Manzanar as a historic site was strongly opposed by the Department of Water and Power, which owned the site, but was supported by the City Council under the leadership of the late John Ferraro, after whom the council chambers are named, and by Mayor Tom Bradley.

Alarcon thanked the supporters for showing up and gave special praise to Lloyd Hitt of the Little Landers Historical Society for his years of research on Tuna Canyon.

Fred Gaines, attorney for the property owner, urged the council not to overrule its own committee and promised that the detention station will be commemorated.

Janek Dombrowa, architect for the development, said that memorializing Tuna Canyon was important to him as a child of Holocaust survivors.

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

Councilmember Richard Alarcon, pictured with a caricature that was given to him as a parting gift. Outgoing Councilmembers Jan Perry, Ed Reyes, Bill Rosendahl and Dennis Zine were also recognized.

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