In my last article about El Dorado Park, I discussed how the park came to be. But progress in completing the park continued.
1965 saw the start of development of El Dorado Park East, its design created to provide an “outdoors” atmosphere for those who did not have time to visit the mountains as often as they would like. It was paid for partly with state bond funds. On July 27, 1965, work began on a 75-acre flat tract which, for almost 100 years, had been used as a bean and alfalfa field. Now it was being transformed by adding a rolling terrain of hills and valleys, streams, meadows, lakes and more to create the El Dorado Nature Center, at a cost of $180,701 ($1.7 million 3/2023). In addition, a nature headquarters, with small museum and exhibits would be built as well as self-guiding nature trails. It was expected to take at least five years or more to “dress up” nature the way the Park Department wanted, but animals soon found their way to the new habitat – rabbits, fox and opossums appeared, and all were put through veterinary checkups once things got underway. The Nature Center would open on May 17, 1969.
Source: City of Long Beach
The Nature Center was not to be the only development in El Dorado Park East. City officials stated this was only the beginning. Contracts, eventually totaling some $3.5 million ($33 million 3/2023), were in the works and would be be awarded over a period of several years, . How would they be funded, since Tideland Oil money was no longer a guaranteed option?
Renee Simon (later to serve as a City Council member 1972-1978), in her role as chairman of the El Dorado Park Development Committee, was instrumental in placing a Park Improvement Fund measure on the ballot. In 1964 voters approved the measure authorizing a 10-cent property tax levy (which would continue through 1972) for park improvements. Additional funding for the park also came from the state park fund, and $573,294 ($5.4 million 3/2023) from Los Angeles County. In October 1966, the U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation authorized additional money, approving a $100,000 ($922,000 3/2023) matching grant toward beautification and development of El Dorado Park. Since the park would have a regional importance, other grants from national, state and county governments furthered development over the years.
El Dorado Park East is comprised of two areas. One is north of Spring Street and east of the river, south of Wardlow Road, and contains 165.8 acres. Work on this section of the park began in September 1966, and opened to the public on February 6, 1971. It included 7.6 acres of lakes, an archery range (the site of the 1984 Olympic competition), overnight camping facilities, group picnic areas and bicycle and walking trails. The other area is north of Wardlow Road, and has a total of 203.6 acres. Work started on this area in 1971 and opened in July 1974.
Discussion as to how to develop El Dorado Park continues. In 1972 Renee Simon, now a member of the City Council, continued her mission of keeping El Dorado Park a park in perpetuity. On December 5, 1972, she told fellow members of the Council: “The Long Beach City Council is shirking its responsibility of guaranteeing that El Dorado Park will be preserved as an open, rustic, open space park.” Her comments came as the Council voted 7-2 to receive and file a letter from the Recreation Commission repeating its request that the Council dedicate the 750 acre park solely for park purposes in perpetuity. Council member Tom Clark voted with her. Ms. Simon went on, “To receive and file is, in effect, is to say we will allow it to be chewed up, developed, sold, used for commercial purposes, with no guarantee to the community that we intend to keep it as a park.” Councilman Russell Rubley and others disagreed. She responded: “If you are fearful of dedicating it, you are saying that you might want to do something else with it, and I am saying I don’t want to ever do anything else with it.” (Press Telegram 12/6/1972)
Through her efforts and support of the community, the park remained a park, for the time being. But the question of how to use the park and keep it as a park in perpetuity continued.
In the summer of 1995, fifth district Councilmember Les Robbins held a neighborhood meeting to discuss further development in the park. The plans included a miniature train ride and an adult sport complex. Some residents were horrified to learn that the sports complex would fence off 40 acres of one area, level Glider Hill and sell alcohol.
Inspired by the actions Renee Simon, local resident Ann Cantrell wrote a letter to the Press Telegram opposing the plan. Several people responded, many with their own concerns – loss of habitat for the many birds in this area of the park, lights and noise from the games, and more. As a result, Save the Park was formed, with Ann Cantrell as President, Billie Sheaffer as treasurer, Joy Ridenor as secretary. They were joined by many more members, each contributing time, money and talents to the effort. Columnist Tom Hennessy championed the cause and even appeared in a fund-raising play at the Community Playhouse. TV celebrity, Huell Howser also attended rallies in El Dorado Park.
An environmental attorney, Jean Martin, volunteered to take on the cause pro bono, along with Melanie Muckle. The law suit was based on the inadequacies of the 5-year-old Environmental Impact Report, which had been done for another project and did not address the many issues this project would add. The two attorneys said they would not charge for their time, but Save the Park would have to pay for any costs involved with the filing, records, etc. Ms. Sheaffer immediately set about organizing fund raisers.
Boat rentals. Source: Wikipedia
In all over $25,000 ($49,000 3/2023) was raised, which also paid for a biological consultant from San Francisco. The earlier Environmental Impact Report (EIR) stated the birds could just go somewhere else, the biologist searched the area for a suitable habitat for birds and wildlife displaced by the sports complex. The consultant found there was no suitable habitat for the birds within 10 miles of the park.
In addition to Save the Park’s CEQA/EIR lawsuit, the group, following in the steps of Renee Simon and others, wanted to get an ordinance on the ballot which would prohibit the sale or lease of any public parkland in perpetuity. This was in the days before e-mail and other social media, and all contacts had to be in person. Although they collected over 22,000 signatures, time ran out before the organization was able to gather the necessary 25,000 signatures to put the proposed park ordinance on the ballot. However, some of what Save the Park proposed is now included in the Parks in Perpetuity ordinance passed by the council several years later.
Despite failing to get an ordinance on the ballot, the group rejoiced when the court ruled in their favor in 1996 and ordered the city to prepare an adequate EIR (Environmental Impact Report). The City threatened to appeal the decision, which meant Save the Park would have to fight the battle all over again in court. Attorneys Martin and Muckle needed paying jobs and said they could no longer work pro bono. The group agreed to accept the city’s settlement of $80,000 ($152,000 3/2023), for failure to have produced an adequate Environmental Impact Report. The group used the money to pay Martin and Muckle for their time.
The process for a new EIR for the sports complex required a public meeting, in which many neighbors showed up to protest the project—again. This time, the City’s Environmental Officer told the Council the sports park could not be built in El Dorado Park and another location must be found. Shortly after, City Manager James Hankla suggested the property at Spring and Orange as the possible location for the sport complex. When Save the Park learned that this plan included leveling the highest point in Long Beach and destroying the spring and wetlands, they opposed this location as well. With the help of Councilmember James Johnson, no sport complex was built on this property. Instead it became Willow Springs Park.
Nature Center, walking trail. Source: Wikipedia
To stem drug dealing and violence, El Dorado Park East is now fenced and an entry fee charged (though no fee is charged pedestrians or cyclists). It includes group picnic areas, four lakes, a Frontier Village with train rides and other attractions, a fire station, and bicycling and walking trails. There is also “Glider Hill,” created by the excavation of the lakes. It was intended to be an amphitheater overlooking a lake, but was never built, because of Save the Park. Other plans which were eventually put aside included a 200-horse equestrian center and tent and recreational vehicle campground with 300 sites. The equestrian trails were to join the county’s equestrian trail system, making it possible to ride from Long Beach to Griffith Park. Though plans for an equestrian center and horse trails were panned, a dog park was permitted, but far away from the duck pond!
Ann Cantrell, (who provided information for this article) is one of a few surviving affiliates of Save the Park, and is a member of the El Dorado East Task Force, which was able to stop the use of Roundup and other pesticides in public parks. In 2022, she was among those protesting filming activities in El Dorado Park East during nesting season. Approaching, 90, Ann (known as Gadfly) continues to fight for what she believes is right.
Renee Simon, the second woman to serve on the Long Beach City Council (Ruth Bach was the first) continues to promote the role of women in government and the community, living up to what she said in 1973: “ Women have so much to contribute that its past time for this to happen. We have always played major roles behind the scenes in politics. Its right they should be out in front for a change.” (Press Telegram 5/24/1973)
Today Ms. Simon is an enthusiastic volunteer for Long Beach civic and philanthropic organizations, and a writer. Her most notable work is a book titled, “Our Own Big City,” an account of the City of Long Beach government in the 1970s.